This Year’s Derby Features A New 20-Stall Starting Gate, But Is It A Safe One For Assistant Starters? - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

This Year’s Derby Features A New 20-Stall Starting Gate, But Is It A Safe One For Assistant Starters?

Assistant starters at Churchill Downs

Assistant starters are unsung heroes of horse racing. They risk their lives a dozen times each race day to ensure every horse has a good, fair, safe, and unbiased start. On a good day when all goes well, fans might see these daring men for one or two minutes before each race as they load horses in the gate and then perch beside them inside the gate while waiting for the bell to ring and the gates to spring open.

The job is arguably the most dangerous in horse racing, after that of the jockey. According to a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000, 35% of all injuries to jockeys took place as horses enter, stand in, or leave the starting gate.

“It's as dangerous as any job on the racetrack,” said Scott Jordan, who became the starter for Churchill Downs in 2006 after years as an assistant starter. “You're trapped in there with a 1,200-pound horse in a four and a half-foot hole. It's just like being in a two-horse trailer, up by the horse's head.”

Jordan and his crew liken the job of assistant starter to the captain of a ship — they are the last to bail out when trouble explodes, and we've all seen that happen. Anxious horses can rear or flip, and often set off a chain reaction from others around them.

“You get the rider off [the horse] first, and then second you get the horse out of there. The third thing is you get those riders beside him out of there,” Jordan said. “All the riders are first. That's our first main objective, so no human gets hurt. Then we get all the horses out of there so no horses get hurt. Then my assistant starters are the last ones to leave.”

Caleb Hayes has been an assistant starter on Jordan's crew for many years. Additionally, in 2019 he accepted the head starter's job at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky. Hayes said a lot more is involved with the assistant starter's job than it appears.

“I'm looking at, is the horse comfortable, is the horse standing properly, is he ready. … So when the gates do open, those first two steps are going to go without an issue,” he said. “…So I want to make sure all four feet are standing squarely, that he's looking straight down the racetrack. And then while you're doing that, you also need to make sure that that jock has his feet in the irons, that he has hold of his reins, his goggles are down, and he knows that we're getting ready to go.”

All this is done while the assistant starter balances on a pontoon, a ledge attached to the partition between stalls, about six inches wide on most starting gates in North America. Assistant starters in Europe and Australia, called “handlers,” don't remain in the stall with the horse. They load it and immediately duck out through an open section in the front door.

The Grade 1 Kentucky Derby is the only leg of the Triple Crown in which more than 14 horses compete. The traditional United Puett starting gate has 14 stalls, so in recent years Churchill has added an auxiliary starting gate to the United Puett to accommodate a field that may include as many as 20 horses. This year Churchill will use a new 20-stall starting gate, custom designed by Australian company Steriline Racing. The pontoon on the new gate is about three and a half inches wide, hardly wide enough to accommodate an assistant starter.

Getting the new gate ready for this year's Kentucky Derby has been a challenge. Steriline shipped the pieces and parts to Churchill Downs, but when it came time for the Australian engineers to fly to Louisville to assemble it, COVID-19 travel restrictions prohibited them from making the trip. The task fell on two maintenance workers on Churchill's payroll, a welder and a carpenter. Ed Berger, an outside salesman and consultant for Louisville supply shop Duke's A&W Enterprises, helped chase down missing parts and offer advice. Berger and his brother originally founded Duke's.

“It's kind of interesting, the whole situation,” Berger said. “Those two guys, and they would have some different helpers with them, but they were working via the phone with the engineer over in Australia, the engineer or technical support person available to them, and there were quite a few times when I went over there and this guy was FaceTiming them and showing them pictures: 'OK, how does this go together?' … I would sit there and watch. They were FaceTiming this fellow and they'd hold it up there, and he'd have to look at something and he would tell them, 'No, no. You have to put it on this-a-way or that way. There's quite a few integral parts that are on that starting gate. I found it quite amazing for what little bit I observed.”

One problem the maintenance men won't be able to solve is the narrower pontoons where the assistant starters will have to stand.

“They still have room to stand in there, but not as much,” Jordan said. “…If we have to make some modifications and do some stuff to make it more comfortable, I'm going to put my guys into the best situation I can put them in. I'm not going to put them in a vulnerable spot.”

Jordan hoped to test the Steriline gate during morning training on Aug. 24, but two of his crew tested positive for COVID-19, so the test was rescheduled for Aug. 26. As of publication time, this writer had no response from Churchill Downs as to whether that test went forward as scheduled or the results if it did. Jordan also said the Steriline was expected to be used in a race on opening day, Sept. 1. That leaves just four days until the Kentucky Derby to solve any problems that come to light.

“The first day of the meet, the racing secretary has actually written me a 1 1/4-mile race so I can take it out there and use it,” Jordan said. “Even if there are only ten horses in it, I'm going to take that gate out there and use it so the first time it's out on the racetrack and used isn't going to be for the Derby.”

Padding on the new starting gate also is a question. Churchill Downs's press release on Feb. 3 said, “All starting gates at Churchill Downs are outfitted with high-quality foam padding from Best Pad™, a leading innovator of safety products for the horse racing industry that protect both jockeys and horses from injury. This seamless padding is applied to all metal surfaces of the starting gate, including front and rear poles, face plates, handrails, superstructure, and pontoons.”

“Best Pad did not pad the Steriline gate,” said Dr. Philip Shrimpton, president of Best Pad and the innovator behind the unique padding used on Churchill's other gates.

It remains unclear which parts of the 20-horse gate will be padded for Derby Day. Removing or opting not to put the padding on the walls of the Steriline gate would make the pontoons an inch wider, but to Hayes, the choice between more padding or more space is a tricky one.

“The only thing that we can really do is remove some padding, because [the gate] is already made, so the height, the weight, the width—everything is already made up,” he said. “So when they add padding, it's going to take away just an inch because of padding. So if we can get rid of that padding, it gives us that inch back, so that's kind of where we're in a Catch-22 — we're going to get rid of padding to get more room, or do we want less room and more padding. I've opted for more room, if I have a vote.”

The gate crew hopes to be able to practice on the Steriline gate an ample number of times to get accustomed to it before the Kentucky Derby.

“When I go in there, I'm just going to try to find a comfortable spot for me to be in,” Hayes said. “It's a small area, and we're talking a grown man, a horse, and a jockey are all trying to fit in this tight little area. So a little bit of my job is even just staying out of the way. … Like I said, I'm a big guy, so when I'm in there, when they leave, the last thing I want is for my body to be in the way of the jock or the horse. It's kind of a tight-rope act.”

When asked his opinion of the new gate, Jordan said simply, “Well, we bought it.”

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