When Carleigh Fedorka joined the Chesapeake Farm staff in front of a TV to watch a promising homebred earn his first career victory by 13 ¾ lengths in March 2009, she had no idea how deeply she’d eventually be connected to the big gray gelding.
A few months after that victory, Marilyn’s Guy returned to Chesapeake for rehabilitation due to injury with Fedorka put in charge of his daily care. It didn’t take long for the two to bond and when Marilyn’s Guy — or “Kennedy” — returned to the track, Fedorka told owner Drew Nardiello that she’d take the gelding when he retired.
After returning to the track, Kennedy had a successful racing career. Including that March 2009 victory, he won 10 career races, including the As Indicated Stakes and the Grade 3 Excelsior Stakes, both at Aqueduct in 2012. But by 2014, he was competing almost exclusively in claiming races. After a fifth-place finish at Penn National on Sept. 12, 2014, Nardiello was alerted that his current connections were ready to retire him.
Kennedy arrived soon after at Chesapeake Farm, where he was given time off. Fedorka then connected Nardiello with Jeff Larsen, and Kennedy joined Larsen’s barn and entered training for his next career in February 2016.
“Kennedy is a true hallmark for the [off-the-track Thoroughbred] community,” Fedorka said. “He was bred by a farm who obviously wanted him to run well — and he did. But they are the people that no one ever gets to see in the press. They breed a few, sell most and run one or two a year. And then when those horses are done running, they do everything to find them a safe spot.
“With Kennedy, this took almost seven years,” Fedorka continued, “but Drew Nardiello and the entire team at Chesapeake never stopped fighting for his soft landing. I can’t thank them enough — and the hundreds of others just like them — for playing this sport the right way. The ethically correct way.”
In a twist of fate that no one could have anticipated the day of his maiden victory, Fedorka helped Larsen transition Kennedy into his next career. While it might be expected that he may be tougher to retrain after 42 starts in six years on the racetrack, that hasn’t been the case.
“Kennedy has been such a treat in his retraining,” Fedorka said. “He truly loves hacking out and going cross-country schooling, I think in part because his large body is hard to turn quickly and tightly in an arena. But out in a field where he can just lope along in a straight line, he is happy. He is also special in the fact that we have used him to teach everything from up/down lessons, to having my veterinarian get to tag along on a cross-country schooling on him! He is just a very mellow, very gentle horse.”
One problem that Kennedy has encountered due to his six years on the racetrack is arthritis, although Larsen and Fedorka have learned that the best way to manage it is to ride him often. A bigger problem for Kennedy is his tendency to be accident prone, although that seems to come more from roughhousing with another well-known pasture mate.
“Kennedy ran for a long time, and because of that he has a decent amount of arthritis in his joints,” Fedorka said. “He has to be kept in work and fit for a long period of time in order to have him be healthy enough to do any legitimate amount of work — like jumping. He is also quite accident prone, in part due to his pasture-mate being fellow graded stakes winner Called to Serve, and always has some form of bump or laceration that prevents him from being worked!”
While Kennedy has been a fairly easy horse to transition from the track to a second career, not all off-track Thoroughbreds are like that. Fedorka has retrained a number of off-track Thoroughbreds, including Called to Serve, and has advice for anyone thinking of transitioning a racehorse to a riding horse.
“Be brave,” she said. “And I don’t mean go galloping at 4-foot fences. I mean that these horses already have such a large skill set before we ever begin to ‘retrain’ them. They have hacked, they have both leads, they know how to steer and most have a lead change. But what they don’t know how to do is have a nervous rider on their back; everyone who has ever handled these horses has been brave. So don’t be scared, be confident. Put them on a loose rein and go explore. The best thing for these horses is just to learn to enjoy this second job. So, make it fun!”
In October, Kennedy tried his first foray in the show world when competing at the Octoberfest horse trial in Lexington, Ky., only minutes from his birthplace. Fittingly, his journey came full circle with Fedorka in the irons to guide him into the next phase of his already adventurous life.