Cajoling horses into the starting gates of the Kentucky Derby is the start crew's challenge.
Cajoling horses into the starting gates of the Kentucky Derby is the start crew's challenge. Noah Adams/NPR
When the gates fly open at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday, all eyes will be on the 20 racehorses that launch themselves into the 138th Kentucky Derby. That's a lot of horses, and a special challenge for the men charged with getting them into the starting gate safely.
Caleb Hayes, 24, has been part of the 12-man start crew for the past six years. The 9-to-5 life isn't for him, he says — he loves his job and likes working the gate side by side with the older guys.
"They were working on this gate before I was even born," Hayes says. "They have pictures from '85 of them on the gate. I wasn't born until '88. The stuff that they've seen is unbelievable."
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Derby entry El Padrino bites his shank during a bath ahead of the 138th Kentucky Derby this week.
Derby entry El Padrino bites his shank during a bath ahead of the 138th Kentucky Derby this week. Rob Carr/Getty Images
'A Dangerous Job'
Scott Jordan is the starter at Churchill Downs — the guy who pushes the button to open the gates. He directs the start crew and looks for men with experience, agility and alertness. "It's a dangerous job," he says.
Like when the horses are led into the gate, the rear doors shut, and the crew member must stay right there, in the stall, with the horse and the jockey.
"You're in that starting gate, and all [that's] there is steel wrapped around you everywhere; you got a 1,200-pound horse in there, trying to keep him calm before that race starts," Jordan says. "Things happen."
Blankets make some horses feel secure in the gate. They're fastened with Velcro and fly off at the start of the race. That's just the beginning of the tricks the start crew uses to quiet jittery horses.
Out on the track, crew member Jim Douglas shows off steel corners of the starting gate, which can irritate the horses sometimes. "Some of them will kind of lay over, and they'll hit this area here, the corner," he says.
"They'll get to doing what we call 'goosing' — feels like something is biting and biting and biting — and they'll get to jumping," he says. "We give them some pads, where it keeps their hips more square, and they actually stand up better."
Another crew member, Stacy Luce, says you can't make the horses do anything. His trick is persuasion.
"Talk 'em out of whatever they're wanting to do that's wrong," Luce says. "Pet on them, rub on them, just get their attention. We're there to save the rider first: the rider, the horse and us; that's the order we live in."
Maybe twice, Hayes has seen horses that get in the starting gate, then decide not to run the race.
"They learn the trick they don't have to run, so they'll just stand there," he says. "Some horses, they're just smart. If they learn they don't have to break, they don't have to go, they just teach theirself that. You might as well just make a pony out of 'em, jumping horse, anything, 'cause he ain't gonna run no more."
On Race Day
The crew dresses in khaki jeans, white polo shirts and green protective vests. All 12 have duties for every race, no matter how many horses are entered. In between races, some crew members play cards in a small building on the backside of the track, but once they hear the "call to the post," they head out along the track to the gate.
As starter, Jordan goes to his spot in the infield, just by the rail. He stands on a high metal platform, a few yards ahead of the gate. He waits for the horses to settle and listens for his guys.
"No noise is good news, because the guys, they'll tell me if something's wrong. They'll holler 'No, no,' or 'Hold up a minute, boss, my rider's not tied on,' " Jordan says. "You have to have good communication with your guys."
Jordan has an electric button in his right hand. When the horses seem right, and he's happy — then it's time to race.
"Everybody says I'm a little quick, but the longer you leave them standing there, the more something could happen," he says. "If everything's good, I'm going as quick as I can."
For the big race on Derby Day, Jordan is beefing up the start crew with 14 more men. An extra section of starting gate will be in place to handle the 20-horse field — which Jordan can't see all at once, so he depends on his "outside guy" to give him the signal that the horses are nearly all in place.
"When he comes in with that outside horse, they're usually all good or he wouldn't come in, so I know I've got a good chance of getting a start soon," Jordan says.
That's the moment for a deep breath as more than 150,000 spectators at Churchill Downs — and millions listening and watching around the world — wait for Jordan to push the button that opens the gate, rings the bells, and starts the Kentucky Derby.