Plying her trade as a pony rider at major racetracks for more than 60 years, Ocala resident Marlene Berthault recalls the day she led Cannonade to the post 50 years ago in the 100th Kentucky Derby (Grade 1) in 1974 in front of a then-record crowd of 163,628.

“[Cannonade] was a good horse to lead, quiet,” she said, “More people were there because it was the 100th anniversary. It was a big deal.”

Marlene Berthault – Tammy Gantt Photo

Berthault, now 88, led Cannonade to the post with 22 other horses, the largest field ever.

Five years later, she would lead Spectacular Bid to the gate before his Derby win, but his demeanor was much different. 

The horse was not easy in post parades and Berthault recalls a photo being taken as she led Spectacular Bid from the paddock to the track for the Bluegrass (G1). She was laughing in the photo because the horse was acting up moments before. It made her day when photo appeared in Sports Illustrated a month later. But a photo taken of them moments before for a local paper showed Spectacular Bid’s true personality.

The caption read, “Spectacular Bid kicked and jumped as he came on the track but took charge shortly after.” The multiple track record holder did indeed take charge after the nervous post parade, drawing clear to win by two-and-three-quarter lengths over General Assembly in front of a crowd of 123,000. The speedball was the last 2-year-old champion to win the Kentucky Derby until Street Sense in 2007. 

Berthault recalls a few of the other famed horses she took to post, including the day Dr. Fager set the world record for the mile in 1968 at Arlington Park. She also took postward John Henry, Buckpasser, Ack Ack, The Bart, Hawaii, and No Double. 

Her philosophy was simple—she just wanted to get her horses to the post quietly.

“Some of them are really tough for the jockey to handle. It can wear him out just getting to the gate. With a pony along, they get a chance to relax,” she said. 

From Miami, Berthault grew up in Northern Florida barrel racing Quarter Horses. She then placed an ad in the Western Horseman magazine and Harry Trotsek, a future Racing Hall of Fame trainer born in 1912, answered it. Trotsek like to develop riders, like John Rotz and Johnny Sellers among others, so he gave her a chance. She managed the trainer’s books and walked hots until she could afford to purchase a pony horse. When she started at Hialeah Park in the 1960s, there were only three women on the backside – her and two trainer’s wives.

She traveled the circuit for nearly 60 years from Florida’s Hialeah Park and Tropical Park to Kentucky, staying in the Bluegrass state until right before or after the Kentucky Derby. 

“I remember leaving a few days before the Derby one year giving my assignments to my friend,” she said.

Her friend ended up ponying the Derby winner that would have been hers.  

Each year, she always headed to Chicago and Arlington Park. 

She went on to become the first female outrider at Arlington, a novelty in the male dominated sport at the time. She recalls many interviews with reporters, and in particular one who started his story with, “Pony girls’ playtime, as these horse-loving dollies have gone ga ga over the lure of the track.”  

She knocked the notion and the writer added a more accurate headline: “Hard work: Pony girl Berthault says her job isn’t as glamourous as it seems.”   

Berthault hasn’t decided yet where she will spend the day for this year’s Kentucky Derby. She might wander over to World Equestrian Center across from her home or head to OBS to make a wager on the races.

But her dream of making a living with her pony horses traveling the country, came true. So she now has a few dollars to bet on the Derby if she wants to. 

Return to the May 3 issue of Wire to Wire