Think Ross Perot is a long shot to win the White House a week from Tuesday? How about the Green Party candidate for president? Or the Libertarian? How about Mrs. Grundy of the Civic Purity League?
Well, to tell the truth, they've all got a lot better chance in their race than Ricks Natural Star has in his.
Star is a seven-year-old racehorse bred in New Mexico. He comes fully equipped with four legs and a tail, but right there ends his resemblance to the other thoroughbreds he may face Saturday afternoon at Woodbine Race Course near Toronto. In 23 starts, Ricks Natural Star has won two races, earning a total of $6,093. He hasn't raced at all since August 1995, when he ran dead last in a five-and-a-half-furlong, $3,500 claiming race at humble Ruidoso Downs. That was his third last-place result in a row. He hasn't finished in the money in almost three years.
On the strength of these credentials, Star just might run in Saturday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf, on grass, at a mile and a half. His opponents would include Arc de Triomphe runner-up Pilsudski, direct from Paris, who's won four races and 600 grand this year; the great turf star Awad, who's banked a cool $2.6 million in 54 career starts; and Singspiel, owned by Sheikh Mohammed, who's won three of five in 1996, most recently the Canadian International at Woodbine. Singspiel's got--let's see here--just over a million bucks in his savings account.
To be sure, the remainder of the fourteen-horse field is equally regal. Lord Halifax, Lord Weinstock and D. Wayne Lukas are variously connected to other entrants in The Turf--just one of seven multimillion-dollar events that make up the thirteenth annual Breeders' Cup, thoroughbred racing's grandest day.
So, then. Ricks Natural Star. How is it that a rude peasant in tatters has gained entry to the palace? How has the ultimate scruffy underdog pushed his way into the turf club, where the rich folk are spooning up Beluga and sipping Dom Perignon?
The answer is Dr. Livingston, I presume.
That is to say, Dr. William Livingston, a veterinarian who practices (some of the time, anyway) in tiny Artesia, New Mexico. Late last week we did our best to locate the good doctor, by telephone or otherwise. But when a man is driving to Canada by way of Oklahoma, towing behind him a horse trailer with a racehorse inside it, and when that man has a patient suffering from a serious navicular disorder waiting for him at the southern end of the road, he's not an easy man to reach. Not even by mobile phone.
On the other hand, we did speak to Johnnie Coor, who is Dr. Livingston's receptionist and gal Friday at the office in Artesia. Here are some things she was able to tell us:
Dr. Livingston is owner, trainer and personal physician to Ricks Natural Star, and he's been pretty darn happy since getting the only racehorse he's ever owned entered in the Breeders' Cup. Not that it's his whole life. Since graduating from Colorado State University's vet school in 1959, the 67-year-old doctor has been busy treating animals large and small, and his reputation for good care and hard work is impeccable. But that's not all, either. He's also the developer of something called "BAM 50," a miracle crop fertilizer, which, Johnnie reports, "has made his marigolds grow a lot bigger than mine." He's come up with a liniment for people called "Formula 3" and a vitamin supplement for animals called "SR 38." Johnnie says Ricks Natural Star takes SR 38, but no one's quite certain of its effects on human beings. There's also a secret-formula youth tonic called "Ponce de Leon," which Dr. Livingston recommends that you and I take by the teaspoonful but which racehorses may require in somewhat larger doses.
"He's a very smart man with good ideas," Johnnie Coor says, "but sometimes people laugh. He can go off on a tangent and get very excited about it."
By all accounts, Dr. Livingston was pretty excited when Breeders' Cup officials last year accepted his check for $20,000--the so-called pre-entry fee for The Turf. After getting a glimpse at Ricks Natural Star's career record some time later, those same officials threw a fit and appealed to the Ontario Racing Commission to disqualify the horse. To their credit, the commissioners refused.
"He's very excited about that horse right now," Johnnie Coor says of her boss. "He can barely sit down and talk."
