Experienced Horseman Mike Crowder Helps Put Team Japan at Ease Preparing for Kentucky Derby

The Life
Mandarin Hero Derma Sotogake Mike Crowder Kentucky Derby Churchill Downs
Mandarin Hero, left, with Derma Sotogake led by Mike Crowder aboard Levi while the Japanese horses prepare for the 2023 Kentucky Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

His life straddles the history of horse racing and he’s seen it all from the back of a horse. Seventy-three-year-old Mike Crowder gets to Churchill Downs every morning by 4 a.m.. He tends to his morning chores with his two ponies, Blue and Levi, and readies them to escort the Japanese Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve contenders to the track. 

Mike Crowder at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

It’s always been about horses for him. He is legendary for his ability to ride any cantankerous, ornery horse out there. He grew up in eastern Colorado in Las Animas County at a place known as the Dillingham Ranch. It was a remount ranch where his father broke horses — the process of training a young horse to wear a bridle and saddle, carry a rider, and respond to a rider’s commands — raised for the Army. Crowder remembers that back in the 1950s, they still had two Thoroughbred stallions from Kentucky. 

He was riding horses before he could walk. “I started riding green horses when I was 5 years old. I liked to ride match races when I was a kid. I used to ditch school and go to the county fairgrounds and gallop horses. We broke all kinds of horses; Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, Saddle horses, Walker horses. If there was a horse, I wanted to ride it to see what it was like.”  He then moved onto La Mesa Park, where he rode Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds in Raton, N.M. From there, it’s been a lifetime of being known as the guy who can fix a horse with a problem. 

“A horse with a bad habit? You just get on him and you ask him to do something and then you go from there. It depends on what the problem is. If he doesn’t want to go, don’t get carried away. Just keep asking him. Be firm and be fair about it. If I came to the racetrack and saw a horse doing something wrong, I’d go and see if I could ride that horse. My motto was, ‘if you can saddle that individual, I can ride that individual.’ Sounds cocky but that’s just how I felt. I wanted that opportunity.”

Crowder with Levi at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Tom Ellet ponies horses in Southern California and is semi-retired. Both he and his father, known back then as Straw Hat Charlie, worked with Crowder. “Mike was the go-to guy for problem horses. In that period of time, there were horses coming from South America and other parts of the world. Some of the horses weren’t as well broke as they should be. People would go and get Mike. He’s always been a bronc rider, a rodeo cowboy. In fact, he would gallop horses in the morning and ride rodeos in the day. He was great. He was somebody I looked up to. I once had a horse that dropped me two or three times. He was the worst horse I had ever been on. Mike gets on him and goes riding by me with one hand. He is horsemanship at its finest. Mike was a benefit for bad horses for a long, long time.”

Kentucky Derby-Oak trainer Kenny McPeek agrees. “I’ve known Mike for many years. He’s been a really good exercise rider and he’s been able to handle more than difficult horses. He’s unique in that he has no fear. He has fixed more than a few horses over the years. It’s his long-term experience. He’s the guy that a lot of us trainers have been able to call on and say, ‘He’s giving me a little bit of trouble.’  And he will say ‘I’ll come and get on him.’ Mike has worked with me and my horses for 20 to 30 years. He’s been a good hand for a long time, and I think he’s been around since Daniel Boone!”

Crowder has two ponies that he uses at Churchill Downs with the Japanese horses. He rides Levi while he ponies Derma Sotogake in the morning. Levi is a compact bay horse. “He’s a nice little horse. He has plenty of quick speed. He’s been around the block a time or two. He’s got plenty of fire in him. If he’s had a few days off, you better get tied on because he’s going to be ready to go. He’s not for a green rider because he will take advantage of you.” 

Crowder on Levi leading Derma Sotogake at Churchill. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Crowder and Levi have worked the last four Kentucky Oaks and Derbys. The easiest way to spot him instantly is that he is “the rider with long hair that sticks out all around my helmet!” He has a lot of faith in Levi. “A good pony is a horse with a good temper that can handle a crowd. He can handle a lot of change that goes on around him and not get nervous or get carried away himself.”

He has really enjoyed working with Team Japan in the mornings as they prepare for the Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs Asian Coordinator Kate Hunter says, “Mike Crowder is the ‘senpai’ that Team Japan never knew they needed. Mike and his pony Levi have been showing them the Churchill ropes since we arrived earlier this month. He has even inspired us to go see a rodeo!”

This year’s training pattern for the Japanese horses consists of walking a half lap around the track, then back up to the chute for “warming-up trots.” They take 1-2 laps around the track and cool down in the chute before walking back to the barn. The aim is for the horses to spend about one hour and 20 minutes door to door on the track.

Assistant trainer Masatoshi Segawa says, “It’s been a lot of fun to work with Mike. The moment we met Mike we could tell he loved horses and was a talented horseman. We instantly felt comfortable with him, and that really generated a fun working environment each morning. We don’t have pony culture and Derma Sotogake can be a bit fresh when he trains. So, I think maybe only someone with the experience that Mike has would be able to handle him as well as he does. His superior horsemanship puts us at ease when we are out on the track.”

Crowder leading Team Japan under Twin Spires. (Kate Hunter photo)

Crowder explains, “They speak limited English and I speak limited Japanese, so we have an interpreter.  Once he told me really what they wanted done, it got a lot easier. It gets to be a routine. Using hand movements on the track, we find a way to communicate.”

Derma Sotogake’s name comes from “Derma” which is a reference to his owner’s profession as a dermatologist. “Sotogake”is a sumo wrestling move. Crowder says, “Derma doesn’t really like his pony. He’s not mean. He will get mad and want to rear up to get away from him. Overall, he’s pretty well behaved.”

He considers Masatoshi Segawa, Derma Sotogake’s exercise rider; Masanari Tanaka, the groom who rides Crowder’s pony Blue; and Takahide Ando, Continuar’s exercise rider, as “top-notch riders. They are like the way riders used to be that came around the racetrack 40 or 50 years ago. They really know their horses and they know how to ride them.”

The other day Derma Sotogake reared up and swung at Levi. He clipped Crowder on the side of his cheek. “I just got out of the way. I didn’t think that I needed to be a cushion between him and the top of my pony. It was a minor abrasion and it’s already gone.”

Crowder really likes Derma Sotogake. “He’s a real forward horse who is confident in himself. He would be an enjoyable horse to ride because he’s bold. He wants to go somewhere. He wants to go get them. I like that about him. After watching Derma, I think that horse is going to be a real live horse in the race. He’s going to be pretty tough.”

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