Each spring 3-year-olds take center stage at Churchill Downs for the historic Longines Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. These rising stars garner much of the attention of a worldwide audience, but there is another group of horses at the racetrack that are stars in their own right. Every barn has ponies to lead racehorses out onto the track in the mornings and afternoons and to teach the young horses and help them mind their manners. Meet four fan favorites.
There is a new pony in Bob Baffert’s barn! A beautiful Palomino named Amarillo. He was purchased at the December Twombly Performance Horse Sale. Amarillo is at Churchill Downs ponying Baffert’s Derby contender, Medina Spirit. Ridden by Baffert’s assistant trainer, Jimmy Barnes, most people think they are seeing Baffert’s other Palomino pony Sunny. Or they confuse Amarillo with Smokey (the buckskin) who ponied American Pharoah. Smokey was sold as a benefit for Old Friends and raised $80,000 for them.
The horse who caught Baffert’s eye is a beautiful 5-year-old Palomino gelding. Amarillo is a registered Quarter Horse (Im In It to Whiz It) and is a grandson of Topsail Whiz. He is by Gee Whiz It Shines (Topsail Whiz x Ladys Sparkle) out of Zany Chex Is Mine (Scooters Pace x Chex Willies Golena).
Jill Baffert said that Amarillo is super sweet, kind, and quiet. He’s “very chill on the racetrack with a great disposition. Jimmy loves riding him in the morning and Amarillo is happy with his job. He likes the racehorses, and they like him back.”
How does one see the difference between Sunny and Amarillo? Jill explains that “Amarillo is yellow in Spanish. He is a brighter yellow than Sunny. He is a tiny-bit bigger than Sunny, height-wise. Amarillo seems to enjoy the attention. They both have great hair! Sunny is always in a hurry to get back to his stall. They both LOVE granola bars. It's their favorite treat.”
Watching Amarillo during the morning workouts at Churchill Down, he seems acclimated to being a pony. He has the right attitude. Just like Sunny and Smokey, he will squat down and pin back his ears making sure that his racing buddy is behaving and obeying.
“Amarillo is a lot of fun. We love having him and Sunny in the barn. They are both so full of personality and beautiful. They get a lot of attention wherever they go. As they should.” It would be wonderful to see both Sunny and Amarillo on the track together at some point. Now that will be a golden photo opportunity!
There is one pony with so much swagger and confidence that heads turn when he is on the track ponying Hod Rod Charlie. Lava Man is an accomplished Thoroughbred who was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2015. He raced 47 times and earned more than $5.2 million. Among his victories are three Hollywood Gold Cups, two Santa Anita Handicaps, and the Pacific Classic. He is extremely handsome and has an innate talent of knowing exactly where the photographers are standing. He always seems to pose ears up!
Trainer Doug O’Neill and his racing team announced that Lava Man would be ponying the Derby and social media rapidly responded. Every morning, Lava Man seems to have as many photographs posted online as the Derby and Oaks contenders. O’Neill said that “Lava Man is doing really well. He is relishing the attention. It feels great to be back at Churchill. It is nice to have our ‘barn and stalls’ waiting for us when we arrive at Churchill. There is lots of grass grazing for Lava. He loves that! He could mow the lawn for free!”
Nicknamed “The Coach,” he was with I’ll Have Another (IHA) in 2012. That was a successful pairing as I’ll Have Another won Derby and the Preakness. This year, O’Neill points out that Hot Rod Charlie (HRC) is a bit different. “He is calmer than IHA ever was. He’s a good and willing student with Lava Man.”
O’Neill thinks that “Lava Man is different from other ponies because he was a proven champion that loved competing. He still has that edge, even at 20 years old. He knows his job. He is a “blue collar, pick up the lunch pail, and go to work” type of horse. He thrives in the racetrack environment. Many horses are happy to retire, but Lava Man has not been that kind of horse. Because he was a racehorse, he instinctively knows how to ‘train’ the younger horses that he chaperones on the track. He knows how to correct them, and they know to get in line. It is just something that happens naturally for him.”
Sharla Sanders, operational manager for the O’Neill Racing Team, is one of Lava Man’s biggest fans. “Nothing makes me happier than seeing Lava Man in his element. He loves his job; he has such pride, and you can see it in his head carriage. He knows who he is, he understands the attention that he receives, and absorbs it all. It has been wonderful to see him on the track that he is exuding confidence and that translates to Hot Rod Charlie (HRC). That is why he is known as ‘The Coach.’ He has synergy with HRC. That goes a long way with a young horse. My heart bursts with love and affection for him. He’s such a gift to the barn and to racing.”
