No one now could imagine a return to the days of ragged standing starts, when one official was said to ask large fields to form "two orderly lines, the triers at the front, non-triers behind". Yet, when the first electric starting gate was demonstrated at a meeting in British Columbia, Canada, in July 1939, it met with scepticism, since few of the spectators believed that a dozen or so horses could be boxed up safely and efficiently. And if that seems remarkable enough, consider also the fact that the man who invented the starting stall is still around to recount the tale.
Clay Puett will be 98 next month, but he continues to oversee the True Center Gate Leasing company in Phoenix, Arizona, which he founded to market his new device. As with so many clever inventions, the stall was born out of failure and frustration, in Puett's case the result of being asked to act as a starter at a track in Colorado. "I was a complete failure," he says, "and I wasn't used to that. I just couldn't get them away in any kind of a line. There were seven or eight riders and they all wanted to be first. I had no control, so I decided to invent a piece of equipment that would let them out when I wanted them out."
It took Puett a decade to come up with the design which, while it has changed in several minor details, is still the basis of stalls throughout the world today. "Nobody's ever made one better than ours," he says. "People didn't think you could lock up a thoroughbred. However, I thought different. Horses are a lot like people, if you treat them with kindness, you'll get along."
He was right, as the first trial at a course in Vancouver on 1 July 1939 was to prove, and scepticism swiftly turned to unbridled enthusiasm. "It took me by surprise," Puett says.
"By the end of 1940, they were being used at every major track in the United States, first at Bay Meadows in California when that opened that year, and then at Pimlico, Belmont and so on."
It remains a thriving business. Puett still spends part of each day supervising repairs in the company workshop, and in the last year alone, the firm has exported stalls to places as far away as Puerto Rico, Peru and Thailand. Many others are leased to domestic tracks and training centres, which allows their inventor to take a hand in their upkeep.
"People don't maintain them," Puett says. "It's like your automobile, if you don't take care of it, it won't take care of you, so I rent them and I service them."
Almost 60 years after his idea started to transform racing worldwide, Clay Puett is still regularly making improvements to the design. "I'm building a new 12-stall gate for a race track in Tucson," he says. "I reckon that might be the last one I'll build."
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