The yearling auction season in Saratoga Springs is a busy time for many in the Thoroughbred industry, but it was a uniquely packed schedule last summer for Clovis Crane.
Crane had made the trip to upstate New York from his farm in Lebanon, Pa., to shop for prospects at the upcoming Fasig-Tipton yearling sales; a grinding process that takes a lot of steps and mental energy over most of a likely-sweltering day. If he'd just found a comfortable spot to kick up his boots on the evening of Aug. 10 after the last yearling was put away, he wouldn't have been alone in doing so. Instead, he had one more horse waiting for him.
That night, Crane and his wife Joanna drove 40 minutes north to Lake Luzerne, N.Y., to the Painted Pony Championship Rodeo, and he dropped into the chute aboard a saddle bronc looking to kick up his own heels. Eight seconds and change after the gate flung open, Crane walked out of the arena with a 70-point ride and the top score of the night.
Whatever set of criteria one uses to define a decorated horseman, it almost certainly crosses into Crane's broad resume. At 39, he's already earned national acclaim as an apprentice jockey, rodeo cowboy, breaker and consignor of 2-year-olds, dressage rider, and off-track Thoroughbred trainer.
Crane's multi-tool mastery of the equine species is an extension of two things: A lifelong understanding of horses and an incredible competitive drive. They've fueled each other from the first time Crane threw a leg up over a horse.
“That's all I'm ever going to do,” he said. “I have an education from Purdue University. I can go do whatever I want, but all I'm ever going to do is train horses because that's what I like to do. I enjoy horses. This is where I'm at and this is where I'm always going to be. If I go broke, it don't matter. I'm gonna pick myself up by my boot laces and go do it again.”
Crane grew up in a racing and rodeo household, watching his father Joe Crane become a national-level saddle bronc rider when he wasn't working on the racetrack for trainer Wayne Rice. The younger Crane didn't wait long to take the saddle himself, dropping out of high school after his sophomore year to become an apprentice jockey at Delaware Park, and promising his parents he'd finish his education when he was able. Jeff Odintz, on a sabbatical from training, managed the young rider's book.
Crane took to the vocation immediately, booting home 95 winners during his first season as a bug rider in 1996. His second year was even better, riding 122 winners and earning more than $2.1 million.
He and Odintz became known commodities on the East Coast circuit, racking up wins in New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, then moving to Aqueduct for the winters. His exploits during Aqueduct's bitter-cold winter meet earned him inclusion in a Pierre “Peb” Bellocq drawing highlighting the “New York Hardy Dozen,” a pack of warmly-dressed jockeys that put the teenager in the same company as stalwarts Richard Migliore, Mike Luzzi, and Diane Nelson.
Crane was performing exceptionally well in a solid jockey colony, but he fell victim to a scourge that has claimed countless young riders before him – a growth spurt. By the start of his third year riding professionally, it was clear he needed to start hitting the books again.
Crane was behind his classmates when it came to graduation credits, but he made up for it in real-world experience, and this was something he conveyed to his principal when he returned to school, while still riding nights at Penn National. In the meantime, the competitive fire he'd cultivated in the saddle, along with the strict weight control habits he'd picked up as a jockey, transferred beautifully to amateur wrestling.
“I had doubled my junior and senior year, because I had already been out on my own, and was going back to school,” he said. “I graduated that year, and got recruited to wrestle all over the country. I ended up going to Purdue University, and I wrestled there. By the time I'd graduated, I was ranked fourth in the country. I was a two-time national qualifier and was team captain for the last couple years I was there.”
With college in the rear-view and a teaching degree in hand, Crane looked at the two things that drove him – horses and competition – and came back to the rodeo.
Once again, he was a prodigy. Crane was named the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's First Frontier Circuit Rookie of the Year in 2005. Four years later, he won the all-around title at the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo, becoming the first person to qualify in three events in the same year: bareback riding, saddle bronc, and bull riding.
