Monday, January 24, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

The Starter’s Rules


joes1Do you ever wonder what rules you live by? Sure you do. Your rules can be as simple as “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” or as complex as trying to determine if donuts are part of the Mediterranean Diet. But we all have rules. These rules are frequently not spoken and may not even be conscious, like always eating your corn on the cob before eating your burger. See, that’s a rule, but you don’t even register it as one. What other rules are out there? Well, here are The Starter’s Rules.

Rule 1: Your money and pedigree mean nothing — stay right there!

Do you really have a choice? Of course not. That’s Tom Benjamin, the starter at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino. He’s the guy who actually pushes the button that opens the gate for the races. No kidding. Right now he’s doing his early morning school, where he helps horses figure out how to get into the gate and to get focused for the start. And, yes, he’s pointing at you on top of that 1,200-pound, dancing racehorse. You’re supposed to chill your jets until he’s ready. No, he’s not looking at you in fawning admiration as you sit high on your horse. He’s not looking at you at all. You’re not the center of his world. He is taking care of that other rider and horse at the gate, who may have finished last place every race this year. It doesn’t matter to him.joes2

But don’t think for a minute that you can take your eyes off Benjamin. He is the center of your world. If he says “yes,” your horse races. If he says “no,” you’re eating froyo at Orange Leaf come race time. You won the Kentucky Derby? Stay right there.

Rule 2: Fear is contagious, so get a grip.


“OK, in you go,” says Benjamin.

This is complicated. This rippling mass of muscle will not get a chance to show its stuff if it can’t get up to the gate to start. And this gate is what your horse sees at the start of the race. Trust me. This little, narrow enclosure is not very inviting. And that is true even with the gate open. With the front gate closed, one of Benjamin’s guys is going to lead the horse into the stall until that guy’s back is tight against the gate. That guy will then jump up onto that little ledge you see there. You, the jockey, will pull up your feet so they don’t get crushed on the edges of the chute. Great. Now, go ahead and get your horse to go into that nightmare of padded walls and clanging metal.joes3

“Everyone thinks I just push a button,” says Benjamin. “The fear is you’re handling a 1,200-pound animal, and he’s trying to eat you up in there.”

Really? Are you sure I should be this close?

“It’s very intense up here. If you’re not scared when handling horses, you’re crazy. However, you have to get your ‘being scared’ under control as fast as you can, because that’s how you get the horse under control. The quicker you can get yourself under control, the quicker the horse can get under control.”

joes4So get a grip.

Rule 3: You have to have “good hands on you.”

“I can look in a horse’s eye and tell if he’s mean or if he’s scared. I’ve done it for so long. I’ve learned long ago that you have to be the leader because the horse is looking for help in there if he’s scared,” says Benjamin. “He’s looking for someone to take control, to lead him. You have to have good hands on you. Pretty soon the horse has confidence in you. You want him to get trust in you.”

What the heck does this mean? “Good hands on you?” Is Benjamin some New Age masseur? Maybe. As you stand in the loam of the track and watch these wired animals prance in the early morning gray, only Benjamin is still and quiet, watching. A horse bolts behind the gate. Nine men are present, all competently working the horses as part of Benjamin’s hand-picked crew. The backpedaling horse is standing on his hind legs, the front legs are 10 feet up, pawing at the air. And, like lightning, there’s Benjamin in front of the horse. He has the horse’s head down in moments. Gentling. Calming. Soothing.

joes5“Good hands on him,” you might say.

Rule 4: You need a boss and crew you can trust.

What happens when things really go south?

“My worst position was when a horse was upside down in there, and I was laying on the horse’s chest. And the horse was kicking the front doors with his hind feet. One of my guys pulled me out. We all work together. You need to know what to do to get that horse right,” he says.

Benjamin is referred to as “boss” by his men. That might be an understatement. While Benjamin’s eyes squint to take in the big picture, all the horses ebbing and flowing on this early, cold morning, his men’s eyes are on him like bird dogs waiting for a signal.

joes6“I have good guys; it makes it a lot easier and makes me look more professional. I have a lot of confidence in them, and they have a lot of confidence in me,” he says.

Rule 5: If you do your best, you can live with whatever the outcome — maybe.

“I was born on the racetrack, basically. Nothing makes you feel worse than when a horse doesn’t get off for you. Just do the best you can. If things go bad, or if a horse gets scratched or a rider gets hurt or something, always be the best you can be no matter what. You’ll always be OK with it. You can live with it. Just be the best you can,” he says.

Come on. Is this guy for real?

Then Benjamin adds without breaking a smile, “Oh, did I mention, because of racing TV, everybody in the country is watching your mistake.”

The Starter’s Rules. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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