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    Put yourself in the mind of a racehorse in the Derby starting gate. Most likely, you’re a pretty tightly wound animal to begin with. And now here you are, boxed in a stall with very little squirming room, next to other keyed-up, snorting brethren — no feed bag, no mints — waiting for somebody to get you out of this predicament before you go positively loco. Suddenly a really loud alarm bell sounds and the front of your stall bangs open. Holy hell — everybody out!

    Of course it’s not quite that cataclysmic. These horses have had practice runs in smaller starting gates during training. They’ve encountered the real thing four or five times as two- and three-year-olds (except for last year’s Triple Crown winner Justify, who never raced at two). But still, with 160,000 people generating an ungodly noise level and without so much as an “on your marks” warning, the abruptness of the Derby’s split-second start must be a major shock to the equine system.

    All in the interest of equality.

    For the first 20 years of the Derby, the only “apparatus” used to start the race was a chalk line and a hand-waved flag or whip to spark the pack forward. Trouble was, some horses’ initial reaction to the quick motion was to momentarily back up, and premature lunges made for numerous re-starts. Approximate equality, though, was good enough. Then came single wires, sets of wires and web nets — attached to springs that pulled them overhead at the starter’s order — which impeded tendencies in horses to cross the chalk.

    It took 13 minutes of fidgeting at post to get the 1929 Derby underway. The next year, a breakthrough starting mechanism called the Bahr gate — a series of chutes open in front and back and connected by a continuous overhead superstructure — was used in the Preakness (the last year the Preakness preceded the Derby), but while the 1930 Derby employed padded separators so the horses couldn’t kick one another, the use of the Bahr gate on wheels was delayed until 1931. Even so, the track’s starter had to depend on a spring-loaded web barrier and his own shouted “hee-ahh!” to send the horses off (Google it; great newsreel). By the next year designer Albert Fihe had added a photo-electric alarm bell to the Bahr gate.

    Triple Crown winner Whirlaway was among the benefactors of the first complete starting gate in 1941, when the Calumet Farm Thoroughbred established a new Derby record, 2:01 2/5, which lasted 21 years. The gate’s inventor, a cowboy engineer named Clay Puett, incorporated all the Bahr bells and whistles while adding V-shaped electromagnetic restraining gates in both front and back of each stall. The push of a button not only opened the chutes but shut down the Churchill betting windows till the race was completed. A variation of that Puett gate is still used today.

    This originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Hold Your Horses." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Illustration by Shae Goodlett, shaedraws.com

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