Six months after Better Talk Now's upset in the 2004 John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf, owner Brent Johnson of Bushwood Stable went shopping. At Keeneland's 2-year-old sale in April 2005, Johnson put up $160,000 for a burly gray son of Cozzene out of the multiple stakes winning Dayjur mare Daylight Ridge.
Sent to the Fair Hill, Md. barn of trainer Graham Motion, the colt wasted no time proving himself a bad actor. Motion finally decreed that Johnson's new acquisition couldn't go to the track until he'd been gelded, so real was the fear that the horse would hurt himself or someone else.
"We were joking about how he was only going to do things his own way and was very unpredictable," said Johnson. "Being big fans of Seinfeld, we thought the name Independent George captured both his personality and the George Costanza character from the particular episode."
Despite the eccentricities, Independent George showed real talent. He won the inaugural Presque Isle Mile Stakes in September 2007 before making his graded stakes debut in Keeneland's Shadwell Mile the following month.
"Before the Shadwell Mile at Keeneland," Johnson remembered, "ESPN did a spot on him before the race using a quote from the Seinfeld episode and interviewing us about his name. Bryce (Johnson's son) got to stand there during the interview and be on TV, which was pretty cool for him because he was only around 11 years old."
Independent George finished fourth behind Purim, Cosmonaut and Shakis at Keeneland, and won Delaware Park's Sussex Stakes the next May before tackling Monmouth Park's 1-3/8 mile United Nations Stakes, where he was fourth again behind pacesetting winner Presious Passion.
"He was a joy for us to own," said Johnson. "He seemed to sour a bit on the racing eventually, so we sold him to a gentleman that was interested in making him a jumper (Ernie Oare of EMO Stable). Being such an outstanding athlete, we thought he could make that transition."
When the steeplechase career didn't pan out, Independent George ended up back on the flat. Oare sold the horse, bred in Kentucky by Mike Rutherford, at the 2010 OBS mixed sale for $8,000. Randy Pearson signed the ticket and campaigned Independent George for the next 17 months at Tampa Bay Downs, Canterbury Park, Prairie Meadows and Remington Park. He won three times for his new connections, Pearson Racing and trainer Bernell Rhone, including what turned out to be the horse's final start - an $8,000 claimer at Tampa in March 2012.
In 44 starts at 19 racetracks, he'd won eight times, collected two stakes wins, earned $395,464 and tackled Grade 1 competition on three occasions.
And then, Independent George took the road less traveled - all the way to western North Dakota.
Canterbury Park veterinarian Dr. Richard Bowman brings off-the-track-Thoroughbreds to his ranch and allows them to decompress on about 4,000 acres of pasture before re-homing them. Kari Kay Thorson had lost her first OTTB the summer before and was in the market for a big gray gelding. So she contacted Bowman to see what he had.
"I had previously adopted a little chestnut gelding from Dr. Bowman's ranch named Pine Bend," Thorson said. "He made me fall in love with the breed. When I lost him suddenly to colic, I decided that when I was ready for a new horse, it would have to be another OTTB."
The only information Bowman could share was the horse's Jockey Club name. Thorson immediately got on Google and was excited by what she learned as she put the puzzle pieces together.
"I got so much great information and first-hand stories about him. Everyone was so excited that he ended up somewhere safe, and I still can't believe that I have a horse with such an impressive background living on my farm."
Thorson's original plan was to get back into dressage or perhaps give the hunter/jumper ranks another shot. But a busy life got in the way, and Thorson and her husband instead spent most weekends trail riding. Her big gray stakes winner morphed into a trail horse.
The pair recently took a trip to the Badlands of North Dakota, with Independent George completing his first 20-mile day. Thorson was thrilled with how well her horse did over the rugged terrain, crossing his first river and even popping over a few logs. The old George shone through though when the Thorsons rode into town for supper one night. Hitched Wild West-style outside the restaurant, George did his best to eat the railing off the deck.
"At the ranch where we stayed in the Badlands," Thorson said, "we were invited to help move cattle to another pasture. George is terrified of cows, but he did great. Everyone was pretty impressed that a multiple stakes-winning racehorse was out there working cattle. He really seems to enjoy all the places we've hauled him."
Life for George at the Thorsons' farm in Arthur (about 40 miles northwest of Fargo) incudes two Quarter Horses and a Shetland Pony, all of whom are buddies. The one thing he doesn't take kindly to is being approached from behind while out on the trail. Proving that old habits are indeed tough to break, "he'll quickly let them know his displeasure with the situation."
Brent Johnson is still in the loop and has stayed in touch with Thorson.
"Everything I have read from Kari indicates that he has really settled into his life and seems very happy. We are very thankful to her for that."
"George is my once-in-a-lifetime horse," Thorson said. "He isn't always easy to love and can be a brat, but I look out at my pasture and see him, and it makes me smile. I'm also so thankful for the training he received in his past career. It shows in him that he was very loved and well taken care of every single day of his life. I've had people contact me and tell him how happy they are that George is in a good place."
And, for a laugh, here's a bit on the "other" Independent George, who is way less happy than the horse.