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In our discussion of the prerace procedure last week, I believe I showed that by the time a jock gets his horse to the starting gate he's going to have an idea about the horse he's on and what that horse can do—provided he runs his best race. And if the jock and his trainer have given serious consideration to every other horse in the race, they also have a fair idea of how this race ought to be run. I use the word "ought" instead of "will" because it's seldom that you see a race run exactly the way you doped it. Now I come back to the uses of generalship. Generalship on the jock's part has actually started when he has his prerace talk with the trainer, but generalship on the part of each individual rider is going to get its first major test when the starting gate opens. For example, say your trainer has told you to break out of there on top, but instead of this your horse pulls a wingding in the gate and you break a length behind the whole field. That's when orders go out the window and you're on your own. You have to redope everything, and if your own generalship is good enough you may be able to get back into contention. Now I know of no way on earth of being certain to guarantee yourself a good start. However, speaking for myself only, there are a number of things I always try to do with my horse so as to at least give him the best chance for the best start. In many ways I think it's a shame the racing public gets so few chances to see starts right in front of the stands. If people could see more of the gate procedure I think they'd understand that it isn't always fair to blame the jock when a horse they happen to be betting on gets off to a bad start. For starts have a great element of luck to them. What I try to do is to eliminate as much of the element of luck as possible through sound horsemanship. Most starters don't like to keep a field in the gate any longer than is absolutely necessary, so a jock has got to be real alert from the moment he gets locked in. Of course, horses react to the gate in different ways, and because of this you also have to react differently. Remember, too, that from one race to the next you're not always going to be in that gate for exactly the same amount of time. If you're on an outside post in a small field, for instance, you know that the man is going to spring the gate almost the second you get in. On the other hand, if you're on an inside post in a large field of 25 or more 2-year-olds at Belmont Park you know you may have as long as four minutes to wait. In such a case—and, in fact, any time I'm on an inside post in a large field—the first thing I'll try to do with my horse is to relax him. I'll do something with that horse, like turn his head, talk to him, pet him or just con him around in some way or another. If he's very fractious, of course, they'll have an assistant starter in there with you. These men do a tremendous job, and ought to get paid more. The good ones know how to calm a horse down and they are a great help when you're really in trouble with a horse that stands just so long and then throws a real fit.
When I say I want my horse to be relaxed in the gate I don't mean I want him to go to sleep on me. I also don't want him to relax—or lean—on one leg. If that happens and the man should pull the gate he'd fall down on you or certainly stumble. If a horse gets too relaxed he'll get his feet all cockeyed, and I really think that the position of the feet is the most important thing about a horse in that gate. If a horse is standing lopsided on the break, it stands to reason that he's going to be more liable to stumble or break one way or the other as he comes out. So, what I always look for is to get my horse's feet all squared away. I'll often ask an assistant starter to sort of shove him to get him squared and make him get with it, although I find that by instinct and my own sense of balance I can usually know better than the man in the stall just how my horse is standing.
You're going to get hurt in those gates once in a while, and you've got to expect it. Every older jock (and most of the young ones too) have had at least one horse act like a maniac and fall over backwards on him. But when a horse throws a fit in the gate I usually try and stay with him—unlike some jocks who are expert at hanging on to the gate while their horse runs out and away from them. Another thing I've even given up thinking about is trying to beat the gate. Nine times out of 10 if you move your horse to the break before the gate opens you're going to have to come back with him, and the gate may catch you going the other way. So if a horse is on his feet and squared away for me I think on the whole I get the best results by leaving him alone. Naturally, you never know the exact split second when the gate will open but you generally have a pretty good idea. When they lead the last horse in you start squaring your horse out and getting ready, because it could come from then on. But the real tipoff to a start is a strange sort of quietness. If you watch a start from close up sometime you'll notice that from the minute they start loading there is a lot of general hollering by jocks trying to tell the starter that their horse isn't squared away or ready. When the noise of this hollering dies down it can only mean that everybody is ready—and in that split second of quietness the alert starter will get his field away. Just before they're all in I tighten up a little all around. And if a horse has any kind of nerves he'll tighten up too. You sort of have to tense him for the actual break, because if he's too relaxed he's apt to fall right down. The last thing I do in that gate is make absolutely sure that my horse is squared away, tensed and looking smack dead ahead of him. Then he knows what's up. Then I'm ready.
