by Eddie Arcaro
In our discussion of the pre-race procedure last week, I believe I showed that by the time a jock gets is hose 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 pre-race talk with the trainer, but generalship on the part of the 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 our 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 re-dope 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 man ways I think it's 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 4 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.
(Sports Illustrated Part 3, "The Start", July 1, 1957)
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 lop-sided 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 ten, 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 tip-off 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 generally hollering by jocks trying to tell the starter that their horse isn't squared away or ready. When the noise of the 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.
INSTANT OF THE BREAK
From the time they're first broken, horses are accustomed to hearing that loud sort of "Yaah" yell that we use at the start. I think it frightens a horse just enough to make him jump, and I want my horse to jump out of there head-and-head with his opposition. The more you frighten a horse out of there, the quicker he'll get to running for you. Notice to the side drawing, how my horse (for this series I am always on the #2 horse) is getting off to a good straight start with the proper jump. For purposes of comparison, we have shown two examples of what can happen: the #1 horse has hit the side of the gate and his jock has been thrown off balance; the #3 horse wasn't alert and as his horse stumbles, he is sitting with his knees pointing out. At right, you see how I grab a little mane for the first stride as a safe-guard to keep me from falling against my horse's mouth in case the horse outbreaks me. After the first thrust, I leave it loose.
I cannot over-emphasize the importance of trying to be straightened out when leaving the gate. Horses are going to duck in and out--unintentionally of course--but unless a jock wants a foul claimed against him, he's got to be able to straighten his horse out quickly. Riding every day your touch is there and you should be able to know how much of a hold it'll take to keep him in or out, away from and off other horses. You may wonder, too, why we don't use the whip more on leaving the gate. Well, I don't think you have control of a horse when you whip him on his first thrust. Most of the great gate riders, like Don Meade, Johnny Gilbert and Johnny Longden, seldom used their whips when they could get better results by just pumping their horses out of there. There are exceptions, of course, like a preconceived plan (such as the way I lit into Nashua at the start of the Swaps match race) or when a trainer says, "Eddie, this horse is awfully sluggish and you got to hit him a time or two to get him to running." But, in general, you are far too busy getting down to ride your horse and keeping him out of trouble even to think about whipping at the start. And the first thing I'm thinking of after that first thrust is how to settle my horse down and get some position in the field. I'm also thinking a lot about steadying my balance in order to give my horse all the assistance possible.
FIRST FULL STRIDE
Having let go of the mane when you see that you and the horse are together, you are now into the first full thrust of race riding. At the end of the race, I naturally get all the way down for maximum power and push. At the start, I get down too, but very rarely will I go into a full thrust out of the gate. I usually am sitting back a little to start with to keep the horse from stumbling and then I'll get down to ride him. But sitting down like this and really pushing is something you cant do for long---I don't care who you are. Most people don't realize what a great effort it is and when you get down to ride with maximum thrust for anything over a quarter of a mile, you'll come back in so tired, you can't even talk. And if the track is slippery, your horse is getting messed up in mud and you're tied on tighter and keeping more pressure with your knees to maintain balance. Even when in the best of condition, I'll be real sore in my groin from trying to keep maximum pressure with my knees.