Pony Tales

This story first appeared in the Blood-Horse magazine in 2004. I have been able to resurrect the text from the magazine database and put it online for the first time. The story has been updated and is now current.

A photo of Cigar standing on the track at Nad al Sheba dominated the front page of a local newspaper in Dubai several days before the inaugural running of the $4 million Dubai World Cup in 1996. At least the caption said it was Cigar. The only problem was that the horse pictured was pure white and bore no resemblance to America’s super horse.

Trainer Bill Mott could only laugh seeing his pony Snowball featured so prominently, while stealing the spotlight from the mighty Cigar. When Mott brought Cigar out to train one evening, he overheard one man say to another as they passed by Snowball in the paddock, “Oh, there’s Cigar.” But the most humorous moment came when several Arabs, dressed in their traditional dishdashas, approached Mott wanting to buy Snowball as an endurance horse to compete in desert races of 50 miles or longer.

“I don’t think you want to buy Snowball as an endurance horse,” Mott told them. “He struggles just to get a mile around the racetrack at a good clip.”
Snowball had transcended his role as mere companion to become a star in his own right. But to trainers all over the country, a good pony is a star, perhaps the most unsung hero on the racetrack. They go about their job in relative obscurity, teaching young Thoroughbreds while pacifying many of the high-strung stars of the sport.

Over the years, ponies have been associated with many of racing’s greats. Seabiscuit had Pumpkin; Man o’ War had Major Treat; Damascus had Duffy; Secretariat had Billy Silver; and Curlin had Pancho.

Snowball, who was a Quarter Horse, actually belonged to Mott’s assistant Ralph Nicks. He became a familiar sight, accompanying Cigar throughout the champ’s unforgettable campaign in which he equaled Citation’s record 16-race unbeaten streak in 1996.

“I got Snowball for Ralph after his pony, Bell Boy, got sick and died,” Mott said. “Ralph’s dad had found him in a field on (trainer) David Whited’s farm in Arkansas. He was a wonderful pony, and he became a great traveling mate for Cigar.”

Snowball was retired a year after Cigar and resided at Nicks’ ex-wife, Judy Wiggonton’s, farm in Georgetown, Ind. until his death in Aug., 2009 at age 27.

“He was a great kid’s pony and he lived a good life,” Judy said. “We buried him right here on my farm.”

No pony in recent memory has gotten more press and exposure than Butterscotch, who in 2004 became almost as well known as his good buddy Smarty Jones. At least in his mind. When tens of thousands of fans showed up at Philadelphia Park on two occasions during the Triple Crown just to watch Smarty Jones gallop, you would swear watching Butterscotch turn and face the cheering crowd that he was convinced the cheers were for him. He even had his own spotlight in the Preakness, serving as pony for NBC’s on-track reporter, Donna Brothers. Butterscotch could hardly contain his enthusiasm as he escorted Smarty Jones back to the winner’s circle while Brothers interviewed jockey Stewart Elliott.

Butterscotch, like Snowball, is a registered Quarter Horse and used to go by the name Scotch Witha Twist. Trainer John Servis bought him when he was seven after one of the blacksmiths at Philadelphia Park found him in a farm field just north of Quaker Town, Pa.

“The first day I ever took him to the racetrack, we were at Garden State Park, and he had no idea what to do,” Servis recalled. “He kept ducking from the pole and wheeling around. He was a ropin’ horse and had never seen a racetrack before. He didn’t know anything about standing, because they used to back those ropin’ horses in the chute, and when they sprung ’em they were gone. That first day, he was wheeling with me and an outrider came over and asked if I needed any help. I told him, ‘Nah, I’m just trying to school this pony a little bit.’ The next thing you know, Butterscotch wheels, and on his way around, his butt slams into the outrider’s pony and knocks the outrider right off his horse. He was some kind of hot, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, this isn’t gonna work.’ ”

Servis began working with Butterscotch every day, and after a month or two, he turned into “the greatest pony.” He would remain with Servis for the next 16 years, becoming a “member of the family.”

