She has an extensive background in rodeo riding; dressage; and jumping. She’s been around horses all her life. It’s her gentle but firm hand and cool demeanor with horses, however, that have made Aubrey Demchak Cassel so successful on the starting gate crew at Penn National Race Course, and it’s those qualities that have prompted her promotion to Assistant Head Starter, a position which a woman does not hold at any thoroughbred track across the country.
Aubrey and her husband moved their family to Grantville 5 years ago, and before that she enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom. Since she always liked being outside and working with horses, she started job hunting. “I saw a job posting online and I had no idea what an Assistant Starter was, but I applied, and got a call from Lindy (Riggs, Head Starter at Penn National). I told him I had never been around a starting gate or even seen one, so he invited me out one race night and I watched a few races, then asked if I would stop by the following morning to see what schooling is all about.” Soon after, he asked her if she was still interested in the job. “My answer was a quick YES,” she said with a laugh.
Finding herself starting immediately, her training took place while working the gate. “It’s a very hands-on job. You kind of have to learn as you go. No two horses are the same, so you are always adapting and adjusting, learning what does and doesn’t work. It was probably a few weeks before I got to climb up in the gate with a horse and stand next to him.” She admits she was a little nervous, but the exercise rider that was on the horse was very patient and helpful, which immediately eased her mind.
Once in the gate, she’s not the only one who can show some anxiety. “A horse can be nervous but I don’t go out there thinking ‘oh my gosh this horse is so nervous’. I go out there thinking ‘it’s going to be great and everything is going to go good!’ Once they’re in the gate, some get tense and dance around, but I pet them and talk to them, and I take a deep breath. A lot of horses respond to our feelings too. So I’ll say out loud ‘let’s take a deep breath’, and some of the jockeys take a breath too.” A couple of scratches on the neck also help take the nerves away. “Horses in the wild or out in the pasture nuzzle each other on top of the neck, so I just take my hand and scratch them there. It helps to calm and relax them,” she describes.
Her cool head and strong work ethic draw high praise from Head Starter Lindy Riggs, who saw from the start that she could act quickly and not get flustered. “The first day when she came up to watch, one of the ‘special horses’ flipped upside down in the gate and turned around. When we got him out, I asked her what she thought and her reply was ‘Yea. I can deal with that’”, he laughed. He complements her adaptability and quick learning, as well as her calmness. “Horses sense what you are feeling. Aubrey can read a horse when it is coming up to the gate in the morning, or on a race night when she’s coming to pick one up from post parade to load in the gate. You have to be able to look at the way he’s carrying himself; the way his ears look; the way his eyes look; and she has that.”
Being a woman in what is mostly a male-dominated job took some time for her to feel comfortable and feel like she fit in. “When I started, there was another girl that started at the same time, and we were the first girls EVER on the gate at Penn National. Some of the jockeys and exercise riders were a little hesitant for us to take them, especially the guys. Most of the girls were really excited about working with other women.” As time passed, she earned their respect and admiration, as well as their confidence in her ability to keep them and the horses safe.
Her favorite part of the job is working with the young horses. “I really enjoy working with the babies, getting them started and seeing them progress. Oh, and those we call the ‘problem children’, the ones who have been known to have issues in the gate, I think it’s really cool to see overcome that, and progress to become more relaxed, and be ready to race. A more relaxed horse, probably 90% of the time, gives a better start because they’re not so tense and anxious.”
Aubrey is hopeful that more women who love horses and are looking to work in the field of horse racing look closer at a job on the starting gate. “Everyone thinks you need to just be strong. I consider myself pretty strong, working on our farm year round. But it’s not just about being strong. You have to learn how to read a horse, learn different ways to handle them and different things to do in the gate with them. It’s all about finesse. Some horses prefer a light hand.”
Years ago, a teen age Aubrey was chatting with a cowboy in Wyoming, and his advice sticks with her today. “He told me to think of it this way. If I were in a dark alley and saw five big men, I would be scared. But if I were in that same dark alley and saw the men, but I was with a police officer, I wouldn’t be so scared. He said with a horse, I have to BE that police officer and show them that it’s okay, that they don’t have to be scared. I’m here to help you through it.”
Truly grateful to be working with horses and to be in such a prominent position at Penn National, Aubrey is proof that anything is possible with determination and willingness to learn. As the busy racing season continues at Penn National Racecourse, the horses are in good hands.
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