Passersby at Barn 22 on Keeneland's backstretch this week were in for an unusual sight during morning training. Stakes contenders Postulation and Leafy Shade could be spotted grazing under the racetrack's shady trees, where they were joined by a fluffy roan miniature pony named Pepper.
Pepper attracts attention wherever he goes, and owner Brianne Slater said he goes everywhere—he's escorted racehorses to Kentucky Downs, to Presque Isle, Pimlico, and up to Woodbine. (He needed his own international health paperwork for that trip.) A note about his current buddies on the Paulick Report generated lots of interest. Slater said Pepper takes his fame in stride.
Pepper is something of a sports psychologist to whichever horses need him most at Gregory Bentley's Runnymede Farm in Pennsylvania. Leafy Shade gets nervous when she hits the road for a race, and Pepper doesn't just tag along for therapeutic grazing time—he becomes immersed in the job, even sleeping in the stall with the 3-year-old filly. Amazingly, Leafy Shade and other horses Pepper has soothed seem to avoid stepping on him, which is a lucky thing, since he will roll and lie flat out, apparently unconcerned about the relatively close quarters in a racing stall.
When he's not on the road, 11-year-old Pepper serves as a turnout buddy to 2014 Arlington Million winner Hardest Core, who spends downtime at Runnymede. Hardest Core had previously gone out with a different gelding, and the two would play a little too hard, often coming in with bite marks and scratches. Finally, Slater decided they needed Pepper to the rescue. Pepper took one look at the graded stakes winner and put his head down to eat.
It seems Hardest Core either couldn't figure out how to roughhouse with a playmate measuring less than three feet at the shoulder, or didn't think it was very fair to be too pushy.
Pepper also goes out with Postulation at home on the farm, who is evidently amused by his friend's size.
“When he first went out with [Pepper], he thought, ‘This thing is the funniest thing ever.' He'd run circles around him,” said Slater. “Pepper would go across the stream [in their field] to get away, but he caught on and now follows Pepper across the stream.”
Pepper wasn't always Mr. Reliable, Slater remembers. She found an online ad for Pepper or seven years ago when she needed a companion for another filly at Runnymede and paid $400 for him. He sounded like an easy solution to her problem: Pepper's former owner told Slater he stood for the farrier, and had been ridden and driven. When she got him home, she suspected his resume had been somewhat embellished.
“It would take three of us to hold him for the vet, just to pull blood for his Coggins,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is the worst $400 I've ever spent.' He'd get loose all the time, we couldn't catch him in the field. He was like Houdini. Literally, he would get loose and Eddie [Graham, trainer for Runnymede] would have to tackle him to catch him. Now, he's perfect. He's an angel.”
With patient handling, Pepper has mellowed—so much so, he has proven an instructive mount for Slater's 5-year-old son, William. The younger Slater hops aboard Pepper for horse shows and pony races in Pennsylvania (in a miniature jockey ensemble) and has dreams of becoming a jockey of Thoroughbreds one day. Pepper follows Slater around the farm and is rewarded with his choice of snacks. Donuts are a particular favorite.
Leafy Shade runs in Friday's G3 Valley View Stakes for trainer Edward Graham.
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