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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Kentucky Derby begins with the world holding its breath. We watch young thoroughbreds being led into the starting gate, one by one. Then the final horse enters, stands still, and...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They're off in the Kentucky Derby.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SIMON: That moment occurs again this afternoon at post time for the 138th Kentucky Derby. Because there are 20 entries in the field, it's a special challenge for the start crew at Churchill Downs. Now, how do you get every horse safely out of the gate when the bell rings? NPR's Noah Adams went to the races in Louisville this week to see.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: The start crew has lots of work during a spring meet at Churchill Downs. There are 13 races on today's program - the Derby itself is race number 11. It is a 12-man start crew.

CALEB HAYES: I'm Caleb Hayes. I'm 24, from Piner, Kentucky.

ADAMS: Caleb Hayes loves the job, couldn't work nine-to-five, has six years on the crew, likes being on the gate side-by-side with the older guys.

HAYES: They were working on this gate before I was even born. They have pictures from '85 of them on the gate. I wasn't born until '88. Oh, the stuff that they've seen is unbelievable.

SCOTT JORDAN: It's a dangerous job.

ADAMS: This is Scott Jordan. He's the starter at Churchill Downs. He directs the crew. He likes experience, agility, alertness. When it's time for a race, the horses are led into the gate, the rear doors are shut, and the crew guy - he stays right there in the stall with the horse and the jockey.

JORDAN: You're in that starting gate and all's there is, is steel wrapped all around you everywhere. You know, you got a twelve hundred pound horse in there, you know, trying to keep him calm before that race starts, things happen.

ADAMS: Out on the track at the gate, Jim Douglas shows me the steel corners that often are padded for the horses.

JIM DOUGLAS: Some of them will kind of lay over and they'll hit this area here, the corner, and they'll get to doing what we call goosing, to get the, you know, feels like something is just in there biting and biting and biting them and they'll get to jumping and - so, we give them some pads where it keeps their hips more square and they actually stand up better.

ADAMS: Stacy Luce you can't make the horses do anything. It's persuasion that might work.

STACY LUCE: Talk them out of whatever they're wanting to do is wrong. You know, you pet on them, rub on them, just get their attention. You know, that's why we - we're there to save the rider first; the rider, the horse and us. That's the order we live in.

ADAMS: Some horses use blankets in the gate, they go on with Velcro fasteners in front and fly off at the start. The blanket is to quiet the horse, help it feel more secure. And Caleb Hayes has even seen - maybe twice - horses that get in the starting gate and decide not to run.

HAYES: They learn the trick, they don't have to run, so they'll just stand there, they don't have to.

ADAMS: In a race?

HAYES: Yeah. You know, some horses, they're just smart. You know, if they learn that 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 them, do something, jumping horse, anything 'cause he ain't going to run no more.

(SOUNDBITE OF STARTING BUGLE AND ANNOUNCER)

ADAMS: When they hear the call to post, the start crew heads out along the track to the gate. Some of them spend time between the races playing cards in a small building on the backside. The crew members wear khaki jeans, white polo shirts and green protective vests. All 12 have duties for every race, no matter how many entries. Scott Jordan calls out the assignments.

JORDAN: Steve, the one; Jim Bob, the two; Jody, the three; Caleb, the six; Pinky, the four; Brett, the seven.

ADAMS: The starter 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, listens for his crew.

JORDAN: No noise is good news because the guys, they'll tell me if something's wrong. They'll holler a no, no, or hold up a minute, boss; my rider's not tied on, or - you have to have good communication with your guys.

ADAMS: Scott Jordan has an electric button in his right hand. When the horses seem right, and he's happy, it's time to race.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

ADAMS: For the Kentucky Derby, Scott Jordan brings in 14 more crew - it's a 20-horse field. An extra section of starting gate will be in place. Jordan can't see all the horses at once.

JORDAN: Everybody says I'm a little quick, but the longer you leave them standing there the more something could happen. If everything's good, I'm going as quick as I can. The outside guy, who is Stacy Luce, he looks over the horses. He' s my eyes back there. He looks over all the horses before 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, you know, good chance in getting a start soon as he comes in and gets his horse settled.

ADAMS: And that's the moment for a deep breath for about 170,000 fans at Churchill Downs and millions listening and watching around the world - all waiting for Scott Jordan to push the button that opens the gate, rings the bells, and starts the Kentucky Derby. Noah Adams, NPR News.

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