Every time that bell rings and that sea of horses comes barreling out of the starting gate, it seems so natural.
Almost like they were spring loaded, they all bust out at once - speeding down the track displaying equal parts grace and power. Pretty soon they filter down into a few winners and roll across the finish line. This is just about all the average racing fan sees, and probably all they think about.
But what they don’t see are the guys responsible for making it all happen smoothly. No, I’m not talking about the trainers, the owners, the jockeys, or the ranch hands. I’m talking about something much more basic and necessary – the starting gate crew.
As you may have guessed, these are the guys responsible for getting the horses safely and securely into the starting gate stalls before they bust open.
When considering how important their job is and how refined their skills have to be, It’s important to remember here that horses are prey animals. This makes them acutely aware of their surroundings, and cranks their skittish level as high as it will go. They’re notoriously sensitive to movement, noise, stimulation, and strangers. Now imagine cramming 10 of them into 10 tiny stalls all in a row, jockeys up, with crowds, noises, unfamiliar people, and a whirlwind of environmental changes. That’s what these guys spend every morning training these horses to do. And every evening they’re there – standing in each gate on 3 inches of metal crammed next to one of nature’s most powerful and nervous animals.
The bottom line is that these guys do an extremely important and incredibly dangerous job. Race horses are exceptionally powerful, and it only takes a second for them to turn and go wild. So whenever a horse loses its cool and bucks the jockey off in the stall, it’s up to the gate crew to save both the jockey’s AND their own lives from being crushed to death - pinned between two steel gates and 1,500 pounds of flailing horse muscle.
This is why ESPN ranked the starting gate crew as the NUMBER 1 most dangerous job in ALL of sports. Yep, that’s even ranked above NASCAR drivers.
Yet when you see them on the track they seem to operate with such an air of calm collectedness. They casually load the horses in, standing back and chatting when their hands and heads are free. The gates shoot open and they meander around, fastening the gates and raking the dirt for when the horses come barreling around the track and back through in a matter of minutes.
The gate truck fires up and pulls away to the side, leaving only a few laid-back crew members and perfectly raked patches of dirt where there was once so much commotion and high-strung animals. Then within a matter of seconds, the horses come rolling back through what is now the finish line. The crowd cheers, and the process starts over again.
So before the end of the season, I thought I’d speak with Ed Crane, head starter at Remington Park. Mr. Crane has been working as a starter since 1969. He knows the ins and outs of the job, to say the least. He gave me a little more insight on what it’s like to be a member of the starting gate crew.
When I asked him about whether it took more guts or skill to do this job, it became clear that guts ARE part of the skill. He reminded me that, “They know when someone is scared, and they’ll bully you. Staying strong in your conviction and keeping a steady demeanor in the face of such a powerful animal IS a skill.” But when I asked him how he feels he came to be so good at it, he told me, “I believe it’s something God gave me. I can tell the different between horse’s personalities. I know whether they’re scared, ornery, bullying, playing, whatever. I can just tell.”
“But one of the biggest misconceptions,” he went on to say, “is that we’re just out here loading horses and not caring what happens. When something goes wrong, we’re in the heat of it, and we care just as much as the owners and trainers and anyone else. We’re here because we love horses, and our job is to do the best we can at preventing anything bad from happening.”
When I asked him about accidents and how many he’s seen, his tone got serious. He reluctantly said that, “Unfortunately I’ve seen my share. All I can really say is that it happens enough that you don’t remember them all. It happens more during the Quarter horse season; sometimes they’ll hit the doors, maybe they won’t open, and they might flip over. In that case we’re always able to open up the back door to let them get out and get on their feet, but it’s never something you want to see.”
But as for the dangerous aspect of the job?
“I love it. It’s exciting! It’s always thrilling, and no two days are quite the same. We don’t do it to get rich, that’s for sure. I mean, most of the guys are able to make ends meet, but we do it because we love horses, and we simply love our jobs.”
I’d like to thank Ed Crane for his time and insight, and all the starting gate crew members for their thankless service to Remington Park, as well as the wonderful sport of horse racing.