Days before the Keeneland Spring Meet, where Thoroughbreds are celebrated for doing what their bloodlines dictate, Robert "Spec" Alexander and his team were busy schooling some of those horses in what he called "the most unnatural thing you can do to a horse."
While the accolades at the racetrack come mostly after the finish line, no glory would be possible without the efforts of the starting gate crew — whose job goes far beyond the obvious duty of getting horses loaded into their starting positions.
Over the course of a morning's worth of work and an afternoon of racing, the men behind the Keeneland gate crew let the Herald-Leader go behind the scenes of their challenging world.
Though their work goes largely unrecognized, a well-honed gate crew is the reason why potentially catastrophic incidents often end up as seamless moments that go off without a hitch.
At Keeneland, "Spec" Alexander has been the head starter for decades, overseeing a veteran team of assistant starters. From schooling horses that are seeing a gate for the first time to calming fractious runners in their midst, notes on every single horse are meticulously kept as they work to keep the dangers that come with sharing a 28-inch wide space with a race-ready animal to a minimum.
"The most unnatural thing you can do to a horse is put him in the starting gate," Alexander said. "Horses are creatures of habit, they only know what we teach them. And if you start off on the wrong foot, you're going to end up in trouble.
"Every day you have to be on the ball. Every day is a different race, a different day. You have to watch your men, your horses, jockeys. You want everybody to be safe. It's a lot to do ... and I love it."
Given the amount of things that can go wrong in the moments a horse is in the starting gate — rearing up and flipping over being among the worst-case scenarios — having passion and a constant Plan B are cornerstones of the job.
"I love it, it's something that gets in your blood," said Raleigh Cox, a 20-year member of the Keeneland crew. "Then you watch them go on to become superstars. They come out of this baby chute at Keeneland to become champions and it's great to see that process."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.