Paul NOLAN, last year's leading jockey at Assiniboia Downs, has seen up close and personal what can happen when something goes wrong in the starting gates. In fact, it's his opinion that "90 per cent of all horse-racing accidents occur at the gates."
"I think the scariest accident I ever had was at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.," he recalled. "The horse went up in the air, and when she came down I ended up over her head. I was basically in the (three by seven foot) stall, with my feet in the irons, hanging between her front legs. We hit the gate so hard I really thought the gate was going to pop open. I thank God that this was one time where the guys who work the gates literally saved my life. If the gates had popped open, I wouldn't be talking to you today. I'd be dead."
Derek Corbel began working at the Assiniboia Downs' starting gates when he was 25. Now 38, the son of longtime trainer Emile Corbel runs the show back there with the help of a 10-man crew.
Over the course of the season, more than 750-800 horses and more than 25 jockeys place their lives in Corbel's hands. Add to that number the trainers and owners who also trust his crew with the safety of their animals.
'The gate crew is an intricate cog in the wheel of the race from start to finish. Those horses are like rockets full of fuel, ready to go. They handle them at a very sensitive point; the very last moment before blast-off. For that they need to have incredible patience, skill and certainly strength and courage'
The most dangerous situation for both the horse and jockey is when the horse flips in the gates.
"They go up and hit the back gate first," said Corbel. "A lot of times they'll hit the back gate and then they'll come back down into the stall. You hope the jockey is either tossed right out the back or that someone is there to pull him out. Basically you try to get someone at the front to get the horse's weight off the jockey so that we can pop the back doors open and they fall out. You can't open the back doors if there is weight on there."
An even more dangerous situation for the jockey, said Corbel, is "ending up in the well (under the horse). It doesn't happen very often but it does happen. Our main priority is jockey's safety first, gate handlers next and horses last.
The horses are loaded one at a time, and just prior to the last horse going in, Corbel checks down the line to make sure their feet are set up right. At that point the handlers (at the front of the gate) will have the horse's head cocked to the side.
"That's so they are not looking down the track the whole time and getting antsy, because once they face down the track they know it's time to go. When everything is loaded, everyone is quiet and everyone's horse is straight and good, I fire it up."
Corbel learned from the best. After six years of working the gates, he and Scott Fileccia (his assistant at the time) were sent by the Downs to New York to learn from master starter Bob Duncan of the New York Racing Commission.
"We trained at Aquaduct and Belmont," said Corbel. "We would go to school in the mornings and then the races at night."
The following year (2001), both Corbel and Fileccia were invited back by Duncan to work the gates for the Breeders' Cup.
"The gate crew is an intricate cog in the wheel of the race from start to finish," said Downs CEO Darren Dunn. "Those horses are like rockets full of fuel, ready to go. They handle them at a very sensitive point; the very last moment before blast-off. For that they need to have incredible patience, skill and certainly strength and courage."
So, what happens when a 1,100-pound horse refuses to enter the stall?
"I have two big guys, who wrap up their hands behind the horse's bum (like a rugby scrum) and they try to push it in," Corbel explained. "Even with someone at the front pulling at the same time, sometimes the horse just won't move. Then we need two, three or four more guys with their shoulders in behind the first two, and still, sometimes they just don't want to go in."
While all this is going on, the vulnerability of Corbel's crew is also a consideration.
"Oh yeah, you don't want a horse to kick, but it happens pretty often so they wear jockey flak jackets."
However, for reasons that puzzle even Corbel, none of them wear a protective cup.
"I don't know why they don't. I've only had one guy who has been kicked there and I've also been kicked there. But no, they don't wear a cup."
Action at the Downs resumes tonight and Saturday with post times of 7:30 p.m.