by Frank Vespe
They’re generally anonymous, toiling, like most at the racetrack, in obscurity.
So, why was the crowd up the Pimlico stretch cheering as Jessica Lindsey and her pony — artfully dubbed Gray Horse — walked along the outside rail?
“When they saw the horse with purple and green,” Lindsey explained, “the whole crowd re-broke out cheering when we went by.”
Lindsey and Gray Horse accompanied Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome in the post parade and to the gate prior to Saturday’s running of the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes. To show support for the Derby winner, she’d decked Gray Horse out in the colors of Dumbass Partners, the owners of California Chrome: purple and green wraps, pom-poms in his mane, noseband.
Team California Chrome, you might say.
It was an honor, and a day, she describes as “super-exciting.”
“It went great,” she added. “I didn’t mess up, and my pony didn’t mess up.”
Ponying the champ gave her an up-close-and-personal view not afforded to many.
And run he did, rolling out of Baltimore with two legs of the Triple Crown secured and a date — perhaps with history — in New York in three weeks in the Belmont Stakes.
That Lindsey, who also works as an exercise rider for trainer Billy Campbell at Bowie, ended up accompanying California Chrome is no accident. In fact, it had a lot to do with another team, and another big horse.
“This was more important for me just for Willie [Delgado],” she said of Chrome’s exercise rider, who lived in Maryland before moving to Southern California. “Willie was one of the first people I met when I came to Maryland. He kept an eye out for me when I didn’t really know anybody, and we stayed friends all these years.”
Last year, Lindsey’s fiance, jockey Xavier Perez, had a magical ride of his own, when he rode the Bowie-based filly Dance to Bristol to seven consecutive wins and a spot in the starting gate in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
“You know, he [Delgado] was Team Dance to Bristol, always calling and rooting us on,” Lindsey added. “Now it’s our turn, and doing the same thing for him.”
The three had reconnected during Dance to Bristol’s Breeders’ Cup sojourn. On Breeders’ Cup Friday, Lindsey and Perez had gone to Santa Anita to support Delgado’s brother, Alberto, who was riding California Chrome in the Golden State Juvenile for state-breds, a race in which he finished sixth. Saturday, with Perez occupied with Dance to Bristol, Willie Delgado spent the afternoon in the stands with Lindsey.
Fast-forward to the first Saturday in May. California Chrome rolls to victory.
“I texted Willie congratulations, and he actually responded,” said Lindsey with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘Hey, while I’ve got you, how ’bout that pony work, Willie?'”
Saturday was Lindsey’s fourth opportunity to pony a horse in the Preakness, a day she describes as an admixture of excitement and nerves.
“It’s exciting until they hand me that pony strap, and then I do get nervous,” she explained. “It’s just more nervous that day because there’s cameras in your face constantly and you feel like if you sneeze they’re gonna catch you. You spend the whole post parade going, ‘Do we look OK? Does the pony look good? Is he OK? Is everything good to go?'”
On Saturday, happily, it was — but that was not the case in her first Preakness, when she accompanied Big Drama in the post parade.
“We were in the one-hole and the outrider times us, so we have to be real slow so they can get us on TV,” she recalled. “And Big Drama was a bad boy, and he started to act up, and my pony just hung a left and said, ‘I’m outta here.'”
Veteran rider John Velazquez was aboard Big Drama that day — a day best remembered for Rachel Alexandra’s stirring victory over Derby winner Mine That Bird — and he took the mishap in stride.
“He spent the whole post parade calming me down,” Lindsey said, “and the only thing I could think was, ‘This guy’s about to ride in the Preakness and he’s spending the post parade trying to gather me.'”
She didn’t need Chrome’s rider Victor Espinoza to gather her on Saturday, and Chrome, though exuberant, didn’t cause Gray Horse to hang a left and leave. “It all worked out,” said Lindsey.
And not just for her but for the team: for the trainer, the owners. For Willie Delgado. For her and Perez and the chance to repay Delgado’s support with some of their own.
“I guess everything comes full circle,” she said.
(Featured image by Laurie Asseo.)