Too close for comfort?

Fear can race through horses in starting gate, but training helps

September 21, 2006|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

Put yourself in Bobbylinkapoo's horseshoes. You're a thoroughbred, born to run. But before you can run, they wedge you into this metal contraption barely wide enough to accommodate you.

So one day a horse next to you starts acting up, and that just makes you even more nervous. Next time they try to put you into that gate, you tell them - in your horsey fashion - no way.

For more than 60 years, whether the horses like it or not, races have begun the same way, with the gates of that metal contraption swinging open. The starting gate ensures a fair start and is as much a fact of racing life as a saddle, though it may be downright scary or even dangerous for the horses.

"It is an unnatural thing for a horse to go in the starting gate," said Bruce Wagner, the starter at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.

Bobbylinkapoo eventually learned to settle down in the gate, but not without a lot of work. Fortunately for the filly's trainer, Holly Robinson, Maryland horsemen have an unusually dedicated ally in the starting gate crew. For 2 1/2 months, assistant starters Donald Long, Robert Daniels, Jeff Bzbynski and John Hocker spent all of their down time between races working with Bobbylinkapoo.

They'd sit and stand with her behind the gate. Pat her neck and head. Love her. Give her peppermints. Tell her what a fine horse she was. Finally, she approached the gate. Eventually, she'd stand in it.

"I had other trainers asking me, `Are you ever going to leave the gate?'" Robinson said. "I didn't know. There were days when I'd look at the crew and ask, `Is this going to work?"'

Eventually it did work. On the first day of the Laurel mini-meet in August, Bobbylinkapoo walked into the gate as a professional and won the race by a nose. She paid $94.60.

Though Bobbylinkapoo is an extreme example of a horse troubled by the gate, the device came into existence as a way to make the starts fair for every horse and bettor and also as a protection for the horses.

Before the starting gate, starters had to eyeball the lineups, and irate horsemen often mistreated their animals trying to get them in position for a start. According to a story in the Thoroughbred Record in September 1989, the starter at the 1898 Sheepshead Futurity held a field of 23 horses behind the barrier for 1 hour, 35 minutes before finally sending the field away. Even at that, a reported 11 horses were left at the post.

Many horsemen in the late 1800s and early 1900s tried to come up with something to replace the ringing of a bell or the dropping of a flag. According to research done by the Keeneland Library, in 1895, Mars Cassidy developed a device in Maryland that was made of a piece of rubber tubing stretched across the track.

But it wasn't until July 1, 1939, that the modern-day gate came into use. On that day at Lansdowne Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, Clay Puett unveiled his electric starting gate, a movable, 14-stall machine that operated with the push of a button.

The electric gate was such an impressive sight that Alfred G. Vanderbilt brought the Puett gate to Maryland for the fall meeting at Pimlico that same year.

Though that gate is no longer in use, the ones used at Laurel and Pimlico now are produced by the United Puett Electrical Starting Gate Corp. and are direct descendants of the original.

"The one we use was built in 1960," Wagner said. "It's old, but it's well-built and it's maintained well, sandblasted and painted every year."

But the starters' job is far more than just making sure the machinery is operating.

"There was a starters' seminar at Keeneland earlier this year with 20 starters from across the country," said Wagner, who has worked the gate for 18 years and has been the Maryland starter for the past four. "One of the main things we did was discuss how to make the starting gate safer."

After Smarty Jones, the 2004 Kentucky Derby winner, fractured his skull and shattered his eye socket when he reared up and banged his head on an unpadded bar during a 2003 training session as a 2-year-old at Philadelphia Park, padding was soon added. In Maryland, the padding has been expanded and upgraded with regularity inside each of the 3 1/2 -foot-wide stalls.

"We now pad everywhere a horse could make contact," Wagner said. "But the major thing to come from our seminar is the importance of trainers schooling horses."

On most mornings at Laurel Park, Pimlico or the Bowie Training Center, you will find a stream of up to 70 horses coming to train at the gate between 7 and 9:30.

"The gate people here are very, very good," said trainer Ed Gaudet. "The problem is a lot of trainers don't take their horses to them enough for training, and that's why they have problem horses."

Most, however, are like Gaudet, Donald Barr and Rodney Jenkins, who make it a habit to come with their horses, deliver detailed instructions to the gate crew and then stay to watch the procedure.

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