In true cowboy fashion, he tallied his qualifying rides for the National Circuit Finals on a shattered fibula, riding in the three events with an air cast on his leg, against strict orders from his doctor who had already performed one surgery to reconstruct the damage done.
A lifetime spent on the backs of animals will inevitably lead to injury, and Crane said the rodeo circuit, particularly the bulls, left its mark on him more than the Thoroughbreds ever have.
“I broke eight ribs, lacerated my spleen, punctured my lung,” he said with the drone of rote memorization usually heard from someone reading off a grocery list. “On my right ankle, I've got eight screws, two plates. I crushed my one bone and broke the other bone. Let me see your hand…”
At this point, Crane took the writer's hand and ran it down his sternum, which had been made concave by a bull trying to punch a hole through it with his hoof, to show exactly which bones he was talking about. He cracked the kind of demented smile only a cowboy who knew he's cheated death can make, and continued on.
“I've had more concussions than I care to tell you about,” he said. “I had a bull stick his horn up my nose. This whole side of my face is all plastic (the right side). My finger's broke. That's as far as I can bend it now. Both of my feet, all my toes have been broke. I've got scars where my hair doesn't grow, around my chin, I broke my jaw twice.”
Having listened to this recitation with polite horror, it compelled one to ask, “And this is fun for you?”
“I know it's crazy, but I used to enjoy it,” he said about riding the bulls, “I'm not interested in that anymore. That's why I ride saddle broncs now. I'm past the getting hurt and worrying about that, and with my family, I can't risk getting on bulls and doing that with my business.”
Clovis Crane just rode Painted Pony's Shana's Delight to clinch his spot to compete at the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo! He's your year-end and average winner! #RAMNCFR 🤠👏🏼 pic.twitter.com/sRyOs8XD2X
— RNCFR (@RNCFR) January 12, 2019
While he was establishing himself on the rodeo circuit, Crane was also establishing his racehorse training operation. The goal was to get an apprenticeship under a Todd Pletcher or Chad Brown and work his way up the ladder until he was mentioned in the same breath as the mega-trainers. Instead, economics and state politics took him down a different path.
“I went to help my uncle at Penn National [Dean Crane], and he asked me if I'd help him break horses before I got tied down with somebody,” he said. “I saw the slot machines were coming in to Pennsylvania and I had a little chunk of change, so I bought land with my money from race riding so I couldn't get at it while I was in college. I saw an opportunity: Why don't I buy a farm, fix it up, and by the time I fix it up, the slot machines will come in and I'll sell it and maybe make a little bit of money?
“I bought a place and I started working on it,” Crane continued. “I thought the slot machines would come in six or eight months. Eight months go by and I'm broke, so I started breaking babies for some people to make a little more money so I could pay my mortgage. About a year, year and a half goes by and the slot machines aren't there yet. I'm continuously doing more and more to pay my mortgage, because it was about $4,000 a month.”
Crane started pinhooking yearlings into the 2-year-old sales out of necessity to pay off the farm, and it eventually went from a side hustle to a primary income source. Soon, he started building the farm to suit his own needs instead of a potential buyer's.
True to form, his strengths built upon each other to propel his venture.
“He's an athlete who trains athletes,” said Shana Graham, who co-owns the Painted Pony Championship Rodeo with her husband Shawn. “That's how his career is. If you want champions, you have to train like one. He excels at everything he does. I'm not sure how, other than he believes himself so much that he can do it.”
Pennsylvania is a long way from the traditional pinhooking outposts in Florida and South Carolina, which presented some unique challenges, especially in dealing with the climate.
“Three years went by and the slot machines came, but after three years of being there, it kept going and my business got stronger and stronger,” he said. “I kind of built my place the way I wanted, and we built a huge 100'x200′ indoor arena so we can train inside when it's really frozen or nasty. That's our way of beating the elements. All of our family's there, so instead of moving to Florida, we built the arena so we don't have to move to Florida. That's our niche, being up there.”