Harley is a familiar and beloved pony escort at Churchill Downs and Keeneland. ABR readers were introduced to this good-looking giant in 2015. Meet Harley the Magnificent Meet Harley the Magnificent | America's Best Racing (americasbestracing.net)
He is now 11 years old and weighs 2,100 pounds. He is an American Sugarbush Draft horse. His registered name is “Daisy’s Chief Dane.” In 2018, he was proclaimed “the most famous pony on the backside” by the Kentucky Derby Museum. He was honored at the 2018 BreyerFest at the Kentucky Horse Park. He has also achieved the highest honors for any horse. He is a Breyer Horse Model. (How Harley the Magnificent Became a Breyer Horse Model) How Harley the Magnificent Became a Breyer Horse Model | America's Best Racing (americasbestracing.net)
For the 2021 Kentucky Derby, Harley will be escorting the favorite, Essential Quality, to the starting gate. With ribbons in his mane and tail, he is a colossal friendly giant. Children and adults will be calling out his name while reaching out to pet him.
Owner Monnie Goetz reports that Harley had a great winter. He is a happy horse who loves his job. She says that he is a pleasure to ride. “He is easy on the back.” Another pony rider, Torrie Needham once said that riding Harley is like riding a dining room table!” Goetz owns 13 ponies and “he is the one that I want to ride.”
Harley’s fame is a joy and a pleasure to Goetz. “I never dreamed in my life that he would stand out!” What is life with Harley like? “He loves anything you feed him. He loves the crowds. People excite him and he swells up even more. You can feel a different presence when you are on him, especially if there is a crowd of people.”
When he comes home, he bucks and plays. He will roll in the grass. Recently, Monnie found him on his back with all four legs in the air. He was just enjoying the sun. One of his favorite tricks is how he gets up. Goetz says that he “sits on his big butt and looks around to see if you are watching!” He even does it in his stall. What a loveable character!
One unusual pony that stands out at Churchill Downs is trainer Michelle Lovell’s Elwood. He is a blue roan Quarter Horse with an incredible personality. Elwood is a fixture on the Kentucky Derby Museum backside tours. He loves to “pet” children and will sidestep along the rail to all the outreached hands. The fillies absolutely love him to the point where he pins his ears on the track and tries to school them to stay behind and behave. Lovell’s filly Change of Control “thinks he is her boyfriend.” The barns pretty Palomino with the flaxen mane is absolutely smitten and raises cain when he is outside the barn. Lovell says, “he puts up with them.”
One of Elwood’s greatest fans is Hannah Jaggers. As an EMT, she used to work at Churchill Downs and spent hours sitting near the gap in the ambulance. One day, Elwood ambled over and stuck his head through the window looking for treats. Jaggers had his great big head sitting in her lap. It was love at first sight. Jaggers started posting about Elwood on social media and his popularity abounded. She would show up at the track with four donuts for him in the morning. On his days off, he would guzzle a Colt 45. Lovell laughs and says, “he smells kind of malty all day after that!”
Lovell purchased Elwood from Darrin Cain at Fair Grounds. He was 3 years old and green broke. Cain had two blue roans and he named them Elwood and Jake after the Blues Brothers. Now 14 years old, she now calls him her “personal golf cart.” She admits that he “has some moves” as most Quarter Horses do. He is handy when she needs to go to the frontside to watch her horses work out or jog. While she is videotaping, Elwood is working the rail for petting and treats. She says “he is such a ham!
Jagger says that Lovell and Elwood are two alike personalities. They both have track presence and they both love what they do. “When you put two things like that together on the track, you have nothing but majesty. They are both the same. He really takes care of his girls (meaning Lovell and her fillies). He does it with class.”
Kentucky Derby Museum tour guide Barry Northern always makes sure the tours stop to visit Harley and Elwood. He loves that Lovell will bring Elwood over if she sees children on the tour. Both horses have an international following. “Everybody loves the horses. I love pointing out Harley and Elwood. They are essential to what is going on at the track.”
Essential. Unique. Beautiful. It is only right that they have a large following of fans and admirers. They fulfill a unique role on the track. Let’s hear it for the ponies!!