Well, sort of. A horse breaking a step slow isn’t always a bad thing. I’ll explain...
Earlier this week at Palm Beach Downs I had a great chat with Bob Duncan, a legend in the racing industry who's been around a starting gate for the better part of 45 years and was head NYRA starter for 10 years. A longtime friend and the most respected starter in the business, Bob now spends time in Saratoga and South Florida working as a private consultant.
We talked about schooling young horses in the gate -- why some horses consistently break better and generally handle the gate experience better than others.
The reality is some horses:
Have quicker reaction times than others
Are more deliberate with their first strides out of the gate
Are sluggish no matter how many times they school in the morning
May be hesitant to “push off” because something is bugging them physically - usually in their hind ends
One of the biggest challenges of the starting gate is having a horse on their toes and ready to break sharply but also relaxed and confident during the process.
The entire gate training process requires repetition (but not too much repetition), patience, and understanding of how horses think. The trainer and starter must strike a balance between schooling a horse enough that they know what’s going on and schooling them too much that they become mentally fried. Bad habits or fear of the gate in early training can take months or years to overcome.
If breaking better simply required more time in and around the gate in the mornings, things would be easy and trainers would have their horses at the gate three times a day every day.
Bob stressed, “It's not about breaking great and folding like a cheap suit after a quarter of a mile. It’s about breaking with ease and balance and getting into a rhythm so the horse can finish strongly in the race.”
Duncan spends quite a bit of his time working with horses for Todd Pletcher. In a 2014 interview with Karen Johnson for Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, Pletcher said the following:
“Every single race starts at the gate. If you are not prepared there, then you are not prepared to win. I think maybe one misconception people have is that if you want to have one go over there and break well, you want to have them all charged up. Whereas, our experience is that a calm, relaxed horse will break more alertly than a nervous, fired-up personality. It’s an interesting process because when you are getting young horses to run you teach them the need to really run away from the gate. And when you do that, mentally they become more wound-up. So it’s kind of a step forward, half-step back process. You want to get them to where they break alertly, but you also want them to be calm while they are doing that, and I think Bob is really good at that.”
When a horse breaks slowly a few times, many people jump to the conclusion that they need more gate schooling. With young horses, frequent, laid-back visits to the gate are often beneficial and confidence-building, but it would be foolish to break a horse out of the gate at full speed day in and day out. Doing so would result in a dull, sour and injured horse.
I’d much rather have a horse break a bit slowly but then settle into a really nice rhythm for the jock versus a horse who breaks like a bat out of hell because they are scared and simply just want to get out of dodge. Some horses freeze up when they are anxious and scared, which doesn’t bode well for a smooth break or good effort in a race.
You’ll often see first-time starters calm, cool, and collected behind and in the gate in their first starts before getting nervous and washy behind the gate second time out -- they know what’s going on.
In between races many young horses are brought to the gate to stand, but they don’t break. They may go in and out a few times to take the edge off and reduce anxiety.
Another factor that comes into play is having a horse relaxed and focused but also balanced with all four feet on the ground. As former jockey Richard Migliore said, “It’s not always the horse who is on their toes the most that gets away the quickest, it’s the horse who has all four feet squarely on the ground.”
With thousand pound animals in such a tight, claustrophobic space, it can be difficult for every assistant starter to have his horse standing absolutely square with their head straight and in the correct balance when the latch is sprung. All it takes is a sudden shift of their weight, and a horse may break a step slowly or swerve to either side the first jump out of the gate. Some horses lose their balance when they have to push off with their hind ends and go from zero to full speed quickly and others lose their footing and stumble.
If a horse is required to stand in the gate for a long time due to a big field or an issue with another horse, they may become bored and/or unfocused and not ready to pop out of there in a literal split second.
One big key is having horses trust the assistant starters who load and handle them in the gate. The best assistant starters instill confidence in horses. Duncan uses natural horsemanship methods when teaching horses -- the gate training process has definitely evolved over the years. There is little strong-arming, and he knows horses have different needs and learn at different rates.
In a sport where two wins from 10 starts is a healthy win percentage you certainly don’t want a bad break compromising your horse’s chances. On the flipside, there’s definitely a balance between keeping your horse relaxed and enjoying his job at the expense of them not breaking on top.