A Day At The Spa: Aug. 29, Starting Gate Starting to Get Better

Bob Duncan belongs on the starting gate. He’s known throughout the nation for his expertise and down-to-earth approach, is so trusted that Churchill Downs brought him to start last year’s Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and Derby (gr. I) after hiring new starter Scott Jordan. Duncan, NYRA’s head starter from 1970-2004, had been in semi-retirement for the past three years, only schooling young horses in the gate on the Oklahoma side in the mornings.

When a rash of issues at the starting gate cropped up this season at Saratoga, however, Duncan was called back into action. He’s acting as a consultant to new head starter Roy Williamson, and in the seven racing days since the two have been on the gate, not a single horse has been left, nor a single rider thrown.

The method behind their success, Duncan says, is a return to natural horsemanship – a solid foundation of morning training and the use of basic horsemanship skills in the afternoon.

“Roy had been applying these methods whenever he got the chance, so we’re just going to revisit them and then train the new guys until they’re familiar,” he explains. “He’s going to do a great job.”

The issues in the gate had been a concern for horsemen and bettors alike, as starters were held up and jockeys were thrown in several incidents earlier in the meet. According to Williamson, a return to natural horsemanship is the only way to prevent such occurrences.

“I think we originally strayed away from that path, which is too bad since we’d had so much luck with it,” he remarks. “I don’t think NYRA has any other choice at this point. This is what works.”

“It’s about not forcing horses,” Duncan says. “It’s about changing their minds and creating a horse you can work with, establishing a foundation with a horse, which gives you a runner that can trust a person and is less explosive.”

The starting gate will always be a dangerous place, but thanks to Duncan and Williamson, it looks a little safer going into the meet’s final week.

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