Several years after buying Butterscotch, the Servises moved into a new house in a newly built Bensalem, Pa., development. “We’d have block parties every summer,” Servis recalled. “I used to put Butterscotch on the trailer and take him over to the neighborhood and have him give all the kids pony rides. One year, Bill (foreman Foster) and Pete (exercise rider Van Trump) loaded him on the trailer, and Bill forgot to unsnap the halter. When Butterscotch backed out with the halter still snapped, he threw his head back and broke the halter. He started running through the neighborhood with no halter on. Most of the people had just put new landscaping in, and here’s Butterscotch running through their yards. Needless to say, that was the end of the pony rides.”

Butterscotch became so quick and responsive whenever one of Servis’ horses got loose, outriders from all over tried to buy him. “He would go from a dead standstill and he’d be on a loose horse like ‘right now,’” Servis said.

Servis would never consider any of the offers. His two sons, Blane and Tyler, grew up with Butterscotch and learned to ride on him. Servis’ father, Joe, said Butterscotch helped raise the two boys. “My oldest boy always kept a big head shot photo of Butterscotch hanging in his bedroom,” Servis said.

One year, Philadelphia Park officials asked Servis if he could bring Butterscotch to the frontside on Pennsylvania Derby day. Butterscotch just stood there among the people who received lessons on how to put equipment on a horse, such as the application of bandages.

In 2003, Butterscotch, then an aging 21, was introduced to Smarty Jones. He, like everyone else in Servis’ barn, would be in for the ride of his life.

“Smarty was kind of tough and would bite and kick at him,” Servis said. “He had Butterscotch scared to death. It took a while, but Smarty settled in and they became almost dependent on each other. I think Smarty became more dependent on Butterscotch than the other way around. Smarty was so strong galloping, but Butterscotch would do whatever he had to do to gallop alongside him.”

In late June of 2004, following Smarty Jones’ magical Triple Crown campaign, Servis decided to retire Butterscotch due to old age and wear and tear on his legs. During one of their last mornings together, Smarty was getting strong and trying to muscle Butterscotch.

“What’s this, a goodbye (butt) whippin’ to Butterscotch?” Servis asked Smarty. “I’m really gonna miss this old pony,” he said. “But he’s starting to hit the ground hard and I’m worried about him. Smarty’s put a hurtin’ on him and he’s starting to show that Smarty wear and tear. He’s paid his dues over and over.”

Servis then leaned over and gave Butterscotch a few pats on the neck and said to him, “Butterscotch, you’ve been a good pony, boy.”

A few days later, Servis bid farewell to Butterscotch, shipping him to Shirley Lojeski’s farm in Quakertown, where Servis boards many of his horses.

“He’s living the life of Riley now,” Servis said shortly after Butterscotch’s departure. “He’s up at the farm getting fat, and doing just great. He deserves it.”
Unfortunately, the wear and tear of the racetrack finally caught up to Butterscotch and he had to be euthanized on Aug. 23, 2007.

“His hind end just kind of went,” Lojeski said. “It wouldn’t support him anymore. We had him cremated keep his remains in a box with a plaque on it. I have him in the feed room; that keeps him happy.”

Another pony closely associated with a high-profile star was Steamboat, who was seen constantly with Seattle Slew as the son of Bold Reasoning became the first undefeated horse to sweep the Triple Crown.

“He was a big, heavy, piebald pony,” trainer Billy Turner said. “Someone in my crew named him, because he looked like a big steamboat. You couldn’t miss a pony as ugly as he was. He had one hazel eye and one plain eye, and all these brown, black, and white splotches. His color was a mess. But he was tough and he had a great disposition. He really disliked me riding him, and he fell down with me a number of times, just because he got bored with me. But you put a child up on him and he’d take them around Belmont Park and give them the greatest ride of their life.”

Turner bought Steamboat from one of the outriders at Belmont. “He was a smart son of a gun, and he’d school young horses if they were acting silly,” Turner recalled. “Young horses liked him and respected him. And Slew was one of them. This was his companion, and everywhere Slew went, the old pony went, too. Slew would manhandle anything to a certain extent. He had his own program, and if you got in his way, you had a problem. But ol’ Steamboat got along with him just fine. They did everything together.”

Steamboat liked Slew a lot more than he liked Turner. “He enjoyed aggravating me,” Turner said. “One day at Belmont, we were at the eighth pole, and I had to get off him for a second to help a rider get on a horse. When I went to get back on Steamboat, he started walking away. I went to grab him by the tail, but he would just go one step faster than I would go. We went all the way to the starting gate with him one step ahead of me the whole way. The entire gate crew starting laughing, which made me even madder.

