SPORTS

Danger lurks in Queen's Plate starting stalls

06/21/2012 11:48 EDT | Updated 08/21/2012 05:12 EDT
Take a 1,200-pound horse, a 200-pound assistant starter and a 114-pound jockey, put them in a starting stall about four feet wide under the pressure of post time and you've got a recipe for trouble.

That's why, when most eyes at Sunday's 153rd running of the Queen's Plate (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 4:30 p.m. ET) will be on the front of the starting gate, those who know what can go on will be focussed on the activity inside those 15 packed stalls with the coloured numbers on the front.

The horse may be the star, but it's a fractious one and, at times, downright dangerous. When an animal decides it's leaving that stall, one way or another, there's not a lot the humans can do about it.

"Horses just flip in the gate sometimes," said jockey Luis Contreras, who will be riding Golden Ridge on Sunday after winning a year ago on Inglorious.

"When the horse is very quiet and he hears something from the ... next stall, he may flip [try to turn 180 degrees] because he's very intense and nervous and he doesn't know what’s going on beside him. You have to be prepared for everything, have to be with your horse and don't let anybody distract your horse."

Sandy Hawley, the Hall of Fame jockey, was always prepared, making sure he found out everything he could about a mount before climbing on (50 per cent were animals he'd never ridden before).

There were 31,455 trips into that starting gate over his 31-year career during which he escaped serious injury -- if you regard sprained ankles, broken feet and uncountable bruises as minor.

"I've had horses flip on me in the gate," he said. "I had horses try to jump over the front doors.

"I've had horses try to go under the front doors. But most of the time, when something happens in the starting gate, they try and flip over the back doors."

All of the jockeys have also had horses that, when the bell goes off and the front door opens, simply stand there and refuse to go.

Our modern starting gate was invented in the 1930s by former rider Clay Puett -- and it hasn't changed that much since.

Each of the stalls has an assistant starter assigned to it whose job is to lead the horse in and then climb up the side to help steady the animal and be there if something goes wrong.

Just down the track, the head starter waits until everyone is in, makes sure it's safe and then hits the button that releases the front gate electronically, sounds a loud bell and away they go.

Potential troubles are plenty, including slow-loading horses, animals that refuse, those that are anxious inside the stall and more. Assistant starters have been known to grab a jockey around the waist and literally haul him or her out of there if the situation calls for it.

Experience counts.

"It's funny because sometimes you feel a horse is standing in there ... and it's almost like you are filling up a balloon, like he feels like he's getting air and it's a build-up and you know he's going to do something," Hawley said. "It's amazing that if you just step off that horse and then get back on, the horse seems to calm down and settle down once again."

Schooling also counts.

Emma-Jayne Wilson, who became the first female jockey to win the Plate back in 2007 aboard Mike Fox and who will be on Macho Whisky this Sunday, said horses and riders work endlessly on their starts to get them ready.

"You are countless times in that gate [with young horses], over and over and over again," she said. "We have two gates set up in the morning at Woodbine, one is the schooling gate, where it's a little bit more for the beginners, and then one is the breaking gate, where the horses that have run already or are ready to break out of the gate with higher velocity are trained."

Wilson says some of the horses "take to it a lot easier, some seem to thrive on it and others take a little longer."

Some never seem to really get it.

"It's a tight, confined space and, generally, the horses, when they do act up, there is a few different reactions they can do," she said. "They either go up in the air ... or they'll lie down and, other times, they'll get fractious and pop the mechanical magnetic hold, so they'll pop out the front gate as well."

Considering what can happen, there have been surprisingly few fatalities. The one so many jockeys have in mind (Contreras brought it up without prompting) happened Jan. 18, 1975, at California's Santa Anita track.

Alvaro Pineda, a hugely experienced, award-winning jockey, was up on Austin Mittler when the horse reared in the gate, flipped over and crushed the rider's head against the stall, killing him instantly.

Stalls were then padded more extensively.

Hawley is always ready with advice if asked by an apprentice jockey about how to handle the starting gate: Keep your horse cool, calm and collected. Get a handful of mane in your left hand with one rein, two reins (doubled over) and the whip in the other. Make sure the rein dangles a bit, so if he comes out hard or dwells a bit, you won't lose balance.

And learn everything you can about that horse before you get in there.

"You know what, it is one of the most dangerous parts of the race horse in the gate," Hawley said. "You are always aware."

"I don't care how calm or how cool a horse is, something can happen any time and that's why it's important to have a good gate crew."

He thinks Woodbine Racetrack is one of the best around. During his career, he had to place his health in their hands enough time to know.

When does the tension of the gate end? When it's in the rear view mirror and you're racing.

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