by Eddie Arcaro

(Sports Illustrated   Part 3, "The Start",  July 1, 1957)

The Start

     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.

     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.


    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.


     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.


     Your action leaving the gate should always depend on what kind of a horse, you're riding and on what you expect your contending opposition will do.  For the purpose of explaining this, lets take a theoretical mile race in which I am riding #2 in a 11-horse field.  My horse is neither a speed hose, nor a real stretch runner.  My orders are to lay off the pace and before the race,  the trainer and I have decided that the horses, we have to beat are #3, 4, 7, and 8.  In any race, I'll never ask for more than to break head-and-head with the field, and in this example, I want to be real sure of coming out of there head-and-head so that I don't get any the worst of it when we hit the first turn.  I know the #4 horse is a strong contender, so one of my first objectives will be to keep the #3 horse on the inside of the #4 around the first turn  and if I can do that you see how right away, I've given the #4 horse the worst of it (diagram A to the right).  Remember that if the outside horses can't outrun some of the inside posts to the first turn, they're  going to lose valuable ground. If my horse was the speed horse in this field, I'd want to lay about half a length in front of my field  and maybe a length up on them going into the first turn.  The man on the rail doesn't always necessarily set the pace, because some of the others may be trying to out-run him to get over.  However, its ideal to be on the speed horse and have the rail then you can really do something to this field.  You can slow it down and you'll have some of them really walking around that turn. (Note from Racehorse Herbal: this is a very important point which virtually no one in modern racing seems to appreciate. The first few gate positions can be very advantageous and desirable for exactly Arcaro's stated reasons!  Yet, modern trainers inevitably seem to hate the inside positions on the draw.) 

      My thinking at every stage of every race is right to the point: make every other horse get the worst of it whenever I can.  For another example, lets take the #8 horse, who is a real contender.   The jock on the #8, knows he's got an idea of whether or not he can out-run the inside posts into the first turn.  If he's thinking he can, he'll try it so as to get to the rail as soon as possible.  But I'm on #2 and maybe I don't want him trying to steal it, so I'm going to come out of there head-and-head and, after casing the field coming into that turn, I want to keep up enough speed so that I'm sure of keeping the contenders--and especially the #8 horse--stacked up as much as I can (see diagram B to the side). so that they'll have to commit themselves pretty quick. Now, on the start shown above which is more or less typical, everyone knows this field can't stay bunched up like this forever.   Riders on the outside horses must know they can't stay that far out and lose that much ground and still win.  So the only thing they can do, if they don't decide to make a run for the first turn is to drop back behind the leaders and chance picking them up later.  In my case here, with the kind of horse I have, I'm going to get right up with the leaders and lay-off the pace by letting the speed horses out-run me until I can safely drop in behind them. There is always danger on the other hand, when you are forced to drop in behind horses that are going no where.  You're going to get blocked sometimes by doing this and, in general, my theory is to make a run for that first turn,  if you think you've got a fair chance of making it.  I'll  never let a horse on my inside out-run me into that turn, if I think I can beat him.  Let us take still another example by assuming this time that my #2 horse is the speed horse.  But so is the #8 horse and his jock tries to beat me to the turn.  If I can out-run him, I'm in perfect position to bear out slightly on the turn.  As I bear out, I'll bring the rest of the field out so the #8 horse can't cut in front of me and trap me (see diagram C to the side).  If the #8 horse broke good, that jock has got to send that horse.  He's committed and this is just one of many examples of how I could (assuming that I'm on a good enough horse) make the #8  horse and possibly a lot of the other horses between me and the #8 horse, take so much the worst of it, right at the start that they might never get properly straightened out.

     I'll know generally within two jumps after the break what I'm going to do--or what I'm going to try and do. Within those two strides, I'll usually know if I'm going to hit him and really let him go or if I'm going to wait to move later on.  This isn't much time.  In fact, on this mile track, I'd say you'll hit that turn in less than 8 seconds .  Well before those eight seconds are up you have to know what you're going to do and if your plan is working or not.  I find that you have to react to all of this instinctively. Nobody can think that fast. I know I can't.


     Although jocks love to get on that rail as much as they can, it can sometimes be dangerous unless you know just what you're doing.  It's suicide to put yourself where you have only inches in which to maneuver.  Two dangerous things can happen: your horse can bear out and cross over the heels of the horse in front of you; or the horse next to you can change stride slightly to make the turn and drop in front of you.  In the drawing at the right in which I'm going through on the rail on the second turn, it looks like I've got about eight feet between the rail and the horse on my right. That's a safe margin and it isn't liable to get you into any trouble.  But riding the rail isn't always the smartest way.  On some tracks, you'll find the best running is well out from the rail.  Often after a rain, the best place to run is in one of the two 12" paths made by the tractors dragging those harrows around.  One of these paths is about 2.5 feet out from the rail and the other must be about three feet farther out.  After the track has been wet, the part that dries fastest is where the tractors have been.  Put a horse into one of those paths (like I did with Nashua in the match race)  and he'll often have the best of it. (A note from Racehorse Herbal:  Calvin Borel had this to say, "There's on the fence, and there's on the fence. . .  You know, to me, if you can get right on it, there is traction there. But if you get a half a horse off of it, (the traction) is good and bad, and then they'll start bobbling, and people don't realize that.")


