Starting strong

7 October 2020 Written by Celia Purdey

For almost 40 years, Dan Blackmore has worked behind the starting gates at all Victorian Metro racecourses as well as at Warrnambool.

He has helped load thousands of racehorses into the barriers, including champions and legends of the sport. The job is not always an easy one, but for a passionate horse lover like Dan, it is one full of rewards.

How did you become a barrier attendant?
My father, Kevin was in charge of the starting gates from the time they were introduced at Flemington in the late 1950s, until 1997. He had six sons and we all worked on the barriers. One of my brothers took over until Racing Victoria began in 2000, and they took on the management. None of my brothers work on the gates now. I am the last one there. I’ve been doing the job for more than 37 years. We are three generations in, so it has been a good job to my family.

What keeps you coming back?
The love of the horse. I just love them. I used to train and rode as an amateur. I own two at the moment that race in Adelaide. I’d love to train again when the time is right. I’d move to Warrnambool, as I have a place there.

What does the job entail?
The horses come around at the start of the race and the starter assigns one or two runners plus the jockey to each attendant. There are usually about nine attendants working behind the gates. We lead the horses in and sometimes have to lift them into the stall; that is, give them a push. Sometimes a horse will be agitated and we’ll have to climb up and stay with them as the race starts. We will just pat and keep them calm if this happens.

Do you ever feel wary of working with such strong animals?
They are 500kg so you definitely have to have your wits about you and be levelheaded. You also need to be quick on your feet in case you need to duck out of the way, so it pays to be in good physical shape. There are of course the occasional injuries to attendants, like a broken hand or a kick to the leg. The safety aspect has increased a lot in recent years, and the boots, vests and helmets that we are required to wear are fantastic. In regards to the horse’s safety, there is always a vet and a farrier behind the gates to help with any problems and assessments.

Any secrets to get them to go if they are resistant?
If one of them is being really difficult, nine times out of ten if the jockeys hops off and gives them a minute they are happy and fine to walk in. There have been some difficult ones. I remember a horse that took about eight of us to lift in! Then there are of course the rare ones, like Chautauqua. In all the times I worked with him, I never saw him kick or bite or appear annoyed. He just didn’t want to run! You only have about 90 seconds to get them loaded, so usually you just give them a pat and hope to God they go. If they just refuse to enter the stalls, the final call is made by the starter who decides if they will race or not.

What is the atmosphere at the gates like before a big race, such as the Melbourne Cup?
Before a big race you can hear a pin drop. But it depends where the start is. If it is the Melbourne Cup and it is away from the crowd, it is so quiet as everyone is focused. If it is starting near the crowd, like the Victoria Derby which is right in front of the grandstands, it is obviously much louder so keeping the horses calm might take a little more work. The jockeys are completely focused, but if something goes wrong like a horse takes a little longer to load into the stalls, we make light of it to loosen the situation. It used to be worse when helicopters were flying overhead. Sometimes it was hard to hear the starter.

The job must take some teamwork with your fellow attendants. Is this true?
There is a fantastic camaraderie between all the attendants and most of us have been here a long time. For example, of the nine blokes I might work with on a weekend, I would have probably worked with six or so of them for 25-30 years. I think there are about 62 across the state. We’re a tight-knit community.