THE START OF A THEORETICAL RACE
Your action leaving the gate should always depend on what kind of a horse you're riding and on what you expect your contending opposition will do. For the purpose of explaining this, let's take a theoretical mile race in which I am riding No. 1 in an 11-horse field. My horse is neither a speed horse nor a real stretch runner. My orders are to lay off the pace, and before the race the trainer and I have decided that the horses we have to beat are No. 3, No. 4, No. 7 and No. 8. In any race I'll never ask for more than to break head-and-head with the field, and in this example I want to be real sure of coming out of there head-and-head so that I don't get any the worst of it when we hit the first turn. I know the 4-horse is a strong contender, so one of my first objectives will be to keep the 3-horse on the inside of 4 around the first turn, and if I can do that you see how right away I've given the 4-horse the worst of it (see diagram A). Remember that if the outside horses can't outrun some of the inside posts to the first turn they're going to lose valuable ground. If my horse was the speed horse in this field I'd want to lay about half a length in front of my field and maybe a length up on them going into the first turn. The man on the rail doesn't always necessarily set the pace, because some of the others may be trying to outrun him to get over. However, it's ideal to be on the speed horse and have the rail. Then you can really do something to this field. You can slow it down and you'll have some of them really walking around that turn. My thinking at every stage of every race is right to the point: make every other horse get the worst of it whenever I can. For another example let's take the 8-horse, who is a real contender. The jock on 8-horse knows he's on a speed horse and he's got an idea of whether or not he can outrun the inside posts into the first turn. If he thinks he can he'll try it so as to get to the rail as soon as possible. But I'm on No. 2 and maybe I don't want him trying to steal it, so I'm going to come out of there head-and-head and, after casing the field coming into that turn, I want to keep up enough speed so that I'm sure of keeping the contenders—and especially the 8-horse—stacked up as much as I can (see diagram B) so that they'll have to commit themselves pretty quick. Now, on the start shown above, which is more or less typical, everyone knows this field can't stay bunched up like this forever. Riders on the outside horses must know they can't stay that far out and lose that much ground and still win. So the only thing they can do, if they don't decide to make a run for the first turn, is to drop back behind the leaders and chance picking them up later. In my case here, with the kind of horse I have, I'm going to get right up with the leaders and lay off the pace by letting the speed horses outrun me until I can safely drop in behind them. There is always danger, on the other hand, when you are forced to drop in behind horses that are going nowhere. You're going to get blocked sometimes by doing this and, in general, my theory is to make a run for that first turn if you think you've got a fair chance of making it. I'll never let a horse on my inside outrun me into that turn if I think I can beat him. Let us take still another example by assuming this time that my 2-horse is the speed horse. But so is the 8-horse, and his jock tries to beat me to the turn. If I can outrun him I'm in perfect position to bear out slightly on the turn. As I bear out I'll bring the rest of the field out so the 8-horse can't cut in front of me and trap me (see diagram C). If the 8-horse broke good that jock has got to send that horse. He's committed, and this is just one of many examples of how I could (assuming that I'm on a good enough horse) make the 8-horse, and possibly a lot of other horses between me and the 8-horse, take so much the worst of it right at the start that they might never get properly straightened out.
I'll know generally within two jumps after the break what I'm going to do—or what I'm going to try and do. Within those two strides I'll usually know if I'm going to hit him and really let him go or if I'm going to wait to move later on. This isn't much time. In fact, on this mile track I'd say you'll hit that turn in less than eight seconds. Well before those eight seconds are up you have to know what you're going to do and if your plan is working or not. I find that you have to react to all of this instinctively. Nobody can think that fast. I know I can't.
ON THE RAIL