by Nicolle Neulist
A cream-coloured Lincoln Town Car, polished to a shine, waits along the backstretch fence by the paddock gap at Hawthorne's three quarter pole. It's a little different from most of the Town Cars on the road. A top level is added on, its walls mostly glass. They're second-story windows for starter Roy Finn, who watches each race from his raised workspace built into the rear of the starting car, as well as for anyone riding along for the best view in the house. Wings the same cream shade as the starting car are folded parallel along the sides of the car, supported by a frame attached to the back of the car.
As horses for the first race of the day file through and step onto the track the starting car eases into position, half a mile away. By the quarter pole, at the head of the stretch, the car stops again, preparing for the first race of the day. Along the starter's desk in the car is a microphone. Periodically Roy speaks into it, giving the drivers notice of how much time they have until they must congregate behind the car. His voice booms and crackles from the flare of a speaker mounted on its back. "Two minutes." A little while later, "Thirty seconds."
Unfurled, the wings of the starting gate span most of the width of the racetrack. Red grates are spaced evenly along the surface, ten of them, marking where each horse in the first tier of the field will soon line up. In an overflow field the last few would start in a second line, but only eight horses entered the day's opener at Hawthorne. Some would be marooned outside, but no one would be relegated to the second tier.
Announcer Peter Galassi's voice rises on the PA system through the grandstand and over the apron. "The starter calls for the pacers for tonight's first race at Hawthorne..."
The cacophony of last-minute warm-ups settles into order. Eight drivers steer their horses toward the starting gate as it begins to roll, careful to maneuver themselves into post position order before Roy's watchful eye. Sixteen sulky wheels roll along, gaining momentum as thirty-two hooves fall into gait, pacing faster and more fluidly by the moment.
"Starting gate's rolling..."
The car accelerates, encouraging the horses behind it to reach racing speed. By the time the race begins, the starting car is moving about thirty miles an hour. It's a good back-of-the-envelope figure, thirty miles an hour, a two-minute mile. But, nothing is set in stone. For Roy Finn, it can vary a bit depending on how the horses are going behind the gate. They'll tell him when to go faster or not. After all, even from the seat in the starting car, he is still a horseman. He has still lived his life around standardbreds, and the wisdom of listening to the horses always remains relevant.
"Heeeeere they come..."
Just before the starting car reaches the finish line, the engine revs up louder than the sound of the hoofbeats down the course. The race has begun. Roy Finn retracts the starting gate. As the wings fold back up, becoming once again flush with the sides of the Town Car, Rick Finn hits the accelerator. He clears it to the outside fence, clearing the way for the horses to sort themselves into a line (or two) as they enter the clubhouse turn. He eases it back to a steady speed to track outside the line of horses racing into the far turn -- something close to thirty miles an hour again.
With the pacers sent on their way, Roy Finn watches closely from the upper level window of the starting car. It's the closest view of a race you can get without driving one of the horses. Most of the time the stewards, in their nest four stories up over the apron, can see what they need in order to make any rulings and call a race official. On rare occasions, they need a different angle, a closer angle, and Roy is the official who has that vantage point.
It's a different view than he had for many years. He grew up in the sport: his father, his uncles, his brothers, his cousins all raced. Roy got his license to drive Standardbreds in 1975, and spent almost thirty years in the bike. In 2004, he traded the sulky for the starting car. Some of his brothers still drive Standardbreds. His brother Rick drives the starting car. At first Roy missed driving in races, but he doesn’t miss it as much fourteen years hence. You get hurt a lot less in the starting car, after all.
A mile later, Swinging Cami paces across the finish line. One race down; seven more to go, seven more times for the starting car to go around the track, spread its wings, and send the horses flying into the clubhouse turn.