Race three on Woodbine’s evening card is about fifteen minutes away when a handful of track ponies walk towards the paddock to pick up their assigned horse and jockey. A tall and proud bay thoroughbred in the pack of ponies stops to nibble on some grass before his exercise rider Anthony ushers him over to the entrance of the tunnel to accompany a racehorse by the name of Katya to the starting gate.
Curious eyes and legs for days, the bay gelding and former racehorse known as One Big Gator pins his ears back slightly as he senses Katya approaching. Without any fussing they head into the tunnel and off to the polytrack.
In the post parade, I watch One Big Gator walk quietly alongside Katya. He pins his ears back a few more times and gives Katya a look as if to say ‘stay focused’ before resuming his nonchalant march before the grandstand.
I wondered as he led her to the gate if One Big Gator misses racing.
“He’d probably be fit enough that he could race again…does he miss it? No I don’t think he does,” laughed Caroline Trudell, as we chatted about her pony. Not only does Trudell own One Big Gator, but she also owns and operates the track pony business at Woodbine racetrack. “In 2009 I lost my job and came back to Woodbine. I worked with my dad for four years and I lost him in 2013 to cancer and I decided to take over this business…and I love it.”
Trudell’s pony barn is tucked away on the backstretch behind the hustle and bustle of the racing stables and the main track. Walking through the barn I found her sitting outside in the sunshine washing down the legs of Chippy, her Appaloosa pony. “It’s not like coming to work when you come here,” said Trudell as we talked about her ponies.
Currently Trudell has eleven ponies in her barn. Some work in the mornings, some work in the afternoons and some work a bit of both. Aside from Chippy, I noticed a mix of different breeds in the barn, including a handful of thoroughbreds. “We have three thoroughbred ponies. I just retired one - he was an old racehorse. We’ve got One Big Gator, we’ve got Scatland, he’s just training to be a pony and then we have Louis who was a racehorse.” Trudell also points out a thoroughbred by the name of Gopher, who was trained by Reade Baker.
I was eager to hear their stories but One Big Gator’s story stood out among the rest. Especially since this track pony had run in The Queen’s Plate in 2011.
Curious to know more about him I asked Trudell how the former racehorse fell into her hands and into the track pony life.
“It was 2013 and (trainer) John Ross called me and said “Caroline, I’ve got a horse for you, do you want him?” and I said “Who is it?” and he said it was One Big Gator.
I was like “sure I will take him!”
With thirty five starts in three years, Gator had seen his fair share of racing. He won six races and placed ten times between 2010 and 2013. Running in several stakes, he made a go for The Queen’s Plate in 2011 but finished fifteenth. Nonetheless his previous owners, Brenda and James Passero (who bought him from Jackie Reynolds) spoke highly of Gator and his brazen character during his racing days. “My husband was there the day he ran in the plate and always loved him…he is a very proud horse and has a mind of his own. Also known to bite! Our whole family loves him.”
Gator remains one of the most seasoned and classiest former racehorses in Trudell’s barn.
Coming off the track at the end of 2013 Trudell took Gator back to her farm for some down time before transitioning him into his second career. Unfortunately Gator didn’t get to meet his pony pals right off the bat. “Poor guy, he was all by himself all winter because he was still a horse and we couldn’t turn him out with these guys.”
The following spring Trudell had Gator gelded (castrated) to ensure he would be calm and quiet enough to work with the other ponies. After his procedure was done, Trudell took him over to the sales barn everyday to exercise him and keep him moving. But she admits at that point she had doubts about his pony career. “I was walking him in the evenings and I kept saying to myself ‘this guy, how is he going to make a pony?’ because he’s like a thoroughbred, jumping all over the place and giving me a hard time.”
Willing to give him a shot, Trudell started training him right away with the help of several different riders. One of those riders was Daniel Bast. Both an exercise rider and jockey, Bast has worked with thoroughbreds for several years now and understands the importance of implementing a training program soon after they retire from racing. “You school them right, you’ve got a good pony and you don’t have to worry.”
One of the very first things Gator had to do was say goodbye to his racing reins. “These thoroughbreds, they just go English, so you have to teach them how to neck rein,” said Trudell. A western discipline, neck reigning teaches the pony how to change direction by adding slight pressure of the reins against their neck.
On top of learning that discipline, Gator also had to learn how to deal with horses on the track. “He had to learn to go beside another horse and to pony and take some of the abuse that a pony takes, like knocking and biting sometimes and the thoroughbreds will lean on the ponies so he had to learn to deal with all of that.”
After a couple of months of training, Trudell decided it was time to see how he would fair on the main track. And what she saw from Gator impressed her. “He stood up there nice and quiet and he didn’t have a meltdown and he went out there and ponied one and he was perfect.”
Calm and collected on the polytrack, while his racehorse buddies galloped around him Trudell began working Gator as a track pony during the 2014 thoroughbred racing season. Although the track ponies work every race, Trudell’s ponies are rotated between races so each one only works six, seven or eight races of the racing card.
Working the track from a different perspective, Trudell has not only watched Gator’s confidence grow over the last year but also recognizes how valuable he has become to her team. “Last year he only started off with a few races and he would take easy horses, but this year he’s a soldier. He will go out there and do everything.”
She admits that the bay gelding isn’t a push button pony and needs the right rider to keep him in check. “Anthony works for me and he rides him in the afternoon and he does a great job with him because he’s a very smart horse - you have to have a really good rider on him. You can’t put anyone that falls asleep on him.”
Watching Gator from the rail walking alongside his pony pals, it’s hard to picture him doing anything else but his current job. It’s also amazing to think that he has adjusted so quickly to his new life. “He’s a smooth moving horse. When he’s moving, he just floats on the track, you never see him take a wrong step, he picks up his right leads, he won’t check any horses, he’ll drop them off at the gate and stand over there with them if needed and then turn around and do his thing,” said Bast as he talked about him riding Gator last season.
After the racing day is over the ponies return to their barn on the backstretch where they are tended to by each of their riders. “When they come back at night they are all bathed and cleaned properly. We scrub the polytrack off and then we do them up all around,” Trudell informed me.
Walking through the pony barn earlier this week (before I saw Gator in action) I was pleasantly surprised at how serene and calm the barn appeared. Happy faces met my gaze as I walked to each stall. Standing by Gator’s stall, the bay gelding sauntered over to me with his ears pricked forward and an inquiring eye.
“He’s very smart and he will tell you when he wants something. If he could talk he would talk - this guy is so smart,” said Trudell who has bonded with the gelding over the last couple of years.
Around horses her whole life, Trudell knows it takes a special and particular kind of thoroughbred to be a successful track pony.
“Thoroughbreds make some of the best ponies. Some ponies have an attitude and some thoroughbreds will never make ponies but if you get the right one like Gator you’re lucky because he’s going to make you a pony for many years, he’ll do his job and never complain and he’s just a great horse.”
Although Gator’s racing days are long gone the tough and sprightly bay still holds a special place in the hearts of the Passero family. According to Brenda Passero they are very glad that his second career and his loving home remains at Woodbine racetrack. “So happy he is with Caroline and loves his new job. She takes great care of him and we stop to bring him and his friends mints and carrots every time we come to see our other horses.”