Three minutes to post, the horses have completed their pageant parade before the grandstand. They break out of the numerical line and head off in the wrong direction, some jogging, some loping, others galloping along with their heads cocked under the pony boys’ firm hold. Once warmed up – and geared up – they prance back toward the clubhouse; heads bobbing, coats gleaming, some dark with sweat.
From the gate, assistant starters spread out to grasp the bridles of their assigned runners. In most cases, they’ve worked with these horses in the mornings, know their foibles, try to remember who is likely to flip, twist, balk, bolt, panic, or struggle in the stall. Horses are loaded quickly, in post-position order, and once the back doors shut on that number one starter, the rush to load the field is on.
The gate is a dangerous place; jockeys and horses are easily injured within those metal confines. The starters, perched on four-inch ledges inside each stall, are responsible for the safety of each rider and runner, and they’re also responsible for giving each horse a fair break. The faster the horses are loaded, the less time remaining for dangerous actions. With Thoroughbreds, positive actions are taken quickly, because negative reactions can happen even faster.
Most horses at the gate will circle often, because it is easier to circle than to stand still; must keep moving, doing something. They pirouette on nimble front legs, scuttling their haunches around to the side, twisting to take in the clamorous viewers, then step back, pull against the leather leads looped into their bridles, twitch their ears, chafe at the wait, shift their focus toward the crowd again, glance over to the empty infield. The calm ones simply pose and take in their surroundings. Few are calm.
When it is time to load, each horse walks forward and, if balky, receives a tap-tap-tap on the haunches from the jockey’s whip. More balking institutes a spray of dirt kicked up from a starter in the back. Further refusal requires the crowd favorite, a muscular display of manpower as two starters lock arms behind the rump and shove the reluctant starter inside.
In front of the gate, over on the rail, the head starter waits, motionless. His finger is on the trigger that disconnects the electric current holding the front doors together. Spring-loaded, they will jolt open when he gives the signal.
The final horse moves into line, and the riders and starters shout “No, No, No, No,” and the horses shift and the split second of silence is all the starter needs.
Over the loudspeaker, the announcer’s voice tops the roar of the crowd.
You know the way it ends.
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