A Clean Start: The Evolution of the Kentucky Derby Starting Gate

March 22nd, 2024

Starting a race, any kind of race, presents challenges to all involved. Whether horses or humans, the ideal start can make or break a race, the quirks of racing luck giving and taking away advantages with no rhyme or reason. To ensure fairness, sports have always chased the right solution to ensure that each participant has a chance at an ideal beginning. Over the last century and a half, the sport of horse racing has seen its share of inventions seeking to solve the problem of questionable starts. 

In its 150 years, the Kentucky Derby has gone from a standing start to a barrier to the modern starting gate, a journey that shows the ever-evolving science of a clean start.

The Way It Was 

Though the earliest recorded horse races date back to Greece around 700 BCE, contests of speed and stamina likely date back to the domestication of the horse. The concept of the standing start is as old as racing itself, its simplicity the best method in low-tech eras. Under the watchful eye of a starter, horses would line up at a starting line drawn across the course and wait for the signal to go. Once in place, the tap of a drum or the drop of a flag served as the cue to riders to send their mounts away.

False starts meant that everyone had to return to the line and try again. Gallant Fox sprinted away from the barrier before his three competitors in the 1930 Belmont Stakes, racing a furlong down the track before jockey Earl Sande brought him back to the line. The field for the 1893 American Derby endured 90 minutes of false starts before starter Charles Pettingill was satisfied with the race’s break. 

Seeking a solution, Australian trainer Alexander Gray developed his version of a starting barrier, a spring-loaded wire that lifted when the starter triggered it. That soon developed into a wire mesh or rope or linen barrier that sprung upward, replacing the old-school flag drop or drum tap. Still, racing’s innovators sought an even better solution. 

An Era of Innovation  

In 1928, Charles M. Waite patented his version of an electric starting gate. Waite had spent his life in racing, building racetracks like River Downs in Ohio and developing an early version of the photo finish camera, and used his engineering acumen to build the Waite starting gate. The gate had fourteen stalls that were about the height of a horse’s shoulder with no overhead framework. It featured padding on the sides, a rear door that would collapse if necessary, and a metal bar across the front of the stall that would fall away when the starter pressed the button. Once the horses were away, a draft team would pull the gate off the racetrack. This version of the starting gate was so successful in its early tests that Churchill Downs elected to use the Waite gate for the 1930 Kentucky Derby.

The following year, Churchill Downs opted to use the Bahr starting gate instead. The design is familiar to modern racing fans: the gate had a steel frame with padded stalls, but no doors on the front or the rear. Horses simply walked into the gate and stood behind the original linen or wire barrier, which the starter would trigger to signal the start. If the field was bigger than 14, the overflow horses had to stand on the outside. 

Initially, the Bahr gate did not have a bell so the starter's resonant shout of “Haw!” sent the 1931 Derby field away; a bell was added for subsequent editions. As racetracks were transitioning from the standing start to an electric gate throughout the 1930s, Clay Puett was perfecting his design, one that has become the worldwide standard over the last 80 years. 

Finally, a Solution

Puett’s gate was similar to the Bahr’s structure, adding front and rear doors held closed by electrified magnets. The push of a button cut the current and deactivated the magnets, which triggered the doors to spring open. Churchill Downs adopted the Puett gate for the 1941 Kentucky Derby, with Triple Crown winner Whirlaway the first winner to break from this innovation. 

If the Derby field was larger than 14 horses, the standard number of stalls for Puett gates, then an auxiliary gate with six stalls would be added. For the 100th Kentucky Derby in 1974, the field of 23 required two 12-stall gates to accommodate the record number of horses. Since then, the cap for the Run for the Roses has been set at 20, with fields of that size more common in the last two decades. Over time, though, the main gate plus auxiliary gate setup became a potential hindrance for horses starting from posts 14 and 15, that gap between the two problematic in the scramble for an ideal early position. 

To solve that problem, Churchill Downs contracted Steriline, an Australian company specializing in racetrack equipment, to construct a custom 20-horse gate used only for the Kentucky Derby. First used for the 2020 Derby, this 65-foot-wide structure eliminates that problematic gap between the two gates and fits neatly within the 120-foot-wide section at the quarter-mile pole, the big race’s traditional starting point. This unique gate is one befitting America’s signature race, a culmination of more than 100 years’ worth of innovation in pursuit of a clean start for the most exciting two minutes in this centuries-old sport.