If you tuned into the Breeders Cup races last November you saw two days of spectacular racing at Santa Anita Park with a backdrop of the majestic San Gabriel mountains.
You also witnessed the frightening sight of Quality Road refusing to enter the starting gate for the most anticipated race of the weekend, the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. In the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby he was considered the horse to beat, but never made it to Louisville because of foot issues.
The son of Elusive Quality fought with ground crews while loading as they led him in circles behind the gate. After they put a blindfold over his eyes the colt did load, but began bucking violently with his hind legs. Quality Road then broke through the front barrier of the gate.
Blindfolding the colt while in a frenzied state of mind sent Quality Road around the bend. The unsung hero was the assistant starter who held on to the horse with dogged determination once Quality Road broke through the gate. If he had gotten loose with that blindfold on, it could have been an immense disaster just before the biggest race of the year.
Fearing an injury, the decision was made to scratch the Todd Pletcher-trained horse. Quality Road ended up with an assortment of scrapes and bruises including a laceration that required stitches, a hefty contusion over one eye, and a large hemotoma on his left leg. He also almost knocked out one of his teeth.
The media had a field-day chastising Quality Road for his "freak-out" and "meltdown." Respected Kentucky veterinarian Larry Bramlage's comments didn't help.
"He's a bit of a juvenile delinquent anyway," he said. "It became a contest of wills. There wasn't anything that helped. He wasn't going in the gate today."
Quality Road was so traumatized that he later refused to load onto a plane, and was vanned to his home at Belmont Park from southern California. A large, rangy horse- 17 hands- he has a history of "acting up" with starting gates. No doubt he was feeling claustrophobic in the confines of that scary "big green monster."
It's a sight all too familiar at racetracks.
Horses rearing, bucking and backing away from the starting gate moments before a race. Or worse, falling on the ground or flipping over backwards once loaded. Most fans chalk it up to a horse being difficult. But introducing a high-strung racehorse to what starters and gate-crew refer to as the contraption, is no easy task. Some horses are bothered by it, others are terrified- scared out of their wits.
"A lot of young racehorses go through all their initial schooling and then when they get to the starting gate, it's a big jolt," said Dr. Sue McDonnell, head of the Equine Behavior Lab at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square.
"Some horses are too re-active. It's a little too much for them." In July 2003 trainer John Servis was schooling Smarty Jones at the starting gate at Philadelphia Park when the 2-year old spooked, reared up, and slammed his head on the top of the gate. He fell to the ground unconscious, blood pouring from his nostrils. Servis thought the horse was dead.
Diagnosed with a fractured skull, the bones around the colt's left eye were so badly damaged that the veterinarians thought they might have to remove the eye. Smarty overcame his injuries and after three months of recuperation he was back in training. He put aside that initial experience and developed into a terrific racehorse. As a stallion in Kentucky, Smarty still sports that dent in his head. Once in the starting stall claustrophobia can swell.
Roddy Strang is what many would call a "natural horseman." He grew up on his family's cattle ranch in Ashland, Kansas and for the past two decades he has worked with trainers who need help with young and "problem" racehorses and sport horses at his farm in Kirkwood, Pa.
"If a horse is put into a scary situation, he's going to do what he needs to survive," explained Roddy Strang. "You want the horse comfortable within the confinement of the starting gates. Some times at Fair Hill (Training Center) it can be kind of a hectic scene when they're teaching young horses to enter the starting gate. There are a lot of horses up there and there is a time limit. Get them in, and get them out. Some times they're not giving the horse enough time to figure out that it's a good place."
"You need to allow the horse to do what he wants, not forcing him to do what you want," Strang related. They're not bad horses, they just don't understand what the trainer wants. For the horse, the wrong thing (to do) is difficult while the right thing is easy. For some thoroughbred trainers, that's a tough concept to grasp."
Flight is a horse's primary defense, and most horses' preference is to be able to flee at all times. Many horses suspect the starting gate to be a predator hideout, or if not a hideout, a device of a predator's making. Their 60 million-year evolution as a prey animal has made them deeply claustrophobic. They are also neophobic-- fearful of new or unfamiliar enclosures, people, and surprises.
Horse races didn't always start this way. Back when Man o' War was blowing away his rivals, horses arrived at the post and circled around the starting line awaiting the starter's flag. It did little to ensure a fair start. Arguably the best racehorse ever to set foot on a track, Man O' War's only loss in 21 races has been attributed to the starting process.
Enter Clay Pruett. A rider and starter at tracks out west, Pruett is credited as the inventor of the starting gate in 1939. Nearly seventy years later, it still looks the same: a padded stall with a steel frame top with closing electro-magnetic gates on the front and back.
In some cases the starting gate crew have used whips, twitches, lip chains, or a combination of these medieval tools to forcibly lead the animal into the enclosure. Most common these days is the use of blindfolds, where the anxious horse is circled around to lose a sense of direction, then led into the gate.
Breaking from the starting gates is an important part of training. When working with starting gate training, the aim is to ensure that the racehorse move towards and into the gates, calmly and unafraid. While standing in the stalls, racehorses should be still and quiet, so as not to cause injury to themselves or to their riders.
"Horses operate under pressure and then release," explained Strang. "Once he has achieved a task, the horse's reward that is the pressure is released.
Hot-blooded by nature, many thoroughbreds don't understand everything that is going on as they are being loaded into the starting gates.
"It's easy for them to get distressed," Strang said. "Once the horse is in the starting gate an assistant starter can pull the horse's head to one side, and that can make the horse feel a little more comfortable."
In initial schooling, the handler will walk the horse through the starting gates several times. Then a rider mounts the horse and again walks through the open gate. The horse is asked to stop and stand inside the gates for a while before moving on.
Next, the front gate is closed and the horse walks in and is taught to back out of the gate. Once the horse is completely comfortable standing quietly in the gates, the handlers introduce another horse next to the training horse, to simulate the atmosphere of race day.
Finally, the horse learns how to leave the stall when the gate swings open, first at a walk, then at a run until he is able to break away from the starting gates at a gallop.
As for Quality Road, he showed no ill effects from his Breeders' Cup experience in his first start of 2010 in the $100,000 Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park on January 3. The talented Elusive Quality colt went into the starting gate first without acting up, and broke alertly and took care of business winning by 2 ¾ lengths. For a couple of weeks leading up to the race Quality Road was schooled each morning without any incidents.
"It's all about building the horse's confidence," related Strang. "In the end it's about patience, reassurance and trust."