Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Stories From The Good Ol’ Days - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Stories From The Good Ol’ Days

Fefe galloping Hominy Beater at Churchill Downs in 1981

Marilyn Montavon is chock-full of horse racing stories, and none of them are typical – then again, neither is the horsewoman everyone knows as “Fefe.”

Her stories rarely have a well-defined beginning, middle or ending.

She's a bit rough around the edges.

One story will blend into another several times over before it rolls back around to where it started.

She likes horses a lot more than most people.

Some of her stories definitely aren't suitable for print.

She would do anything for the people she cares about.

Fefe may not be the face on television representing Kentucky horse racing, but she's an integral part of the sport's daily operations. She operates a lead pony business that alternates between Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Ellis Park and Kentucky Downs.

She didn't know me from Adam, but Fefe was the first person to give this horse-crazy kid a chance at ponying beneath the Twin Spires. She was also the first to shove me out of Churchill's stable gate to make it to my college classes on time, or to go study for them.

“This is a hard, hard life,” Fefe told me seven years ago. “It ain't no kind of goal. You got a chance, you gotta go grab it.”

She pushed me when I needed it, and I wound up with the world's best job – writing about Thoroughbred horse racing. This week, I get to write about her.

Listening to Fefe tell her stories is endlessly entertaining. Most of them will make you laugh so hard your stomach aches, and a few may make you want to cry, so “get tied on and settle in,” as she'd say.

Still, the stories you won't hear from Fefe are perhaps the most important ones. Whether it's baking a cake to cheer someone up, making sure everyone she knows gets a hand-written Christmas card each year, or going out of her way to pick up a few extra supplies for a friend, she's always thinking of other people.

She's the kind of person who will drive four hours away just to go pick up a big, deaf dog no one else wanted. She'll exchange a trainer's ponying bill for transporting unwanted horses all the way from Texas to her farm outside Lexington. She's donated her artwork to be used on greeting cards to raise money for backstretch workers.

“I could go on forever why she is so awesome, and no one would be able to understand, you just have to meet her,” said her friend and business associate Sarah MacHarg. “She trusts people. Like the old-fashioned way. No contracts, just a handshake or your word. She always holds up her end of things. It's just rare to find someone with that much integrity.

“She also truly loves horses. Not just for what they can do for you, but in her soul, she really does love them as individuals. That is a lost love for so many in the industry when volume gets big.”

To me, the most impressive thing about Fefe is her willingness to give of her time. I remember her poking and prodding me whenever she noticed I wasn't quite “right,” then sitting quietly and listening when I finally broke down and talked about whatever was bothering me. She never hesitated to tell me if she thought I made a poor decision, either!

Even now, when I haven't worked with her for several years, she still calls to check up on me every few weeks or so.

Somehow, despite all the challenges life has thrown her way, Fefe has been able to maintain the type of genuine kindness we should all aspire to.

Those challenges began early. At just 5 years old, a car wreck left Fefe with a broken hip that required a full body cast and traction in a hospital bed for months. When she was 16, another car wreck tore up her back.

“My friend's family had an old Volkswagen van all set up with a little mini-fridge in the back,” she explained. “A semi-truck hit us broadside one day, and the van flipped once up in the air and then rolled over seven times. All the guys were thrown out of the van, but my friend and I were stuck inside. When they tried to get me out, the little refrigerator fell on my back.”

A difficult childhood led to Fefe marrying young, then separating not long after the birth of her first child. The biggest highlight of that marriage was an Appaloosa gelding named Dusty, with whom she competed in timed events and pole bending.

A job on the racetrack proved to be her saving grace. In the summer of 1970, Fefe started at Northern Kentucky's Latonia Race Course (now Turfway Park) for a trainer with a string of just two horses. Shortly after she was hired, a semi-trailer ran into that trainer's car, head-on. He lived but was in the hospital for months.

“His wife came to the barn and told me he said I was really good and to train the horses however I want,” Fefe said. “So, I got to train two horses even though I'd never trained a Thoroughbred in my life. I was pretty proud of myself, because I won with both of them.”

That winter she groomed for another trainer at Latonia, a man who “ran horses on pizza and blackberry brandy.” The barn hotwalker had a pet spider monkey that would follow him around the shed row in the rafters, Fefe remembered, laughing.

In 1971 she started ponying at River Downs in Cincinnati, riding Dusty. It was in her early days at River that Fefe was christened with her nickname.

“I've always had a warped sense of humor,” she said. “One morning, I'm ponying a horse down the frontside and some guy blows by me on the inside and screams, 'I love you, Fefe!'

“Don't ask me [where it came from], you'd have to know Sam [the jockey who'd yelled]. It just stuck. We got to be pretty good buddies … I used to make fun of him for blowing kisses up to his favorite steward in the booth while we were in post parade!”

That summer she purchased another pony, named him “The Big White Fool,” and spent a couple years ponying all around the Ohio circuit.

Winters at Beulah Park were some of her favorite race meets.

“Up there, everybody stayed at the Ramada Inn,” Fefe said. “They put all the racetrackers in the same wing, and it was like a big frat house in there. They'd go down the hall screaming, 'I got a bucket of chicken, anybody hungry?' It used to get a little rowdy up there at the Ramada.

“Back then was the days. There's not the camaraderie there used to be. When I first come around, it was three cases of crazy out there.”

An introduction to William “Smiley” Adams brought Fefe down to the bigger tracks in Kentucky.

