YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The No. 1 Steed

Traveler, USC's equine mascot, is one pampered pony on non-game days, but he earns his oats on the field, where the Trojans' high-scoring offense gives him plenty of legwork

January 01, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Drums are a problem.

Traveler, the white horse who gallops aside the field after every USC touchdown, doesn't mind cheering crowds. He doesn't mind fans reaching to touch him or the blimp buzzing low overhead.

But when the Andalusian runs past the marching band, the drums occasionally get to him.

It comes with the territory. Since the Trojans adopted Traveler as their permanent mascot in 1961, every horse they have used -- it's up to number VII -- has exhibited a form of quirk or reticence.

"Some of them are afraid of the cheerleaders and the pompoms, some are afraid of the noise," says Chuck O'Donnell, the mascot's current rider. "They're animals. They spook."

Nothing that a little desensitization won't cure, maybe a session or two before Traveler makes his next appearance in front of 90,000-plus fans and a national television audience Wednesday at the Rose Bowl.

While the 14-year-old gelding ranks among college football's better-known mascots, he prefers, in typical Hollywood fashion, anonymity away from the game. This is definitely not like Bevo, the massive Texas longhorn whose owners welcome visitors to a sprawling, mesquite-wooded ranch outside Austin.

Where does Traveler live?

"In the San Fernando Valley," his owner, Joanne Asman, says.

On a ranch?

"Just ... in the San Fernando Valley."

Even his real name -- for Bevo, it's "Sunrise Studly" -- is kept confidential.

"When it's USC, he's Traveler VII," Asman says. "That's part of our contract."

This much Asman will reveal: Traveler and a few other horses on the property are spoiled.

In equine terms, that means special blankets and stalls lined with thick shavings. It means daily grooming and lots of carrots. It also means a $2-million endowment from a generous alumnus.

"But he's also treated like a horse," Asman says. "He rides the trails. He's a normal horse in the things he does."

When not running the sidelines, Traveler has worked trade shows and parades, and has been ridden by celebrities including Salma Hayek and Fabio. Asman said she picked him out, about nine years ago, because he seemed a natural for working in the spotlight.

"You look for a soft, round eye," she says. "A horse that's willing to come to you, that's curious."

Of all the Travelers, this one might be the best with crowds, says O'Donnell, who grew up around the horses.

His stepfather, the late Richard Saukko, all but created the tradition, serving as the original rider, dressed in the outfit that Charlton Heston wore in "Ben Hur."

When O'Donnell was 13, his stepfather suffered a broken back at a parade and the teenager was summoned as a last-minute proxy. He had trained Traveler regularly and knew the horse who was being used at the time, but was a little small for the costume. Alterations were made to everything except the helmet.

"I actually rode at a game," he recalls. "I looked fine until the helmet blew off and everybody saw that I was a kid."

Saukko retired in 1988, and O'Donnell has been one of several riders to fill in. When it was decided that his family would no longer provide horses for USC, after the 2002 season, Asman asked him to take the reins of the newest Traveler.

"He was white," O'Donnell says. "And he'd done enough parades."

Charging out of the tunnel and onto the Coliseum surface can feel like sensory overload, the sheer decibel level of the crowd, especially since the Trojans have been winning.

But Traveler VII has been up to the task, says O'Donnell, who is stepping aside after the Rose Bowl. The 40-year-old horseman doesn't anticipate any problems for his final ride, not even with two marching bands on the field.

First of all, the stadium's cramped confines -- the stands push right up against the sidelines -- mean that Traveler is allowed only a short distance out of the tunnel.

Second, O'Donnell and Asman will address that drum thing.

"We put a little boom box out and turn up the volume," O'Donnell says. "We'll work on it."

Los Angeles Times Articles