Mary Ellet a Shining Star Behind the Scenes for Pletcher Barn at Churchill Downs

The Life
Mary Ellet Churchill Downs Rocco Pony Kentucky Derby Todd Pletcher Forte
Mary Ellet loving on her beloved Rocco with a huge smile at Churchill Downs, where the duo leads the racehorses on to the track in the mornings and afternoons. (Eclipse Sportswire)

She sits calmly in the saddle as she leads horses around Churchill Downs, often with the sun glinting off her sunglasses. Mary Ellet, 29, was raised in Southern California. She is currently based in Kentucky where she ponies for the Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn in the morning.

Mary Ellet at 4 years old on Little Joe. (Courtesy of Mary Ellet)

It’s been a lifetime of horses for her. When she talks about them, she refers to what they have taught her. There is a charming photo of a 4-year-old Ellet sitting on her parents (Southern California riders Tom and Cindy Ellet) black and white paint named “Little Joe.”  She already has her feet in the stirrups, heels down and one hand on the saddle horn looking studiously at Little Joe like she is fully prepared for him to get up and go!

She says the “first horse that was mostly mine was a little bay horse named Stormy,” when she was 11.  She rode him for trail riding, barrel racing, and gymkhana, which is an equestrian event consisting of speed pattern racing and timed games for riders and horses. 

“Rocket” was the first horse to teach, test her, and help her become a better rider.  She learned how to deal with a temperamental horse. He had some issues from his past, and initially her mom told her to stay away from him. But Ellet has a horse whisperer personality and was discovered petting him. Her mom saw that Rocket’s whole personality changed. She fondly recalls that her “dad brought the leather, and I brought the lace.” He made him into a riding horse, and she brought out his good personality. She used Rocket for barrel racing and horse camping. “That horse took care of me in scary trail situations. He took care of me because I was his girl.” 

Mary Ellet with her parents, Tom and Cindy Ellet, on their pony Little Joe. (Courtesy of Mary Ellet)

When she was in high school, she was taking AP French. Her mom realized that she would have a tremendous opportunity working on the track with various French speaking trainers and riders such as Leonard Powell. Ellet got her pony license and learned to pony on their horse named Josh. “He was push button. All that I had to do was hang onto him and the racehorse because he put me where I needed to be. I could learn the basics without really having to touch my horse at all.”

She worked for Jerry Hollendorfer’s barn, where she ponied 2010 Kentucky Oaks winner Blind Luck for several years. “She was so quirky, special, and intelligent. It was very much like a typical mare where she was like ‘This is what I would like to do. And we’re going to do it this way!’  She was the horse that I credit with falling in love with the industry.”

She brought her pony Cinch with her when she moved to Kentucky in 2017. Cinch is now 22 years old. Ellet started riding him in high school and “I was obsessed with this horse. This horse is my soulmate.” He’s mostly retired now, and Ellet enjoys trail rides with him. “He’s got a million miles on the racetrack and the rodeo arena. Now he just gets to be the prince of them all.”

Mary Ellet and Rocco meeting fans through a fence. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Ellet has ponied some extraordinary champions. In 2021, she assisted Team Japan with their pair of Breeders’ Cup winners Marche Lorraine and Loves Only You while riding her parents horse Rocco.  Ellet has purchased Rocco from her parents and now works for Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher in the morning.  This spring, she has been ponying the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve favorite Forte. Pletcher says that “Mary and Rocco make a great team. Their calm demeanors are perfect for accompanying high-spirited horses to and from the track.”

Rocco and Ellet have also recently ponied Derby contenders Tapit Trice and Continuar. Ellet is very proud of Rocco. “Look at his resume! He looks good!” In the past two years, Rocco has worked with four Eclipse Award champions (Forte, Loves Only You, Nest, and Malathaat.)

“I love Nest. She is so sweet on the racetrack. She is a princess while Malathaat is a Queen. She’s so smart. She will notice anything different. While Nest loves her pony, Malathaat does not.” Ellet said that “Malathaat refused to look at me. She would keep her head to the right, and she would have her ears forward. When she would see that I was still there, she would pin her ears and look at me like ‘You’re still here!’ whereas Nest would be like ‘Oh Rocco, my best friend! You’re here again! I’m so happy to see you.’ ”

Mary Ellet, Rocco, and Forte May 4 at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Mary Ellet was scheduled to pony Pletcher's Derby favorite Forte with Rocco until he was scratched. She ponied him at the 2022 Breeders’ Cup, where he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. She enjoys Forte and calls him her Fortito. “He is high energy and he’s funny. He’s like a little boy who’s excited to be out there and excited to do things. He does everything with gusto. He has grown a lot since the Breeders’ Cup and has filled out a lot. He’s very respectful of me and Rocco.”   

Ellet is a graduate of the Thoroughbred Industry Management and Leadership Program known as Godolphin Flying Start. It is a two-year international program where the trainees experience horsemanship, management operations, and leadership in the international Thoroughbred industry, which involves travel to Australia, Ireland, Kentucky, England, and Dubai. “It was incredible. I would not be here today without it. I had no idea that this much of the industry — such as the marketing side of what I do now — existed. I can firmly say that the program 100% changed the trajectory of my life. I wouldn’t be in Kentucky without it.”     

Mary Ellet smiling at beloved Rocco. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Ellet is the content manager for PM Advertising, which is an award-winning marketing and advertising agency. “Most of our clientele is based in the Thoroughbred industry.”  She does research, coordinates with clients, and coordinates with photographers and the creative team. They produce many ads that are seen in BloodHorse Daily and TDN.

Her morning schedule starts at the track at 5:30 in the morning, which allows her to be at work by 10 a.m. “I get to do something that I love. The honor is not lost on me. I am fortunate enough that when Todd Pletcher called and asked if I could come to work with him, my first response was that I am so honored that you would even offer this to me.”

“I couldn’t do this without Rocco. It doesn’t matter how good I am.” Ellet is certainly a hard-working star within the Thoroughbred industry. While Rocco takes care of Ellet, she takes care of him and the horses that she ponies in the morning. Then, she steps up during the day to shine light on the Thoroughbreds she loves. She may not realize it, but she is a shining star herself!    

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