A starting gate is a machine used in horse racing and dog racing to ensure a fair start in a race.
Thoroughbred/quarter horse racing
The inventor of the electric starting gate for horse racing is generally credited to be Clay Puett, who was a rider and starter at various tracks in the West. Puett's device replaced other starting methods used previously such as starting barriers, which were simple ropes or occasionally wooden barriers behind which the horses stood, or even simpler methods such as standing behind a chalk line to await a starter's flag. These previous methods often did little to produce a fair start, with extra judges employed to catch horses who got a jump on the rest of the field.
Many of Puett's actual gates are still in use today at tracks around the world, and all gates are based on his original design. A starting gate is equipped with a number of stalls aligned in a row, usually numbering 12 or 14 for everyday use at tracks. Smaller gates may be used at training facilities for schooling horses, or as an auxiliary gate in addition to the main gate for large-field races such as the Kentucky Derby. Horses normally enter from the rear of the stall, with doors locked behind the horse once it is in place; the front doors of the stall are normally closed as the horse is loaded in, though the starting-gate crew may open it to entice a horse who balks at entry. Alternately, a horse may be backed into the stall from the front entry, again done in the case of a skittish horse.
The front door of each stall is held closed by an electric lock. The stall doors are designed to give way to prevent injury to horse or rider in the event a horse prematurely attempts to bolt through the front or back.
When the starter is satisfied that all horses are in place and ready to start the race, he presses a button that simultaneously opens the front stall doors, rings a loud bell, and sends a signal to the totalizator system that the race is begun and no more bets should be accepted.
Puett's gate was first used at Exhibition Park in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1939, though the management of Bay Meadows in San Mateo, California claims that their track was the first to use Puett's gate. By the end of 1940, virtually all major race tracks in the United States used Puett gates. Clay Puett began another company, True Center Gate, in 1958 based in Phoenix, Arizona.. True Center and Puett's original company (first known as Puett Electric Gate company, now as United) currently account for most starting gate installations in North America.True Center also has gates in South America, the Caribbean and Saudi Arabia.
Harness racing in North America uses a rolling start. In early days, the fairness of the start was judged by stewards at the starting line; if they judged that a racer was not fairly in line with the others, a false start would be called and the race would start again. This process was sometimes repeated several times before a fair start occurred.
In the middle 20th Century, the mobile starting gate was developed. This device consists of a car or pickup truck equipped with metal "wings" on each side. As the vehicle is driven down the center of the track, the wings are extended and the horses line up in order behind it. When the gate reaches the starting line, the starter retracts the wings, which fold inward toward the vehicle body. The vehicle then accelerates and pulls off to the outside to let the racers proceed; it many cases, it then follows close behind the racers for officials to view the race and any potential infractions of rules.
The motorized gate drastically reduced the number of false starts, but did not eliminate them. If the starter, who rides in the vehicle facing backward toward the horses, sees that the start is not fair in some way, he may issue a recall and order the race to be started again.
Dog racing uses a device similar in nature and concept to the horse racing starting gate. The machine is usually called a starting box, owing to its use of boxes to hold the greyhounds in place. Dogs are loaded from the rear, with a small window in the front door through which the dog can see the track and the mechanical lure.
Once the lure has come around to a point a few meters in front of the box, the dogs are released when the front doors are swung upward to open. Unlike horse racing, this action does not signal the totalizator system to end betting; that is done instead by a steward just before the lure is sent on its way.
Starting boxes normally hold eight dogs, with some holding nine.