The current Kentucky Derby favorite has never been passed or had a race scenario emerge that could throw him off his game.
While unbeaten champion Nyquist is the pro tem leader of the 3-year-old division, there is a 21-year-old dark bay son of Swiss Yodeler who repeatedly takes all the son of Uncle Mo has to offer without so much as flinching. Trainer Doug O’Neill calls him the barn’s psychologist. Assistant trainer Jack Sisterson deems him the father figure of the group.
“I’ve just known him as Satire,” Sisterson grinned. “He’s just a cool horse to be around.”
While many gazes are fixed upon Nyquist as he seeks to become the first unbeaten juvenile champion to win the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew (1977), the big-bodied presence beside him each morning has been one of the unsung heroes of the O’Neill operation for nearly a decade.
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Satire, a former racehorse bred by trainer Mike Harrington, is one of the key lead ponies in escorting the O’Neill barn’s runners to and from the track each day. While the O’Neill operation already has one famous pony in multiple Grade I winner Lava Man — who earned more than $5.2 million in his career on the track — the gentle Satire is quietly garnering his own share of spotlight in his daily treks with the barn’s reigning rockstar.
You’ve got troubles, you go to Satire. He’s our good-thinking pony.
Assistant trainer Jack Sisterson
The job of a lead pony is to provide a steadying presence and — at times — be a teacher for the charges they accompany. With his mellow demeanor, hickory limbs and a dappled coat that makes him look half his age, Satire has been the main pony for Nyquist and Kentucky Oaks contender Land Over Sea for the brunt of their careers.
“I think we’ve had him about 8-10 years,” O’Neill said of the elder statesman of his pony crew. “He’s a cool, honest horse and he’s a big son of a gun. And real mellow, real laid back.
“It’s hard to believe he once competed in the afternoon and actually won. Lava Man, you look at him and you’re like, ‘Yeah that’s a badass horse.’ This guy is more like a police academy horse. He’s like the sports psychologist. You’ve got troubles, you go to Satire. He’s our good-thinking pony.”
As his partner in the saddle, Sisterson sees firsthand how adept Satire is at his duties. Where Lava Man can be the disciplinarian of the bunch when dealing with high-strung youngsters, Satire is like the kindly uncle letting the kids do whatever they need to get their minds right.
“He’s somewhat different to Lava Man because Lava Man will sometimes try to stamp his authority because of who he is,” Sisterson said. “Satire kind of takes the attitude of, ‘I’m going to let whoever I’m ponying be happy.’ You see Nyquist with him and when he’s with the pony, he always bites Satire and Satire allows him to. And Land Over Sea when she’s with Satire, she always put her head into his neck all the way around and Satire comforts her.
“They all have that relationship with him. Where Lava Man is more, ‘You do this,’ Satire kind of lets them do whatever they are happy doing.”
Fame by association is not a new thing among lead ponies. Smokey, the daily companion to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah last season, has become as identifiable in Bob Baffert’s stable as the Hall of Fame trainer himself, inspiring his own Facebook page, mugs and T-shirts emblazoned with his buckskin frame.
As the media waited for O’Neill to hold court on the Churchill Downs backstretch Sunday morning, Satire grazed quietly on the opposite side of the barn. The dark bay gentleman seeks out baby carrots more than he does attention.
He’s getting his fair share of both these days.