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Finding a comfort zone
On Saturday, Jan. 18, 1975, while awaiting the start of the six-furlong fourth race at Santa Anita Park, the 3-year-old colt Austin Mittler was on a slow burn. Just moments before what should have been a routine break from the 14-stall Clay Puett gate, the colt lashed backward with his heavy chestnut head and caught jockey Alvaro Pineda flush in the face, smashing the rider's skull into one of the unpadded metal uprights.
"We were the last two horses in the gate," said Fernando Toro, who was a close friend of Pineda's and is now retired. "Alvaro's horse went in. The assistant starter got out of the way. And just that fast the horse went up and I heard a loud crack. I looked over and Alvaro's head was down. There was blood coming out of his mouth. I said, 'Don't move, Alvaro. Don't move. It will be okay.' But he was already gone."
Pineda was pronounced dead at nearby Arcadia Methodist Hospital. He was 29.
Since that day, this reporter has dealt with lingering dread during those moments that pass between the first horse entering a starting gate and the spring of the magnetic latch, sending a field on its way. Bad things can ensue, of course, as the race unfolds. But it is the starting gate, with its environment going so contrary to the nature of a Thoroughbred, that truly holds the greatest threat to man and beast, which is why the sooner they are in and out, the better.
Pineda's death cut woefully short a career that was already solid and beginning to soar. It also provided a vivid lesson in perspective. After that day, despite the many unnerving starting gate episodes that have followed, nothing could ever be that bad. Not even the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic experience of 3-year-old colt Quality Road.
The field for the Nov. 7 Classic at Santa Anita was all but buttoned up and ready to go when Quality Road, the 12th of 13 horses to load, was asked to enter his stall. He balked, kicked out behind, reared and bucked. When blindfolded, a last-ditch but common procedure, he was led into the stall, whereupon he reacted with even more desperate kicking. Then, after he bulled his way out the front of the opened gate - dragging along the brave assistant starter Junior Hungerford - Quality Road spun in disoriented fear until starter Jay Slender reached up and removed the blindfold. The ordeal went on for more than four minutes, during which time the colt suffered minor cuts and was finally scratched from the most important engagement of his career.
For experienced horseplayers and racetrackers, either in attendance or watching on TV, Quality Road's tantrum was nothing they hadn't seen before, though perhaps not at the level of a Breeders' Cup Classic.
For the uninitiated, however, the sight of a clearly distressed animal refusing to participate in what seemed to be a routine part of the process was disturbing. They saw Quality Road, a big, handsome Thoroughbred, being dragged kicking and screaming into battle, lashing out dangerously and ultimately shunted offstage as a wounded embarrassment.
"Any other race, any other time, it's no big deal," said Slender. "But with that many horses in the gate, you're on borrowed time. I started out with the Quarter Horses at Los Alamitos, and things happen there all the time that are so much more extreme - horses flipping, getting under the gate, tearing the gate apart.
"I didn't know anything about that horse before, and I haven't looked at any replays," he said. "There's only one thing I thought of that could have set the horse off - that damn TV helicopter flying above the gate, because it was loud."
About two minutes after the colt was led off and the gate reloaded, Zenyatta wiped clean the immediate impact of Quality Road's travails with her operatic victory in the final race of her perfect career. Still, when the Classic was revisited, there lingered that prerace image - the blindfolded animal reverting to primal behaviors, threatening to disrupt the climactic event of the North American season.
Questions persisted over what might have set Quality Road off, while the other 12 horses at the gate were loaded with relative calm - Zenyatta did hesitate before loading, as she had done in the past, but there were no histrionics - and whether the steps taken by the gate crew were in keeping with standard operating procedures.
"I'm not about to second guess Jay and his crew," said Bob Duncan, the former NYRA head starter who continues to assist the New York tracks with gate work. "They were in a tough situation, and I certainly sympathize with what they were up against. They were trying everything possible to get that horse in the gate. It would be easy for me to sit here and suggest some things I might have done differently, but that's the case every time we can't get a horse in the gate."
