Few people know more about Icabad Crane than Adrian Rolls. Assistant to trainer Graham Motion since 1989, Rolls oversaw the horse’s care from his arrival at Herringswell Stables’ Fair Hill barn as a 2-year-old in 2007 until his retirement late last summer.
When Icabad Crane launched his 3-year-old campaign in 2008, Rolls was by his side. Third in Turfway Park’s Rushaway Stakes that March, Icabad Crane headed to Pimlico a month later and won the Federico Tesio Stakes, locally regarded as the perfect springboard to the Preakness. Mario Pino, rider of second-place finisher Mint Lane, stopped Rolls in the parking lot after the race.
“Your horse could win the Preakness – that was pretty impressive,” Pino told Rolls. “He did that easily.” Rolls wasn’t so sure, but knew that Mint Lane “was a very nice horse.”
Icabad Crane faced another very nice horse at Old Hilltop that third Saturday in May when Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown powered to victory. But Rolls will never forget anything about Icabad Crane’s performance.
“Even on Preakness day, he was so kind. I mean he was trying to eat the grass on the infield (saddling area); he was just so laid back. All the hubbub going on, and all the other horses with their tails up. He just had his head down, walking around. That’s how good he was. I actually do think that if he’d had a clearer run in the Preakness he’d have been a lot closer to Big Brown. He got in trouble, and he got kinda shuffled a little bit on the rail.”
Big Brown motored home 5 ¼ lengths in front of Macho Again with Icabad Crane and Jeremy Rose just a half-length back in third. In the Pimlico stable area that evening, Rolls beamed and accepted congratulations from dozens of old friends happy to see the local horse run so well.
Three weeks later at Belmont Park, a higher-octane Icabad Crane was sharp on the morning of the Belmont Stakes. “He was a lot more pumped up for that one,” Rolls said. The race had been heralded as the coronation of Big Brown, widely regarded as a can’t-miss winner of the first Triple Crown in 30 years. But Big Brown was pulled up at the quarter pole by Kent Desormeaux, cantering home to jeers and boos from a stunned and angry crowd. Icabad Crane, never a factor, finished eighth.
Gelded shortly thereafter, Icabad Crane spent most of his career running in New York-bred stakes company with wins in the Kings Point Handicap, the Alex M. Robb Stakes, the G’Day Mate Stakes and the Evan Shipman Stakes.
Steeplechase jockey Robbie Walsh became one of Icabad Crane’s regular exercise riders at Fair Hill. “He’d be mean in the stall, pinning his ears and acting like he was gonna bite you. But then you’d get on him and he was the kindest horse in the world to sit on. He was very A-B-C and you didn’t worry about a thing. By the time I was breezing him he was older; he was pushbutton. You’d set your hands down and let him set the pace. You didn’t worry about times. He was, as we say, a handicapper. Although if you’d go out back (in the fields) with him, that was different. That’s when he could drop people. He’d turn inside out on you…he could rear up, buck, spin.”
Rolls laughed as he recalled one particular trip to New York. Back in the barn before his race, Icabad Crane hung out with two pigeons who parked themselves right beneath his stall guard. “He had his nose right on them, and they didn’t budge.”
“But I don’t think he was a very easy horse to ride (in a race),” he went on. “The jockeys would always come back and say they had tons of horse, but when they’d ask he’d only do enough; he wouldn’t really put it all out. He’d fool the jockeys a little bit like he was going real easy on them. He was a bit tricky. Rajiv (Maragh) got to know him in the end, and he wouldn’t let Icabad fool him.”
Owner Earle Mack called it a day after three lukewarm efforts in 2013, and Icabad Crane came home to Fair Hill with a record of 33-7-7-9 and $585,980 earned. Then came an introduction to world-class event rider/trainer Phillip Dutton and a chance at a new career.
Rolls and Walsh use the same adjectives to describe Icabad: consistent, kind, straightforward. “He’d just do his job and get on, always,” Rolls said.
“It’s not a surprise that he’s doing this eventing now,” Walsh added. “No surprise at all. He’ll be great.”