The crew intimately understands the telltale turn of the ear and the treacherous side of the hoof.
That knowledge is key to members of the Remington Park gate crew charged with getting race horses and jockeys in and out of the starting gates.
Sporting helmets, protective black vests and tans, some of the 13 men stand on a 6-inch-wide green steel ledge stretched along the inside of each starting gate. Others work just behind the gates.
They save lives and limbs.
Ed Crane has worked at the track since opening day in 1988 and is now the racetrack starter in charge of the crew members who are to horse racing what clowns are to rodeo.
“They have to be kind of crazy. You're in there, wrestling with horses that weigh 1,000 or 1,200 pounds,” said Crane, 64.
As they prepare for the opening of the thoroughbred season Thursday, Crane and some of his gate crew shared stories from the unsung side of the racehorse business.
In one spectacular accident, a horse reared up and twisted in the gate. She suddenly found herself spread-eagle with her front hooves in gate 4, her belly in gate 5 and her hind hooves in gate 6. Clearly unhappy with her predicament, she bit the hindquarters of the horse standing in gate 4. The gate crew scurried to help the jockey to safety and momentarily wondered how to help the filly. She solved the puzzle by somehow jumping forward to free herself.
All horses and humans emerged with only a few bumps, scratches and bites.
“Hurt our feelings,” Crane said, shaking his head.
After being around horses all his life, Vic Padilla, 49, has had more than his feelings hurt.
His father, Victor Padilla, took the family along as he trained and jockeyed horses across the country. The younger Padilla and his brother, Tim, who is now a trainer, used to slip out at night to run foot races and climb onto the starting gates at the now-closed Centennial racetrack in Littleton, Colo., to watch movies shown on the outdoor theater on the grounds.
His left collarbone juts unnaturally, and he cracked an ankle and foot, thanks to a couple of times when horses flipped in the gate and smashed him.
“We have a pretty dangerous job. But the jocks also have a dangerous job,” Padilla said.
Along with broken bones, the gate crew members suffer quite a few ripped off toe nails, smashed feet and cuts — all hazards they just shrug off.
Besides their scars, the gate crew members share an understanding of the horse's flattened ear, alarmed eye and tucked tail. A horseman can sometimes catch such body language just in the nick of time.
“You try to keep the wreck from ever happening,” said Steve “Pup” Gerwitz, 44.
These animal athletes know they're about to spring from the gate when their heads are straight ahead, they're standing smack in the middle of the gate and the starter's hand tightens up a bit on the left rein near the bit.
“When they know it's fixing to happen, that's when they get silly. They get excited,” he said.
So Gerwitz tries to distract the horses until the right moment by turning their head so they can look at the horse next to them or rubbing their heads or petting them between the ears.
“The main thing about a wreck is you try to save your jockey,” Gerwitz said.
“Then you try to do your best to get the horse in a position to where he's not going to hurt himself. Then ... you save yourself.”
Gerwitz recalled grabbing 69-year-old jockey Roy Brooks in April when a racehorse knocked him out just before the start of a race. Somehow, the horse flipped over and pinned Brooks beneath him in the gate. Gerwitz, other gate crew members and outriders are credited with risking their lives to pull Brooks from under the horse and away from other frenzied horses.
“That's what we're here for basically: to save the jockeys. The jockeys try to keep the horses from hurting themselves. And we try to keep it to where it's a fair start for everybody,” Gerwitz said.
One guy who specializes in helping with back-flipping horses is “The Catcher,” Matt Crawford. The 6-foot, 11-inch, 287-pound, 37-year-old assistant starter said his size at first made it difficult for him to fit in at the starting gates.
He has learned which horses were more likely to throw fits in the starting gate and now walks around behind the gates, looking for trouble makers.
Crawford once grabbed multiple world champion jockey G.R. Carter and saved him just as his horse flipped upside down.
“You pick them up. You grab them any way you can and set them out of the way. It all happens in the blink of an eye,” Crawford said. “When that horse is lying there with its feet going every which way, you just try to get it stopped before somebody gets hurt.”
In the late 1990s, Crawford bear-hugged a good, gray thoroughbred named Highland Ice, who had thrown himself upside down and become trapped inside the gate. The animal calmed down when Crawford covered his head and eyes so that the starting gate could be moved and the horse freed.
“So he didn't get hurt,” Crawford said.
It's all in a day's and night's work for his gate crew, said Crane, who rubbed a long, curved “revenge” scar on his wrist.
He recalled the time he walked a cantankerous horse around and tried to shoo him into the gate. He ran up behind the horse to shut the gate.
“He blasted me,” Crane said.
The blast came in the form of a beautifully aimed hoof to his wrist. Crane shrugged off all sympathetic comments until he saw a pool of blood at his feet.
“Hmm, that's mine,” he thought.
“It's dangerous,” Crane said.