Tough. Weathered. Resilient. These attributes may easily conjure the image of anyone in horse-racing, an industry that has persisted through a period of uncertainty and adversity. Or perhaps they can be given to the rough-hewn character of a classic Western film sitting alone at the bar, telling the bartender, “I seen things you wouldn’t believe with yer own two eyes.” But today, those attributes are being given to someone—or should we say something—else entirely.
Meet Century Downs’ trusty back-up starting gate. While it doesn’t necessarily have eyes, its front lights certainly gives it the impression that it’s leering right at you.
The old Buick, which is owned by the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association (ASHA), dutifully sits on the sideline each race day, ready to take on the challenge of starting the races if Century Downs’ usual truck falls to any mishaps. There’s no lack of scuffs and rust on its body—a nod to old age and a long career in the field. The wooden plate on the back bears ASHA’s name in blue letters, though many have become weathered and faded with age. The starting gate itself, once the same brilliant white as the one that currently sits on Century Downs’ main starting gate, has become browned and worn out.
But that doesn’t mean the old car isn’t up to the task.
Former starter Barry McGrath recalls driving the Buick back during his days at the Calgary Stampede, when it also served as a much younger back-up. He laughs when asked to describe its character, then settles on “reliable.” Never any problems, he says, a car that always came through and never let him down—even if it was really darned cold in the winter. That was back in the 80’s.
The starting gate certainly made its rounds before settling at Century Downs. And like veteran driver Rod Hennessy, who’s been racing for four decades, we’re willing to bet this car’s got some stories. Heck, you could almost interpret the scuffs as signs of character. Who knows how many legendary horses have raced behind its gates? Who knows how many huge races it’s started, or how many dramatic moments began with a line of horses galloping to its gates as it trundled down the track?
Perhaps some things are better left to the imagination, but we can’t help but feel that there’s more to this bulky, rustic vehicle that’s seen two decades of racing. Perhaps one day it’ll retire to a place where it can rightfully be admired, where people will begin to tell us more on its behalf. For now, we’ll just stick to our wistful headline.