What do they do? 1 – The starter

The good old days of a flag start

It is self evident that a key role of the starter in racing is to get the race off on time and in a way that gives each horse and rider the best chance to run well. But what’s involved in making that happen?

The starter has quite a bit to do even before the horses arrive at the start, because he is responsible for the equipment and the staff down at the start. His work starts around ten minutes before the race is due off. In flat racing, he will test the stalls before each race, and ensure that the stalls handlers know about any special arrangements for any particular horse, for example, whether it has to be blindfolded to go into the stalls, or whether there’s been an agreement with the trainer for it to go into the stalls late on in the loading process.

When the jockeys arrive at the start, they all come under the direction of the starter. After he’s read out the draw, they’ll take their horses round behind the stalls, and the handlers will help load them. The usually procedure is to put in horses with a blindfold on first, then those drawn in odd numbered stalls, followed by those drawn with even numbers.

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With horses that prove difficult before the race, or in the stalls, the starter has the authority to withdraw the horse. So, for example, if an animal is proving reluctant to go into the stalls, he’ll decide when it has had enough chances, taking into account the impact of further delay on the horses already loaded. Once he’s ready, he alerts the jockeys, and presses the button to open the gates. That also starts the official timing mechanism, which the judge will use afterwards to record the time of the race.

The responsibilities are similar in jump racing. Before the jockeys arrive at the start he’ll test the starting gate to ensure the tapes do fly up when he releases them. The starter will often join the handlers in checking the horses’ girths to ensure the saddle doesn’t slip. He gives the jockeys a 30 second warning to allow them time to pull their goggles down and, as there is no draw, to find the position they want. There has to be a much closer relationship with the jockeys than under flat racing, simply because there is less defined structure to the start of a jump race.

Whilst the perfect walk in to the start sees the horses in a close line across the track as they walk towards the gate, there are some horses that are known front runners, and others known to need covering up at the back as the race gets under way. The starter recognises these tactical requirements and won’t hold up the start or ask the riders to take a turn if that is the only variation from a level start.

One final responsibility is to manage the situation if a false start occurs. Thankfully that doesn’t happen often, but if the starting stalls don’t all open, or the jump starting gate malfunctions, the starter instructs the Advanced Flag Operator to wave his flag and blow his whistle so the horses can return to the start and begin the race again.

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