How do they place the starting gates for horse races?

Let’s say it’s your job to pull the starting gate to where it needs to be for a horse race. How do you know where to put it? Actually, I have three questions related to this:

  1. The position of the gate has to be marked somehow on the track. Obviously it isn’t in the dirt or turf itself, so I assume that there are some sort of marks on the rails that they line the gate up with. Is this how they do it? How accurately do they get it down? For example, the Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 mile, or 6600 feet. Might it be 6599 feet one year and 6601 feet in another or is it more accurately placed than that?

  2. Back to that 1 1/4 mile- how is that measured? Is it equivalent to running a tape measure along the inside of the rail? Or do they take into account of where the longitudinal center of the horse will be that runs on the rail and figure it so he runs exactly 1 1/4 mile.

  3. Sometimes you see the starting gates placed with the outside gate a little ahead of the inside gate. Is this placed so that the outside horse and the inside horse have the same distance to travel the same distance to some point on the rail and where would that point be?

Starting positions on a racetrack are shown by various posts just inside the rail. These posts may be square or round (or both), usually striped, and topped with a ball or block. All the driver of the gate truck needs to do is to find the appropriate post, and back into position near it.

A starting gate is usually placed a little ways behind the starting line–I’d estimate about 20 yards or so behind the line. When the gate doors open, the horses begin to run. By the time they reach the starting line, they are at full gallop; the first horse to cross the starting line starts the timer.

Because the horses get this kind of running start, the gate need not be on the line, and thus its placement need not be so exact. Similarly, if a secondary gate is used, it does not need to be perfectly aligned with the main gate. As long as the horses get a chance to get up to speed by the time they hit the starting line, the gate’s placement is fine.

The distance around the track is (to my understanding anyway), measured along the rail. A horse that runs along the rail is said to be “saving ground,” meaning that it is not adding to the distance needed to run by running in an outside path “off the rail.” Because the distance is measured around the rail though, the rail path can get deep and boggy through use, and the horses might find better ground for easier running off the rail. So while the horses who run off the rail may well go a slightly longer distance than the ones who run on it, they may have an easier trip, and may also have enough strength left for a stretch drive.

Horse races are unlike track and field: the fact that the horses all run slightly different distances in each race is ignored.

Jockeys usually take their horses to the rail as soon as they can (watch a race with a big field and you’ll see that it doesn’t take all that long to get close). Jockeys save ground when they can (depending on the horse), and being a couple of lengths further back is not a big disadvantage compared to being too far from the rail. If you horse comes from behind, you just save ground and wait for the other horses to tire (thoroughbreds can be divided roughly into front runners and those that come from behind. If you have a front runner, you try to get so far ahead that no one can catch him as he tires in the stretch, but not so fast that he can’t stay ahead. A come-from-behind horse stays off the pace and tires far less in the stretch than a frontrunner*).

Thoroughbreds can get pretty close to the shortest possible trip around the track; the bias of an inside post position is minor. It’s more of an issue with standardbreds, since the width of the sulky forces them to go further from the rail than a horse with a jockey.

If you’re at the track, you’ll also notice on some races that they are desperately moving the starting gate out of the way (on distances the length of the track or longer). They have two minutes to get the gate off the track and clean up the dirt, and it’s fascinating to watch them do it (you’ll never see it on TV).

*All horses are tiring in the stretch; when a horse comes from behind, he’s just tiring a bit less.