     As the racing spectator sits in the stands watching the field come out of the second turn and move up the backstretch, it is only natural that his chief concern is for the position of his betting interest and relation of that horse to the leader. If he sees some other horse start a move and go past his horse, he's liable to grumble,  "What's wrong with my jock? Why doesn't he go with that horse? He'll never make it now.  We've had it."  Actually, however, what no person in the stands can see are the real circumstances which may have forced the various moves on the part of individual jocks on the backstretch. Horses running at top  speed--even down the straight of the backstretch--change position in relation to each other so quickly that jocks are often forced to commit themselves in any number of ways.  Even though they may have to, whether they want to or not.  Now, let's see how this looks in the theoretical race which we last saw getting off to a head-and-head start previously. Remember, I'm on the #2 horse and, for the purpose of general discussion, let's assume that I'm laying about 5th while all four contending horses are ahead of me:  #3 on the rail (almost hidden in the below drawing), #4 and #8 lapped on him and #7 a length ahead of me on my outside.  In this position, all things as they are now, I'd stay up there right where you see me. I know, for instance, I'm coming to the far turn and I sure don't want to be in the position of being the fifth horse out.  That's why I'll stay where I am.  The only possible way I'd move now is if I was on something like Citation--which I knew was the best horse--and therefore didn't want to take the chance of staying in and getting trapped in there (see diagram D to right).

     As you can see, I am just off the #7-horse and in pretty good position to allow myself the privilege of a decision to move up and push the #7-horse down inside and behind the #4-horse and #8-horse.  I say this all on the assumption that I'm  on the best horse or on one of the best--riding the bums you can never be sure of doing what you want to.  Although we're a long way from home yet, I feel I'm well placed.  I know, for instance, that if the #11-horse  is a contender, he isn't in front of me--so he has to be behind me.  And by similar logic, I can't allow myself to forget that if a real contender is behind me, his jock must be watching me, right?  Now, here's why you never want to underestimate your opposition.  Let's assume for a moment that the #11-horse is a contender.   If I should make the mistake of moving up into a trap between the #7-horse and the rail, the only alternative for the jock on #11-horse is to move up and keep me in there by blocking me off. This is what we call a blind switch (see diagram E).  A perfect one. A real doll! And the only way I could get out of this trap would be to get real lucky and move inside the leading #3-horse--who, if he happened to be tiring might possibly bear-out and leave the rail spot open as he went into or out of the far turn.

     Thinking about what the opposition jocks are going to do keeps you almost as busy as thinking about what you, yourself should be doing.  And, as I've pointed out earlier in this series, when you ride day-in and day-out against other smart jocks, each of you gets to know what sort of rides to expect from your opposition. For instance, the jocks riding around New York know that if McCreary is on a come-from-behind horse, he'll take him back further than any other rider.   We know, too that both Atkinson and Guerin are position riders--they want to be sure of having good position at all times.  And, of course, with experience riding against one another, we get so that we can anticipate another rider's move well before he makes it. I might want to move upon the inside behind the leader, but if the #1-jock has enough horse under him and can anticipate what I have in mind, he'll probably move the #1-horse up in there to prevent me from getting there first.  And here's still another example:  if I can see that the jock on the #7-horse is driving his horse now and pumping  him but that he isn't going too well, hell, then I'll move up in there myself because I know that by the time we reach the far turn, the #7-horse will be dead tired and I'll be in good position right up behind the leading #3-horse on the rail (see diagram F). In this case, we've eliminated all the contention except the three horses in front of me--#3, 4, and 8--we're ready to hit the far turn.  And I have three alternate courses to take:  I can go inside all three, between any or, my toughest choice, go outside all three.

     However, a few big "ifs" are connected with this. One of them is that no jock is going to be able to make the moves he wants unless his horse is reacting properly and running for him.  Second, you've got to be foul-conscious.  Like any jock, I'd naturally like to take an edge.  If you could, for example, out-talk a steward after committing a foul, maybe you'd have a chance. But you have no chance to argue today when they call you in and say, "Let us refresh your memory!" Then they show you the film of your foul--and you know those boys have you right where they want you!


     With all the contention now ahead of me as we go into the far turn, I am in perfect position , as seen in the drawing below and diagram G, right.  I'm back off the rail horse and #4 and # 8 about a length and a half or in other words, a half  length of daylight.  My only immediate objective is to have a good hold on my horse and also to see that some other jock doesn't come up on my right side and put me in a trap.  Now, the #4-horse and #8-horse aren't going to go past #3-horse on the turn unless they could see he was suddenly through.  If they did elect to pass the #3 instead of trying to go around him.  And you can see that if I stay close behind him and he opens up a two or three length lead, then there's got to be enough room for me to follow close and still not be bothered by the #4 and #8.  Of course, you decide and do these things by instinct, but I keep one important thing always in mind: I've got to take some chance in a race if I intend to win it. I've got to wait for some split-opening and take a shot at it. How successful you'll be in taking this chance depends a lot on how much stock you've got under you.  I wouldn't dare put a slow-responding horse in a tight spot. But if you have a quick-responding horse and there's a split-second opening--even just two feet--hell, send him through. Of course, the great danger is going through any hole is that it might close, forcing you to check your horse and run the risk of catching the heel and going down.


     In 99% of all races, the pack will bust and one horse will move away from those nearest to him.  When it happens, it happens fast and you often have to take a crack at the hole even if you're not quite ready.  But the standard rule is: don't go inside of one horse nor outside of two.  Often, if you don't go for a hole at this stage of the race, you've eliminated yourself by checking, because its so late you won't have time to get back in stride and make up lost ground.

Part 4 . . . . . . . . .  The Whip 

(You should hit a race horse only when you need to.  But when that time comes you get the best results if you can change the whip flawlessly and effortlessly from hand to hand in full flight.)