During any given horse race, there are two steady, predictable occurrences. There will be a start and there will be a finish. Now, under very special circumstances, there is such a thing as a “no contest” finish, in which that race basically gets thrown out the door and never really happened. So, I guess we could say there is really only ONE guaranteed occurrence in a horse race.
The starting gates themselves can be a very unpredictable place. You’re essentially stuffing a fairly large animal into a fairly small space, along with two humans apiece, and doing that upwards of 12 times in succession. The guys and (less commonly) gals that comprise the gate crew are some of the least recognized and underappreciated denominators of racing success. They are responsible not only for the horse loading into the gates smoothly and quickly, but keeping them calm, focused and standing square while waiting for the break. They are responsible for a horse’s safety, but most importantly, the jockeys. And they do all this after willingly entering a metal box with 1,200 pounds of adrenaline fueled racehorse and climbing up onto a rubber padded ledge with barely enough room to keep two feet on.
On a good day, the horse will walk in after their handler with ease, stand still, and break sharply. On a bad day, the horse may balk and refuse to load, dance sideways to avoid moving forwards, back up, rear, kick, need to be loaded with a special weighted blanket on (without a jockey on their back), or need to be “packed” in, when multiple gate crew members will lock arms behind the stubborn equines haunches and literally push and pull and shove them into the gates. I’ve seen horses that needed to be walked around to the front of the gates and loaded in reverse.
And that’s just the first step. Once loaded, you must wait patiently while the rest of the field loads… unless you are the last one and you’re out of there before you’ve even heard the back doors click shut.
This period can make or break your race, literally. I’ve been very lucky to escape from some gate incidents that could have ended poorly. A lot of that is due to the swift actions of the gate crew who will literally put their life on the line for yours to get a jockey out of a bad position. When I was riding as an apprentice in Oklahoma, I broke my wrist due to a horse flipping in the gates. I knew it was a likely possibility, and when another runner banged the side of the gates as they loaded the last horse, the noise was enough for mine to hit the end of his patience rope. He flipped over with such force that he ended up sitting down completely vertical and I was still on his back, with mane in my hands, pinned between him and the back doors of the gates. All I remembered was feeling someone grab me by my silks and protective vest and pull me out so fast that when I was set down on my feet I lost my balance and stumbled to the ground. If it hadn’t been for the assistant starter who had been able to think and react immediately, I can only imagine how much more damage could have been done than just a wrist fracture.
Ironically, I’m currently nursing an injury from an accident earlier this week during morning training at the gates, and no, it wasn’t one of those “real life experiments” for this article. From what I heard, my dismount would have garnered an Olympic score of 10 had I landed on my feet instead of on my head. We can blame it on a hormonal, two-year old, chestnut filly (yes, a red head… need I say more?) who had acted like a baby doll in the gates the day before and decided that wasn’t exciting enough the following day. Refer back to unpredictability.
As you can imagine, there is a lot of excitement when it comes to the gates, where everyone’s heart gets beating and blood gets pumping a little faster in anticipation whether you’re spectating or participating. There’s the distinct sound of the metal doors shutting closed behind you, horses snorting and dancing on their feet, the quiet murmurings of man to equine partner, along with louder communication on how many horses are left to load and who needs more time to get prepared to break. Despite all this noise, there is an immeasurable point in time where it all seems to get quiet. For a jockey, it’s that moment where you are focused on nothing but looking down the track in front of you. You don’t even get a chance to acknowledge this happening before the gates are open and the noise is back as every jockey and horse is vying to be in the best position to win.
Every time you load into the gates, you get another chance….another opportunity in front of you to give it your all…another opportunity to ride stronger or smarter than the race before. It teaches you to live in the moment. You’re not thinking about what happened an hour ago or a day ago or a week ago. You’re thinking about this horse, for this trainer, in this race. Regardless if you’ve ever ridden a horse or not, it’s an aspect of horse racing that everyone can relate to and appreciate, the endless possibility to do better and focus on what’s ahead of you and not to dwell on what’s past.
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