For every thoroughbred race run on the Woodbine calendar, Ian Ross is a study in concentration, a man dialed-in on the task at hand, a calming influence amid the kaleidoscope of colours and constant chatter.
In the moments leading up to the horses and jockeys making their way to the starting gate at the Toronto oval, a plan has already been put in place, a well-orchestrated strategy in concert with those who comprise the gate crew.
Before the drama plays out within the race, the man calling the shots does everything in his control to ensure there’s no trace of it during his watch.
“Every race is a challenge,” admitted the 56-year-old Ross. “And every race is different. I’m the type of person that takes things to heart. So, if something does go wrong, it tears my guts out. There is so much unpredictability at the start of a race. You have to be confident and you have to be calm.”
Fractious horses, jockeys yelling out to not start the race – Ross can have his hands full.
Things can go from placid to frenzied in the blink of an eye.
“I know every horse and every rider that come up to the gate,” said Ross, whose racetrack roles have also included Starter duties at Ajax Downs. “You need a game plan and I make sure one is in place. By having familiarity with every person and every horse in a race, you hopefully make everything run as smooth as possible.
“One great thing about Woodbine is that unlike a lot of other tracks, you don’t have to load by post position,” he continued. “That way, if we know a horse acts up or doesn’t like to stand too long in the gate, they can go in at the end.”
Ross and the gate crew aren’t done once the horses are sent on their way.
“I’d say the first 5-6 seconds, around 100 yards, I’m watching for any bumping, things like that. And if anything goes wrong with a horse or rider in those first moments, we’re there to respond. We’re usually the first ones to arrive.”
Ross, who also works at Woodbine as an equine dentist, uses the word ‘we’ often when he speaks of his job.
“I’m extremely fortunate to have such an excellent crew to work with,” he noted. “We all work well together and we are all determined to do our best to make sure things go as planned.”
For the man who started out his racing career alongside his brother, Woodbine-based trainer, John, working for the legendary Conn Smythe, there’s no place he’d rather be.
“I was offered the job once, but at that point in time, I wanted to be there for my young children (son, Luke, and daughter, Jade),” he recalled. “That was very important to me. So, when I turned it down, I didn’t think the chance would ever come by again. Luckily, it did. And this will never be a job to me. I love what I do.”
Something he is reminded of often, including the marquee races contested at Woodbine.
“The Queen’s Plate, the Woodbine Mile – what great days those are,” said Ross, whose Facebook cover page photo is, not surprisingly, a starting gate shot. “I remember (champion and multiple graded stakes winner) Wise Dan coming to the gate in the Mile. I always look the horses right in the eye when they get ready to go in the gate. It’s those moments when you realize what great athletes they are. It’s an amazing feeling seeing them getting ready to race.”
The start of something special, Ross will tell you.