LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Retired Kentucky Derby starter Tom Wagoner, who sprang open the gates at racing’s premier event for nearly a quarter century, has died. He was 75.

Wagoner, of Lexington, died Oct. 25 in Longview, Texas, according to Downs Funeral Home in Marshall, Texas.

Known as “Quick Draw” to many jockeys, Wagoner was the Derby starter from the 100th Derby in 1974 until 1997. As racing fans worldwide held their breath, he would watch horses enter the gate, make sure they all were looking down the track and then hit the button that sent the thoroughbreds hurtling into their run for the roses.

“If the heads are straight, usually the butts will follow,” Wagoner once explained.

In a 1974 story, The New York Times compared Wagoner to “a Hollywood director working with a cast of thousands before an audience of 150,000, and for perhaps five minutes, he figures to be the busiest man in Kentucky – getting the right colts in the right stalls, getting everybody else out of the way, making certain that all the racers are poised and finally pressing the button.”

Roger Nagle, who worked with Wagoner for years before taking over the Derby starter’s job from him, said in 1997 that Wagoner gave him some advice: “When the last horse comes in (the gate), take it, because if you wait, you’re in trouble. … I got up there and said, “Geez, I don’t know how he does this.”‘

Nagle said Wagoner always claimed that the Derby didn’t bother him. “But a week before, you can see him start to tighten up.”

Before becoming Derby starter in 1974, Wagoner had been first a trainer and then an assistant starter, which involves getting inside the gate with the horses, a sometimes dangerous task.

“It’s a job that people might sit and look at and think there’s nothing to it,” Wagoner said. But “you don’t manhandle horses. You got to outsmart them.”

Wagoner, a native of Paris, Ky., attended the University of Kentucky and served in the Marine Corps early in the Korean War.

Among the Derbys during Wagoner’s tenure were the last two whose winners went on to win the Triple Crown: Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. No horse since then has won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The two champions were the only back-to-back Triple Crown winners in history.

Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day is scheduled to give the eulogy at a memorial service Monday at Churchill Downs.


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