By Brad Gray
19th August, 2017.
It’s a date Dale Jeffs won’t be forgetting in a hurry. Jeffs is the ATC starter and that was the inauspicious day star mare Winx made a mess of the start in the G2 Warwick Stakes, to launch her spring campaign. She still won, but the sweat still builds on Jeff’s brow when he recalls that Saturday afternoon.
Jeffs has been a starter for 32 years in some shape or form, and although having opened the gates for “tens of thousands” of races, that’s the one that is most memorable.
“The heart went into the mouth,” Jeffs remembers.
“I thought about that start for weeks afterwards, playing it over in my head hundreds and hundreds of times but I did nothing wrong. It was just a split second thing. As I pressed it, and by the time everything works, she went up. She was standing perfectly when I pressed the button but you still think ‘oh no’.”
Jeffs will also go down in history as having started the inaugural running of The Everest, back in October of last year.
“It’s probably the amazing start I’ve done. I’ve done a few Derby and Oaks starts right in front of the grandstand at Randwick and they give you a buzz from the crowd but the roar from The Everest was something else,” said Jeffs.
“The old boss always said for me to treat every race the same, and you try to keep that mindset, but when you know it’s a $10 million race… there was a fair bit of pressure and you try not to let it get to you but afterwards you take a big, deep breath.”
That old boss was Jeff’s long-serving predecessor Billy Dale. It all started for Jeffs at the age of 16 when he began work life as an apprentice greenkeeper at Rosehill Gardens, straight out of high school. After a year or so, it was a matter of right place, right time and he was hired as the assistant starter under Dale’s tutelage.
Jeffs spent 10 years at Rosehill before being offered the job as racecourse manager at Gosford and while he shifted his life to the Central Coast, he still kept the role of assistant starter at Rosehill and Canterbury, which were under STC management. That lasted another eight years before Jeffs was hired as the Warwick Farm racecourse manager.
“After about three years at Warwick Farm a job came up in Singapore and they wanted a starter. I liked the idea of being a starter over a racecourse manager so I went away for six years and then here we are today,” said Jeffs.
“(Singapore) was great and opened my eyes to what we were doing here, which was 99% right but it gave me a lot of new ideas and how to deal with difficult horses. I’ve seen firsthand how the horses react and behave in Singapore and have watched a lot of Hong Kong racing, and their manners are so different to what we are used to in Australia.
“There are a lot of fractious horses in the barriers so it taught me a few extras tricks I wouldn’t have learnt if I stayed in Australia.”
THAT Winx race Jeffs remembers so vividly
After his Singapore stint and then another 12 months under Billy Dale, Jeffs had “very big and very well respected shoes” to fill when Dale retired after 48 years of service.
Jeffs, whose father was a racecourse manager at Rosehill, Canterbury, Hong Kong and then Randwick, says you have to expect the unexpected every time you climb the podium.
“What I’ve found in the racing game and dealing with horses, if it’s a million to one, it will eventually will happen to you,” laughs Jeffs.
“Every race is so unique in itself. We never have the same fields, never the same differences. Nothing is ever replicated 100%.”
As Jeffs went on to explain, there is a perception that a starter’s role is to simply press the button. It is certainly much more than that though.
“The role is titled starter but only 10% of my job is pressing the button to release the field. A big part of the job is getting the horses into the barriers and keeping them in there, as well as keeping an eye on the habitual offenders,” Jeffs said.
Jeffs is also responsible for any gear, whether that be ear muffs, barrier blankets, stallion chains or blindfolds, as well as rostering on and organising the often unheralded barrier attendants, with the size of a race day crew based on field sizes.
“You’ll see a horse being fractious and raring up in the gates and the jockeys, who I admire very much, will be diving out of the barrier, and the barrier attendants will be jumping in to help the jockey and protect the welfare of the horse,” said Jeffs, who not only marshals race days.
“Who goes jumping in with a 500kg, and at times crazed, animal? They do an amazing job and I couldn’t do my job without them.
“We do a lot behind the scenes. As well as the barrier trials we do jump outs at the metropolitan courses one day a week where we are there with a smaller team to assistant the trainers, either to educate or sometimes re-educate the naughty horses.”
It was recently at a routine set of barrier trials when champion sprinter and three-time TJ Smith Stakes-winner Chautauqua stood flat footed in the gates, refusing to move.
“I was flabbergasted the first time he did it at Randwick. I don’t start the trials myself, I like to be behind and let the assistant start so I can watch everything closer. I wasn’t standing far away from him and I couldn’t believe it. Of all horses…” Jeffs recounts.
“He just stood there and refused and then did it a second and third time. He has always been a bit tardy out of the gates but to just stand there, he has got to be telling people something.”
From one end of the scale to the other, Jeffs, although outwardly admitting there is some recently bias at play, believes Golden Slipper winner Esitjaab is one of the quickest he’s even seen out of the barriers.
“The way she flew out in the Slipper was amazing. They all generally jump out in the one line – you don’t see them jump half a length in front in Slippers. She has got the power behind her and wants to be out there doing it too,” said Jeffs.
“That’s what I put it down to for Winx when she was playing up for a period of time, not that she is an angel now, but she turns into a prize fighter, just wanting to get on with the job. She wasn’t being nasty as some horses can be in the gates, she was more like ‘come on, let’s go’.”
Jeffs grew up idolising Kingston Town as an early teen and marvelled over the class of ‘96 which included Octagonal, Saintly, Nothin’ Leica Dane and Filante but says Winx is the best he has ever seen.
“She is something special this girl. The good ones do have an aura. They know it. The way they walk around, they stop and prick their ears,” he said.
*Article was originally published in the May edition of the Racing NSW Magazine