“Hey, are you the Lady Eli guy?”
“That was brilliant.”
“I just got lucky.”
And in four words, Justin Pringle summed up his approach to working on the gate, hell, the 32-year lifer summed up the approach of every member of every gate at every track in every country.
“I’m just doing my job,” Pringle said. “That’s all. Just doing my job.”
And what a job he did.
Pringle led the multiple Grade 1 winner into stall 3 for the Diana Stakes Saturday, stood in front of her, his back against the front of the gate, and slid the pony strap from the left side of her bit to around his neck, then pulled himself to the inside ledge of the stall, all while holding onto Lady Eli’s bridle. A big man standing on a thin ledge, Pringle pulled her head across his right leg and toward his left hip while waiting for Quidura, My Impression and Dickinson to complete the loading process. As Dickinson walked into the outside stall, Antonoe, inside Lady Eli, barged forward, forcing the doors open and taking Nick Romano with her for a couple of strides before galloping off with Javier Castellano still aboard. Instinctively, Lady Eli launched as well, springing her doors but Pringle didn’t budge, his white-gloved right hand holding a bending-but-never-breaking dam as Lady Eli and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. hung in the air.
“I got a good look at the horse breaking through before me so I grabbed her before she could get away from me. I got the jump on her before she jumped and got through,” Pringle said. “It’s common, they see one horse go and they all go, I had an instinct she was going to go, I thought I had a good jump on her, I have good reflexes…never in doubt.”
Pringle stood firm for 3.15 seconds as Lady Eli strained against his grip before Pringle jumped from the ledge, landing on both feet and taking Lady Eli with him. They turned left and stopped, making a Big Wheel skid stop, Pringle holding Lady Eli like she was the last girl at the dance.
“You have to evaluate the situation, if they’re too far in front of you, you have to jump with them (Romano did this, but Antonoe was rolling), if you’ve got a good hold of them before they get out you can back them up. I just figured I’d jump out of there and keep a good hold so nothing happens with her,” Pringle said. “She wants to run, she has the instinct of running, she was like, ‘What’s going on, I see one in front of me and nobody else is coming out.’ ”
The ever-calm Pringle stood with Lady Eli just feet from the doors, then slowly led her around the inside part of the gate and reloaded her with the same, methodic approach, like it never happened.
“When I got a good hold of her, she realized it wasn’t race time and calmed back down,” Pringle said. “You could feel her through your hands.”
Pringle has been feeling horses through his hands his whole life, from when he was walking hots and grooming horses for his dad, Edmund, when he was on the Derby Trail with Mr Sword, when starter Richie Brosseau offered him a spot on the gate crew 12 years ago.
“I was grooming horses, I had intentions to be a trainer, I went to Kentucky with a horse who was going to run in the Derby, he didn’t make it and I came back to New York,” Pringle said. “Richie called me back one more time and said, ‘This is your last chance.’ People were telling me, you have benefits, it’s good for the long run…so I just jumped on it and took it.”
Twelve years later, Brosseau is gone, his replacement Roy Williamson is retired, Mike “Pup” McMullen is head starter and Lady Eli won the Diana, partly because of Pringle.
“She wanted to go and he hold her, hold her, hold her,” Ortiz said. “He always does a great job, like all the gate crew. There’s a lot of pressure on them, we couldn’t do it without those guys, we’re like family.”
Everybody could use a family like this – Pup, Jimmy, Sparky, Kenny, Eddie, Nick, Justin, a bunch of others . . . 20 strong, working six mornings and six afternoons a week during the Saratoga meet. A band of brothers applying muscle and touch, patience and sternness while working in the confines of a telephone booth on fire.
To Pringle, it’s anything but work.
“I love horses. If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life,” Pringle said. “Band of good guys, we just try to do our job, we’ve worked together a long time. No regrets. I love my job.”