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Standardbreds At The Breeders' Cup

Published: October 27, 2014 11:05 am ET

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The cheering never really stopped for Monterey Rebel and Saddle The Wind. Now 25 and 21, respectively, and known as “Rebel” and “Saddles,” the two pacers left the track in the late 1990s, but every day they hear the cheers of thousands.

The two work as a team, along with four other Standardbreds, at Santa Anita Park in southern California, where they’re part of the charm factor at the 80-year-old track.

“They pull the starter in the carriage to the starting gate and the patrol judge to his tower,” said Paige Rickard, operations director at Santa Anita. “Before each race, they pick them both up at the winner's circle. One goes in one direction; one goes in the other, depending on the distance of the race. Then they pick them up after each race and take them back to the winner's circle.”

Santa Anita, being in southern California and all, hosts the occasional celebrity to take for a ride.

“We do give rides to VIPs every once in a while. They’ve given a ride to (Standardbred owner) George Foreman and Melissa Joan Hart from Bewitched.”

The senior members of Santa Anita’s all-Standardbred carriage crew get high praise from Rickard.

“They are the best team I have,” says Rickard. “They have great dispositions and are well behaved horses; very well behaved horses. They came that way.”

Even at 25, Rickard sees the racehorse he once was in Monterey Rebel, who she bought for $2,000 from a movie-outfitter in Oregon.

“He still gets out on the track and wants to go, he’s a tough one. He is a pistol, but he stands very well and lets the people get on and off.”

In truth, while Monterey Rebel raced long and hard, 103 times over six years, he’s heard a lot more applause at Santa Anita than at the California harness tracks at Los Alamitos and Sacramento. He won but one race (out of eight lifetime) in the year Rick Cisco leased him, from June 1994 to July 1995.

“He’s a big boy, and when he was in his racing career, he could grab on to you, let me tell you,” says Cisco. “He was a nice horse and he did the job. He was perfect around the barn. I enjoyed the horse, he was pretty easy to handle. He was a nice little horse, well, actually he was very big.”

Monterey Rebel ultimately won more hearts than races.

“He’s the one I bring out for third-graders,” said Rickard. “He’s the one who will put his head down for somebody in a wheelchair. Same thing with strollers. He puts his head all the way down in the stroller for the kids. He’s absolutely the best horse ever for that, the best.

“You don’t have to worry. He doesn’t do anything, not anything. He’s in their hand looking for food. I get kids here who are severely handicapped and sometimes they get carried away and actually hit him in the head. He just takes it.”

Monterey Rebel’s carriage-mate, Saddle The Wind, was the more accomplished racehorse, winning 14 of his 115 starts over five years, making $100,000 against some of the best horses in California.

The selection process Rickard employed to buy him for $250 in Los Alamitos’ backstretch was a simple one.

“I needed a bay, he was the right size and he would match Rebel,” she said.

While Rickard picked out and purchased the horses for Santa Anita, it’s Francisco Sanchez, called Paco, who drives them at work and knows them best.

“Rebel, I have known since 1996,” says Sanchez. “I started here when I was a kid and now look at us, we’re both old grandpas. But he doesn’t know that. When he hits the racetrack, man, you have to hold him because he’d be gone. With another horse he loves to compete. He wants to be the first, he wants to be the leader.

“Rebel is a very, very smart horse. He always thinks way ahead of you. There were several occasions where we almost had an accident, but when I need the help, he’s always right there and he stops.”

Sometimes, though, Montery Rebel’s inclination to stop is not so appreciated.

“He hates to start the buggy (from a dead stop),” says Sanchez. “If we have people standing around the buggy to get a picture, Rebel is traumatized looking back at all the people and thinks that they’re all going to get in. Here comes my regular passenger and he won’t move.

“I say, ‘C’mon Rebel,’ and he looks back at the buggy to make sure there’s only one person in the buggy, because if you have a buggy full of people, forget it, he won’t move.”

Montery Rebel’s teammate, Saddle The Wind, brings a different demeanor to the pair, says Sanchez.

“Saddles is a hard working horse, too. When we first got him, he was smaller and leaner from being on the track. When he was off the track, he got fat and too lazy and refused to pull. He wanted to lag behind the other horse. I had to work with him to say, ‘No, no, no, don’t be lazy, you have to pull the buggy, you’ve got to put up with other horses.’”

Sanchez took Saddle The Wind back to the track to improve his outlook, this time with a saddle and a Thoroughbred in tow. When Sanchez worked as a lead pony rider, Saddle The Wind was his pony.

“That’s how I got him fit for pulling the buggy,” he said.

“He reminded me so much of an Arabian horse. I’m so used to the Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses warming up in the first half-mile. Saddles, he warms up by the third horse he ponies. He was a very comfortable horse, most of the time he preferred to pace or sometimes he’d gallop in front and pace in back (legs).”

Sanchez is loyal to his equine partners, now in their second decade of work together. Monterey Rebel wins accolades for his work with the youngest of racing fans.

“He is a really sweet horse you can trust with all your heart with kids. He takes care of them, he loves kids.”

Of the occasionally reluctant Saddle The Wind, Sanchez sees only the best.

“He’s not lazy, he’s smart, he wants the other horse to pull the buggy!”

This story courtesy of Harness Racing Communications, a division of the U.S. Trotting Association. For more information, visit Barbara D. Livingston photo.

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