Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ron Dill, Starter
They have been called 'the cowboys of horse racing.' Certainly, their skills trace to an earlier era, when proficiency with horses was required to put food on the family table. No racetrack can operate without the hard-earned skills of the starter and his assistants, who are responsible for loading each horse into the gate. Some enter as gracefully as a ballerina stepping on stage; others need a blindfold or the full force of two men pushing from behind. And for the crew members who accompany a nervous animal inside the 8-foot long by 2.5-foot wide gate stall, getting out of there every race with no more than sore joints or a bruised leg is an accomplishment. To avoid worse, the crew subjects each horse to extensive gate training before they are approved to race. But horses are claustrophobic by nature, and the men who work with them around the gate must accept the risks. Tampa Bay Downs is fortunate to have the services of Ron Dill – now in his 13th season as the track's starter – and his crew. Dill, 53, grew up around horses; his late father Russell Dill was a trainer at Fairmount Park and Cahokia Downs in Illinois. A Lafayette, La. native, Ron has been married to Micky, an assistant store manager, for nine years. His brother Scott was a jockey for a short time and is now a valet at Fairmount Park, and their sister Lori is an assistant trainer for Jerry Hammond in Illinois. Their mother, Louise, still lives in Collinsville, Ill. When the current Tampa Bay Downs meeting ends, Dill and most of his crew members will head to Erie, Pa. for the Presque Isle Downs meeting, where Dill has been the starter the past three seasons.

People may call us the unsung heroes of the racetrack, but I don't think any of us look at it that way. We know what our job is, we do it the same way every day and we always keep our focus on safety – not only our own, but that of the jockeys and the horses. As long as we follow the right procedures and remember that every horse is different, we're confident in our ability to get the job done.
A few years back, ESPN called being an assistant starter 'the most dangerous job in sports.' That may be so, but if you take any time to think about that, you can't do the job. Everything moves too quickly once the horses start loading for a race. At that point, all the preparations we've done in the mornings come into play.
That doesn't mean a horse is going to act the same way every time, not with the excitement of a race and thousands of fans making noise. But at least we know we've covered our bases and can react when the unexpected happens – which is more often than not. The main thing for us, as  a crew, is to get them to stand and get them out of there as quick as we can. There will be one left once in a while, if a horse throws its head or something. It does happen.
We all pretty much grew up around horses. I was born in Lafayette – (jockeys) Mark Guidry, Shane Sellers and I are real good friends – but my family moved to Collinsville when I was a little-bitty kid. My dad was an assistant trainer there before he went out on his own.
From the time I was 8 or 9, I was always at the barn. I started by cleaning stalls and walking horses, then I got to ponying horses, then galloping. When I was 19, my dad asked me if I wanted a job on the starting gate. I said yeah, I'll try it. I've worked on the gate ever since.
It's kind of hard to describe what it's like to work with race horses to the average fan who sees how beautiful it looks and how spectacular a sport racing can be. I always loved it, but I always looked at it as work, too.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a jockey like my brother Scott, but my weight and size wouldn't allow that to happen. So I settled for just being around the horses and helping my dad. George Dill, my uncle, was also a trainer. Our whole family was in the horse business.
Without question, my dad was the most influential person in my life. He'd get me up at 4:30 in the morning, even on weekends, and say 'C'mon, it's time to go to the barn.' He taught me my work ethic and to never be late for your job, and I have never been late.
I had a pretty easy time getting hired on the gate because I'd been around horses so long. Even so, you learn in a hurry that there is no one to cry to when something goes wrong. Guys will bust on you when you're starting out – like, if you have a horse flip on you, they'll say 'You'll know what to do next time, won't you?' Well, maybe, maybe not. It all depends on the horse. But it's all good-natured, because we're on the same page.
Like everybody else, I started out by schooling horses, getting them used to the gate. If you've ever heard the saying 'Hurry up and wait,' it sure applies to schooling. The first step is just showing them the gate, which can be pretty intimidating for a 2-year-old just off the farm. Next we'll walk them through a few times with a rider, then we'll put them in there and open the front doors and let them walk out.
They'll pick it up more and more as they go along until we get ready to break them from the gate. The young horses, we just take our time with them and teach them what they are supposed to do. The horse will let you know when it's ready. If it is coming out slow, we might tell the rider 'hustle him, pick him up a little more.' I don't school my horses without a rider – they have to have them in the afternoons.
We school six days a week here, and we were schooling 70 or 80 a morning earlier in the meet. It has slowed down now to maybe 40 or 50, but there is still a lot of preparation and bookwork after that. I keep records on every horse, so we know if it needs a handler or if it's a tail horse or whatever the case might be. A few trainers will have their horses come up and stand by the gate, just to get them used to that environment.
If a horse needs to be handled in the gate, it usually means the horse has gone through the front doors, or it can be a little ratty in there. The assistant has to stay with him and keep him as calm as he can. If one of my guys sees a horse he thinks needs to be handled the next time it runs, I'll mark it in my program and put it in the book after the races.
A tail horse is one that needs its tail lifted over its back to keep it from rearing up or going all the way over. Some horses won't go in without a blindfold, and some you have to back in from in front of the gate. Obviously, these are traits we need to know before the race, which is where all our schooling pays off.
It goes without saying this is a dangerous profession. Each of our guys is required to wear a flak jacket, but that isn't always enough protection. A good friend of mine, Leon Reed, was killed six or seven years ago at Finger Lakes in New York when a horse he was helping to load kicked him in the chest. He'd been working on the gate pretty much his whole life. I had worked with him here at Tampa Bay Downs when we were both assistants, so it really hit close to home. He was a young guy (47) and had a wife.
I’m fortunate to have a very good, experienced crew. I carry 12 guys; you always want more, but the majority of these guys have been with me eight or nine years and understand what it takes. Anthony Ranno drives the tractor that pulls the gate into position and makes sure it is greased and the springs are in working order. Denny Knack has worked with me since before I became the head starter.
When we get a new guy, I just tell him to watch the guys who have been doing it a long time and they'll teach you. They take the new guys under their wing, show them how to stand in there, which is a knack in itself. Those pontoons (ledges) inside the gate are only three inches wide. Guys are always getting hit when the horses leave the gate, but a lot of them know how to get their legs out of the way.
The gate runs off two 12-volt batteries; when I push the button, it releases the magnets that hold the gate shut and signals the horses and riders the race has begun. The energy you feel inside the gate is incredible. I don't know what you would compare it to, but from my position a few yards in front of the gate, it drowns out everything else no matter how loud the crowd is yelling.
When I'm holding the button, I don't listen to the riders. I listen to my men. I watch them and what they are doing. If they're hollering, I know to just hold up for another second and see what is going on. I watch every horse, but I go by what my men are telling me. Then, as long as the horses are all standing good and looking down the racetrack, I take it.
And if nobody notices us, we know we've done a pretty good job.

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