If you get up very early and visit Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., you’re sure to see a bunch of athletic Thoroughbreds galloping on the track. But if you pay attention, you just might spot a hardworking Mustang named Cupid.
Cupid is 17 years old and although he’s semi-retired, he still leads one or two horses out to the track with Tanya almost every day. Lead ponies are often American Quarter Horses, Paint Horses and off-the-track Thoroughbreds; it’s rare to find a Mustang like Cupid working at the track.
In 1999, Cupid and his herd of wild horses were rounded up in the South Steens Mountains in Oregon by the Bureau of Land Management and he was put into the Canby Wild Horse Adoption program. He was adopted by Genie Mittleider.
“I work with racehorses a lot and I had ridden a Mustang lead pony that a friend had adopted. He was tough as nails, so I decided that I wanted to adopt a Mustang too,” says Genie.
“I thought I had bid on a Paint-colored horse at the Canby adoption day, but when I went to pick him up it turned out I had bid on Cupid, so I took him home instead,” remembers Genie. “Cupid was an untouched 3-year-old, and it was really hard to get close to him.”
“Being on the ground around him was dangerous, because he would bite and kick.
“I was riding him in about 30 days and it was easier to ride him than to lead him. I felt safest on his back!”
Over the next few years, Genie kept Cupid busy.
“Cupid’s done a lot of different things,” says Genie. “He gave riding lessons at a hunter/jumper barn for a while. I even showed him over fences. He could jump about 2’ 6”.
“He was a lead pony at a track in California and I also used him as an out rider pony at a track in Idaho. If a race horse ran away with his rider on the track, he would go and catch them.”
Cupid even attended the Kentucky Derby twice.
“He led the Derby horses out to the track at Churchill Downs in 2003 and 2004,” says Genie. “I think he may have been the only Mustang to work at the Kentucky Derby!”
And that’s not even Cupid’s only claim to fame—he worked on the movie Dreamer when it was filmed in Kentucky.
“I was one of the horse wranglers for the movie and we needed a horse for the actors to interact with so they would get used to being around horses,” says Genie.
Genie recalls that Cupid spent most of his time on the set hanging around the catering truck though.
“He really liked eating blueberry cobbler,” she says.
When he wasn’t being petted by Dakota Fanning or mooching treats from the movie’s catering staff, Cupid was also taught how to bow by Rex Peterson, the famous horse trick trainer. Bowing for peppermints is a skill that the Mustang often shows off today on the track at Keeneland.
So how did Cupid end up at Keeneland? Genie had been using him as a lead pony for several years when she decided that as he grew older he deserved a quieter life with her good friend Tanya.
The day Young Rider visited Shady Lane Stables, Tanya tacked up Cupid in a western saddle and bridle at about 8 a.m. and soon after he led his first horse out to the track, a filly named Blushandbashful, ridden by Tanya’s husband Shawn Flynn.
“Cupid’s fairly bombproof,” says Tanya. “Big crowds don’t bother him at all, but he was terrified by the Budweiser Clydesdales when they visited the track during a race meet!”
Tanya says that Cupid is an easy keeper.
“He doesn’t wear shoes and he lives on air.”
Several times a year, Cupid takes a break at Tanya’s farm.
“He just puts his head down and grazes for days,” she says. “It’s almost impossible to catch him though. The only people who can get near him in the field are my daughters, Victoria and Kaitlyn, so I send them out to catch him.”
If you visit Keeneland, take a handful of peppermints with you and you’ll probably meet Cupid and become his new best friend. You’ll find Keeneland’s favorite Mustang on most mornings waiting patiently at the track gate for his racehorse’s training session to end so he can lead him or her safely back the barn.
For more information about adopting a Mustang, visit BLM.gov and click on Wild Horse and Burro.