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Jim Harmon
October 29, 1990
In 1939, Clay Puett's electric starting gate revolutionized the sport
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October 29, 1990

The Man Who Gave Racing A Fresh Start

In 1939, Clay Puett's electric starting gate revolutionized the sport

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Puett invited a dozen racing officials to a demonstration at Hollywood Park in the spring of 1939, and two horses broke cleanly from closed stalls. While the officials were impressed, they were concerned about possible mechanical breakdowns. Finally, Sam Randall, Lansdowne Park's owner, gave Puett permission to start a 5�-furlong race with a 12-stall gate on the opening day of the 1939 summer season. After Puett pushed the button and the horses broke like a team, his order book filled up fast.

The first electric start in the U.S. took place at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, Calif., in the fall of 1939, and Puett shipped a gate east to be displayed at Pimlico. In 1940 the Preakness Stakes became the first Triple Crown event to use one of his gates. The next year he was granted a patent for his V door design. Churchill Downs ordered a 14-stall Puett model, which was used to start the 1941 Kentucky Derby and the next 36 as well.

Puett could have become a wealthy man, but he says, "I was so green that I should have been planted and watered." As the demand for his gates increased in the 1940s, he traveled thousands of miles a year, delivering gates, maintaining gates and trailering them from track to track. He was on the road for months at a time. Back in Beverly Hills, his partners, bound by nothing more than a handshake, were working to take the company in a different direction. They voted down his plan to build a new manufacturing plant and refinanced the company without his knowledge.

In 1946, Puett agreed to sell his share of Puett Electrical Starting Gate Corporation to his partners for a remarkably modest sum. "They took advantage of me, but I let them," Puett says. "I figured $31,000 was all the money I needed." Puett, then 47, planned to retire to a life of fishing and breeding thoroughbreds on a ranch that he had bought near Kamloops, B.C.

Within two years Puett had had his fill of retirement. He returned to the Southwest in search of work. He tried to get back into the gate business and found himself competing with the company bearing his name. He's still competing with it. Over the years, ownership has been transferred several times and now Puett Electrical Starting Gate Inc. has merged with United Starting Gate Corp., based in South Salem, N.Y., to form United/Puett Electrical Starting Gate Corp. It controls more than half the starting-gate market in the U.S.

In 1953, Puett founded True Center (named for the horse-straightening effect of his patented V doors) in British Columbia. He moved the operation to Phoenix in 1955. Since then Puett has been the supplier for as many as 48 tracks at a time. In addition to building new gates, he keeps an inventory of more than 30 that are available for lease. The models range in capacity from two and three stalls—for training colts and fillies—up to 14. The big ones are 64 feet long, take 800 man-hours to assemble, require a special towing permit on certain highways and sell for $100,000 or more.

Besides building an estimated 200 gates over the years, Puett has worked as a racing official in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Seattle, San Bruno, Calif., Phoenix, Denver and Cleveland. The Arizona Horse Racing Hall of Fame inducted him in 1964, and the British Columbia Thoroughbred Breeders' Society voted him into its hall of fame in 1980.

Puett knows that his life would have been different if he had had more business savvy, but he's not sure it would have been better. And he admits to a measure of satisfaction in having outlived all of his former business partners. "I'm the one," says Puett, "who's still around."

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