"Those guys are in the worst scenario I can imagine," said Pat Parelli, an internationally recognized equine behaviorist whose application of "natural horsemanship" has attracted clients in the Thoroughbred world. "They're in a skin-of-their-teeth situation. All the preparation that should have been done with the horse hasn't been done. Now you've got to deal with the situation, with time against you, and with the betting public to think of."
"Jay used all his options," said veteran head starter Gary Brinson, who works with most of the same Santa Anita crew at Del Mar and Hollywood Park. "But if a horse is dead-set on doing something like that, they'll get it done. Can you imagine if that horse had gotten loose with that blindfold on? He was rolling. And he was lucky he didn't get hurt worse than he did."
Slender said he had his two youngest, strongest guys on Quality Road.
"When they couldn't move him, I knew that horse wasn't going to be packed in there," he said. "I thought about backing him in, but the way that horse was kicking, I just had a vision of him breaking a leg kicking at those back doors."
That's when Slender called for the blindfold.
"There's a lot of horses where the blindfold works great, to where they can't see where they're kicking," Slender said. "Raven's Pass brought his own blindfold and wore it in the gate for the Classic the year before. It was pulled off right when the doors opened. It made me nervous, but for them it was no big deal."
Raven's Pass won the 2008 Classic by nearly two lengths.
In varying degrees and from different angles, horsemen such as Duncan, Brinson, Slender, and Parelli have been dealing with the conundrum of the starting gate for decades. If anyone can worm their way into the brain of a Thoroughbred on red alert, it's these guys.
Once Quality Road returned to his Belmont Park home and the barn of trainer Todd Pletcher, Duncan was called upon for his expertise in helping the colt adjust to the starting gate. There was even talk of Quality Road running in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Saturday, but his connections decided to skip the race.
"At the start of a race, all of the animals are in a flight-fear mode," Parelli said. "Their adrenalin is up. When a horse syncs up to the emotions of the herd, this supercharges his instinct to perceive danger, and to be ready to go into panic mode."
Duncan, a Parelli disciple, tries to look at the gate through the horse's eyes.
"There's this obstacle in front of them," Duncan said. "It's big, it's threatening, it's unusual. And like any obstacle, they're going to approach it very cautiously.
"Some horses are more curious, others more fearful," he said. "Once you can make contact with the horse and establish a relationship where he sees you as a leader, it changes the whole ballgame. Now they're trusting you not to get them in trouble, and their curiosity comes out. That allows him to explore the starting gate without feeling like he's between a rock and a hard place. Not forcing, but encouraging. Giving him choices and allowing his curiosity to take over.
"The gate's only been around since 1939," Duncan said. "It was always very rough and tumble. It was more about dominating the horse, rather than figuring out what was going on from the horse's point of view. I'm sure we lost a lot of horses through attrition, because of not being able to get through to them and not getting them schooled properly at the gate. There were careers diminished because we did not have the skills we now have."
The lessons to which Duncan alludes are taught out of sight of the public, during training sessions in the morning, from the moment a racehorse comes to the track as a 2-year-old. John Shirreffs, who guided Zenyatta through her 14-for-14 career, has been around one kind of horse or another for most of his 64 years.
"You noticed that Quality Road was firing behind," Shirreffs said. "All his energy was going in the wrong direction. To me, that indicates the horse at some point in his life was not allowed to go forward. Maybe at one time he used to try to run through the gate. I don't know. The only way he could express his displeasure was to kick backward. Whatever it was, he didn't get like that over night."
In addition to the robust Zenyatta, Shirreffs trained the towering mare Manistique to win nine graded stakes.
"When you take them in the gate they're all a little claustrophobic," Shirreffs said. "All their little sensors are very alert to anything that's happening to them. The padded pontoons touch a horse on the flanks, in a place they're not used to, and that scares them. It's nice when they go in and wiggle a little bit, so they feel it, and it doesn't surprise them. With horses it's always a matter of sacking them out, desensitizing them.
