Home of the Louisiana Derby

Pony Express

Every morning for about the last 55 years or so, trainers on the backstretch have seen a smiling, familiar face escorting race horses back and forth to the race track aboard his pony. Wilvon Robinson is one of the most recognizable people in Louisiana racing and there are a few reasons why he‘s so well-known. First of all, he’s been around for a long time, in fact, he’s been on this earth 74 years, he’s a good hand on a horse and he knows how to handle a race horse.

That’s right, at 74 years-old Wilvon Robinson is still ponying horses on a regular basis. At that age I hope to still be alive and kicking and be able to sit in a rocking chair without falling out of it and getting hurt. Not Will (as he‘s known to everyone on the race track), he’s at the track bright and early every morning ponying rambunctious Thoroughbreds that would like nothing better than to take a nice chunk out of his hide.

Over the last five and a half decades Will has worked for some of racing’s best horsemen right here at the Fair Grounds. “I’ve handled horses for Tracy Bougon, Clifford Scott, J.R. Smith, Marion and Jack Van Berg, George Geier, Bud Delp and Sam Parise. Those guys were some of the best horsemen I’ve ever been around.”

Every race, every day, pony boys and girls go unnoticed - that is, until something goes wrong. For the 10 minute post parade every day for every race, the pony people are responsible for getting their horse and jockey to the gate - safe and sound, so they can perform to the best of their ability.

According to Will, that is sometimes a little difficult. “Some horses can be hard to handle and make a 10 minute post parade seem like 10 years. First off, they know they’re getting ready to run and they’re all fired up. Some are pretty well behaved and are all business and then some are trying to do everything possible to get loose and then you have a few that are just plain crazy. You learn the personalities of the horses you pony and you do your best to keep them calm and everybody safe.”

Most trainers have specific instructions on how to warm-up their horses. Some horses walk most of the post parade, some jog and some gallop the entire time. “Either the trainer or the jockey will tell me what they want to do with a particular horse. They’ve all got different routines to get to the gate. Some we’ll try to keep calm by just walking, some need to jog to loosen up and some need to gallop at a pretty good clip to work out the kinks. My job is to follow the instructions and get everybody to the gate in one piece.”

Keeping everybody safe depends a lot on the pony horse that is in very close quarters with the Thoroughbreds. “I bet you I’ve gone through hundreds and hundreds of ponies over the years. It takes a special horse to be good pony horse and believe me their either good or they’re gone. My pony has to respond to everything I want him to do, on queue, without hesitation, but the most important thing he has to do is not kick the race horse that might be trying to eat him alive. A pony that kicks is a nightmare for everybody and will get you fired real quick.”

Veteran jockey Carlos Gonzalez gives a lot of credit to the importance of a good pony person. “From the time we hit the race track to the time we get to the gate, the pony person can sometimes make the difference in winning and losing. They are controlling a 1000 pound race horse that is like a keg of dynamite, ready to explode any second.”

Speaking about Wilvon, Carlos summed it up perfectly. “Will is old school, he’s one of the best, if not the best at his job. There is not a trick in the book that a horse can throw at him. He’s seen it all and he’s handled it all. When I come on to the track and Wilvon is there to take my horse, I know I’m in capable hands and we’re going to get to the gate safe and sound and have every chance to win.”

With the end of 2010 rapidly approaching and the beginning of 2011 just around the corner, 74 year-old Wilvon Robinson is not even thinking of hanging up his boots and spurs. “Retire, are you kidding me, this is the only thing I know, the only job I’ve ever had. As long as I can handle this job, I’ll be on my pony everyday. I love what I’m doing and if I can continue to get those horses and jockeys to the gate safely, I’ll be out there everyday, rain or shine, sleet, hail or snow doing my job. My job and everything about it is what keeps me feeling young.”

Not many people can say that about a job they’ve done for more than a half of a century, so, for now, that rocking chair on the back porch at Wilvon’s house can wait. He’s got 10 minutes to get that next one to the gate.