Jackie Cooper says he needs a reason to get up in the morning. One of his reasons these days is Pony, a poorly named, rather tall stable pony that Cooper rides about four times a week for trainer George Hartstone at Santa Anita.
Cooper, the child movie star who somehow got to be 62 years old while nobody was looking, thinks Pony might be a quarter horse. But that's only a guess.
Hartstone doesn't know either. "I'm not sure what he is," he said. "He's a purebred mongrel. All I know for sure is that he's a stable pony."
Whatever his lineage, Pony is cause for Cooper to leave his Coldwater Canyon home well before 6 a.m., drive to Arcadia and then escort some of Hartstone's horses to the track for their morning gallops and workouts.
"I'm no Buck Jones in the saddle, but I'm enjoying it," said Cooper, who is also part-owner of some of the Hartstone-trained horses.
Cooper and former television producer Ed Friendly bought four horses in partnership with Hartstone in 1983 in Kentucky. Hartstone now has them in training, three at Hollywood Park and one at Santa Anita.
A horse owner with just a telephone can be the bane of a trainer's existence. Hartstone may be the only trainer at Santa Anita who has one of his owners officially working at the barn, where it doesn't even take a 20-cent call to submit an opinion.
"Jackie knows more about horses than most owners," Hartstone said. "He rode a lot as a youngster. He's a legitimate guy, he's not here to put on the dog for anybody."
So far, actor Dick Van Patten has netted more of a profit than Cooper from one of the trio's horses, Pussy Cat, a filly who cost $20,000 in a Keeneland yearling auction.
Pussy Cat was running in a $40,000 claiming race at Hollywood Park last month when Cooper ran into Van Patten, a dedicated handicapper.
Van Patten already had made his selections when Cooper pointed to the name of his horse in the program.
Noticing Cooper's name as one of the owners, Van Patten said: "Oh, yeah! I gotta bet your horse. Does she have a chance?"
"I don't know," Cooper said. "She might at least hit the board."
Minutes later, Pussy Cat, a longshot, finished second, a neck behind the winner, setting up an exacta that paid more than $700. "And wouldn't you know," Cooper said the other day, "Dick had five tickets on it."
Cooper describes himself as Hartstone's third assistant trainer. The actor-producer-director has known Friendly for almost 30 years, and they shared interest in a horse--Cooper's first starter--that quickly was claimed by another stable last year at Del Mar.
"Jackie started hanging around the barn, and the environment appealed to him," Hartstone said.
At Del Mar, Cooper worked at the barn six or seven days a week, brushing and saddling Pony each morning and putting on his bridle.
"It was down there where I learned what a pony boy does," Cooper said.
Of the more than 50 films in which Cooper appeared, he got close to horses only three times. He did riding scenes in "Lone Cowboy," made in 1934, and in "The Return of Frank James," a 1940 film starring Henry Fonda. Opposite the Oscar-winning Wallace Beery in "The Champ" in 1931, an 8-year-old Cooper did a stable scene that was shot at Caliente.
"That horse in 'The Champ' seemed like a giant, but maybe that was just because I was so little," Cooper said. "I remember they had to paint him a little, to make him look like the horse they used in the running scenes."
As a kid, Cooper rode stock horses. "Not cow ponies, but usually quarter horses," he said. "There was a stable in Palm Springs where I was taught how to live with animals. Riding in shows, I could hold my own. I remember finishing third in a calf-cutting contest in Oklahoma City."
Before entering the Navy in World War II, Cooper sold all his horses. "I wanted to go back and look at them before I left, but I couldn't," he said. "It would have been like seeing your kids after you've given them away."
In addition to Pussy Cat, Cooper, Hartstone and Friendly also own Proper Majesty, Pshaw and Harrumph.
"These people are having fun with these horses without going crazy on money," Hartstone said. "All four I got for Cooper and Friendly cost only $50,000, but we think we got some good values. Of the whole bunch, not one of them cost more than the sire's advertised stud fee."
Said Cooper: "There might be a couple of useful horses in this bunch. I just hope I can do well enough so I can have my accountant let me stay in the business."
Cooper suspects that training horses might be his next project. "Ten years from now I can see myself training horses," he said. "It's not an impossibility. I'll still need that reason to get up in the morning."