Thursday, April 26, 2012
Judy Gittins, Hostess
During the live season, Judy Gittins might have the best view in the house. She is the hostess inside the Stella Artois Garden Suite, located just past the finish line. For $7.50, guests receive a racing program, snacks, food and beverage service and great company, courtesy of Judy and parimutuel teller Joe Maley. "We try to help people understand what racing is about," Judy said, with an emphasis on camaraderie and fun. The view is panoramic, encompassing the lush turf course, big-screen infield television and tote board, the post parade and finish. And when the horses cross the wire and the noise subsides, the decelerating hoof beats of the horses provide an audible soundtrack from the theater-style seats. Judy – who has been at Tampa Bay Downs since 1986, in various capacities – feels blessed to stay involved, but it is her ability to relate to Thoroughbred racing fans from all backgrounds and income levels that makes the Stella Artois Garden Suite such a popular destination. Judy will soon return to her summer home in Saranac, N.Y. with her partner, Bobby Drollette, but when September rolls around, she'll start marking off her calendar until their return to Florida's west coast. Judy has four children and six grandchildren.
I'm still not sure why I was asked to write a blog. Most people my age, I think, don't even know what a blog is. And when I started reading the ones that have been posted this season, I got nervous, because these other people have done so much in horse racing.
I mean, Joe Waunsch, the Director of Stabling and former leading trainer, broke Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown. It doesn't get any better than that! And I was very impressed by (Special Events Director) Nicole McGill's blog. She has done such a great job bringing groups to enjoy a day at the racetrack, a lot of people who haven't been here before.
The blog from Ron Dill, the starter, brought back a lot of memories because my ex-husband, Doug Gittins, used to be the starter here. Doug moved to Sam Houston in Texas when they opened in the mid-1990s. Those guys on the gate crew are a tough bunch, believe me.
It's always fun hearing about (jockey) Rosemary Homeister, Jr., and it is even more enjoyable to read her story in her own words. I don't know if she's gotten enough credit for coming back and being so successful after having a baby last summer.
I really learned a lot reading the blog from the Association Veterinarian (Dr. Kristen Pastir). It was very informative and I believe that if the racing game, and Tampa Bay Downs, can keep attracting that quality of person, we are going to be in very good shape for the foreseeable future.
Even though I don't think I'm as interesting as those folks, the reason I agreed to write a blog is I've done just about everything else at the racetrack except announce a race and read a lip tattoo. The racetrack has always seemed a natural environment for me, because I grew up riding hunters and jumpers and five-gaited horses and did very well showing at the New York State Fair and in Canada.
It really started when I was about 10 and my dad won a pony in some kind of contest. I was so excited, because I loved horses, and I walked that pony home from Cadyville, N.Y. to Dannemora, which is about six miles. I led that pony right to the house, and Daddy converted the garage into stalls and that's how I got started.
Horses kept me out of a lot of trouble when I was young. I mean, boy trouble. I was so into my horses, I didn't really pay too much attention to a boy unless he had a nice horse.
I moved to Tampa in the 1970s after I came down from New York to visit my sister. I looked around the area and said, this is for me! My background was in food and beverage service, and I worked at The Barn Bar, a racetrack hangout, down on Hillsborough Avenue. It was a place owners and trainers and horse people visited after the races. Later on, we had all the bikers. We stayed open until 3 a.m. and everything in Pinellas County closed at 2 a.m., so we would be mobbed on the weekends.
I worked on the floor, I worked behind the bar and sometimes I worked in the kitchen. Then the owner, Arlene Croft, said she was going to close the place unless I agreed to manage it, so I did that. I was there about 14 years and met a lot of nice people, including Doug Gittins, who worked at the racetrack.
When I started at Tampa Bay Downs in 1986 I was the greeter at the door and in charge of programs. Then Mrs. (Lorraine) King, who was the general manager, asked me to run the admissions department. I wasn't sure if I was capable because I wasn't computer savvy, but she convinced me with the proper training I could do it. I have always been thankful for her encouragement and support because it started a whole new career for me.
