As the horses prepare to load into the starting gate at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pennsylvania, the anticipation mounts for the race to begin. Under the watchful eye of Starting Gate Supervisor Chris Schuster, the horses enter the gate, one by one, and his team is ready. He hits the button to open the gate and they’re off!
Photo Credit to Chris Schuster

The 2023 80-day meet at Presque Isle got underway on May 15th on their superior 1 mile oval, and it’s been another exciting one. For the starting gate team, the action starts as the gate opens, and if a horse breaks from the gate smoothly, or with hesitation, it can mean a different order of finish.

“The gate is the most essential part of racing. You can win or lose, leaving from the gate. if you don’t get a clean start, or you can get scratched at the gate, there’s a million different possibilities that can happen in the gate for you to lose the race, or start a bad race,” Chris explained.
Growing up in Ohio, his father had standardbreds, and his love of horses began with a career in harness racing early. “I drove horses at Northfield Park and the fair tracks all around there up until I was 18 years old, and then I went over to Thistledown. I’ve been with the thoroughbreds ever since.”
With 30 years of experience working on the starting gate, Chris knows the ins and outs of what can be a very tense and stressful job. “This job is a great job until it’s not,” he said with a long sigh. “It could be one of the easiest jobs of all time, because you get to sit down in between races, and do your preparation for the next race. But in the ten minutes at the gate it can be harrowing. You can get one flipping over or turning sideways, or one or two get loose, so we have to prep and talk about what the game plan will be for the next race.”
Keeping the horses calm in the gate requires a team that can think quickly on their feet, as well as have an appreciation and respect for each and every horse, and Chris oversees a team that fits all those requirements. “This is a job that you can’t hire somebody that doesn’t have any experience. This is a specialized job. I might be the head of my team, but they take all the risk. So if they’ve done it before, but if they’re a little new, like a guy who has only one or two years experience, I don’t usually give them a horse right away. It’s a learning process. I put them in there. I see how they are going to be. If they can handle it. I’ve had the biggest guys in there and they can’t handle it because it was too much pressure and too much danger, as you would say, and there are other guys that are half the size of me who weigh 120lbs. who are just tremendous at it. It all depends on the person, to be honest.”
Photo Credit to Chris Schuster

His current team consists of eleven guys, half of whom do double duty, alternating between the gate and putting the saddles on the horses.

He has had a woman on his team in the past, and is very complimentary of the job that women do on such a physically demanding job. “She was very good, and was going to come back this year, but her scheduling wasn’t quite up to where she wanted it to be. I think women (on the gate) are calmer. A guy wants to fight, they want to push and shove on the horses, and a woman’s aspect is a little softer, a little gentler. A little pet, a little talk to them. It goes over well. It’s like a woman jockey, the same way, in my opinion.”
Stakes season is in full swing at Presque Isle, and the prestigious $150,000 Presque Isle Mile and the $300,000 Presque Isle Downs Masters Stakes are set for Monday, September 18. Understandably, nerves may set in with the magnitude of these huge races, but Chris is confident that his team once again is up for the challenge of handling the superstar horses. “I try to keep a loose and fun atmosphere back here just so my guys don’t get all nervous about that kind of a race. If they’re all nervous and the horse feels it, then they’ll (the horses) maybe do something stupid, like flip or something. That’s why I try to keep it loose and calm. I joke with everybody back here. I don’t even think about it when it’s a big race.”
Whether it’s a stakes race, or a claiming race, every horse gets the attention and care they need to safely break from the gate. “Especially here at Presque Isle. That’s my main goal,” Chris says emphatically.
The Tapeta racing surface at Presque Isle is superior and extremely safe for the horses. “I love it,” he said. “I don’t really like mud, and when it rains, there’s no mud here. Ever. It’s an all-weather surface; sand, wax, and I think rubber fibers and other fibers. It’s phenomenal! The horses like it, and most horses run with no shoes on here because it’s a little bit better on their feet and how they run. It’s a great surface.”
Photo Credit to Chris Schuster

“From my perspective, on a dirt track, when it rains or snows, it gets holes. I don’t know if it’s true, it’s just from my years of experience. You see a horse coming, and they’ll step in a little lower spot on a track, and they’re running and they’re tired, and they just get that wrong little angle, and that’s all it takes. This stuff stays level, and when they step on it, it compacts a little bit, so there’s no holes ever. There’s nothing out here where they can take a bad step, in my opinion.”

Injuries are minor with this surface, and more importantly, the number of fatalities are very, very low. “We’ve had a few muscle tears happen, and they can go back to the barn. But in the last several years, we had only one horse break down. I think Presque Isle is the safest track in the country.”
Chris gets to work with his wife, Robin Schuster, who has been helping out as an Outrider at Presque Isle, as well as training horses at Thistledown. In the business his whole life, Chris looks forward to every racing day at Presque Isle, and he has passed on his love of horses to another generation in his family. “My granddaughter is way into it,” he laughed. “She comes with us whenever she gets a shot. She’s 10.”
Presque Isle Downs
Now through October 19
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