Pimlico Starting Gate Crew
By Starr Crusenberry
"And they're off!" A familiar catch phrase often associated with horse racing, those words resonate with onlookers and TV viewers alike as the horses leap from the starting gate and the race is on. It is a phrase that race fans wait in anticipation to hear as the last horse is shut into the starting gate. Even though horses spend only a few seconds in the starting gate on race day, a lot of work goes into getting each one prepared for the gate.
At Pimlico Race Course, which is used primarily as a training center when no races are scheduled, the starting gate crew takes pride in their important and often dangerous job. "It can be really dangerous in here. You're dealing with very young, high-strung thoroughbreds that want nothing more than to get out of the [starting] gate as fast as they can," said Randi Nelson, a member of the starting gate crew at Pimlico.
A starting gate is an apparatus used at race tracks to ensure all horses start running from the same point. It is a large green metal structure with 12 stalls that are slightly larger than the length and width of a horse. When the horses enter the gate the front metal gates are closed on each stall; the back of each stall is closed once they are in place. After each horse is secured in the gate, the starter pushes a button that simultaneously opens all the stall gates while also ringing a bell.
Sounds simple enough right? Not quite according to Josh Allen, a five-year starting gate veteran. "What people see on race day takes a lot of time and patience. These horses are usually pretty reluctant to be locked into a space that isn't much bigger than they are. Plus, they get nervous standing in the gate for too long, which can get dangerous when you're straddling the gate holding their head."
Crew members must push horses that balk at the gate by grabbing a fellow crew member's hand, making a cradle behind the horse, and pushing them on the rear end until they go into the gate. Once inside the gate each horse must be held by a crew member that must straddle the stall, inches away from the extremely excited animals.
Safety is always an issue around the track, an issue that is compounded by the fact that many track employees like grooms, riders and members of the starting gate crew do not have health insurance. Luckily, the Maryland Jockey Club has set up a charitable organization that helps pay for medical bills of injured track employees.
In order for a horse to race, they must be certified by the starting gate crew as being able to load and break from the starting gate in a safe manner. This is one of the reasons the job is so important, because without the starting gate crew's approval, a horse cannot race.
"First we let the horse look at the [starting] gate. They like to smell it and examine it before they go into it for the first time. We open the front and back gates and lead them through it without stopping. Then we lead them into it and pause for a few seconds then lead them out. Eventually, they get comfortable with the idea of it and can stand in it with no problem," Nelson said. Getting horses acclimated with the starting gate can be a long process depending on the horse, but the crew at Pimlico tries to make it as pleasant an experience as possible.
Although starting gate crew members make only a modest salary, the trainers and riders at Pimlico view them as priceless commodities. "So many races are won or lost in the starting gate," said Holly Robinson, a race horse trainer that keeps several horses at Pimlico. "If a horse gets a slow start from the gate, stumbles, or has a bad break it is nearly impossible to make up for it when all the others broke well. The training they get from the gate crew is what often times can make the difference. If the horse is comfortable with the gate, which comes with good handling by the gate crew, then it will usually break well and have a better chance of winning than a horse that freezes up in the gate."
Exercise riders and jockeys depend on the gate crew to keep them and the horses they ride safe when getting loading into and breaking from the gate. "I have been in situations where the horse I'm on has had a panic attack in the gate and kicked out and gotten its leg caught in the gate. I have been lucky enough not get hurt bad because the crew members grabbed me off the horse or pushed me out of harms way," said Perry Stewart, an exercise rider at Pimlico.
The gate crew says Preakness is especially exciting for them, "All the hoopla with the cameras and people is a lot of fun," said Nelson. All the same men who work on the gate crew all year long work on the day of Preakness. Their knowledge of the horses and their familiarity with the track works to keep the dangers associated with loading horses into the gate to a minimum.
What the starting gate crew at Pimlico Race Course does to get horses off to a running start has a big impact on how they finish. Even if their job is often one that goes unnoticed, crew members take pride in what they do. "There is a certain satisfaction you get on race day when all the horses are off and running without a hitch," said Allen.