During the 1940’s, the British coined the phrase “backroom boys” to describe the important but unseen people working behind the scenes in the U.K. during World War II. The same phrase pertains to the multitudes of people working behind the scenes at a race track. Starting from the ground up, the track superintendent’s main job is to maintain a consistent, fair, and safe racetrack surface for the horses, jockeys, and drivers. At Pennsylvania’s three thoroughbred tracks, the surfaces include two dirt tracks, two turf courses, and one synthetic surface, tapeta, used at Presque Isle Downs.

One of the most critical positions at a race track, the track superintendent closely monitors the weather for any changes that may affect track conditions. A safe, consistent racing surface is a priority, and at race tracks that offer winter racing like Penn National and Parx, freezing conditions pose extra challenges for the maintenance crew. Often times the crew works throughout the night to ensure a safe track. Maintaining the surface is a science and a balancing act between grooming the top layer of dirt and controlling the moisture in the track. The composition of a dirt track consists of several layers starting with a hard base layer topped with several inches of cushion, usually a mixture of silt, sand, and clay, that helps to absorb the impact on a horse’s legs, and for handicapping purposes, the consistency of the top layer is labeled fast, muddy, sloppy, wet fast or good depending on the water content. A track may also be sealed which is when the maintenance crew drags heavy metal plates or rollers around the track that compacts the surface and squeezes water out to prevent moisture from penetrating into the lower layers. In the past, superintendents judged the conditions by feel and sight, but now, using science and technology, sophisticated equipment measures exact details that dictate the next steps. Soil samples are constantly tested and water content measured, and the crew tirelessly harrows and waters the track in the morning during training hours and grooms the track between races to ensure a safe, consistent, and even surface.

Also requiring maintenance and manpower during the summer months, turf courses need cutting, irrigating, seeding, and aeration. Testing using a “going stick” that measures the amount of force used to penetrate the surface determines the current conditions of a turf course labeled either firm, good, yielding, or soft depending on water content. After a race, the maintenance crew checks the course and repairs any divots before the next race.

The other surface used at Pennsylvania race tracks, tapeta, made from sand, rubber, and fiber coated with wax, requires less time- consuming maintenance than a dirt track and handles wet weather better than dirt or turf.

Other important officials at a track include the horse identifier, clerk of scales, paddock judge, starter, placing and patrol judges, and veterinarians. Critical to insuring the integrity of the sport and the safety of the horse, the track and state veterinarians enforce the rules of medication and attend to any emergencies on the track. In the morning, the horses are inspected for soundness. Later, they are observed in the paddock and at the starting gate to make sure they are sound to compete. Before the races, vets supervise horses at the receiving barn where they may be treated with the anti-bleeder medication, lasix, and after a race, the state vets oversee the collection of blood and urine samples taken in the test barn which are sent to an independent lab for analysis. After a race, vets watch the horses coming back to the unsaddling area for any problems that may require medical attention.

Also, on the way to the paddock before a race, each horse is met by the horse identifier to confirm its identity by checking the lip tattoo or microchip and verifying the horse’s color and markings. Next stop at thoroughbred tracks is the paddock where the paddock judge directs the saddling of the horses and manages the paddock activities. Another official, the clerk of scales oversees the jockeys’ room and supervises the jockeys’ weighing in and out and reports any changes in weight or equipment. After saddling, the horses make their way onto the track and head to the starting gate.

One of the most important yet dangerous jobs, the starter and assistant starters are critical to the outcome of a race because a bad break can cost a horse the race. In every race, the starter and crew share the responsibility of a safe, clean, and even break. Dressed in flax jackets and helmets, the gate crew escorts each sometime fractious thoroughbred into the narrow metal compartment of the transportable starting gate where they await the bell. As the assistant starters perch on a narrow ledge holding the horse’s head, their job is to calm the horse and make sure they are standing square and facing straight ahead when the bell rings. The potential for danger exists with every race as some horses need gentle persuasion to enter the gate by being pushed inside by the gate crew or blindfolded before entering. Being kicked or bitten by a horse as well as being trapped in the gate is possible. Once the horses are all in the gate and facing forward, the starter presses the button that opens the stall doors
and rings the bell. As soon as the horses leave the gate, the crew jumps in the truck and moves the gate out of the way.

Once the horses are off, patrol judges and cameras oversee the race from various vantage points around the track checking for any violations or safety threats to horse or jockey, and at the finish line, the placing judge posts the order of finish and refers any questions, claims of foul, or problems to the stewards. All racing officials, many behind the scenes, play an important and essential role in offering safe and fair horse racing.

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