Keeneland Starter ‘Spec’ Alexander Relishes ‘Developing Young Horses’

Keeneland fans see a lot of Starter Robert Lee “Spec” Alexander, who heads the team that loads Thoroughbreds into the starting gate for the afternoon races and presses a button to open the doors when they are still and focused. In the mornings during training hours, Alexander and his crew school horses in the gate.

Alexander, a lifelong horseman, knows an exceptional Thoroughbred when he sees one.

When a bright chestnut 2-year-old colt arrived at the Keeneland starting gate one summer morning in 2017 for fundamental lessons, Alexander knew the youngster would be a superstar. The colt, sold for $500,000 at Keeneland’s 2016 September Yearling Sale, at the time was with Keeneland-based trainer Rodolphe Brisset. A year later with trainer Bob Baffert, he made headlines as undefeated Triple Crown winner Justify.

“The good ones just stand out from the others,” Alexander said, describing the intangible qualities of superior racehorses.

Like many young horses at Keeneland during the summer, Justify honed the starting gate skills required for racing under Alexander. Lessons begin with a horse and rider walking through the gate before continuing their daily exercise. In subsequent visits to the gate, a horse learns to stand quietly while awaiting a quick getaway.

Most Thoroughbreds master the technique of entering, standing and sprinting out of the starting gate in just a few classes while others need remedial education. Alexander and his crew are patient regardless of each animal’s ability. Thoroughbreds are known to have incredible memories, and Alexander knows they will not forget a bad experience in the starting gate.

“Horses only know what we teach them,” Alexander said, noting that teaching horses good manners is easier than undoing bad manners.

Alexander said he is mindful of the time and money people have invested in racehorses, so he treats each animal as if it were his own. He also capitalizes on his crew’s diversity as knowledgeable horsemen when an equine student needs extra attention.

“I’ve learned over the years that one person will get along with a horse and another person won’t,” he said. “I have really good horsemen on my crew and they work together.”

From Versailles, Kentucky, Alexander began his career in the 1950s as an exercise rider for Claiborne Farm’s yearling division, and he subsequently gravitated to racing. One of his most memorable mounts is champion Ridan, who won Keeneland’s 1962 Blue Grass and was third in the Kentucky Derby.

Alexander began working on the starting gate as an assistant starter in 1961 at Atlantic City Race Course in New Jersey, and he became an assistant starter at Keeneland in the 1970s. He has been Keeneland’s head starter since 1981.

Despite his high-profile position during the races, Alexander said he is most comfortable early in the day where the starting gate is positioned at the 4½-furlong chute on the far side of the Grandstand. This is where seasoned runners perfect their departure skills, where impressionable youngsters progress in their classes and where Alexander is both mentor and pupil.

“My favorite part of working for Keeneland is developing young horses,” he said. “And every day I learn something new. I have been doing this a long time, but I don’t know everything.”

The post Keeneland Starter ‘Spec’ Alexander Relishes ‘Developing Young Horses’ appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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