By 1989, I was Director of Admissions and Parking, a job I also held at Monmouth Park. I thought I had it made, because I got to spend the winter down south at beautiful Tampa Bay Downs and spend the summer on the Jersey shore! Jimmy Scatuorchio, the owner of More Than Ready, English Channel and Scat Daddy, was a good friend, and his daughter and son worked for me at Monmouth.
I remember the first year (trainer) Bob Baffert came for the Haskell Stakes. We had a big breakfast with the officials and trainers and other folks, and he came over and kissed my cheek. I said “Oooh!” That made me feel pretty special.
For a few years before I went to Monmouth, we would leave here and go to Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha. I was in charge of food and beverage service in the dining room, and I had 150 college kids working under me. I got many compliments from people who said they got the best service they've ever had.
Before I got there, the kids would stay in the kitchen instead of waiting on people, but I decided to change the whole atmosphere and attitude of the place. They would see me helping out – if the cook got behind I'd stay in the kitchen to help him, and if the dishwashers got behind I would take my jacket off and get busy. The kids respected me for that, and before long everyone was pitching in to make the customer experience top-notch and the restaurant a place where people wanted to keep returning.
Mr. (Peter) Berube, the general manager here, put me in charge of the Stella Artois Garden Suite four or five years ago. It has really gotten busy because it is such a beautiful spot on the track, and I love it. Once people spend a day there, a lot of them say they're never going back to where they were before.
As much as I love the horses, it's the people that make my job rewarding. Joe and I enjoy meeting and serving everyone, whether they are big bettors or someone at the track for the first time. Joe is very good at explaining how the betting works, the different kind of bets and how to make them.
You have to remember, when people come to the racetrack for the first time, a lot of the terminology sounds like a foreign language. We'll get asked 'Do horses run in the rain?' (Yes), or 'Do the same horses run in every race?' (No), or 'Where are they coming from?' So we'll explain what happens on the backside of the track, which is like a little village, and you see people start getting interested. By the time they leave, a lot of them have met new friends and made plans to meet up here again.
Bobby, my partner, is retired from Budweiser, and we have a nice house up in Saranac, N.Y. It's up in the mountains, and we enjoy camping and fishing. Sometimes we'll go into Montreal to the casino. That is a very cosmopolitan city. Or we'll spend a week at Saratoga for the races. But there isn't a whole lot do up there, so we're always looking forward to driving back here in our travel trailer and seeing all our friends.
Like I said, I don't think I'm as interesting as the other bloggers, but I certainly have met some fascinating people. Not many people remember when they had Quarter Horse racing here at Tampa Bay Downs one summer in the mid-1970s, but that's how I met Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore. They used to sit at the end table of the dining room, and he had running Appaloosas at his farm in Jupiter.
I got to know him pretty well, and he asked me to help out on his farm, so on Sunday afternoons I went to Jupiter and rubbed his horses. That was one of the best jobs I've ever had. The horses would stick their heads out of the stalls and start nickering when I went to feed them, and some nights they would race at Pompano on the east coast.
Usually, I would be too tired to eat when I got home, but I loved it. So you can see, like I always say, horses kept me out of a lot of trouble – even with Burt Reynolds!
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Kevin Velez, Valet
When jockeys enter the room, their focus narrows to their mounts and winning races. The task of helping them prepare falls to their valets, who handle many of the small details that can affect a rider’s performance. Setting out equipment, polishing boots and saddles, equipping helmets with goggles and purchasing drinks and vitamins is only the beginning. Valets assist trainers with saddling and help unsaddle horses after a race. They are also responsible to ensure riders carry the proper weight and wear the correct silks. Kevin Velez, a 24-year-old valet for third-leading rider Angel Serpa at Tampa Bay Downs, was born to the job: his father is jockey Jose Velez Jr., who has won more than 3,000 races. Jose and Karla Velez, Kevin’s mother, live in south Florida. Kevin’s older brother Jason is a valet at Monmouth Park. His sister Amber is a college freshman and younger brother Anden is in eighth grade. Kevin’s grandparents, John and Judy Sessa, are Thoroughbred breeders and owners. Kevin has worked as a foreman for trainers Kelly Breen and Jane Cibelli and hopes to one day operate his own stable.
