- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2001

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Pat Day knew he wouldnt win the Kentucky Derby the instant the starting gate opened.
The jockeys horse, Tabasco Cat, had acted up when he was loaded into the gate, and he sulked all the way to a sixth-place finish.
Tabasco Cat went on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes that year (1994), but his chance of becoming racings 12th Triple Crown champion ended before the first step of the first race in the series.
"He was very high-strung. He got a little antsy in (the gate)," Day said. "The handler had to get rough with him, which got him very upset. He started to sit down in the gate, and they grabbed his tail so he had to stand up. It just made him incredibly unhappy. When the doors opened, he never ran a jump. He was so distraught, he never put any effort into it at all."
The starting gate is the most overlooked and dangerous part of a horse race. Although the run to the first turn is often called the most critical part, the start is just as important.
The gate is where bad breaks, bad luck and injuries often happen. Energized by a 10-minute warmup and the buzz of 150,000 julep-drinking fans singing "My Old Kentucky Home," colts struggle to contain an adrenaline rush. So do some of the jockeys, riding for the first time in Americas greatest race.
Everyone wants to go, and the wait for so many horses to be loaded into the gate — there are 17 entrants in tomorrows 127th running of the Derby at Churchill Downs — is a production that seems to riders and horses to last longer than the two-minute race itself.
"It can be a nerve-racking wait," said jockey Steve Cauthen, who rode 1978 Triple Crown champion, Affirmed. "Horses can bang around or jump through the gate. The infield has been drinking and partying, and the horses react to that."
Just getting a 1,200-pound horse into the gates 2-foot-wide stall and ready to race can leave colt and rider frazzled. Thats what happened with Tabasco Cat in his failed run seven years ago.
"The horse next to him threw a wing-ding," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "Then he threw one. He had a temper. He lost his cool."
If jangled nerves arent the problem, boredom might be.
Jockey Cash Asmussen said Risen Star lost interest in the start at the 1988 Derby when he was loaded into the gate first and forced to wait. Risen Star broke 13th from the gate and finished third. He went on to win the Preakness and Belmont.
The stalls are dangerous, too.
Jockeys can get hurt if an excited horse rears and bangs the riders head against the bars in the stall — the primary reason jockeys wear helmets. The rider also can injure his arms or legs on the bars.
The handlers inside the stall also are vulnerable. They can be crushed against the stall walls, kicked or even bitten.
Horses can injure their hoofs, back or head. Housebuster tore most of his front hoof in the gate and lost the 1991 Breeders Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs. Bettors lost millions on the Pick 6, a national lottery-type wager, when the heavy favorite was injured.
"Sometimes its the horses fault, sometimes its the gate crews fault, sometimes its your fault," Cauthen said.
A clean break is hard to get once the 26,000-pound gates open and the race begins. The horse must look straight ahead with all four feet down as he awaits the start. If the colt defies jockey and trainer and looks away as the gates open, he might face a one-second deficit before he has taken a step.
Even if everyone is ready, one or two horses always break crooked and slam into an adjacent colt.
"Thats where theyre won and lost every race," Talk Is Money trainer John Scanlan said. "If he breaks good, hes in the race. If something happens, hell have to do some serious running to (win)."
Said Lukas: "You gotta get away from there. The critical part is the gate and first turn. After that, youre in the hands of fate."
A bad break by front-runners Songandaprayer, Millennium Wind and Balto Star in tomorrows Derby — they hold the first three posts — could instantly ruin their chances. It also could change the complexion of the race by slowing the usually sizzling early pace, a pace that permits late runners to catch a winded leader in the stretch.
"If the speed horses dont get away clean, the pace doesnt materialize," Day said. "You know how you anticipate the race unfolding, but you never know until the doors open."
Tomorrows start will be especially important for jockey Gary Stevens, a three-time Derby winner who is riding 9-5 favorite Point Given. Stevens must break from the No. 17 post, where no one has won in 27 attempts. Stevens will try to offset that disadvantage by ducking inside the early speedsters.
"Ive been going through a mental checklist for the past three weeks. I have a lot of scenarios in my head," Stevens said. "Things tend not to turn out like they do on paper. Ill be going through mental checklists from the time the gate opens until the first turn. Were just looking for a clean break. Things tend to sort themselves out very early."
Scanlan is worried about Talk Is Moneys start. In his six races, the colt has flipped in the starting gate, thrown three riders and broken poorly from the gate. Scanlan spent the week schooling Talk Is Money in the starting gate, hoping to break bad habits.
"Every time we straighten out one thing, he creates something new," Scanlan said. "They say a horses brain is as big as a walnut. He may have an orange in there. Its a personal war were having. Id have to say hes winning. Hes never really tried to hurt anybody, but he stops and hesitates. He does it to aggravate me."

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