Would Dr. Livingston, then, also be the kind of man who enjoys tweaking the bulb-nose of authority? In the form, say, of certain Breeders' Cup pooh-bahs decked out in silk suits and $85 neckties? Well, maybe. In any event, he was careening down the interstate last weekend with Ricks Natural Star back there in the trailer, his mission to treat the sick horse of a rancher friend in God-Knows-Where, Oklahoma. After that, Johnnie Coor tells us, the two of them--man and failed racehorse--planned to hang a U-turn and head for Toronto, there to take on the greatest turf-running thoroughbreds on the planet, for two million bucks.
But first, two contestants in the fourteen-horse Turf field have to get sick or go lame--something Dr. Livingston wouldn't ordinarily applaud. When pre-entries for the big race were screened last week, Star and a mare called My Emma, while all paid up to run, were both excluded from the starting field on the basis of their inferior records. Now they're both on the waiting list: One scratch and Emma runs; two scratches and Star runs, too. Can it happen? You bet. Happens every day.
While we wait, trust the powers that be in the Sport of Kings to ignore a good story when they don't see one and to grind a dream, regardless of origin or motive, under the heels of their handmade shoes. They don't want a cheap claiming horse from New Mexico that hasn't won in three years in the Breeders' Cup Turf--Not our crowd, darling--but they should want it with all their hearts. This sport's in trouble, folks. It needs underdogs and dreamers and those who would burst the bubble of its pretension.
Certainly, racing needs a bracing slap of reality aside from the ones already administered by casino gambling, state lotteries and the rise of beach volleyball.
Whether or not Dr. Livingston and Ricks Natural Star, a pair of worthies running gallantly uphill, will actually reach the starting gate at the Breeders' Cup Saturday is a matter of some conjecture and a lot of luck. But, as Hemingway once asked, isn't it pretty to think so? If the age of miracles has not passed and they do get to race, here's hoping both of them have first bathed in the doctor's magic liniment and taken big double dips of SR 38 and Ponce de Leon.
Sometimes, even rare wonder needs all the help it can get.
Some other racehorses are also gearing up for great battle at Woodbine. The most famous of them is named Cigar, and his mission is unprecedented--to win the featured $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic for the second year in a row.
For those who've been living on Mars or following nothing but the monster-truck circuit, the six-year-old son of Palace Music and Solar Slew is the greatest thoroughbred of our era. After an inauspicious early career as a grass runner, he switched to dirt and spent the next two years reeling off seventeen straight victories on nine different racetracks, equaling a record set by the great Citation way back in 1950. For nineteen wins, four seconds and four thirds, Cigar's lifetime take-home pay totals a staggering $9,519,815. A win in Saturday's Classic would crown him the best of all time--better than John Henry, Secretariat, Citation or Man O' War.
Is Cigar vulnerable? Possibly. On August 10, early speedster Siphon softened him up, then Dare and Go snapped the great one's streak by passing him in the deep stretch of the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Cigar came smokin' back on September 14, winning the Woodward Stakes at Belmont by four lengths. But on October 5 he finished second again when Skip Away beat him by a head in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Skip Away will skip the Breeders' Cup classic because his trainer, Sonny Hine, is recovering from a painful bout with gallstones. But Dare and Go is entered in the Classic, along with Louis Quatorze, the third-place finisher in the Gold Cup. Louisiana Super Derby winner Editor's Note will also challenge Cigar, along with a splendidly uppity filly named Yanks Music, who has won three straight Grade 1 stakes. Will's Way, who beat Louis Quatorze and Skip Away in the Travers Stakes in August, will also go to the post in the Classic, along with some dangerous European invaders and Alphabet Soup, who's won five of his last seven stakes races.
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Little matter. I'll take Cigar and the man riding him, Jerry Bailey, to put an exclamation point on a great horse's sublime American career.
Contrary to earlier reports, though, this may not be their last race together. Last week Enrique Sarasola, owner of Arc de Triomphe winner Helissio, proposed a match race between his horse and Cigar, possibly in Japan, certainly on dirt. Helissio is no slouch: He's been beaten just once in seven races--all of them on grass.
Regardless of the outcome, each camp would probably collect $5 million. Until now, Cigar's owner, Alan Paulson, has shunned Japanese offers, some as high as $30 million. But he's said he'll get back to Sarasola after seeing how his horse comes out of Saturday's Classic.
Go ahead. Light up.