Mastering gate not open and shut

Miss Piggy: The starting gate is a scary place for the 3-year-old Maryland thoroughbred, but it's a necessary lesson to learn.

June 02, 1999|By Mike Klingaman

BOWIE -- Snorting derisively, the horse draws near the starting gate. Is the contraption friend or foe? Mary Bo Quoit whinnies and tries to guide her rider around it.

Steered closer, the filly balks, backing away from the empty gate. Prodded, she advances -- and recoils again. For five minutes, the dance continues: two steps forward, one back, an equine cha-cha that finally brings the horse abreast of the metal monster.

Such scenes happen daily at the Bowie Training Center in Prince George's County. Mary Bo Quoit, nicknamed "Miss Piggy," is being schooled at the gate, one of a thoroughbred's final lessons before entering a race. It's another milestone in the life of the Maryland 3-year-old, whose career is being chronicled in The Sun.

Her efforts at the starting gate will determine Mary Bo Quoit's readiness to race. To compete, a horse must be able to enter easily, wait calmly during loading and break fast and true from its post. No bucking, bobbing or weaving.

So critical are these skills that the Maryland Jockey Club requires all horses to master them before entering a race. The successful ones are issued a gate card -- a thoroughbred's license to run.

"It's driver's ed for horses," Danny Fitchett says of gate class. Most mounts pass muster in three or four weeks, says Fitchett, official starter for the jockey club. A few labor for months learning proper gate etiquette.

Patience is paramount, horsemen say. "To an animal, that gate can be a big, old scary-looking thing, with noisy doors that flop around," Fitchett says. "You've got to let him look the gate over, smell it and even walk through it for a week or more.

"You can't jump from second to sixth grade overnight. Hurry a horse at this stage and you'll set him back further."

There's no rushing Mary Bo Quoit. On seven occasions this month, the roan filly has been led to the open gate at Bowie, stepping through it nervously each time.

Not to worry, her handlers say. "Right now, `Piggy' is a scaredy-cat," says JoAnne Hughes, her trainer. Instinct is a factor: "She hates being confined, and the gate brushes against her belly, where predators would attack. "That's why she lacks focus. She wants to be Benny Blast-Off. But she's getting better."

Time to raise the stakes. On this particular morning, her exercise rider guides Mary Bo Quoit into the open gate -- a struggle, at best. Then

Clang!

The horse's front stall door slams shut.

Alarmed, Mary Bo Quoit looks right, then left, then cranes her neck to check the rear. No coyotes there. Support is all around.

"Good girl, Pig-Pig," Hughes coos at her side.

"Easy, girl, easy," whispers exercise rider Shelly Stone, stroking her mount.

At the same time, two track employees hover around Mary Bo Quoit to soothe and settle her. Locked in up front, the horse is deliberately backed out of the gate, to gather her wits, and then reloaded.

Clang!

The rear door slams shut.

In the adjacent stall, another horse is in the same predicament. Ibeheard, a 2-year-old, is Mary Bo Quoit's best friend; they've worked out together for weeks. Putting them side by side in the gate seems to have calmed both fillies, their trainers say.

Tense, the two horses await their fate. Then

The doors swing open and the horses break, barreling off down the track, fast and true.

Hughes whoops, flashing a smile.

"The break [from the gate] is everything," she says. "A horse who can stand calmly and focus on its break is much more likely to win than one squirming in the gate."

Mary Bo Quoit appears to have gotten the point. Her final exam to pass gate school can't be that far off, her trainer says.

"Horses do amazing things for us, against their nature," Hughes says. "Of course, you never can tell when the light bulb will come on."

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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