A Passion for Ponies: Ellet Family’s Steadying Presence Prominent at Breeders’ Cup

The Life
The Ellet family on horseback: Tom Ellet on Churro, Mary Ellet on Sizzler, and Cindy Ellet on Flash. (Marla Zanelli Photo)

The Ellet family — Tom, Cindy, and daughter Mary — are well known in the horse racing industry with decades of riding experience between them. For this year’s Breeders’ Cup, they will be ponying many of the Thoroughbred superstars. To keep order, horses known as “ponies” are escorts for the hot and often excitable Thoroughbreds.

From left to right: Bertie, Churro, Sizzler, Rocco, Flash, and Bugs. (Courtesy of the Ellet Family)

Tom Ellet posted a photo this week on Facebook saying proudly, “Getting the band back together for the Breeders’ Cup.”  Six Quarter Horses were standing in a row: some with their lead lines on the ground and others only wearing a halter. Sitting proudly bareback with her arm up in the sky in sheer joy is Mary. The horses? They are the Ellet family rock stars known as Bertie, Churro, Sizzler, Rocco, Flash, Bugs and Roanie. They are so well known among trainers that the horses are individually name requested and some are leased to the trainers for Breeders’ Cup week.

“Not every horse makes a pony horse. They have to have the right personality and the right mind. The racetrack is not for everybody. While on the track, they can have racehorses slamming into them, biting them, leaning into them. There are horses breezing past you on the inside. There are horses on the outside. You are asking them to stay with you and trust you. Even though they are being slammed into you. To not quit you. Not every horse has that willing personality or mentality to say, ‘OK my human says to stay here and do this.’ Not every horse has the mental capability to handle that much stress.” 

Bertie is the Ellet’s eldest pony. He was a ranch horse that Cindy purchased from a sale in Colorado. She saw him in a warmup arena but had already purchased two other horses. “He was a big red horse.”  She asked her son James to get on him and he said, “He’s really good.”  However, he spooked on his way into the arena. Still, Cindy saw something special in him and bought him.

Mary said he can be pretty spooky and “sees a lot of monsters. But watch his ears. His left ear hangs a little lower on his head. When he is locked onto something, his ears tweak in. Yet, he is so trusting in his humans. When he sees something, you go, ‘Bert, it’s OK. Bert, it’s all right.’ ”

Bertie has some “Peppy San Badger” (American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame, 2008) in his bloodline. Cindy loves that. “They are good cow horses. They are tough. They are big, thick-boned Quarter Horses. He has an old-style Quarter Horse head.” 

Bertie with Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf contender Pizza Bianca. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Now that the “monsters” are more familiar, he is protective of his humans. Cindy was on a trail ride with Bert up front. Suddenly he was a statue and refused to move forward. There was a rattlesnake in the middle of the trail. “He is an extremely observant horse, but he won’t leave you high and dry. He took right to the job as a pony horse and loves it. He is solid and is always there for you.”

The Ellets had their eye on Roanie for some time. Tom told Cindy to buy him if he ever came up for sale. Tom says quite proudly, “He is one of my favorites.” He is a great pony. When he gets nervous, he has a habit of flapping his lips together. They think he is 20 years old.

Mary endearingly says that his personality is “dopey.” She rode him recently and said he is great. He is easy and has been with the 2-year-old Dakota Gold all week. Roanie has quite a fan base. The Ellets had retired him, and he now works as a trail horse at a local winery.

Trainer Brian Meehan personally requested Roanie to lease this week. But Roanie was already settled in his new home at the winery. After a friendly negotiation with his new owners, Roanie returned to the backside where one can see Brian Meehan riding him in the early morning hours. He has been greeted all week on the backside with a joyful “Roanie’s back!” He was always a fan favorite in the tunnel at Santa Anita, where fans and children gathered to pet him while feeding him carrots and peppermints.

Cindy Ellet with beloved Flash. (Courtesy of the Ellet Family)

The Ellets know Roanie so well. They found a job for him where he is loved by people at the winery. He looks great and acts young. No one would never guess that he is 20.

