04/12/2002 11:00PM

Team colors: Black and blue

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - Ever have an occupation where the better you do your job the less people notice?

Such is the fate of the starter and his assistants at any track. The man in the stand who pushes the button and his assistants are responsible for loading horses in a timely fashion, keeping often high-strung, nervous Thoroughbreds who weigh more than a half-ton under control, and then send a field than can total up to 14 horses away fairly and in an order as close to even as possible. Only when a horse gets left or breaks poorly do people talk about the starter and his crew.

Max Powell, 64, has done everything from competing in rodeos to driving trucks during a racetrack career that goes back more than five decades. For many years he has been working on the gate, either as an assistant or, as is the case here at Tampa Bay Downs, as the starter. Every season he faces an unenviable task, as he must compete with starters who can offer assistants the lure of almost year-round employment and benefits packages that aren't available at seasonal tracks. But every year Powell takes a nucleus of proven veterans, mixes in some new blood, and comes up with a solid team that works well together.

And knowing you can count on the worker next to you is all-important. "Most of the time when something happens in the gate, it happens so quick you don't have time to check and see who's covering your behind, to pick out who you'd like to have in there helping you," said Powell. "That's why those guys learn to help each other out. It's kind of like a sports team I guess. The veterans teach the rookies."

Powell's crew includes two assistants who have been run over by the 22-ton gate during their careers and others who sport scars and limps and unusual gaits. One assistant recently suffered a dislocated shoulder while schooling in the morning, while another was raked across the face with flailing hooves while keeping a fractious runner from flipping over in the gate in a race, leaving him with cuts and black eyes.

When you see someone leaving the races, limping to his 10-year-old pickup truck, it could well be an assistant starter.

"No, you won't see many of us in Mercedes," laughed Powell, "Hell, we're happy to have the pickup truck."