The rising sun casts a warm glow across the sprawling Tampa Bay Downs racetrack. In the distance, the sound of horses neighing and hooves pounding the dirt track can be heard. For the starting gate crew, it is just another day at work.
The crew members gather early at the gate, a towering metal structure that houses the starting stalls where the horses will enter. They check their equipment, ensuring that everything is in working order. The gate crew consists of about 12 men who all have horsemanship experience and enjoy being around the horses as much as anyone at the track.
Tampa Bay Downs gate crew member Kevin Velez helps keep a horse focused for the start of a race (courtesy SV Photography)
The crew starts work around 7 a.m. The first task is to make sure that every horse is comfortable entering the gate. Thoroughbreds can weigh 1,000 pounds or more, yet despite their size, must be handled with care and attention to detail. Crew members take pride in their ability to keep every horse comfortable and focused.
To get young horses accustomed to the starting gate, the crew works with them extensively in the days leading up to the race. They slowly urge the horses to enter the gate, one by one or in company with a stablemate, until they are comfortable with their new surroundings. This requires patience and perseverance, as each horse presents its own set of challenges.
“You have to be ready for anything on any given day,” said Ed Bubolz, the starter on the gate crew.
After the morning training session, the crew has a couple of hours before the races. Some use this time to catch up on paperwork or take a break. They also take the opportunity to chat and catch up on the latest news or discuss any issues that arose during training. Despite the relatively relaxed atmosphere, crew members remain alert for any surprises that may come their way once the races begin and must rely on their own training and experience.
As post time for the first race approaches, their anticipation grows in concert with the horses. The crew members know they have a crucial role to play in ensuring that the race goes off without a hitch. They line up the horses in their assigned starting stalls and help the riders with any problems that arise.
At the sound of the bell, the gates spring open, and the horses bolt onto the track. The sound of metal clanging and the crowd cheering fills the air, but the gate crew remains focused and alert. They jump out of the gate after their horse’s break, keeping a watchful eye on them as they zoom down the straightaway.
Crew members take pride in their work, knowing their job is crucial to the rider and horse’s safety and to guaranteeing a fair start. “Anything can happen,” said Kevin Velez, a veteran crew member. “Some days a horse will like you, and some days anything you do will agitate them.”
Kevin is a long-time member of the gate crew at Tampa Bay Downs, with a wealth of experience in the horse racing industry. Born into a family that has been involved in the business for years, Velez has a deep passion for the sport and is known for his hard work and dedication.
An energetic person with a deep-rooted love for horse racing, Kevin owes much of his interest and knowledge of the sport to his father, jockey Jose Velez, Jr., who rode more than 3,000 winners over a 30-year career. Kevin grew up with a unique perspective on horse racing and has learned from his father’s years of experience and expertise. His father’s success inspired Kevin to pursue his own passion for the sport, and he has become an accomplished horseman in his own right.
“He sat me down and told me I had bills to pay and told me that if I was going to work at the track, that I was going to have to give it 100 percent,” said Kevin.
Gavin Bowersock, 18, the youngest member of the crew, sees his work as an opportunity to gain experience and grow. “I wish more kids my age would come out to the track,” he said. “I grew up on the backside, so this was how I got into it.”
Gavin has the advantage of having a mother who is a highly respected trainer, Maria Bowersock. As the son of someone who has dedicated her life to horses and racing, Gavin has developed a deep appreciation and knowledge of the sport. Working at his mother’s barn not only proved to be a great education, but it also stoked his enthusiasm in finding his own way into the sport. His expertise and dedication are highly valued by team members.
“Gavin has shown real growth this past season being the youngest and I hope to have him back for next season,” said Bubolz.
As the races progress, the crew’s work is far from over. They will have to repeat this process 8-10 more times during the racing day. They have about 20 minutes between races to get ready for the next one. They are also responsible for moving the gate to another location on the track, depending on the distance of the upcoming race. This requires clear communication between the crew members, who rely on hand signals and verbal cues to stay in sync.
As the afternoon progresses, crew members remain vigilant, ready to respond to any situation. “You have to be prepared for anything because it’s a long day of training and racing,” said Kevin.
As the sun sets after the last race, the crew members pack up their equipment and head home. They have another day of hard work ahead of them, but a good night’s rest will get them ready for the next day of training and races.
Robert Dion, a recent University of Tampa graduate with a passion for the field of sports media, interned at Tampa Bay Downs during the 2022-2023 racing meet. He hopes to use the knowledge and experience he gained throughout his internship to pursue a career in sports media, either in public relations or television production.