By Laura Grubb
Hooves firmly planted in the soil in front of her, the little filly refused to budge. Desperate to start the race, the gate crew coaxed and cajoled her, pleading with her to move forward. The filly simply shifted her weight back and dug in deeper. Edgy jockeys exchanged impatient glances with one another, while their anxious mounts shifted nervously in the starting gate’s narrow stalls. Watching from the stands, the trainers could only hope that their charges would settle, while their nervous owners fretted nearby. Impervious to the angst she caused, the little filly simply pinned her ears at the crew, who were now being more forceful in their attempts to load her. Seeing that this filly was determined not to load, the starter sighed and gave the sign to scratch her. She was now on his list, and wouldn’t be allowed to race until she proved that she would not cause such a scene at the gate again. Her embarrassed trainer slunk back to the barn, while the disgusted owner shook his head.
How do you make sure your horse doesn’t act like this stubborn filly? More importantly, how do you ensure that your horse is confident at the gate, loads smoothly, and breaks well? Through proper schooling where he learns the “ins and outs” of gate etiquette and how to break fast and clean.
The starting gate can be a scary place for a horse. Its stalls are narrow, only two feet wide, barely giving a large horse room to clear his hips. When fully loaded, the eleven-ton starting gate becomes a shifting mass of horses, jockeys, and starting crew. Tense riders, anxious to go, exchange terse words with the starter that can add to a horse’s fear, especially those that haven’t spent sufficient time at the gate during their morning workouts. Horses who are rattled by the gate often break awkwardly, losing precious ground at the start. “Not feeling comfortable and confident at the gate will cause a horse more problems in the race than anything else,” explains Southern California conditioner Carla Gaines. But those horses that are taught that the gate is not to be feared, and who learn to break confidently from it, have an edge. Their fast start helps them get good position, while their calmness saves their strength for running.
Confidence at the gate is acquired early on in a horse’s career, with patient trainers gradually acclimating horses to the gate through frequent lessons during morning training hours. “Frequent visits to the gate done in a relaxed manner will give a young horse confidence that the gate is not to be feared,” explains trainer Tom Proctor, who has worked with many young horses throughout the years.
A horse is gradually accustomed to the gate during morning training hours, usually after a relaxing morning gallop. For the first lesson, the horse is brought to the gate and lead straight through it by a gate crew member until he enters without hesitation. Next, he is taught to stand in the gate while its back doors are closed behind him, and then stand while both the front and back doors are shut, and he is closed in. Once these lessons are mastered, he then learns to first jog out when the gate doors fly open, and then, later, to gallop out. These exercises, which are given in short doses over a span of several weeks, focus on teaching the horse to depart from the gate alertly and in a straight line. If the horse is having difficulty learning to break quickly, an experienced stablemate is sometimes used in the gate as company to teach the horse how to break. Once the horse has proved he can break well, he is approved to start.
Problems with horses acting up at the gate usually occur from rushing a horse’s education, and not giving him time to gain confidence with one lesson before moving on to the next. Horses can also become rattled on race day if his neighbor acts up in the gate, causing him to lose heart and begin to resist entering the gate. Those horses that refuse to load, delay the start, or are extremely fractious at the gate will be placed on the starter’s list, and must prove that they can enter and break from the gate in a mannerly way before being allowed to start again. “Gate schooling in the morning pays off in the afternoon,” advises Santa Anita starter Jay Slender. “Those trainers who regularly bring their horses to the gate in the morning and allow them to relax in it will have one less problem that could go wrong during a race.” Most track starters will help school such problem horses during morning training hours until the horse learns to relax and regains its confidence. “We have two fine starters, Jay Slender and Gary Brinson, in Southern California,” Proctor continues, “who are always willing and able to help trainers. Their crews school horses at the gate six days a week, so if a horse acts up in the afternoon, it’s usually the trainer’s fault for not schooling him properly in the morning.”
Foreign horses sometimes need extra gate schooling to accustom them to the American style of racing. Many European horses starting for the first time in the States break slowly, as early speed is not emphasized in England, France, and Ireland. “European races are not geared for speed,” Gaines explains, who has worked with many imported horses over the years, and understands the differences between European and American racing. “Many times a European horse starting in the States for the first time will simply fall out of the gate and just gallop away, as opposed to breaking quickly from it,” she continues. “Such horses also tend to be more anxious at the gate, as their European training rarely includes morning visits to it.” To correct this tendency, and teach a horse to break fast, extra schooling time during morning training may be all that is needed.
One month later and the little filly is back at the gate. It’s the feature race of the day, and tensions are running high. The filly, who has since graduated from gate school after numerous morning visits to it, remains unruffled. Pausing while another horse loads, she calmly steps forward into the gate when asked. When restless horses shift and jockeys holler at the starter, she hardly gives them a glance before focusing ahead. The starter, who has kept a keen eye on her, notes her good behavior. For a split second the field is quiet, with the horses poised squarely and looking straight ahead. Bang! The gate doors spring open, and they’re off. The filly quickly jumps out ahead of the pack and calmly settles into position. A mile later and she is still confidently galloping along. With a furlong to go she accelerates away from the field to cross the finish line first. Her graduation from gate school has just paid off.
Laura Grubb served as TOC’s Deputy Director for Southern California. She has recently relocated to points east.