"But then all that will change once they start breaking from the gate," Shirreffs said. "Once you add the speed aspect, that increases the fear factor. At some point you need to deal with the idea of going into motion from a standstill and separate it from going into the gate. It's a little tricky. Sometimes I'll walk a horse along the inside rail and break off at a good strong gallop, so he has the feeling of the rider moving forward and asking him to go, without knowing about the gate.
"When you start getting in the gate, in the beginning it s really important that the horse doesn t break fast," Shirreffs said. "Then, once the horse is comfortable with the rider moving on his back, you want him to start focusing on the front of the stall doors. The cue is no longer the rider asking him to go. It is now the doors opening at the front of the gate. It takes a lot of repetition, and even as they're getting good at it, at the same time they're getting nervous about the whole gate situation."
Parelli contends that a racehorse can be programmed to gracefully accept the starting gate from an early age.
"The tradition is to pretty much let them do what they want during that first 18 months or so," Parelli said. "But there are a lot of things we can do to prevent any horse from ever having any kind of claustrophobic problem.
"As a precocial species, horses are full-faculty learners at birth," he said. "You can put a foal in a down-sized starting gate, and he can learn this is where he goes to get his grain, to get a massage. A foal's first impression, which is a lasting impression, is that the starting gate is the most wonderful place in the world.
"This is not rocket science to think in these terms," Parelli added. "It takes time and patience. And when the horses are young and small, the type of help it takes to do this is not the same type it takes to manage a 1,200-pound panic-aholic."
Whether Parelli's recommendations gain broad acceptance remains to be seen. In the meantime, there are any number of horses who get reputations as gate rogues and end up on the starter's list. Whether this is due to improper or neglectful schooling, or a deeply imprinted traumatic experience, a starting crew can only deal with what is delivered to them.
"Quality Road reminded me a lot of Rock Hard Ten," Brinson said, referring to the West Coast colt, trained by Jason Orman, who challenged Smarty Jones in two legs of the 2004 Triple Crown. "They had all that trouble with him at the Preakness and the Belmont. When he got back here, Jason came to us and said, 'We've got to do something.' We started fooling with him - he tried to take my head off a couple of times - but finally we had him where he was just following us around. You didn't even need to pick up the shank. Tell him to back up, and he'd back up."
With Brinson leading him, Rock Hard Ten was on much-improved behavior going into the gate for the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, his first start after the Belmont, and he won for fun. Later, while trained by Richard Mandella, the colt won the Santa Anita Handicap.
"The majority of what are called gate issues aren't gate issues at all," Duncan said. "They're racing issues. They may just manifest themselves at the gate. I can take a horse who does not want to walk in the gate the correct way around to the front of the gate, and he'll almost run over me. He really doesn't mind going in the machine. He's concerned about what follows, when he's in the machine facing down the racetrack. There's a Pat Parelli expression: A horse that reacts to what happens before what happens happens."
The question now is how to help Quality Road get back to the races, and Duncan isn't about to be rushed.
"You want to break it down into small lessons and make sure that the horse has each mouthful of information digested before you go on to the next one," Duncan said, about 10 days after the Breeders' Cup. "Ultimately, that leads to the whole deal, which would be a dress rehearsal of the race day situation."
Parelli predicted his student had his work cut out for him.
"Bobby's the right guy for the job," Parelli said. "But they'll really need to take some time to get him to where the gate is no big deal. Horses are like computers: They may never do whatever we want, but they will do what we program them to do. This horse has to be reprogrammed, and I guarantee he'll have challenges. Not impossible, but some pretty extreme problems."
"Depending on how bad the habit is, it's always harder to retrain a horse out of a bad habit than teach a good one," he said. "The starting gate is always an issue with racehorses. You're always retraining them a little bit. But with patience and repetition it can be overcome."