There may be no horse at the graded stakes level with a more explosive first step out of the gate than Golden Pal.
On a regular basis, the son of Uncle Mo has displayed an early turn of foot that made elite turf sprinters appear flat-footed at the jump, akin to high school-era footage of a future NFL player being three strides off the line of scrimmage before the player across from him gets out of the set position.
In this year’s Grade 2 Shakertown Stakes at Keeneland, he already had a 2 1/2-length lead after the opening quarter-mile — against a field of sprinters — and his rivals never got any closer to him until they turned around to unsaddle. His romp in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint looked awfully similar.
When a horse shows that much ability at a specific skill, the question becomes whether that skill was taught, or if it’s just part of his makeup as a racehorse.
Trainer Wesley Ward said it’s as much mental as it is physical.
“He’s a highly intelligent horse, and that has a lot to do with it,” Ward said. “He usually stands motionless in the gate. He doesn’t get fidgety or nervous.
“For a big horse, he’s very athletic, and moves like a cat,” Ward continued. “He’s just really quick and agile. You put all of that together, he’s standing, peering at the gate in front of him, and the millisecond it opens, he’s gone. Whereas, a lot of horses get in the gate, and are anticipating the race and looking around at what’s going on in there, the other horses are rattling around and the assistant starters are yelling at the starter. They’re kind of taking everything in, and he’s just dead-on focused. When the gates pop, he’s gone.”
A consistent display of concentration and reflex to that degree is something Ward said he has not seen in many horses. It’s made Golden Pal a favorite of the trainer’s well before his debut start in April 2020.
Even then, in a 4 1/2-furlong main track maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park, Golden Pal blasted out to a two-length lead in the opening quarter, but he got caught at the wire. He’d never let that happen again on U.S. soil.
“As time is progressing, you see a young athlete that develops physically and mentally, and it all comes together, that’s what I see with him; same thing,” Ward said. “Every race that went on, and every few months that went by, he was getting better mentally and taking everything in. Now, he knows what his job is.”
In the mornings, Ward said he is content to let Golden Pal’s natural talent out of the gate take care of itself, instead of trying to over-coach the colt for a box he’s already checked.
“You don’t have to go back to the gate and do any training like that anymore,” Ward said. “You know what he’s going to do, and you try to keep him nice and calm going into the race. A lot of times, other horses I have and other trainers, they’ll emphasize on the gate because the horse isn’t quite this or that, but with him, it’s quite the opposite. You keep him away from it, because you already know what he’s going to do.”
Of course, Golden Pal’s quick-starting ability would be the exception in any barn. For the ones that are less dialed in at the gate, Ward said he tries to help them find that same zen amidst the chaos.
There are two gates kept in the chute at the top of the backstretch during morning training hours on the main track at Saratoga Race Course. The one in front is used by horses to break from the gates and accelerate onto the main course. Behind it is a second gate employed strictly for standing in the contraption. Both have their purposes in Ward’s gate training program when he’s in upstate New York.
More than anything, the system is about repetition on the part of the horse, and patience on the part of the people around them.
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“We have a filly that hasn’t started, and we just took her over there and broke her from the gate,” Ward said. “She’s gone in succession quite a few times, and she was real nervous in there. She broke, and she was fine, but in the gate, she was really nervous. And that was just with one other horse of mine, let alone nine or 10 horses in a race.
“What we’ll plan on doing is just bring her right back to the gate tomorrow, the pony will lead her in, she’ll stand, and then we’ll come right off the track and not train, and we’ll just bring her back, so she’s got her security blanket right there,” he continued. “Then she’ll know she can go in there, and not come out at 100 miles per hour. She can get in there and start to relax. We’ll work on her four or five days in a row. Every time she goes in right now, she’s breaking and going fast, and that’s why she’s nervous. You don’t want that in a race. You want them more like Golden Pal, where they get in there and relax, and then they come out and they’re not scared of it. You have to get them over the fear.”
For all of Golden Pal’s natural gate ability, his victory in the G3 Troy Stakes on Aug. 5 at Saratoga was somewhat off-brand.
Instead of his usual burst of speed out of the gate, Golden Pal started rather awkwardly, and took a bit of time to find his stride in third, before zeroing in on pacesetter True Valour and getting a head in front at the wire in near-record time.
Part of that was by design. Ward said he wanted to give the colt another tool in his belt, beyond “get to the front and stay there.” Part of it was circumstance that gave the trainer what he wanted anyway.
“The ground kind of broke out from underneath him in the first few strides, but our plan was to take back and harness that speed, which is tough to do when you break so quick,” he said. “Everything worked out in our favor.”