Like a baseball player hanging up his spikes and turning to professional golf, Thoroughbred Icabad Crane is trying something new.
The retired racehorse made 33 starts for owner Earle Mack, winning stakes and placing third in the 2008 Preakness. Big Brown won that day, but Icabad Crane parlayed that brush with greatness into a racing career that lasted until 2013 and he's not finished as the 9-year-old gelding recently joined the barn of international three-day event rider Phillip Dutton.
In the last month, Icabad Crane learned to jump, took some early dressage lessons, even splashed through a water hazard while impressing his new trainer, an Olympian for his native Australia and the United States during a long eventing career.
Dutton is based in Pennsylvania, but heads to Aiken, S.C. this week to get ready for the 2014 eventing season. Icabad Crane, now owned by his former trainer Graham Motion and wife Anita, will go with the stable. The Motions technically purchased Icabad Crane from Mack for $1 and control his future as an eventer. It could be bright, even though he's a long way from the Olympics.
The New York-bred is the third horse the Motions have sent to Dutton. The other two, Ballast and Icabad Crane's half-brother Van Tassel, came home quickly.
"Phillip likes him, it's not like he's doing this for the hell of it," said Anita. "He says he hasn't been around many horses that are so willing to please, so wanting to do well."
That attitude helped Icabad Crane as a racehorse, too.
"He was always like that, always very willing," said Graham. "He's athletic and his athleticism is one thing, but his disposition is so good. That helped him."
Bred by Gallagher's Stud and purchased for $110,000 as a 2-year-old at the Ocala Breeders Sale at Calder in 2007, Icabad Crane won his debut for Mack and Motion - scoring by a head in the mud against fellow New York-breds at Aqueduct in November 2007. At 3, he stepped up a level and won a state-bred allowance at Aqueduct in January, then finished third in the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park. The son of Jump Start won Pimlico's Tesio Stakes in April to earn a spot in the Preakness. Making a sustained late bid under Jeremy Rose, Icabad Crane rallied from 12th to finish third, 5 3/4 lengths behind Big Brown and just a half-length behind Macho Again.
Mack and racing manager Aaron Cohen went along for the ride.
"He ran a big race to win the Tesio, so that's why we went to the Preakness," said Cohen. "This was before Animal Kingdom (won the Kentucky Derby for Motion) so it was a really neat thing for all of us. Icky, that's what we called him, had a little trouble or he might have run second. He did us proud."
And kept at it.
Winless in 2009, Icabad Crane rebounded to win two stakes in 2010 and two more in 2011 while battling the likes of Flat Out, Hymn Book, Compliance Officer, Haynesfield, Banrock and others. A tendon injury stopped his racing career for more than a year (he missed all of 2012), and he returned for three starts in 2013. All losses, the races convinced Motion that the horse's racing days were over.
"He came back fine from the injury," said Graham. "He trained fine, he just didn't run well. I guess he didn't want to do it anymore."
The end brought to mind a Saratoga conversation between Cohen and the Motions. Anita had said she wanted to add Icabad Crane to the retirement paddock at Fair Hill with former standouts Better Talk Now and Gala Spinaway. Of course, Icabad Crane competed for two more seasons - burnishing his reputation as a barn favorite and sought-after morning mount for exercise riders.
"You learn to become disassociated with horses because you know they could be claimed, they could get hurt or the owners could take them away," said Anita of life with a racing stable. "You have to learn to kind of not get attached or get too sentimental, but when they're with you until they're 8 years old, you get attached. We had six years with the horse. That's a long time, and he always had a lovely personality and a friendly face. We wanted to keep him around and maybe see if he could do something else."
That was fine with Cohen and Mack, who liked the idea.
"As far as we were concerned, we just wanted him to have a good home," said Cohen. "We took a shot and brought him back (in 2013) and he wasn't the same. We retired him and Graham said he wasn't a gelding who just wanted to go out in a paddock."
That's when Dutton came on board. Icabad Crane, who earned just shy of $600,000 on the track, joined the eventing barn. He took baby steps at first, seemed to adapt and he's on the same path as any other new eventer. The sport consists of various levels horses progress through - preliminary, novice, intermediate, advanced and so on. At the highest level, horses compete in the Olympics and international competitions such as Burghley and Badminton in England, Rolex Kentucky in the United States and others. The sport consists of three phases - dressage (a series of moves and gaits on the flat), cross country (a distance gallop with substantial jumps) and show jumping (over a closed course in a ring) - spread over three days. Thoroughbreds frequently make the switch, and include champion and Olympic competitor Courageous Comet, whose career included $72,000 in earnings mainly in New York.
Dutton will take 30 horses to Aiken and does indeed like what he sees from one of the newest. Icabad Crane is "naturally a very balanced horse who has a great attitude to being ridden and to learning." His winter will be spent continuing to learn about this new career, making some treks to local shows and events just to get a feel for them (without competing) with an eye toward his first true eventing competition by summer.
"He'll tell us," Dutton said. "I'd rather not compete him until he's really ready. I want to get him to understand that he's not going to get in a starting gate anymore. He's got to remember the stuff I teach him at home when we go places with a lot of other horses and loudspeakers and things."
His old trainer embraces the chance to find out where the path leads.
"I don't know what it takes to do it at the level Phillip does, but I always thought he could be that kind of horse," Graham said. "It would be very cool to see him go on and do something, for him and to show that horses like him can go on and do things like this. He could be a great example."
Of course, if it doesn't work out that paddock at Fair Hill will be there.
Follow along at Icabad Crane's Facebook Page.
See Icabad Crane's last win, the 2011 Evan Shipman at Saratoga.