I was glad to see Quality Road start the year on the right foot by winning the $100,000 Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park on opening day Sunday. I was happy to see the successful return to the races by a legitimate star from last year despite a foot injury that kept him out of the Triple Crown, and a mid-season move to a new home in the barn of trainer Todd Pletcher. But I am most happy about the win with regard to perhaps Quality Road's worst moments of 2009. (Excluding him seeing Rachel Alexandra in the paddock before a race of course.)
When we last saw Quality Road on national television, it was Nov. 7 and he had taken control of the pre-race starting gate process before the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. For one reason or another, the Florida Derby winner had decided he was not going to cooperate in any way with the gate crew at Santa Anita and was forced to be scratched by track officials for safety concerns and a potential injury after kicking the rear tire of the starting gate.
So traumatized was Quality Road from the incident that days later he refused to board his return flight to New York and instead pulled a John Madden and made the 3,000-mile trip via highway and horse van.
But upon his arrival home at Aqueduct Race Track, Pletcher quickly started morning training sessions at the starting gate commonly known as "schooling" in gate crew parlance.
Conducted by former NYRA starter Bob Duncan and current NRYA assistant starter Guido Rouse, jockey John Velasquez would ride Quality Road in, out and around the starting gate several times. Then Velasquez would step off and the process would be repeated. Sometimes they would school during the early training hours. Other days they would receive special permission from track officials to school in the paddock and starting gate during the afternoons of non-racing days at the track. “We wanted to come as close as we could to simulating a race without actually doing so,” Pletcher said of the process in November.
All of the hard work and patience payed off however, as Quality Road walked into the gate before the Hal's Hope without incident and promptly and easily made a successful return to the races.
Starters and assistant starters are a lot like offensive linemen in football in that they only they are more often recognized when something goes wrong. Upon a bad start, everybody's cussing the gate crew. If the race start is good... who cares? Having worked on gate crews during high school and college, I can personally attest to the potential dangers to horse and human inside and around the "the big green monster." I can also tell you that satisfaction in taking a uncooperative gate horse and watching them become a stakes winner. So when there's a starting gate success story like Quality Road and Duncan, I like to make mention of it.
So cheers to the gate crew in New York and Florida. Thanks for giving us Quality Road again.