A junky start

How starting positions need to be more equitable.

by Trey Nosrac

After playing football as a freshman, I made my first career move. I took up high jumping, a non-strenuous sport where opposing players did not try to maim me. Seriously, as a high jumper, you lounge in the pit (a soft foam rubber landing area) and work on your tan. Disregarding the five-step run-up preceding the jump, and just counting the time air born, my total amount of “action” lasted 12 seconds. This was fine; it allowed me plenty of time to ogle girls.

High jumping, or in my case, semi-high jumping, is a very primitive sport where a human being (or teenager) attempts to soar over a stick. High jumping is somewhat boring and like most sports, somewhat stupid. However, one thing you have to concede about high jumping — it is very fair. We did not have springs in our shoes, helium balloons around our waists, or run up a ramp for a head start.

One day, Mr. Rademaker, our track coach, strolled over, tapped me on the shoulder and grumbled, “Raymond Tetherfield was just kicked off the team for smoking behind the bleachers; you’re running the first leg of the half-mile relay.” He finished this shocking request by saying, “Just stay in lane four, the far outside lane, run as fast as you can, and hand the baton to Albert Smithers.”

Mr. Rademaker escorted me to the starting blocks and gave me some instructions that I immediately forgot. I was delighted to see that my starting blocks were several yards in front of lane three and many yards in front of lanes two and one.

The starter pistol cracked.

I was ahead, the other three hopefuls in my rear view mirror. Arms pumping, mullet hair flying, I immediately dubbed myself “The Rocket of Cuyahoga County.” This euphoria lasted approximately eight seconds. At that point, runners from lanes one, two and three loomed into my side view mirror. When a scowling Albert Smithers almost received the baton (I dropped the damn thing), I was looking at the taillights of all other competitors.

My first reactions were presidential; blame everyone else — Raymond Tetherfield for negligence in rule breaking, Coach Rademaker for sending me out unprepared and the obvious Machiavellian configuration of the track. Reality set in. The coach was doing his job. My Winstons were in Ray Tetherfield’s possession when he got pinched, and our losing had nothing to do with where I started; in the next heat, the kid running in lane four handed the baton to his partner five yards in front of the other runners.

This is a long-winded introduction to the reconfiguration challenge of today – Improve the absolute unfairness of an outside post position.

This bias to outsiders has been a pet peeve of mine since discovering the sport. High school track teams address this issue; harness racing does not. While griping about this unfair travesty for over a decade, I usually get a tepid response like, “Yeah, getting stuck with an outside post is a bummer.”

To me, the inequity is more than a bummer; it is strange. Every horse should have an equal distance to travel regardless of assigned post position. I just looked up Yonkers stats and found that your chances of winning a race from post position number eight are around two per cent and I am surprised it is that high. A starting post scraping the outside fence can make a race unbeatable, unwatchable and unconscionable.

Any person capable of simple mathematic calculations and physics (which excludes me) could easily analyze how much of a distance each post position should be ahead of post one to make the distance traveled equal.

Just using the junk box from last week (full story here), the items in this pile offer hints to improve fairness. I am not even going to limit myself to a single proposal. In five seconds I can think of five ways to make the postpositions more equitable. You can probably come up with another five if you have an open mind.

• Using ultra-lightweight thermoplastic composite material, the starting gate should be re-engineered so the outside posts are tilted forward significantly so the race will be equitable. Not only is this fair, viewers would get a complete view of their horse at the start.
• There should be individual lanes for the first 1/8 of a mile; each horse covering this part of the race in their own lane would cause less interference. At the end of the first 1/8 all will have covered the same distance, and THEN drivers vie for position near the coveted rail.
• We could use a laser beam or a laser curtain instead of a fence.
• Even better, get rid of the clunky cars and trucks. An obtrusive and jarring motorized vehicle as an integral part of a sporting event like a horse race is inane. Use a beam or another method to start a race from OFF the track surface.
• What about an audio cue that instructs the driver via headphones on their proper placement at the start of a race from sensors below the surface?

Imagine the start of a horse race without the obtrusive vehicle that can scare horses and cause accidents. Imagine a staggered start that allows viewers to see every single horse. Imagine a race where the eight horses each travel the identical distance. Imagine a race with more action because there will be decisions to make at every step in the race, especially the second quarter when the drivers will decide to push forward or save their horses. Imagine races with fewer chalk and tosses.

Cheaper, fairer, more visually aesthetic, improved odds – what are we doing with the noses of our horses in an unfair line behind a big metal fence and a roaring vehicle?