At the height of their careers, Thoroughbred racehorses are very fit, very strong, and very young. Keeping them manageable at the track requires the assistance of the calming presence of a more mature equine chaperone. These horses are known as track ponies.
“The ponies fill so many roles,” says John Asher, Vice President of Racing Communications at Churchill Downs. I think they are underappreciated, unsung heroes of the racetrack because the duties that they fulfill are essential. We couldn’t get through the day without them and yet they just kind of go quietly by. You keep your eye on the horses that run fast and you don’t necessarily see the ponies.”
Track ponies, also called lead ponies, aren’t actual ponies, but full-sized horses. As a verb, the term “pony” describes leading one horse while riding another. Racehorses are ponied as part of their training and when being brought to and from the track.
“The lead pony’s job is like being a babysitter for the Thoroughbreds,” says pony handler Monnie Goetz. “They get them out there, relaxed, warmed up, calmed down, let them catch their breath a little bit, then we take them to the gate.”
Track ponies can be any breed of horse, but some of the most successful ones are Thoroughbreds that have retired from racing but have the maturity to return to the track in this new capacity.
“The horses that I ride are mostly Thoroughbreds,” says Goetz. “Thoroughbred horses that have been on the track already know the routine. They know the racetrack, they’re familiar with the people, all the horses running around them, so that’s natural to them. Just throw the stock saddle on them and put a different bit in their mouth, teach them to neck rein in the western style of riding, and then they’ll just fall right into it.”
Serious racing fans may have recognized the track pony who escorted California Chrome to the gate at the 2014 Kentucky Derby.
“Some of them have histories that you would not imagine,” says Asher. “One of my favorite racehorses, Perfect Drift, ran third in the 2002 Kentucky Derby. He earned in the neighborhood of $5 million in his career, so this horse had a lot of success on the track. He was a gelding, so he had no future in the breeding shed. This horse loved the racetrack and loved the environment.”
“He loves being out there, he loves the attention. That’s just Perfect Drift,” says Goetz. “He makes me smile. I was concerned about using him in the Kentucky Derby…He knew where he was at, and he was pretty proud, and I still had my hands full, but he’s got a lot of class. He knew he needed to go around there and warm the horse up.”
Perfect Drift came full circle for his 2014 appearance on the track in another way. California Chrome’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, had also ridden the gelding during his long racing career.
“It was a good thing to see Perfect Drift out there,” says Goetz. “He’d run third in the Derby, and finally he [led] the winner of the Kentucky Derby. He deserved it.”
Perfect Drift’s story as a successful racehorse becoming an invaluable track pony isn’t unique.
“There was a great racehorse named Lava Man based out in California,” says Asher. “Lava Man was a great rags-to-riches story. He came out of nowhere and really became a folk hero in racing. He had such a great temperament and he was such a favorite around the barn, they turned him into a lead pony. So now Lava Man, one of the most accomplished horses in American racing history, is a lead pony who has led a Kentucky Derby winner to the post. It was incredibly exciting to see Lava Man with I’ll Have Another on Kentucky Derby Day.”
Not every horse has the temperament to excel in a job that requires them to be a steady presence in the electric atmosphere of a racetrack. But for the ones who do, it’s an enriching experience.
“We want them to love their job,” says Goetz. “It’s important and it makes them a better pony. They feel important out there too. They’re around the crowd, the noise, the people. In between races they get to walk back to the paddock and stand around and eat peppermints. You just love them all and you really love them when they’re there for you when you’re in a bad spot with a racehorse. You know that pony’s going to be there for you, and it makes your job so much easier. There’s nothing better than having a good pony underneath you. It’s hard to beat.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2016, which originally aired on May 2, 2015. Watch the full episode.