He also found that being a national-level starter of 2-year-olds in a part of the country where they're not as saturated also had its advantages, and the cowboy became a go-to solution for trainers with problem horses throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.
As a rider with experience weathering some of the meanest jumps and twists to come from a bull, a bronc, or a bratty Thoroughbred, Crane said keeping tied on for the different types of bucks requires completely separate skill sets.
“It's not even close,” he said. “Everybody that thinks they know how strong a horse is doesn't have a clue how strong one is until you get on a bucking horse. I've taken several really good riders of broke horses to get on bucking horses, and all of them are just dumbfounded at how strong they are. You don't have a clue how strong a horse is until you've felt that.
“I've been on thousands and thousands of horses before I'd been on bucking horses and I thought I knew,” he continued. “You get on a few bucking horses and it changes your opinion of what you think you know.”
After taking home a national all-around title and racking up multiple championships in his local First Frontier division of the PRCA, Crane has taken a mild step back from the rodeo scene, placing his main focus on saddle bronc riding and hitting the circuit at a more leisurely pace. To hear him say it, Crane's done everything a part-time cowboy can achieve in terms of accolades. He still enters enough rodeos to qualify for national-level competitions, which means “stepping back” still equates to getting on 50 to 60 bucking horses a year, plus occasional appearances in other events to mix things up.
“In our eyes, Clovis is a true champion,” Graham said. “He's involved in every event, he excels at every event, and he gives back. When he wins awards, he finds special people, and to make them believe or inspire them, he gives them his awards. A lot of his money, he gives back to the year-end championships so they can be bigger and better.”
He keeps the rodeos mostly to the summertime nowadays, once the 2-year-old sale season is wrapped up. This also allows him to share the sport with his four children, who travel with him to events and ride in the grand parade to open the shows.
Spending as much time as he can with his kids has also influenced Crane's consignment schedule. He coaches a wrestling team that includes a son and a daughter, and selling at last year's Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream Select 2-Year-Olds In Training Sale in late March meant missing their league championships. This year, he consigned exclusively at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-Year-Olds In Training Sale in mid-May to make sure that didn't happen again.
“It really hurt not being there for them, so I decided to reel it in and stay home to focus more on the family,” he said. “Since I was home and had a little extra time, all our horses were gate broke in our consignment, except two horses that were shipped to us at the sale.”
Selling exclusively at the Midlantic sale turned out to be a good financial decision as well. If he doesn't sell another juvenile in 2019, his average sale price of $38,772 would be his best performance since 2016.
Crane has been successful working with horses before and during their racetrack lives, so it's only natural that it carried over into horses pointed toward their second careers.
Among his successes is Yo Koffy, a Kafwain gelding he consigned as a 2-year-old, then claimed for $4,500 in his 23rd and final start at Charles Town. In 2015, Crane and his mount took home first-place honors in the working ranch division of the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover. The event, held in October in Lexington, Ky., was in the physical and chronological vicinity of the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Yearling Sale, meaning Crane was once again able to get in some shopping while pursuing other equine endeavors.
Crane spoke glowingly about another of his sale graduates, What's Your Excuse, who found his way back into the trainer's care after a 48-race career. He took the gray gelding to the Makeover as a field hunter and eventing prospect, taking home 11th place of 44 entries in the field hunter division. For someone who made his bones toughing out the fastest and most aggressive of the equine species, seeing the same rider keep a controlled frame in dressage attire is honestly jarring.
It doesn't matter much to Crane, who simply takes pride in getting his horses to succeed. The tone in his voice picked up as he explained how What's Your Excuse went on to become an outrider's pony at Penn National after the Makeover event.
Competition comes natural to Crane, and the definition of success can be a moving target for him and each of his four-legged students. Finding the right job for each horse to perform at his or her best, whether it's on the racetrack or not, is where the victory lies.
Clovis Crane is versatile. So are his horses.
“Of all that we do, I'm most proud of the work we do with retired racehorses,” Crane said. “I want to give back to the Thoroughbreds because we make our living off them.”
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