“Another time, we were down at Hialeah in the winter of ’77. They had these old acacia trees between the barns, and I put a screw eye in one of them, which we’d use to tie up Steamboat. One morning, Howard Cosell came by with an ABC crew to do an interview and get footage to use during the Triple Crown campaign. We did a 45-minute interview and were just finishing up when ol’ Steam jumps straight up in the air and lashes out with this great big kick. He wasn’t that close to us, but you should have seen Howard; he was horrified. He went in one direction and his toupee went in the other direction. Bart Silverman, the photographer for the New York Times, saw the whole thing, and he came running over to me and said, ‘Bill, I missed that; can you get him to do it again?’ Ol’ Steam did it just to panic us. You looked into that big old hazel eye and you knew he got a big kick out of it.”

For Steamboat, another life awaited him following Seattle Slew’s retirement. “After the Slew era was over he was pretty crippled up with arthritis and wasn’t getting any better,” Turner said. “Jim Dailey, the main outrider in New York, had some connections out on Long Island, and we gave him to a school for the handicapped. He was ideal for that, because he loved kids. He hated me, but he loved kids. He had a great life there and died about five years later.”

Anyone who followed Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winners Monarchos and Unbridled through their Triple Crown campaigns will remember their respective ponies, Mouse and Mustard, who showed that a good pony can come from anywhere. When trainer John Ward Jr. found Mouse, he was a hazing pony in a traveling rodeo, performing in steer wrestling and calf-roping competitions. To this day, he still bears the scars from where he had been gored. Unbridled’s trainer, Carl Nafzger, bought Mustard off an Indian reservation in New Mexico.

In 1999, the then 15-year-old Mouse had just performed in a rodeo in Davie, Fla., and because of his age, his owner didn’t want to haul him all the way back to Arizona. He approached Ward, who bought him after some price haggling.

“He didn’t look too good after I bought him,” Ward recalled. “We threw him a really good piece of alfalfa and he looked at us like we were trying to poison him. We got his confidence, and he saw what a good life it was to be a pony for a racehorse stable. Now, whenever a horse leaves the barn without him, he hollers, like ‘Hey, don’t forget me.’ It’s like this horrible scream of a child who’s being left behind by its mother.

“Monarchos got along with Mouse famously. He was a non-aggressive type of pony and he let Monarchos be dominant. They were a great team.”

That winter, instead of going with Ward to Florida, Mouse became a babysitter at Ward’s farm. When his horses get old, Ward puts them out with the weanlings that are turning yearlings and they babysit them, kind of like guardians. Ward had no doubts that Mouse would be great at his new job.

It’s been nine years since Mouse teamed up with Monarchos, and he still resides at Ward’s farm, turned out with about a dozen other old horses. And Ward has a couple of young horses for Mouse to babysit for this year.

“He still looks as good as he did on the racetrack,” Ward said. “When you do right you get taken care of.”

Nafzger calls the relationship between Mustard and Unbridled “a love affair.” He had bought Mustard in 1975 when he was training at Santa Fe Downs. Mustard was 20 when he first met Unbridled, and the two hit it off immediately.

“They had a special bond,” Nafzger said. “When we were at Pimlico for the Preakness (gr. I), Unbridled got in his stall and was looking around and checking everything out. He stuck his head out the door, and he and Mustard reached over and touched noses. As soon as they did, Unbridled turned around, laid down in the hay, and five minutes later he was stretched out sleeping.”

Nafzger still smiles when he recalls an incident at Keeneland. “I was on Mustard and we were standing outside the racing office when I looked down and there was this little gal, about three years old, with her arms wrapped around Mustard’s leg. I just froze and Mustard just stood there. The girl’s mother came by and I told her to be still. I got off and asked the girl if she wanted to sit on him. So, I put her up, and she asked what his name was. I told her Mustard. She sat on him and petted him, and when she got off, she said to me, ‘Thank you for letting me get on Ketchup.’ ”

After Unbridled was retired, Nafzger also retired Mustard, sending him to Ocala Stud, where he lived a good life until his death at age 31. 

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