This story was originally written in 2015 and has been re-published with an update on Called to Serve (see below).
Once called “a headstrong bully who seemed to have a grievance against the world” by ESPN’s Gary West, Called to Serve wanted things done his own way. That attitude let to success at the stakes level with him winning two stakes races, including a Grade 2, and hitting the board in four others, including a Grade 1.
But by March of 2015 Called to Serve had dropped to the claiming ranks and VinMar Farm, who had raced Called to Serve for most of his career before selling him in July of the previous year decided it was time for the gelding to come back to the farm.
On March 23, Called To Serve ran for the last time.
Another horse’s nose kept him from getting his fairytale ending, as he lost a one-mile race to Follia at Sunland Park but a winning claim made sure that he was on his way back to Kentucky. He had a bit of a rough trip on the way back but after spending a few weeks relaxing at VinMar he was ready to go back to work, this time as a performance horse.
“I was at Keeneland watching the races when I bumped into Brent Wilson, the farm manager at VinMar. Brent has always kept me posted on retired racehorses that are coming to the farm in case I am in need of a project, or know anyone who is. When I ran into him at April he quickly pulled out his phone, letting me know that he had one that I would love. He told me that he had ‘one hell of a racehorse’ that had just arrived at the farm,” said Called to Serve’s current owner Carleigh Fedorka.
“I’m extremely critical in my criteria for which horses I choose to take on as a project. They have to be 4 to 6 years old, gelded, of a certain height, have really nice conformation, and most importantly – be SOUND,” she said. “Many horses retire from racing and are perfectly capable of being pleasure horses, but I retrain mine for jumping and eventing – both of which require the same level of soundness that is needed on the track!”
CALLED TO SERVE MAKING SURE HE DOESN'T HIT THE JUMP
After checking out Called to Serve and watching video of his third place finish in the 2013 Santa Anita Handicap, Fedorka decided to take him on. The first task was giving him a nickname as he had just been called “the Afleet Alex” (he is by that sire) or Called to Serve and that didn’t work if she had to call him in from the field. Finally, she settled on the nickname “Nixon.”
“I began brainstorming war heroes, and even tried to name him Murph after my grandfather who served in World War II. My friend convinced me that Irish names for horses are too common, and I decided to name him after a president that played a role in a war. Nixon seemed a likely choice, especially due to his influence on the draft,” she said.
With his nickname decided, the next decision was a fairly easy one. Wanting to show off the diversity of off-the-track Thoroughbreds, she decided to enter him in the Thoroughbred Makeover held at the Kentucky Horse Park in late October and got to work.
But like Gary West had said two years before, Nixon still has a big opinion on what he should or shouldn’t have to do and that’s been a challenge during the retraining process.
“He is, by far, the most athletic horse I have ever sat on,” said Fedorka, who has ridden hundreds of Thoroughbreds. “He was never the type of horse to run because of fear, or pent up energy, he truly LOVES to gallop. But his owners, trainers and many a journalist let me know that he had an opinion when he was ridden, and that still holds true. He doesn’t always seem to care if there is someone sitting on his back, and he enjoys dictating the ride. So our biggest challenge has been communication. His potential is unlimited, but he has to negotiate with me for some of the decision making.”
However, that biggest challenge is also his biggest strength with Nixon taking everything Fedorka throws at him in stride. She can point him at any jump and not worry about him refusing because he’s game for anything and while other horses are afraid of water jumps when first introduced to them, he took to his first water jump like a proverbial duck to water.
With his bravery, Fedorka said that if Nixon was a human he’d love horror movies. His tough guy exterior also carries over to how he wants to be treated by humans with the gelding not liking too much attention from humans, other than having his head scratched.
“Nixon isn’t extremely snuggly, but he adores having his head scratched between his eyes,” she said. “I have now learned to do that as a ‘reward’ after a good ride or good behavior. We are quite the yin and yang – with him being massive and my being tiny, so a lot of our bonding is just done via trail rides, long walks, and a lot of grooming sessions. We are quite similar in that neither of us is extremely affectionate, and I think that allows us to get along quite well. I don’t exactly ‘spoil’ horses, and he has zero desire to be spoiled! But, like I said, I still learn something new about him every day.”
VinMar has been involved through the retraining process, telling Fedorka that the farm will take him back at any time for any reason. While the goal for Fedorka is to retrain Nixon and pass him on to another rider for the next stage of his career, she is extremely thankful for VinMar’s support.
“They had followed him through his career after he was purchased from them. When they saw that he was slipping down the ranks, they began making a plan to obtain retirement for him,” she said about their involvement with the horse. “They claimed him for $5,000 in a race in New Mexico, paid to have him shipped home, paid for him to be let down, and then secured him a home with me. Within this deal, they have told me that if he were to ever be injured, go lame, or for any reason become unrideable, he has a forever home on their farm – they are the EPITOME of good owners.”
CALLED TO SERVE LOVING HIS NEW CAREER
Fedorka holds the opinion that Nixon will become an upper level horse and may not be the best for someone who hasn’t handled a retired racehorse before, but she doesn’t think that about most racehorses. In fact, she thinks that if someone looks hard enough, they can find the perfect off-the-track Thoroughbred for their needs.
“I truly believe that there is an ex-racehorse that is out there for every person,” she said. “I have transitioned horses that I would put my grandmother on, I have transitioned horses that I could see winning Young Riders in a few years, and I have transitioned horses that would succeed in the dressage ring, the hunter ring, eventing, barrel racing and polo. There are 24,000 thoroughbred foals born a year. They do not all fit into one category, none are exactly the same, and no two will thrive in identical programs. It is quite possible that the horse you are looking for exists in that crop. It just takes having good connections, good horsemanship, time, and surrounding yourself with capable and knowledgeable people! Do these things, and the sky is the limit!”
As for Nixon, just like he did with his racing career, he has jumped into his new career with all four feet. Popping over some cross country jumps with Fedorka recently, Nixon looked like he was a pro instead of the stakes-winning racehorse who just retired from the track five months ago that he is.
Update from Carleigh Fedorka (March 2019):
“Nixon finished his first full event last year and placed second at the Beginner Novice level and also competed in the .90 meter jumpers. Due to his love of hacking and fearlessness, he is also training for endurance where his stamina will be put to good use.”