Barely seven months from his last start, nearly three years removed from the biggest win of his racing career and in a venue that feels nothing like the racetrack, Called To Serve was still turning heads and still winning.
Called To Serve was one of the nearly 200 competitors at last month's Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover event at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. The massive son of Afleet Alex and his rider, Carleigh Fedorka, won the Dressage portion at the Thoroughbred Makeover and were in the hunt for the event's top prize as America's Most Wanted Thoroughbred.
The victory at the Horse Park was just one part of the transformation of a once headstrong racehorse to a willing and successful sport horse that started this spring and continues today.
"Brent Wilson, the farm manager at VinMar Farm, which is who owned him as a racehorse, ran into me at Keeneland in April and said, 'holy crap, I just got this horse in off the track and he is your type and on top of that he's got a reputation for being kind of dangerous. We need somebody that can both ride but also be able to handle him on the ground. And to add to that he's 17-2,' " Fedorka said as she and her team got Called To Serve settled back at the barn after being declared the winner of the Dressage competition inside the Horse Park's Covered Arena. "I was interested and told him I'd go see him. I saw him and he was gorgeous. I thought, 'you know, I'll take a chance. I'll take a risk on this one.' "
Called To Serve, who registered his biggest career victory in the Grade 3 Discovery Handicap in November 2012 at Aqueduct and finished third in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap about four months later, proved a difficult project to say the least when Fedorka got him started this past May.
Fedorka, a native of Meadville, Pennsylvania, who earned a B.S. in biology from St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, has worked with an ridden hundreds of Thoroughbreds. She formerly managed Hinkle Farms in Paris, Kentucky, and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in equine reproduction at the University of Kentucky.
Fedorka admitted she'd never worked with a horse quite like Called To Serve, who won five times in his 24-race career and earned $493,742. She nicknamed him Nixon, a nod to the late U.S. president who played a role in the draft lottery during the Vietnam War era. The choice was also perfect considering the president's obstinate nature.
"He's unreal. His only lameness this entire summer was an abscess. No issues whatsoever," Fedorka said. "My biggest issue with him is teaching him to negotiate. He thought it was the world of Nixon and nobody else in that world. It took me a solid three months to teach him just how to trot. We road hacked and we trail rode. Two months ago ... I came home one day and I said to my boyfriend, 'This horse is cool.' He was like, 'What do you mean, he was trying to kill you two days ago?'
"I don't know what it was, but some light bulb switched off in his brain and he is now officially cool. He's for sale, my boyfriend gets some of the profit, and he's like, 'don't you dare keep him. He is still for sale, even though you suddenly now like him.' "
Called To Serve doesn't only excel in dressage, which isn't exactly Fedorka's favorite disciple. He jumps with a similar willingness and enthusiasm that helped him achieve success on the racetrack.
He raced once as a 2-year-old, finishing third behind eventual Grade 1 winner Fed Biz in a Santa Anita maiden, Called To Serve took three more starts early in his 3-year-old campaign to break his maiden. A little more than a month after that maiden-breaking win at Santa Anita, Called To Serve won an allowance at the now shuttered Hollywood Park before competing in eight consecutive stakes races from July 2012 to March 2014.
Called To Serve won two stakes during that stretch - the Discovery and the $105,000 Broad Brush at Laurel Park at the immediate expense of multiple Maryland-bred champion Eighttofasttocatch, who ironically also competed in the Eventing portion of the Thoroughbred Makeover.
Called To Serve was sold midway through his 5-year-old season, for $40,000 at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July horses of racing age sale, after four straight off-the-board finishes in stakes following his third in the Santa Anita Handicap. Three months later he ran for $25,000 at Zia Park in New Mexico and eventually tumbled further down the ranks. He was claimed out of a $5,000 race at Sunland Park by his associates of his original owners for and retired.
"I don't think there's a better example of a makeover horse that was a good yearling, he was a $290,000 yearling, a hell of a racehorse, and he can still get retired sound after a lucrative racing career and move on," Fedorka said. "They don't have to be unsound when they retire. Even if they win a half-million bucks.
"I thought the more impressive statistic with him, I was looking around the barns (at the Makeover) at a couple stall cards had the horse's average earnings per start, and if they did have a couple hundred thousand (in earnings) it was because they ran 75 times. Their earnings per start were like $4,000 or $5,000. He was almost 21 grand per start. That's a heck of a return on your investment."
Read more about Carleigh Fedorka's training of retired racehorses in her blog, 'A Yankee in Paris'
2015 results from RRP's Thoroughbred Makeover.