The most difficult thing for a valet is trying to be perfect. When your riders look at their stuff that they are paying you to take care of, you want them to think ‘Yeah, he’s doing the job.’ One time I sent a rider out for a route race with turf goggle equipment. He didn’t have enough goggles, and he really couldn’t see for part of the race.
He didn’t yell at me afterward; he pulled me off to the side and talked to me like a man. But I still felt bad, because I’m getting paid to make sure my jockeys have the right equipment. He just told me ‘Kevin, pay more attention. I understand you’re busy, but can you please make sure it doesn’t happen the next time?’
I give these guys a lot of credit. I’ve seen some of them go in the hot box for a long time, just to lose enough weight to ride that one horse. It can be 2-1 or 30-1, it doesn’t matter. They love doing what they do, and you can’t take it away from them. They have a passion for it.
There are a lot of jockeys I look up to, but my father is absolutely my favorite. He didn’t graduate from high school, but he would do anything to provide for his family. He would cut off his right arm to save one of our lives. Whatever he needed to do to make weight, he’d do it to make sure we had food on the table.
I started hanging around the jockeys’ room when I was 7. My father rode at Calder and in New Jersey during the summer, and it was a lot of fun growing up in that environment. He rode a lot of big horses. In 2002, he was second in the Dubai World Cup on a horse named Sei Mi. Two years before that – when I was 13 – I kicked our TV and broke it when he and North East Bound got beat on the wire by War Chant and Gary Stevens in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs.
In 2003, we were all at Monmouth when my father won the $750,000 United Nations Handicap on the turf for trainer Todd Pletcher on Balto Star, who was a 37-1 shot and set a track record. My father was the only local rider in the race. It was funny because our suits got on the wrong plane, so we are in the win photo wearing dress jeans and polo shirts.
My father always had a great relationship with the guys he competed against, and those friendships extended to our family. I call Alex Solis my uncle; we really aren’t related, but he is a great friend to us. Edgar Prado and John Velazquez have always been nice to us. Marland Suckie is my dad’s best friend and has been like a second father to me. Joe Bravo used to invite us places, and he went to the Bahamas with us on a vacation.
When we were kids and my dad rode at Gulfstream, we would play volleyball and cook out on the beach on dark days. Down here, we have the same kind of relationship among some of the riders and valets. We relax, hang out and play volleyball, then we go to someone’s house and have barbecue. It is more or less an extended family.
I learned from a very young age that injuries are part of the business. When jockeys get hurt, they can be out a week or six months. In 1990, my father was the jockey on Unbridled, but he got injured and couldn’t ride him when he won the Kentucky Derby.
I was too young to remember Unbridled, but my father never let what happened become a negative. He told us you have to keep pushing forward to do better, that hopefully you get another shot to get a horse like that. Obviously, he proved the truth of that by his example.
As a valet, I wouldn’t say I have anything to do with a jockey winning, but you make sure that saddle he uses to ride a $150,000 race has the proper equipment on it. You want to make sure the saddle isn’t going to have an iron fall out or a billet break (the billets are the straps attaching to the girth to anchor the saddle). If it isn’t done properly, the saddle can slip and a jockey can fall and be severely hurt.
From being around horse racing, I’ve learned there are jobs everywhere. You just have to work for it, and what you learn can set you up for your career. If I become a trainer, but it doesn’t work out and a track needs a valet, I’ve got that skill. Or if this doesn’t work out, I know how to groom a horse or be a hotwalker. The more you know in this sport, the more likely you are to be successful.
I learn something new on the job every day. I’m always learning from the more experienced valets in the room. Mr. Eddie Mirabona has been here a long time and taught me a lot. William Newkirk and Timmy O’Connor have been very helpful with their suggestions, and Paico is very good at cleaning tack and knowing what to use on a saddle so it won’t be too slippery. If anyone gets in a jam, someone is there to help out.
I usually get to the room by 10 a.m. and check my riders’ equipment. If they have broken goggles, or if a saddle or stirrup is broken, I let them know it’s time to order more or that it’s not safe. You set their helmet up, make sure they have the right silks going out and clean their boots. I also provide other things like Red Bull, Gatorade, Coke or water, candy to snack on after a race or chewing gum.
