Starters oversee horse racing events to ensure that horses are safely and efficiently loaded into the starting gate.
Racetrack starters oversee the start of each horse race, ensuring that all horses are loaded quickly and are all set for a fair start. Once all race entrants are loaded into the gate and are standing attentively, the starter presses a button that simultaneously rings the starting bell and flips open the magnetic gate doors.
The starter oversees the starting gate crew, a team of 12 that is responsible for getting each horse into the gate. Generally, each gate crew member leads their own horse into the starting gate and then hops up on the side of the stall until the gates open. If a horse proves to be a challenge to load, the starter may direct the gate crew to use a variety of loading techniques such as the use of blindfolds or gate blankets, having the jockey dismount for loading, opening the front gate to encourage a horse to enter, or having gate crew members band together to physically push a reluctant horse in.
During morning training hours, the starter supervises gate schooling for young horses or experienced runners that have had serious recent gate issues. All horses must be approved by the starter via receipt of a “gate card” before they are allowed to race. Young horses begin by walking through the gate, then standing with both front and back gates closed, and ultimately work up to breaking from the gate with the starting bell.
Starters also contribute to and review a nationwide database (the widely used track management program InCompass) that lists details about difficult horses as observed in morning workouts and during their participation in other race meets. The gate crew always appreciates advance warning from the starter about potentially troublesome horses. The starter may also confer individually with trainers to find out about any known quirks or issues that their runners may have.
Starters may work both morning hours (during training) and afternoon or evening hours (for live racing). Weekends, evening, and holiday hours may be required depending on the schedule of the track. In addition to managing the gate crew, starters regularly interact with a wide variety of racing industry professionals including jockeys, veterinarians, trainers, exercise riders, and other track personnel on the backside of the track. They may also interact with track management, industry representatives, and racing fans from time to time.
Starters may specialize by working the gate in either Thoroughbred racing or stock horse racing. Some starters rotate between two or more tracks during the year to maintain a full schedule. Others, who are employed by tracks with more days of racing and training, are able to work exclusively for that track.
Education and Training
While no particular educational background is required for racetrack starters, they must have extensive experience working with horses (with this experience preferably having been gained through work at the track). Many starters begin their careers as starting gate crew members, grooms, exercise riders, barn foremen, or other related industry positions.
Starters must have an excellent knowledge of equine behavior so that they can anticipate potential problems from the behavioral signals of the horses they are supervising. They must also work well with people, as they are directly in charge of the large gate crew. They must also coordinate with the veterinarians and outriders to ensure the well-being of any horses that unexpectedly break through the gate early.
The salary of a racetrack starter can vary widely based on many factors such as the number of days and hours worked per race meet, the number of live racing days per year, the size and geographic location of the track, and whether the individual is a head starter or an assistant starter. Head starters at the largest tracks tend to earn top dollar, while assistants will have to put in their dues and work their way up the pay scale.
The number of available racetrack starter positions is not expected to show any significant growth in the near future since the total number of tracks in operation is expected to remain steady. Some job turnover is to be expected as some starters reach retirement age or choose to transition into other roles in the horse racing industry. Starters with significant experience in the field can expect to have the best prospects when seeking employment opportunities.