Watching horses stand in the starting gate before a race, a fan can’t help but admire their beauty and majestic stature as they wait calmly for the gate to open, their ears up and head straight. To get a horse to be calm and relaxed, yet poised to run, takes a starting gate team that is patient and focused. At Hollywood at Penn National Race Course, that team is led by the Head Starter Lindy Riggs.

Lindy comes from a horse racing family from Colorado, where they raced at Centennial and Pikes Peak in the summer months, and New Mexico in the winter. Making their way across the country where racing was year-round, they raced at Charles Town in West Virginia, and then they decided to try their luck in Pennsylvania, settling at Penn National in 1977. He galloped horses from a young age, and made the move to being a jockey for a few years until he “outgrew his job”. Eventually, he and his wife Maribeth, who was a trainer, moved into his father’s farm, and in 1994, he started working on the gate. He describes going from being a jockey to working the gate as a natural progression. “Jockeys are adrenaline junkies”, he said, “and the starting gate is the next best adrenaline rush there is at a racetrack. There are no two days ever the same working on the gate”.

The 12 to 15 person gate crew led by Lindy gets the gate ready before each race, and after he does a preliminary look at the entire race night, assigns certain horses to certain people on his team. “I have some people on my team that the riders relax better for, and some horses need a softer touch”, he explained. “I have three ladies on the team now, and a few guys that are soft-handed that get along with a tougher horse better than a stronger guy. So I set it up that way, who will get along with each horse the best.” When he has enough people, they do the split load, two at a time, cutting the time that the horses and jockeys are waiting in the gate. He talks to the crew and the jockeys as the horses are loading, and the crew yells out an update as they load on how many still to go in, while he keeps a sharp eye out for any horse that is being a bit fussy going in the gate. “Once they hear ‘All in’, and it all looks great, I hit the button”. And…they’re off!

Keeping everyone relaxed and calm in the gate is extremely important, both jockeys and horses, and Lindy says it takes patience and understanding. “Some of the riders, the horses just relax for them. Some jockeys are very worried about what happens in the gate because that is the most likely place they can get hurt before the race starts. If they don’t come up to school a bad horse in the morning, I let them know what we’ve been doing with them. It’s kind of like a balancing act.” He’s spent years observing horses at various tracks and uses his observation skills to help ease the jitters of a horse. “Mares in the field sometimes nuzzle their foals on the neck to relax them. That’s what I would do when I was a rider. If I had a horse that was a little upset, I would rub on his neck or scratch between the ears, to settle them down before the break.” His crew often uses the same technique in the gate.

Working with the horses in the morning is one of his favorite parts of the job. “It’s the problem children that we work with that is the most gratifying”, he emphasized. “Especially with the young horses, watching them from their first day at the gate until they are okay to start, watch them come through with all their little steps and be good, that’s my happy place,” he said with a laugh. He’s also highly complimentary of his crew. “They’re like me, they enjoy watching a horse go from ground zero to race time. It’s more than just a job with money, you really have to love what you do”.

Over the years, there have been some stressful starts, but his most memorable gate experience was a one-horse race. “They took it off the turf, and there was one horse in the race!”, he laughed. “I told the jockey, Ashley Castrenze, before the race, he loads up good, so when we get in there and you hear those back doors shut, be ready because I’m pushing the button and we’re not giving him any chance to do anything dumb.” The outcome? It was smooth, right out of the gate.

Night after night, race after race, one thing weighs on the mind of the hard-working and focused Lindy. “Getting my people home; everybody’s horses home; and all the jockeys home safe, that’s the most stressful part of my job”, he confided. His compassion and love for the horses and his respect for his gate team shine through each race night at Penn National.

**Hollywood at Penn National Race Course races Wednesdays and Fridays in December through 12/18; then Tuesdays and Wednesdays until 12/30. Post Time is 6:00 PM.


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