All jockeys have their own preferences when it comes to goggles. In a turf race, some jockeys want only one clear pair and one dark pair. For a sprint race, they might want two clear and one dark, or three clear and one dark for a route race. You just have to remember what each rider likes. Luis Garcia likes two clear pairs and one dark for a turf race; he likes that extra protection if a chunk of turf hits him.
Probably my most embarrassing moment came on my first day last season, when I switched the silks and the helmet covers for two of my riders, Luis Garcia and Freddie Lenclud. Both of their trainers were standing by the door, and when they came out the trainers both said ‘Why are you wearing my silks?’ Luis and Freddie came back in and I started switching everything off them. I was lucky it was a turf race and I didn’t have to add too many goggles.
Those guys were just laughing at me. They are pretty easy to work with. Jockeys are very good to work with – they are not prima donnas.
Jockeys go into slumps like any athlete, so you always have to keep your riders positive. When Luis Garcia was here, he would ask me to watch a replay with him and say ‘What do you think?’ I might tell him, ‘You should have gone this way’ or done something differently.
Basically, all the riders in our corner of the room will help each other out. You really don’t want a lot of negativity in the corner because then everyone gets grumpy.
I graduated from Cypress Bay High School in Weston and attended Broward Community College for a year, but it was too boring. I was also working at a restaurant and had the same schedule every day.
What it really came down to was, I was missing the horses. The racetrack life is fast-paced, it’s action all the time. There is always something going on.
I started working for trainer Kelly Breen when I was 14. I started as a hot walker and grooming horses, then he asked me to be his foreman. This was before he won the Belmont with Ruler On Ice, but he had a lot of nice horses then like Bold Union, West Side Bernie and Atomic Rain. He also took me to the Keeneland sales, and it was great experience seeing how that worked.
The past couple of summers, I’ve worked for Jane Cibelli at Monmouth. She is very one-on-one with her horses and I’ve learned a lot being around her. I help with the tack and equipment, setting up the feed, making sure every horse gets their supplements. I’ve actually worked for Kelly and Jane when they won meet titles, which is very cool.
My grandmother, Judy Sessa, is probably one of my best friends. She always looks for the best in people and encourages you to do your best and strive for your goals. When I was younger, she told me if you don’t take your shot at doing something in life, you’ll never be able to live with yourself. She has always pushed me to do what I want, and I know she was very happy when I was working for Kelly and Jane.
I would like to take a shot as a trainer, but that is down the road. Being a valet is a great job. As a young person, I’m fortunate to have my family supporting me from home and my racetrack family teaching me what it takes.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
Nicole McGill - Special Events Director
Looking for a unique way to entertain clients? Want to surprise Mom and Dad on their anniversary? Or is it simply time to go for the gusto with a couple dozen of your best friends? No matter the occasion, Nicole McGill, Special Events Director, is here to help groups large and small plan an afternoon of non-stop excitement revolving around Thoroughbred racing. The University of South Florida graduate has been the track’s Special Events Director since answering a newspaper advertisement 11 years ago. McGill and assistant Denise Shaffer organize and execute events and interface with other track departments to ensure your visit is one that will be fondly remembered. In recent years, McGill has promoted Tampa Bay Downs to become a prime wedding location. She contracts the event, organizes the setup (DJ, cake delivery, photographer, florist, officiant and decorating crew), orchestrates the wedding procession and choreographs the steps to saying ‘I Do.’ Prior to arriving at Tampa Bay Downs, McGill worked 17 years for Busch Entertainment Corporation, where her late father, Rick Mank, was a purchasing manager for 25 years. McGill has two children: Amanda, 16, and Anthony, 14.
I’m a big believer that first impressions are very important. I’m proud to receive this trait from my father because he was very outgoing and always extended his hand to greet people when he met someone new. My mom, who was the head nurse in the emergency room of St. Joseph’s Hospital, is more of a laid-back, down-to-earth person who gets along with everybody, and she passed that along to me.
