Down at the front of the chute between the paddock and the racetrack, the pony boys sit and smoke and kill time between races. Theirs is the unenviable job of escorting the normally fractious and wired-up Thoroughbreds safely to the gate; their ponies – thus named because they are not racehorses – provide a calming presence for the high-strung starters.
Pony boys and their mounts are indifferent to the pre-race tension, indifferent to a lot of things, like eating lunch and taking breaks and behaving in a socially acceptable manner. Acting as security blankets, they plod steadily between the Thoroughbreds and the crowd for race after race. Their faces betray no anticipation. They’ve been through this before.
In the mornings, these riders exercise race horses or accompany them to the track as well. They know what they’re doing, and they’re good at it. They handle the Thoroughbreds with muscular finesse, treading the fine line between strength, to be respected, and force, to be feared. They handle their ponies with reverence, because ponies are their partners.
Most ponies have odd names, nothing like the distinguished titles of their Thoroughbred counterparts. They answer to “Charlie Brown” and “Admiral” and “Booger” and “Poncho” and “Sleepy,” and sometimes just plain “horse.” They have a penchant for peppermints, especially when fed to them over the rail by little girls in spotless sundresses. They lower their heads, nuzzle, and stand to be petted while their riders smile with prideful tolerance.
A good pony boy holds the reins loosely, rides back to the chute slowly. On heated afternoons, he sprays his pony down with water and gives it free access to buckets of the stuff before going for a drink of his own. He knows his pony is a true working horse, and the pony earns his admiration because of this.
Every once in a while, a pony girl appears on the scene – but she is not of the same mold, cannot make that cocky, rough-riding, cowboy-like appearance. Pony boys are a breed unto themselves, and they add to the racetrack’s charisma by exuding a certain charm of their own, a complete comfort around the horses they handle. They are instinctive horsemen, and they show it daily.