Racing’s Most Important Moment is When the Gate Opens

By Art Parker, contributor to Off the Charts Trip Notes

Bobbled, Lept In Air, Broke In Tangle, Broke Slowly, Dwelt, Hit Gate, Lunged Start, Off Slowly, Pinched Back, Shuffled Back, Stumbled, Unprepared Start, Wheeled Gate.

All of these terms are part of the nomenclature of horse racing charts. These are the words used by a chart writer to describe an undesirable event at the gate for a horse. If a horse has a bad start you should see one of these words in the comment line of the race listed in the past performances. Trouble in a race can happen anywhere for a horse, such as in the stretch when horses are tiring and, of course, on the turns. However, the most common location of trouble is at the gate.

If you ever read charts of horse races, which I recommend to all, then you will notice the line just below the running lines of all participants. It starts with the time of day of the race and then simply says “start”…and if there are no incidents at the gate then the chart writer inserts the word “good,” or “good for all.” If there is an incident at the start, then the chart writer will mentioned the horse’s name in a comment, such as, “Good for all but Secretariat.” When you see that you will know that additional information regarding that specific horse will be found in the narrative description of the race.

I believe the chart writers do a great job and the product they create is a valuable and important tool for horseplayers. However, many times the chart does not tell the entire story or the right words are not chosen for the description of gate trouble.

If you are handicapping a race and a comment line shows some gate trouble then it may be worth going to the charts to get a full explanation. And if you feel you need the rest of the story, as I often do, then use the tool that is readily available to all-the video tape replay. Quite often I find what was a simple comment in the running line of the past performances turns out to be something much bigger, and many times the chart failed to tell the entire story.

It is not uncommon to see a horse get a comment line such as off slowly and that’s it. The chart may tell a little more but when I see the replay I often find a horse that was away slowly, and because of that was slightly bumped in a few strides and then was forced to go behind others before he could get his legs in the right action. Then the horse had to get out from behind a wall and was taken wide to get racing room. And, quite often by the time all of this happens, the field has already traveled a quarter mile in a sprint race. That means the affected horse was dealing with issues for the first third of the contest.

Paying close attention to the start of a race was something I had to learn. Many years ago the closest OTB to me was a greyhound track. That atmosphere is a terrible one for a serious horseplayer but I did pick up a couple of good ideas from being there. One of the better greyhound players I became friends with would watch replays of greyhound races with tremendous diligence. I asked him once why he took so much time on replays. “Greyhounds don’t have a jockey like horses. They are on their own out there. Their habits mean everything,” he said.

You put that piece of wisdom together with the fact that objections and inquiries do not exist at a greyhound track and it becomes easy to understand why the habits of the animal are critical to handicapping success. My friend also told me that how a greyhound wants to run is usually determined in his first couple of steps out of the box. He is right. I started to watch replays with him and noticed how quickly greyhounds want to go inside or out, etc. Once you pick up on this it is easy to understand why you have so many greyhound races that look like uncontrolled Wild West rodeos.

While a jockey can control a thoroughbred for the most part and a trainer can do a lot to condition and train the animal, they too are creatures of habit like greyhounds. Many will want to move right or left when the gate opens. Some are just not in a hurry and others will run out of their skin to be in front. It is impossible to keep detailed notes on every horse at a track when it comes to gate habits. I believe what a horse player needs to do is simply investigate any difficulties a horse had when information warrants it. It is important to know if a horse simply lost a length or two at the start, or if he lost ten lengths early in the race and was beaten by a nose.

Del Mar race 7

Starting Gate: A Look at Del Mar race 9 on Friday, July 19, 2013

By Rich Nilsen

The feature race where the ‘Surf Meets the Turf’ became the talk of the town among horseplayers on Friday night… and for good reason.  Longshot Eddies Girl ran an excellent race to be a clear 2nd to wire-to-wire winner Sprouts, completing the exacta behind the odds-on winner.

The only problem was that Eddies Girl, breaking from the four hole, wiped out the two horses to her inside when she came out of the gate.  It was a very severe incident that was reviewed by the three California stewards.  The vote was 2-to-1 in favor of making no change to the unofficial order of finish. This controversial decision caused an outrage among many horseplayers, as the leading social networks lite up with disparaging comments about the stewards.  It only added fuel to the fire that the 3rd place horse and beneficiary of a disqualification was the second choice in the wagering (and thus, the lowest paying exacta payoff).

Over the weekend one of the California stewards appeared on TVG to defend the trio’s decision, but it was a fairly weak argument “about not affecting the outcome.”

As Art Parker elaborated on in this piece, the start of a horse race is critical. The start can make or break the race for a particular horse.  The two horses affected that night, Pay The Debt and Evening News, lost their best chance at the gate.   We’ll never know what the outcome would have been if the trouble at the starting gate did not occur.  And that is the point the stewards missed.


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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is a 19-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 of the NHC twice. A former executive with and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.


  1. Frederick D. Leiserson says

    Thanks for all the great articles. I appreciate it.

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