When avid horsewoman Aubrey Demchak Cassel and her husband moved their family to Grantville, Pennsylvania seven years ago, she was ready to start job-hunting after her years as a stay-at-home Mom. With her extensive background in rodeo riding; dressage; jumping, and being around horses all her life, she kept her options option. One potential job immediately aroused her interest.
“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 has 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.”
Working the starting gate takes strength and good intuition with horses, as well as compassion and patience. Aubrey has all of those qualities, and her gentle but firm hand in the gate, as well as her ability to stay calm under pressure, is what has made her so successful as the Assistant Starter.
Once they are loaded into the gate, there may be a horse that is feeling some anxiety, and she takes a moment to make sure they are feeling more comfortable. “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 well!’ 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 said.
Aubrey worked with another girl when she started, and they were the first women ever on the gate at Penn National. Earning the respect and admiration of the male jockeys and exercise riders took a little time, since they were, at first, hesitant for a woman to take them to the gate, while the girls on the track were excited about working with other women. Soon, Aubrey earned the respect and admiration of everyone equally, as they witnessed her ability and her strength, and her commitment to keeping 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 has the support and understanding of her husband for this extremely important and physically demanding job. “We’ve been together for quite a while, so he knows me. I do have a strong personality, and I don’t like people telling me I can’t do something,” she laughed. “That just gives me a bigger push to do something; I can do it and I did do it. He is very supportive. When he realized how potentially dangerous my job could be, he was a little taken back, because we do have two kids. But he knows it’s a job that I love doing, and he would never ask me to stop, of course. Every night before I go to work, he just tells me to be careful.”
With the warmer weather just around the corner, she is looking forward to spending time with her husband and her kids, 11-year-old Luke and 8-year-old Bailey, who she already describes as having a strong personality like Mom. “My kids do Youth Rodeo, and that will be starting up at the end of April. We have so many friends that have become like family in our Youth Rodeo Association. We just enjoy spending time outside! We farm, we have horses, we raise cattle.”
At the racetrack, she’s very much looking forward to the warmer weather and more! “I’m just looking forward to being warm! Oh, and turf racing. I’m really looking forward to that.”
At thoroughbred tracks across the country, there are very few women who work the starting gate. She hopes that the confidence she has in herself and in her ability will inspire more women to challenge themselves to extend out of their comfort zone and find a career they love, just as she did. “To any woman coming into this field with horses, my advice is to never give up! There will be tough times, there will be tough days where you’re questioning what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, but there are so many more rewarding days, that are your ‘why’. You love the horses, you enjoy working with them, and you enjoy your job. Never give up and keep going.”
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.