Next Friday begins the 154th Saratoga Race Course meet. However, few people realize the amount of preparation that horsemen, assistants and other backstretch workers do months before the meet even starts.
One of those people is Mary Keiser.
Each year after spending the winter and early spring at Tampa Bay Downs, Keiser comes back to her second home in Saratoga shortly after the Oklahoma Training Track has opened in late April or early May to help trainers with their horses.
Keiser helps various trainers by ponying – a technique used where a horse and its rider lead another horse who may be inexperienced, too young to be ridden, or recovering from an injury – so they are ready to compete during the Saratoga meet.
“I help people whose horses are nervous,” Keiser said. “If the horse is too hard for the [exercise] rider to control, I’ll break them off the breeze and work with them. Some horses get tired of having a rider on its back all of the time. So, I just free-pony with them without a rider.”
As part of her work, Keiser uses three retired thoroughbreds, including stakes-winning Trucking Baron, a 25-year-old who had won 19 of 122 races, including two at Saratoga. Because of their calming nature, her horses are ideal for younger horses.
“A lot of the 2-year-olds are afraid of the pony,” she added. “I have to practice with them. Otherwise, you will see it in the afternoon when they get loose on the track. They want to go in a different direction. It’s good to school the horses.”
Keiser’s involvement in horse racing and working with horses on the backstretch is like others in the industry. She started riding horses in Florida when she was 16 before graduating early from high school and started working at other tracks.
Keiser, now 55, came to Saratoga in 1988 and started galloping horses for Sue Sedlacek and Peter Ferial. However, Keiser did not start ponying other horses until 1998 when she saw the need at Aqueduct, then made it her job.
“There was really no one around to do that,” she said. “I had so much work in ponying horses, I just decided to do that. I started getting thoroughbreds that nobody wanted and started retraining them.”
During her time as rider, Keiser has ponied with champion horses that include Holy Bull when he won the 1994 Travers, two-time Breeders’ Cup Mile Champion Lure who won the Fourstardave Handicap at the Spa, and Breeders’ Cup Sprint champion Cherokee Run.
Some of the horsemen Keiser has been helping include Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, Leon Blusiewicz, Michelle Nevin, Bruce Brown, Ian Wilkes, Linda Rice, Michael Dilcher, Tom Albertrani, and Kiaran McLaughlin.
“A lot of people are up here getting their horses ready for Saratoga,” Keiser said. “I am working with some two-year-olds who are getting ready to run. It’s nice to see that. Everyone gets excited up here where they don’t have to ship their horses to Belmont. They’re home already.”
Along with schooling and ponying horses, Keiser spends her afternoons providing magna wave therapy, which is electric-magnetic therapy that helps move the oxygen through the bloodstream to relieve soreness and promote healing.
Three years ago, Keiser started using the magna wave on Dale Roman’s horses, including Keen Ice, who defeated Triple Crown champion American Pharoah in the Travers. Last year, she provided the same therapy on Exaggerator days before he won the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
“It’s something that’s natural and designed for humans in the beginning,” Keiser said. “It’s a good alternative for horses. I use it on my own ponies. They work as hard as the other horses on the track. Horses need care. I do whatever I can for them. These equines are athletes, and they should get that therapy.”
Each day is long for Keiser. It starts at 4:15 a.m. when she arrives on the backstretch to pony horses. By the time she gets back to the barn around 9:30 a.m., she has about an hour to feed and clean her own horses before providing magna wave therapy on other horses through the afternoon.
Even with the long hours and intense work, Keiser believes it’s worth it, especially since at Saratoga is her favorite place.
“How can it not be my favorite place? I cannot wait to get up here,” she said. “There is the peace and the mountains. It is such a horse-orientated area. I love it up here.”