02/18/2010 1:00AM

Q&A: Bob Duncan

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Barbara D. Livingston

Former starter at New York Racing Association tracks who now consults privately. Worked with Quality Road after the horse was scratched at last year's Breeders' Cup Classic.

Birthdate: Oct. 2, 1947, in New York

Family: son, David.

Nicknames: "I grew up on a street with 16 Bobs, so my older friends call me 'Dunc.' "

Got into racing because . . . "My dad, Robert Duncan, was a horse trainer, so I was born into it. I didn't participate in after-school sports. The track was my playground. I grew up on Belmont's backstretch."

What was your progression in the sport from there? "I worked for my dad for free for years. One of my first paying jobs, when I was 14 I ran away to Saratoga and walked hots for trainer Monte Parke, living in a room with a one-legged man and a wino. In college, during summers, I worked on the starting gate crew with George Cassidy. I continued on the gate until I was drafted. After I got out of the service, in 1970, I was on the gate permanently. I also did some print modeling in the 80s, for things like Vantage and Hennessy Cognac. I was made head starter in 1993 and did that until I retired in 2004."

What type of work did you do with Quality Road when you first saw him after the Breeders' Cup? "Todd Pletcher, his trainer, had called me the morning after the Breeders' Cup. He wanted me to come see him after he got back to Belmont Park. I spoke with Chris Baker, owner Ed Evans's farm manager, and we agreed on a four-day schooling program, after which we would reassess where we were. At first, I just did some things to get connected to him. He turned out to be real smart, a quick study. Typical of good horses, he has a dominant streak. He likes to lead. You just have to establish rules and trust. Fifteen minutes into it, he had it figured out. He was doing just what I asked with lightest commands. We followed that with four days of schooling. It was a progression of steps. Then we took him over to Aqueduct and did a full dress rehearsal."

Was he a willing partner? "He was very willing. Todd had said to me, 'I can't believe this will be a long-term problem.' It wasn't about the gate. It was a leadership issue. No fault of the crew in California. What happened there is that it became a battle of wills between him and the gate crew. The gate was not a factor. He was in a fight. Once we created leadership, he was happy as a clam."

How did you feel when he balked when he first got to the gate for the Donn? "I felt like I was going to throw up. But Jeff Powell, the starter at Gulfstream, and his crew are familiar with the horse. They took their time and got it done. I was really proud of the work they did. They showed a lot of patience."

How gratifying was it to see him perform as well as he did in the Hal's Hope and Donn? "Gratifying is one way to put it. Great relief is another. He did what we expected. But to perform like he did, that was above and beyond."

What is your work schedule like these days? "The last five or six years I've consulted with NYRA, overseeing their schooling from April to November at Saratoga. We school everything, but the bulk of it is 2-year-olds. It's a great atmosphere for 2-year-olds up there. I've gone to Australia some years and helped trainer Gai Waterhouse and her staff with her horses. Trainers have to do all their own gate schooling there. I worked with some of her problem horses. I spend four months in the winter in Florida working exclusively for Todd."

How has the methodology regarding teaching horses to accept the starting gate changed over the years? "For me, it has changed quite a bit. When I started full-time in 1970, we were doing it pretty much the hard way, a lot of pushing and chasing and wrestling going on. In early 90s, I became acquainted with people outside racing, people like Monty Roberts, who was in racing, along with Pat Parelli and Ray Hunt, who changed how I looked at how you get horses in the gate. It wasn't just about getting their bodies physically in the gate, but getting their mind in the right place. With those techniques, you get a responsive horse who is breathing deep. I first met with Monty in the 90s, then started looking up stuff on line. I kept finding Parelli. It's like a path is laid out for you. It was different from what we did at the track, a real eye-opener. You can see the change in a horse before your eyes, from fearful and reluctant to 'take care of me.' It's a great feeling."

Proudest moment of career: "Probably getting to start the 2006 Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. Not so much starting the race, but getting to work alongside Scott Jordan, the starter who had just gotten the job at Churchill Downs. Scott and I were in the stand. He and his crew were very accepting of me. We worked as a team. It was damn rewarding."

Funny memory: "We were asked by NBC to create an exhibition race for Matt Lauer to ride in. Each of the hosts of the 'Today' show were supposed to fulfill their dream job. We taught him to break from the starting gate. The fix was in, though. We put him on the best horse and let him win. That was fun to do."

Best horse seen: "I was lucky enough to be around through the 70s. My knee-jerk reaction is Secretariat, but I think Seattle Slew. His best race was the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. He got beat, but it was better drama than a good movie."

Childhood hero: "We grew up without having a lot in Elmont. My dad was always struggling. But he trained for Art Rooney, who owned the Pittsburgh Steelers. He would send me autographed footballs. He would let me sit on the bench when they were in New York playing the Giants. It's Art Rooney and the Steelers, beyond a doubt."

Hobbies: "I fish a lot, take the dogs hiking, movies, and reading. I used to rollerblade and play tennis when my knees allowed, but that's not the case anymore."

Why do you like crossword puzzles so much? "When you work on the starting gate, you've got a lot of time to kill between races. There were guys on the gate who had no high school education who would do The New York Times crossword puzzle. They educated themselves. We would double- and triple-team the Sunday puzzle."

What types of movies do you like? "I've become somewhat jaded. I like indies and foreign films, not the cookie-cutter stuff, but I'm still a sucker for blockbusters. I love to sit in a big theater and get blown away by that stuff. I see just about everything."

Favorite movie of all time: "I like different things at different times. 'The Lion in Winter,' the dialogue that Katherine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole had going on blew me away. 'Apocalypse Now' would be in the top 10."

Last movie seen: " 'Crazy Heart,' the Jeff Bridges movie. It's got a similar plot to Robert Duvall in 'Tender Mercies.' I thought it was interesting that Duvall had a small part in this movie, too."

Favorite TV show: " 'Seinfeld.' I never get tired of them. I can tell you every nuance in every episode."

Last book read: " 'The Long Home' by William Gay. Before that, 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,' a murder mystery."

Favorite musician: "I've always been partial to Bonnie Raitt. She's sultry as hell, and she sings with a variety of people. I caught her at Saratoga with Lyle Lovett. That sealed the deal."

Person most admired: "This is corny, but I've been a President Obama fan since the day he got into office. I think he's a great American. He's got the purest agenda of any politician I've seen. He stepped into a maelstrom with a dignity of purpose."

Future ambition: "To share these things I've learned about horses with other people. It's really good for the horse, horsemen, and good for racing in general."

Kurt Sleeter More than 1 year ago
Great write up! I have been lucky enough to work for bob. I wish I was more of a horseman at the time! I was young and didn't pick up as much as I wished I did. My dream job is to work with him again from April till November at saratoga! Kurt sleeter