“I fell in with him because I knew Ohio racing was dead, but it just hadn't laid down yet,” she said. “Smiley really bellered when he talked, but if he liked you, he'd do anything in the world for you. If he didn't like you, well, just stay away from him. He was always good to me. He was one of the characters back in the day.”

Adams trained horses for outfits like Golden Chance Farm and had a horse in the Kentucky Derby nearly every year. His best finish was a second with Run Dusty Run in 1977.

Of course, as the resident pony person, Fefe was better acquainted with some of Adams' lesser-known horses.

“Ol' Smiley had some jewels,” she said, laughing again.

There was one filly, a “scatter brain with a hair trigger,” who needed three trips to the starting gate before she actually ran her first race. Another horse couldn't be trained without a lead pony, and one morning smashed a stirrup iron between himself and the pony so hard that it had to be pried off the exercise rider's foot.

The worst one was “Lightning.” If an exercise rider tried to stand him on the outside fence before galloping, the horse would reach around and tear the rider off his back. Once the rider was on the ground, Lightning would “go after him like a pit bull.”

A well-bred gelding, Lightning ran out earnings of over $160,000 in the late 1980s.

“If there was ever the devil in four legs, it was Lightning,” Fefe said. “One time he savaged me so bad he tore the leg off my blue jeans and left the entire thing black and blue for weeks.”

At the same time, Fefe continued to train a few of her own horses.

One of her favorites was Hominy Beater.

“All four of his legs pointed a different direction,” she remembered. “I just had to let him train himself, mostly. If he stood at the back of the stall when I came to get him, then we didn't go out that day. Sometimes he'd just hobby horse along on the track, and other times he'd want to pick it up down the lane.”

Hominy Beater wasn't a big-time runner, but he made just over $23,000 from 1979 to 1984.

“He was always honest,” Fefe said. “Whatever he had for you, he'd leave it on the track.”

She had a big meet at Ellis Park in 1985, winning a stakes race for 2-year-olds with a horse no one wanted and setting a track record in a marathon series with a $500 Thoroughbred pony horse.

“Look, most trainers will tell you their dream is to win the Kentucky Derby,” said Fefe. “I didn't give a s*** about the Derby – I figure I ain't nobody, I don't have to prove nothing to nobody. I'm more interested in proving s*** to myself than to anyone else.”

Just months after her banner meet at Ellis, Fefe found she couldn't get stalls at Turfway.

“Sound of Cannons,” a commissioned piece Fefe completed for trainer Rusty Arnold

It was the winter of a major clash between the Kentucky HBPA and Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, resulting in multiple racing boycotts. Fefe was an ardent supporter of the HBPA, even completing annually commissioned artwork for the connections of the HBPA's claimer of the year.

As usual, Fefe didn't hesitate to be vocal about her support; it didn't earn her a lot of friends in the racing office.

The politics of it all, as well as later struggles with owners not listening to her advice about their horses, eventually encouraged Fefe to stop training.

“I spent my whole life being tacked and on a pony on the track at 6 a.m. – nobody hustled like I did when I was working,” she said. “I busted my a**, and you know what, I ain't interested in proving nothing to nobody. I don't want to toot my own horn; I know what I know. I ain't saying my way's right, but it works for me.”

Fefe slowed down her training operation, and eventually stopped training for good. She expanded her pony business to compensate, purchasing additional horses and hiring extra help to ride them.

Her ponies work eight months out of the year, then get turned out on her farm over the winter. She takes care of them like her children, and tends to collect “prospects” that might otherwise have ended up taking a one-way trip to Mexico. Some of these get rehomed, while others become permanent residents.

In was in 1990 that Fefe's back injury flared up again.

“It's not even a good story,” she lamented. “I slipped in the mud while feeding the horses.”

When she ponied a horse to the gate in the Kentucky Derby shortly thereafter, things only got worse.

“The horse wasn't real bad, but it was like hooking on to a pickup truck and trying to hold it back,” Fefe said. “I got back to the barn and couldn't get off the pony. On Sunday I couldn't feel my right side. I went to the doctor Monday and found out I had multiple ruptured herniated discs. I didn't want to do back surgery, so the doctor sent me home saying to come back if there was no improvement in two weeks.

“I stayed home with a heating pad stuffed down my pants and with an extension cord like a dog on a leash; on the 13th day I got some feeling back in my right side.”

It took some time, but the threat of losing all her mobility finally grounded Fefe from the saddle. Nowadays she operates her pony business from the car, driving around the backside and chatting with every rider and trainer she comes across.

Sometimes she misses riding, of course, but Fefe knows she's carved out a niche as close to the horses as she can be.

She's worked for some of the top trainers in the game: Fefe's ponies accompanied both Triple Crown winners, American Pharaoh and Justify, to the starting gate before the Kentucky Derby. In the same breath, she'll also tell stories about watching trainer Todd Pletcher run around his daddy's shed row as a toddler.

Still, after 50 years in racing and looking down the barrel of this year's coronavirus crisis, Fefe wonders how long she can keep going at the same level.

She'd like to pick up some more artwork commissions, and to spend some more time vacationing.

“If I'm off the track tomorrow, nobody will remember me in a year,” Fefe said. “As long as I can run my little pony gig and collect enough to pay my bills, stay in touch with my friends, I'm good.”

Whatever she may think, I'll never forget Fefe's stories, her gruffly-delivered advice, or her generosity. I know I'm not the only one.

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