With Busch Gardens, I started with the operations department and moved my way up to special events, including radio remotes, film shoots, weddings, corporate events, holiday parties and private events. My responsibilities included contracting and implementing the entire event. From that experience, I knew in my heart that working in the hospitality industry would challenge me the way I wanted to be challenged.
I was a little anxious about coming into the racetrack environment, but I knew my field and felt absolutely confident I was the right person for the job. I thought I could pick up what I needed to know on the horse racing end. I’m not an expert, but I’ve learned a lot and with the strong support of my co-workers, I’ve expanded my horse racing knowledge.
My favorite part of the job at Tampa Bay Downs is working with people. Every event is different, and you never know what to expect. You have to be spontaneous and able to adapt to changes that might occur and different personalities.
In order to put together an event, it is important to meet the expectations of your guests and focus on the challenges you face every day while staying organized and structured. At Tampa Bay Downs, about 75 percent of our groups are repeat customers or spin-offs, which is wonderful because it tells us we’re helping to provide people a rich, rewarding experience they will remember for years to come.
Our daily groups range from large exhibitions to corporate retreats and everything in between. We host holiday parties, educational school events, senior outings, birthdays, tour and travel agencies, anniversary and bachelor/bachelorette parties, and weddings.
During the year, Margo Flynn, Vice President of Marketing, and I travel to trade shows and speak to different community groups to promote Tampa Bay Downs group specials. There are so many other aspects of this job besides the groups at the track – night parties, attending trade shows and wedding shows, and luncheons where I meet with vendors such as DJ’s, florists, videographers, etc. These are the kind of tools and resources I can use to help people plan their events.
Kim Harvey, Administrative Assistant, and I go to the gate every race day to greet the groups and assist them to their reserved area. Denise Shaffer helps groups in all of our venues with questions they may have during their stay. While Denise meets each group in the winner’s circle for their race presentation and photo opportunity, I handle the daily operations of scheduling, box seat sales, event reservations, financial commitment of each event and preparing for the next day’s events.
Although my title is ‘Special Events Director,’ it takes a team to put together a successful event. I work with many of our departments from admissions, food service and commissary, housekeeping, maintenance, mutuels, publicity and security to ensure the event will run smoothly down to the smallest detail. Everyone here is willing to make it happen, and it is nice to have that kind of rapport with my co-workers.
I feel it is necessary to have a positive outlook in order to work with all the different personalities because there are always special requests and last-minute details that need to be made.
This is our second season promoting Tampa Bay Downs in the Perfect Wedding Guide magazine, which is also an online service. Two other Web sites we promote are The Knot and the WeddingWire. We’ve booked eight weddings to date and have scheduled several for 2013. It is a part of our business that has really blossomed! Weddings, as well as corporate parties, are important avenues we actively pursue.
We offer a lot of different wedding packages to give couples the flexibility they need in planning. If they don’t see something they want on the dinner menu, our chefs are willing to be adaptable. And our weddings are definitely priced at a point that is affordable to all.
As the event planner, I ensure the bride, wedding party and the family have what they need from start to finish. The timing of the event is crucial, as many of the ceremonies are held in our newly renovated garden area and the reception in our Skye Terrace dining room.
I take a lot of pride in our weddings. Not only do I organize the special day, I ensure the bride and family have what they need from start to finish. Naturally, I am very happy for the couples who get married here, but I don’t get emotional during the ceremony because I want to be professional and strong for the bride.
I know it is very sentimental for the families and I just want to make sure what we do meets their expectations. But I do grow close to them during the planning and preparation, and if I see them outside of the track, I’ll stop and talk.
Both of my children, Amanda and Anthony, help me wherever possible with a lot of my events. I’ll take a lot of the projects home, and they’ll jump right in to lend a hand. I think they see how I interact with people and how I introduce myself and they know that developing strong social skills is very important.
Actually, sometimes I think they are the ones setting the example for me. Amanda is in the ROTC program at her high school and volunteers during the summer at the YMCA. Anthony, who is in middle school, is in the young Marines program and frequently volunteers at Lifepath Hospice Thrift Store.
With the kind of support I receive from them at home and from everyone here at the racetrack, I feel very blessed.
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.