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America's Most Wanted Thoroughbred is back in action. With regular partner Phillip Dutton aboard, Icabad Crane graduated to the preliminary level at the Full Gallop Farm Horse Trials in Aiken, S.C. Feb. 25. The 10-year-old New York-bred finished a strong third with no penalties in the cross country or show jumping phases of the competition. This same farm was the site of Icabad Crane's debut in eventing just 11 months ago.

"This has been a very fast starter year for Icabad," Dutton said. "He's a great competitor, just as he showed on the racetrack. He just wants to do everything well and he likes to work. There's a lot to be said for a horse who shows up and does his job every day. He's a very quiet, kind-natured horse, and you can get a lot done in a day when you're not dealing with tension and nerves."

Dutton has been singing the same praises since beginning the gelding's retraining late in 2013. The only stumbling block the pair has faced along the way was Icabad Crane's initial reluctance toward water jumps. But the rapport Dutton built with the horse was quick and easy. The progress - and prowess - has surpassed all expectations.

The step up to preliminary level is significant. Fences are a full 3 inches higher which, on a cross-country course, can be formidable. Dressage components gradually become more intricate, requiring the horse to execute movements in working and medium trot, medium and collected canter, and counter canter - which is canter on the incorrect lead. Simple changes are introduced, meaning a change of lead through the trot performed on a straight line. And throughout the tests, the horse must remain responsive and soft, making it appear that the rider is simply sitting still and doing very little . . . "which is actually very hard," Dutton admitted.

"Like racing, God gives those horses a gift, whether it's great speed or the will to win," he went on. "And obviously the trainer plays a big part in teaching them how to rate. With us, the horse has to get coordinated and learn what to do when coming to a jump. Every jump varies, particularly on a cross-country course. There are different ways you have to approach the jump; different speeds, different lengths of canter. The horse has to learn how to trust the rider."

Is this the level that separates the men from the boys? Dutton thinks so.

"At preliminary level, I believe the horse has to really want to do it and enjoy it, or you're going to have trouble. And you don't really know that until you go out there. Same in a race - you think you've got a good horse, but you never know until you're actually in the race."

Icabad Crane brings his A Game every time. Meticulous, he has a tendency to over-jump when something worries him. But his trust in Dutton is overcoming any quirks and deepening his understanding.

His next outing, the Pine Top Spring Horse Trials in Thomson, Ga. in mid-March, will be an even tougher test at this more difficult level. Dutton isn't fretting.

"Obviously you have to go out and do it week after week, but this was a big step. When these horses get good, the jump becomes like a magnet - they pick up and draw themselves to it. And that's what he's doing now - which is pretty cool." For full results, see Full Gallop Farm website.

NOTES: At Full Gallop, Princesa (on a score of 26.8) and rider Kim Severson won the preliminary division, followed by Fernhill Singapore (28) with Dutton aboard and Icabad Crane (30). The top three all finished on their dressage scores.