Crowder’s Quiet Presence Makes Him ‘One Of Those Masters Of A Wild Horse’

He’ll pull up to the barn in his old green SUV, nodding a greeting and fetching his gear from the tack room.

The way he walks, heavy saddle on one hip, bridle in his other hand, is perfectly reminiscent of a cowboy from the old black-and-white Westerns. He’s just a bit bow-legged, and the clinking of his spurs with each steady step sets off a slight limp as he makes his way down the shed row. It doesn’t matter: anytime Mike Crowder is astride a horse, he wears that same easy smile.

At either Churchill Downs or the Fair Grounds, depending on the season, Crowder is the man trainers call in to handle those Thoroughbreds working hard to earn the breed’s reputation as “difficult” or “flighty.” Some of them are straight-up runoffs, refusing to gallop at a moderate pace, while others might prefer an exhibition of aerial talents to their simple morning training routine.

At 69 years young, Crowder is often one of the last exercise riders still at work as the outriders prepare to close the track for training, and there’s little doubt that he’s been there since well before it opened. He trains a few horses of his own, but spends most of his morning hopping from barn to barn to ride between 10 to 15 horses no other rider wants to handle.

Watching him tame a fiery young colt with a hackamore, a type of bit-less bridle which operates via nose and poll pressure, it’s easy to see why trainers rely on Crowder’s forgiving hands and quiet fortitude.

Born and raised on a cattle ranch in Colorado, Crowder grew up on the backs of all kinds of horses. As early as his sixth birthday Crowder was entering junior rodeos, and he made his living in the early days breaking yearlings in California. He ended up in Kentucky with another yearling-starting job, then found himself exercising steeplechase horses in Lexington.

“That was good,” he said, smiling in his easy way. “It was a different kind of riding because it was out in the open.”

Eventually he worked his way north to Louisville and Churchill Downs, and now spends his winters in New Orleans.

Crowder’s reputation as the go-to rider for tough horses started nearly as soon as he found the racetrack, but he doesn’t remember too many horses that gave him a whole lot of trouble. That’s not him being over-confident; he just has a different threshold for “difficult” than the average rider.

“Well Mike Crowder, first of all, was very knowledgeable about a horse,” veteran conditioner Bruce Headley said on a video posted on Twitter by his daughter, Karen. “He was fearless… This guy, he wasn’t scared of anything. He was a good worker, never complained, knew what he was doing, but he was never mean to a horse. He’d ride monsters… He was one of those masters of a wild horse.”

Wild Mike Crowder pic.twitter.com/cuhGEW37Ge

— Karen Headley (@K_Headley) April 15, 2018

“If you can saddle ’em, I can ride ’em,” Crowder said with a crooked grin. “The only easy ones I got are my own.

“You just don’t see a lot of tough horses anymore. Years ago, you used to see a lot of them. What’s changed is the tranquilizer, and the help. There’s just a lot more souring of horses now… You see guys around here who last year were walking horses and now they’re galloping horses, and they couldn’t walk them very good… It’s not just here, it’s at all these racetracks.”

Perhaps the most famous horse Crowder ever rode was multiple Grade 1 winner Turkoman, but one of his personal favorites was a mare he bred, owned and trained himself named Gotit Todo.

“She was cut out to be a nice little horse,” Crowder recalled. “I owned the stallion, so I was kind of pushing her a bit too much as a 2-year-old. She broke her maiden for $30,000, and she ended up making a little over $120,000… She was a nice starter allowance mare, and she was death on ’em going three quarters of a mile. She was a real aggravating horse for jocks to ride in the afternoon, because she’d toss her head around in the starting gate… but when she changed leads at the three-eighths pole, she was comin’.”

69-year-old Mike Crowder is still galloping up to 15 horses a day

This year, for the first time in his life, Crowder finally made a small concession to the fact that he’s getting older.

“I started taking off one day per week this year,” he said quietly, as if admitting to something egregious. He explained: “I’ve got a bad knee, but it’s been bad for a long time… It was mainly getting small injuries and just taping it up and going on with it. That’s the name of the game.”

That one day off hasn’t changed the fact that Crowder spends every race day on the back of a lead pony, escorting racehorses and their jockeys from the paddock to the starting gate.

“I like to ride, so might as well get paid for it,” he said, laughing easily. ” I guess I’ve never really had to work, then. It keeps me out of trouble if I’m riding all day.”

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