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King of the Turf : Inventor's Electrical Gate Revolutionized Horse Racing

August 26, 1988|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Every time horses race out of the gate, jockeys, trainers, owners and spectators can thank Clay Puett for a fair, clean start.

Puett, who will be 89 next month, revolutionized the sport of kings 49 years ago when he invented the closed electrical starting gate.

And this grand old man of horse racing is still producing electrical starting gates at the Clay Puett True Center Gate Co. here, supplying gates to half of the 102 major race tracks in the United States and many in Canada. The other tracks throughout this country and around the world use gates based on Puett's original design.

It was on July 1, 1939, at Lansdowne Park in Vancouver, Canada, that Puett's first electrical starting gate was introduced to horse racing.

Plaque Cites Contributions

"The horses were loaded into the gate. I pushed the button. The doors swung open. All 12 entries left at the same time. It was the first time in history an electrical closed starting gate was used in a horse race anywhere on earth," recalled the sandy-haired, bright-eyed Puett, who looks and acts at least 30 years younger than his age.

Horse racing has not been the same since. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, many of the major race tracks in the United States installed Puett gates in time for their 1940 seasons.

Prominently displayed at the new $7.5-million Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in Louisville is the Puett electrical starting gate used to start every Kentucky Derby from 1940 to 1977. (When the famed track replaced the old gate, it installed a new Puett model.)

Attached to the gate in the museum is a plaque honoring Puett for his contributions to horse racing, one of many honors he has received.

Puett has been active in horse racing--as a jockey, starter, trainer, breeder, owner, steward and manufacturer of starting gates--for 75 years. He was also a member of the British Columbia Racing Commission for 25 years, the Arizona Racing Commission for 17 years and the Alberta Racing Commission for nine years.

His company has custom-made hundreds of electrical gates, and Puett and his crew of mechanics, welders, electricians and painters recently put the final touches on three gates custom-made for the new $92-million Remington Park Race Track in Oklahoma City that opens next Thursday . The track bought six-stall, 12-stall and 14-stall gates. Puett's gates sell from $12,000 for a two-stall model to prices ranging from $85,000 to $100,000 for a 14-stall. His Puett Leasing Enterprises Co. has an inventory of 50 gates rented and moved from one track to another throughout the year.

"Several original gates I made in 1939 and 1940 are still in use," he said. "Part of our business is to refurbish, repaint, repad and install new gadgets on gates that were not available when they were first constructed."

Born at Chillicothe, Tex., on Sept. 12, 1899, Puett quit school after the seventh grade in tiny Colbran, Colo. He worked as a cowboy until he was 19 and recalls that "for recreation, cowboys from one outfit would race horses against cowboys from other outfits. I enjoyed racing horses so much I left cowboying and became a full-time jockey and rodeo performer."

Decade of Experimentation

Puett, who stands 5-feet-6 and still weighs only 110 pounds, rode horses at most of the tracks in the West through the mid-1920s and eventually became a starter. "We had a hell of a time getting horses together before we got a start behind rail barriers," he recalled.

"The horses would break out of line, some getting the jump on others. Everybody wanted a fair start. As a starter it was frustrating as hell. So, I began experimenting with starting gates. I worked on perfecting a closed gate with V-shaped doors on both sides and the front one swinging open to start the race.

He experimented all through the 1930s.

One design he tried used chains. "The horses would stop suddenly and the jockeys would catapult in the air. It was a dangerous thing. I had to quit that," he said with a laugh.

"I grew up on a horse. I knew horses. I knew how much room a horse needed. Everybody said you couldn't lock up a thoroughbred. Nobody believed it would work. But I knew you could teach a horse to race out of a closed gate."

Puett's now-standard gate was revolutionary in that it allows the "loading" of horses into the gate through doors that are then closed behind them. When the race is started, doors in front of the horses swing open automatically.

Work a Full Day

Puett's wife, Rhea, 65, is secretary and vice president of his manufacturing and leasing companies. The two longtime friends were married in 1976. Both of them had been married before, but their spouses died. Rhea's husband of 30 years was jockey Stephen Michael O'Donnell, who rode in six Kentucky Derbies and had ridden for Puett when Puett was a race horse trainer.

Puett said his business has been steady over the years with a recent increase in activity as several states have voted to approved parimutuel wagering on horse racing, actions that have resulted in the construction of new tracks.

The Puetts both arrive at the plant before sunup and seldom leave before sundown. "Horse racing is in my blood," Puett said. "I can't keep away from it. Rhea and I spend a good deal of time every year visiting different tracks making sure the gates are working the way they should. I'm in good health. So why quit?"

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