Friday, June 12, 2009

An Objective (and Humorous) Look at Starting Gates

Fourth in a series of guest posts on the business of horse racing.

By Vic Harrison

We’ve discussed video displays, breakage and outs issues and past posting. This week we turn an objective eye on starting gates:

• Thoroughbred
• Standardbred, and
• Greyhound Starting Boxes and … Rusty!

Thoroughbred Racing
The scene is perfect, idyllic. The early afternoon sun is washing over the graceful thoroughbreds warming up for the upcoming race on the historic racetrack. Time seems to be standing still and then – What’s this - A tractor pull? Yes, a tractor is pulling a long metal contraption across the racetrack. When the horses break from the gate…another tractor pull. Whoopee, two tractor pulls per race! Is there not a better way to begin a thoroughbred race?

Padding notwithstanding, the starting gate is a metal monstrosity – jockeys are hurt being thrown against the tops and sides; horses are rearing up, falling beneath it and getting cast or otherwise entangled. Horses are prematurely bursting through it. All kinds of labor is being thrown at it in the form of assistant starters. And the shouting; there’s always lots and lots of shouting. Watch the replay of the 2009 Belmont Stakes – the shouting is of a high caliber and rowdier than usual – I think the pre-race Belmont Stakes shouting earned a Beyer figure of 97.

We prosecute trainers for riling up their steeds on race day with electric shocks – why bother? Just get a message to the starter that you want a little extra shouting before the race. And, how about all the time and energy expended in schooling our horses in the gate? Can’t we come up with an improvement? Is the current starting gate good for horse’s hocks – exploding from a standing start? There was a recent article on the use of strand-starts in Australia jump-racing trials – that may be problematic for us too but, on the surface, it appears to be much less stressful than our current starting procedures. We could begin exploring alternatives.

Standardbred Racing
The scene is perfect, bucolic. The lazy afternoon sun is cascading over the sturdy harness horses warming up for the upcoming race on the historic race track – much like a Courier & Ives print – the drivers in their colors steering their powerful animals. And then… What’s this? A car is out on the track with the horses! Not just any car but a Plymouth Reliant K Car…Station Wagon…with wings…and advertising.

The ten horses run up to their allotted slots on the wings, which at this point are swaying with the stability of a Slinky. As the race begins, the 10 horse is a quarter of a mile from the rail – if this isn’t illegal it’s probably a disadvantage (something you wise guys should make part of your handicapping criteria – you can thank me later). The car-with-wings races away while retracting its appendages and then tracks the horses all the way around the racing oval which, let’s face it, makes for a distraction on the video display. The same can be said for the ambulance following the thoroughbreds around the track – a reassuring sight for the participants but unsettling to some viewers.

I had the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks scared out of me last fall by the mobile starting gate. It’s moving at 30+ miles per hour, faster really because it follows a path around the outer perimeter of the race track. This is fine at the far and desolate stretches of the race track, but not at the finish line, where families and children (and, worse, me!) are draped at the rail. While the historical driving record of the starting car may be immaculate, whizzing past the finish line at the outside rail is a recipe for disaster – in this instance an exception from the norm, I’m sure, and likely done with good reason… but scary nonetheless.

I acknowledge there is benefit from having the starter, as an extra judge, eyeballing the horses closely during the course of the race and being first to the scene of any mishap, but I believe there may be another better way to start and track harness races. Let’s give it some thought.

Greyhound Starting Box
First Sidebar Greyhound Question: Why are greyhound races run on ovals? Wouldn’t we be all happier with a long gradual curve like a Forrest Gump smiley face? Wouldn’t bettors be more likely to part with their money knowing that their selection won’t be sent rollin’ and tumblin’ (blues reference) away in the first, sharp, turn?

Second Sidebar Question: Why the electronic rabbit? People have been killed and maimed by the third-rail nature of “Rusty.” And…why “Rusty?” It’s no longer funny or cute, and it’s a too real metaphor for the deteriorating state of the greyhound industry. Doesn’t the technology exist to run a harmless but realistic holographic rabbit around the track? Only the smartest dogs will conclude it’s an image, but you could gently persuade those dogs over dinner and a glass of wine and, more often than not, convince them to “pretend” for the good of racing.

Third Sidebar Question: Why don’t we hear about greyhound purses? The purse formula is guarded more closely than the recipe for Coca-Cola. Can someone shed a little light, literally and finally, on this subject?

Original Greyhound Question: Why start greyhound races in wooden boxes? Can’t we use something clear – plexi-glass, say? If they get smeared and opaque we can break out the Scrubbin’ Bubbles. I thought, once in Florida, I saw my dog being put into the box backwards – backwards! Somewhat of a handicap to be sure. Is it too much to ask that, if thoroughbreds can be trained to relax in a claustrophobic metal-starting-gate-with-shouting, and harness horses can win from the penalty-like-10-hole, greyhounds could be trained to start from boxes where they can see out and we can see in.

This entry has more humor (I hope) than usual but, perhaps, there is a kernel of truth to be found here or there, a germ of an idea that may gain traction sometime.

Until next time...

-- Vic

For information about Vic Harrison, see Contributors on the About tab.


zraces said...

Interesting and funny. Of course in American Thoroughbred racing the gate was invented to replace the stand start or the tape. Those are still used at Hunt Meets for both Flat and Steeplechase racing. Trying to give the punters an even start is somehow more important than what would be good for the animal.

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