08/16/2007 11:00PM

Gate problems not an issue in Japan


NEW YORK - There seems to have been some difficulty at Saratoga this month in getting horses into and out of the gate in good order. Some horses have refused to enter their starting stalls. Others have entered only after the gate crew have employed either the most duplicitous means of trickery or simply brute force to get them to do so. Still others, once properly positioned, refuse to do any running at all, or behave so petulantly as to require their dismissal from the business at hand.

Blame for the increasing number of gate snafus has been aimed primarily at what is perceived to be an inexperienced starting-gate crew. That may or may not be the case, as it should be remembered that a good start requires the cooperation of four parties: the gate crew, the horse, the rider of the horse and, perhaps most important of all, the trainer of the horse.

We are used to quick starts in America - that is, of seeing horses jump out of the gate as if an electric prod has been applied to their backsides. That is not the case in Europe, especially in France, where a leisurely early pace enables horses to finish with extraordinary quickness. By the same token, European gate crews not infrequently have difficulty loading horses into the gate, stymied by what appear to be the rather halfhearted efforts made by trainers to teach their horses how to get in and out of the gate with alacrity.

American racegoers have been frequently aghast at the slowness with which European imports making their American debuts leave the gate. But as slow as some Europeans start, their tardiness at getting into the gate is even more appalling.

In France in the 1990s a race card that was scheduled to begin at 2:00 might go off at 2:01 or 2:02, but by the time the seventh and final race, originally scheduled to go off at 5:30, actually got under way, it might be 5:45 or even 5:50, the difference due entirely to the time it took to load the gates for all seven races.

By 2000 France had got its act together, but England seemed to be lagging behind. Horses there are sometimes left standing behind the gate, scratched on order of the starter, without the gate crew having made one-quarter of the effort an American crew would make to get it into the gate.

But gate scratches in Europe are relatively rare compared to what has been going on at Saratoga this season. A new low was reached at the Spa on Wednesday when Phantom Income reared at the start of the Adirondack Stakes and was left standing. Astonishingly, she was declared a non-starter even though there was no gate malfunction, nor had the assistant starter been gripping Phantom Income's reins after the gate had opened.

Gate problems are rare in Japan, where the Japan Racing Association and the National Association of Racing have installed ace starting-gate teams as well as inculcating in their trainers the responsibility of schooling horses in gate etiquette. In a country where 18-runner races are frequent, if it takes a gate crew longer than half a minute to load a field, that crew hears about it from the starter, because the starter will have heard about it from JRA or NAR officials.

As a result, the record for loading an 18-runner race in Japan is 11 seconds, a time which would be quick for an American gate crew to load two horses.

One of the reasons the Japanese are so good at this part of the game is that there is a lot of competition for gate-crew jobs, as well as for the limited number of licenses granted to Japanese trainers and jockeys by the JRA and the NAR. And the reason for the keenness of the competition is the popularity of racing in Japan.

Race meetings at JRA tracks Tokyo and Nakayama, just east of Tokyo, regularly attract about 50,000 fans on weekends. At Kyoto and Hanshin near Osaka in western Japan, weekend crowds of 40,000 are commonplace. During the week, many NAR tracks draw up to 20,000 fans. Compare those numbers to attendances at Belmont and Aqueduct and you may see a connection between the efficiency of Japanese starts and the lack of same in New York.

I have said it before and I will continue to say it: Attendance at racetracks is essential to the overall health of the game. The more people paying their way into the track, the larger the pool of people racing will have to fill jobs at every level, from owners down to stable help. Patrons of offtrack betting shops and people who bet through the Internet or on the phone are gamblers at heart. Few of them ever become owners, trainers, jockeys, or racetrack workers. It is at the track where an appetite for those fields is developed. If racing continues to market itself primarily as a venue for offtrack gambling, problems like this summer's Saratoga starts will continue to crop up in the long run.