Throughout the history of horse racing, there have been proposals as to how better to start a race. A commonly used starting system for horse races was devised in the mid nineteenth century by Admiral Rous, a steward of the Jockey Club and public handicapper. A starter, standing alongside the jockeys and horses, dropped his flag to signal the start. An assistant some 100 yards down the course raised a second flag to indicate false starts.
An official starter might be well paid, but his duties were very demanding. Early in the twentieth century, he was supported by perhaps a single assistant who primed the spring-barrier, as well as the clerk of the course. In the present day there are many attendants to steady runners from super-structured barrier stalls.
The horse racing starting barrier was pioneered in Australia and was first used at an official race meeting in 1894. Alexander Gray's single-strand barrier was among those first used. Versions of barriers designed by Alexander and Reuben Gray, were installed at race tracks in Australia and overseas between 1894 and about 1932. Barriers assured fair starts to races. Fair race starts encouraged owners to enter horses in races and punters to bet, and they contributed to changing horse racing from a social sporting event into a billion dollar industry.
Alexander Gray had concluded that the flapping of a starter's flag distracted the horses. An impetus for his invention was a £5 fine received by his son, Reuben, a jockey, for allowing his mount to step over the white chalk line that marked the start. His machine was first tried out at Canterbury Park Racecourse in New South Wales in February 1894. The prototype consisted of a single strand of wire at about the height of the horse’s head that was attached to a spring at either end. When the device was activated the barrier sprang up and away from the horses. By the 1920s the single strand barrier had evolved into a spring-powered five-strand device designed by Johnson and Gleeson, but based on Gray's prototype, that resembled a strongman’s chest expander.
The transportable starting machine was imported from the United States to Australia in 1946.
Most harness races start from behind a motorized starting gate. The horses line up behind a hinged gate mounted on a motor vehicle which then takes them to the starting line. At the starting line the wings of the gate are folded up and the vehicle accelerates away from the horses. The other kind of start to race is a standing start, where there are tapes across the track and the horses stand stationary behind the tapes before the start. This enables handicaps to be placed on horses according to class. Some European, Australian and New Zealand races start using tapes.