After a few controversial starting stall incidents recently, this crucial aspect of any horse race has come under even more scrutiny than normal.
A number of National Horseracing Authority (NHA) role-players were consulted to get their impressions of the state of play regarding starting procedures.
The current system of loading by ascending draw was implemented in 2013, starting with that season’s juvenile crop.
The starter still has discretion to make different arrangements for known problematic horses.
“This system has worked fairly well, and means that any suggestion of anyone being favoured has largely been removed. Before horses that were well schooled were potentially prejudiced by going in early, while the badly schooled went in later,” says NHA Racing Executive Arnold Hyde.
“Standards of tractability have improved, and we have also become stricter in taking away starting stall certificates for problem horse. This has placed the onus more on the trainer to present his horse in a tractable state”.
In terms of tractability, Cape Town head starter Fred Bosman says trainers need to come to the party more.
“It’s the trainer’s responsibility to bring the horse to races well-schooled, but a few seem to want to make it the starter’s duty to school their horse”.
As chief stipe Ernie Rodriguez points out “you can get a different animal on a race day, when the adrenalin is flowing. The horse may be calm when getting its starting stall certificate, but different when it’s in a real race situation”.
“There are two stages – getting them in, and the standing in the pens. The bottom line is the system needs to give every horse a fair chance, irrespective of the betting”.
Stipe Cecil van As is a former jockey, and was also a starter for quite a few years, so has seen the process from many sides.
“I’ve been up there,” he said. “The flag man at the back plays an important role. It’s very important that he and the starter communicate well, and have a good relationship.”
A welcome NHA initiative recently was when ‘horse whisperer’ Malan Du Toit held a Saturday morning workshop to teach some of his techniques to Durban handlers.
The plan is for this to be repeated at all centres, which must lead to the skill set of all our handlers being improved.