Flash is Cindy’s outriding horse. He is her superstar. He was a roping horse on a ranch in Idaho. He is the kind of horse that any skill level could rope from him. “He is flashy. I got on him and it was love at first sight.” Flash came right into the racetrack. He had no problem converting from the roping arena to the racetrack. He ponied horses for six months and then she went to out ride on him. “When I made my first catch, I was like, ‘Oh my! This horse is so cool!’ ”

Flash has quite a bromance with Bertie. When Flash returns to the barn in the morning, he goes immediately to Bertie. He is about 18 years old. Cindy has a lot of confidence in Flash. “Flash’s job in life is to take care of me. He is my rock. You could put your kid or your grandma on him. But you put him in a rope box or when there is a loose horse. Watch out! There is a monster inside him, and he can lay the burner down on it.” Flash is extremely fast! 

Rocco is an 11-year-old red roan gelding. A red roan is a horse with a base color of chestnut that is affected by the roan gene which creates a mixture of white hair mingled with red hair. Cindy saw him on a website and noticed he was with Mariah Jerviss at Legacy Horse Company in Ojai, Calif. “It was the same thing as Flash. I threw my leg over him and got on him and said, ‘Wow! This is just a great!’ I walked, jogged, and loped him around the pen. Then I took him for a trail ride and wrote the check.”

“He’s got a big motor. Rocco has a massive personality and will climb into your lap especially if you have a treat anywhere on your body. He will find it! Rocco will nudge your pocket.”

TVG analyst Christina Blacker aboard Sizzler. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Tom chimes in, “He’s between a pest and the coolest thing you have ever seen.” Rocco has been with the Japanese horses Loves Only You and Marche Lorraine all week. One of the Japanese has been riding him. Mary said that they had never ridden western before and didn’t know how to neck rein. “We showed him how easy Rocco is. He’s very broke. He’s cow horse bred.” (Like Bert and Sizzler, Rocco also has some Peppy San Badger in his bloodline.) Tom has competed with both Sizzler and Rocco in Cowboy Mounted Shooting.

Sizzler came after Rocco. Cindy’s daughter-in-law Victoria sent her a text that said, “You should buy this horse!” Mary looked and said, “Oh my! He is the most gorgeous perfect animal. You just want to stop and stare.” He is also a red roan and she bought him from Carli Pounds in Stephenville, Texas.

Sizzler grew up cowboying. He runs barrels, ropes both ends of the cows and does cowboy mounted shooting. Their son James Ellet won an “Eliminator” riding Sizzler the first time they took him shooting. (An eliminator event involves riding a pattern while the rider shoots five balloons, changes guns, and shoots another five balloons in a timed event.)

Sizzler is quite striking and TVG has leased him during the Breeders’ Cup for Christina Blacker to ride during their coverage. He didn’t have “much of a personality when he first arrived but he settled in quite nicely with the Ellets. “Now he will nudge you for treats. His personality is steady. He is there for you. Not in your face as Rocco. He will nuzzle with you – almost cat like. He is a gentleman. He likes people. He is the easiest to be around and never annoying (like Rocco!). But just like a cat; pet him and then he steps away.” 

The two newest additions to the Ellet family are Bugsy and Churro. They were purchased from an outrider at Remington Park. The horses arrived two weeks apart in August and September and settled in quickly.

Tom Ellet with Churro. (Courtesy of the Ellet Family)

Tom has been riding Bugs all week with the Todd Pletcher superstar 3-year-old filly Malathaat. “He is inquisitive. He wants to know what you are doing. He wants to be next to you. He is cute. Everything about him is cute. You can ride him without a bridle. He is so well trained that he moves off of your body. It’s kind of like Rocco where you think where you want to go and he goes there.” 

Churro and Bugs are true barn buddies. They play together and tie next to each other. Churro is a love bug. Between races, he lifts his head and places it on Tom’s shoulder with his eyes closed. “He is so happy. Churro has been going out in the morning with the French horses. Anyone can ride him. He just does the job. He has that friendly personality.”

It can be nerve racking when an excited Thoroughbred heads to the starting gate while thousands of fans are cheering. It must be a comfort to have a rock-solid and steady Quarter Horse by their side with an experienced rider. The Ellet family not only provides a safety net for Thoroughbreds, but they also have the talent to search the countryside for valuable cow ponies who excel at the racetrack. Be sure to watch for Bertie, Churro, Sizzler, Rocco, Flash, Bugsy, and Roanie during the Breeders’ Cup. Cow ponies rock!    

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