The Science of Racing: The Starting Gate

January 3rd, 2023

It is a sight as familiar to racegoers as the horses themselves: the starting gate. As the minutes to the next race tick by, a tractor pulls this mechanical wonder to the right spot on the racetrack, dirt or turf, and draws the eyes of everyone present.

The horses circle behind it, assistant starters climbing the gate’s padded sides, bringing each horse forward, closing the doors in front and behind, and then taking position on their narrow ledges.

The starter climbs the stand to oversee the process, awaiting the confirmation from the assistants within that indeed they are set, and, as fans stand breathless with anticipation, the push of a button springs the doors as the bell resounds. In a few strides, the field is away, and the gate is pulled aside to await the next race.

From the metal frame to the padded doors, what makes this essential piece of racetrack equipment go? This month’s the Science of Racing explores the ins and outs of the starting gate.

A Story of Starts

To explore the starting gate and how it works, we need to contemplate the mechanics of the start of a horse race. Prior to the 1930s, horses met at the starting line, often behind a rope or linen webbing on a spring, and were roughly lined up facing that barrier. Once the starter was satisfied, the barrier would fly up and the horses were sent away. If a horse were out of position, either turned sideways or even away from the barrier, that would impede their ability to get away with the rest of the field. Man o’ War’s single career defeat could be chalked up to such a disadvantageous start.

To eliminate the risks associated with a standing start, inventors like C.M. Waite sought to develop a stall-based starting gate in the late 1920s. The 1930 Kentucky Derby was the first to use a such a gate, selecting Waite’s version while that year’s Preakness Stakes used a Bahr starting gate. The Bahr gate is similar to the modern starting gate with its padded stalls, but has no doors, still requiring a barrier to be hung across the track. The Waite starting gate had doors at the front of each stall, but was open overhead, the stalls coming up to the top of a horse’s legs. Both gates saw use in the 1930s and 1940s, but a new version developed by Clay Puett quickly became the preferred gate for racetracks across the country and around the world.

A native of Texas, Clay Puett was active in racing for much of his life, working as a jockey, a trainer, a starter, and later, a racing official. He tinkered with a gate that had doors that closed in a V-shape in front of and behind a horse in a padded stall. The V-shape allowed horses more head room, and the width of the stall gave horse and jockey a chance to settle and get into position for the start. The starter took his customary position on the stand overseeing the loading process, and then, when he was satisfied that the horses were ready, he pushed a button that opened all front stall doors simultaneously, theoretically allowing for an equal start for all horses involved.

Puett’s version soon caught on as the preferred design for the starting gate, with companies like United Starting Gate Corporation and others tweaking his design and selling their own versions. Today, companies across the world sell starting gates to racetracks from Australia to America, the starting gate an essential part of any day at the races. Understanding how a starting gate works adds another level of appreciation for the jockeys and the assistant starters that put their health and safety on the line each time a horse enters the gate.

How It Works

Starting gates are generally constructed on a steel frame, with each stall suspended from the top section of the frame. Many racetracks employ a 14-stall gate, which is generally about 60 feet long, 10.5 feet wide, and nearly 13 feet high, and weighs around 15 tons. Each gate rests on four pneumatic tires and is towed by a tractor from place to place on the racetrack. Depending on the length of the race, the gate will be positioned at specific spots, and the horses for that race will walk from the paddock where they are saddled to the gate’s location, loading from the gate’s backside.

Each stall is about 2.5 feet wide by 8 feet long, a steel frame with padded panels and padded framework. Assistant starters will cue the jockey to walk their horse into the stall and then close the back gate doors behind them. Another will go around the front of the gate and close the front doors in front of each stall. Once a horse is safely inside the stall, an assistant starter will stand on a 3-inch wide ledge on one side of the stall as they check that the jockey is ready, that each horse has all four feet on the ground, and that each horse’s head is pointed forward in preparation for the start.

In one version of the starting gate, the front and back doors of the gate stay closed via electromagnets. The back doors are shorter than the front, just high enough to reach a horse’s rump and padded to protect a horse in case they back out of the stall.

The front doors are taller, with an open grate on the top half and some padding on the lower half. These open grates allow the jockeys to see the path forward and gives the starter a view of the horses and jockeys inside each stall. An assistant starter then will bring the doors together until the magnets catch, ensuring that the doors are prepared for the push button start. These front doors are also equipped with springs, so, when the doors are closed, the magnets hold the doors shut while also stretching the spring out enough that the doors will pop open once the magnet is released. If a horse breaks through the front gates, because they are secured by magnets and not latched, the doors will spring open, reducing the risk of injury.

When the starter pushes the button, the electric current that holds the doors closed shuts off and the springs pull all of the doors open simultaneously, enabling each horse to start at the same time — in theory. Of course, horses can leave a gate off balance, hitting the frame of the gate on the way out of their stall. Because the frame is padded, the impact is less severe, but any contact with the gate on the way out can compromise a horse’s chances.

A Special Case

Since Clay Puett introduced his starting gate in 1939, the design of this essential piece of equipment remains basically the same, but for some races, a racetrack is not going to use just any gate. On the first Saturday in May, Churchill Downs rolls out a very special version, befitting America’s most iconic race. That gate, manufactured by Steriline Racing, has 20 stalls, eliminating the need for an auxiliary gate and giving each of the 20 horses a truly equal shot at Derby glory.

Nearly a century after it was introduced to the sport, the starting gate has become an integral part of each race, another vital piece of the routine that makes racing go. Its ubiquity might cause us to take it for granted, but its design and consistency make it a marvel we should appreciate whenever the horses load for the next race.