7 Days Out…the whole ‘book’ thing

This is quite an exciting time.  This time next week I’ll officially be a published author with a book for sale.  I will say first up that the pride I’m feeling in the achievement of writing a book in the first place is pretty incomparable to anything I’ve experienced.  It’s such a long project.  I mean going on two years, which I know for some books isn’t that long at all.  But it’s certainly been an experience.  My therapist today asked “what made you want to write a book?”  Funny thing is, I don’t remember the exact moment I decided to.  I remembered that I was thinking about gambling again.  I had saved up some money and had plenty of free time.  My fantasy was always to pack up all my things and move south and be a professional gambler.  So that’s what I did.  Only I played it out in book form.  As it turns out, that was the smart thing to do as opposed to actually going and gambling my brains out in Vegas or LA.

But the question I’m getting most lately from family and friends is “are you excited?”  The easy answer is yes.  It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work both myself and my publisher, editor and team at Pandamoon.  The long answer isn’t quite as easy.  It’s a strange feeling.  I think it would be one thing if the story wasn’t so close to my actual life.  So much of the character Ryan McGuire is me.  Much of it is me at my worst.  When I was gambling.  And lying.  I added a lot of things to Ryan that aren’t me as well.  It’s definitely a fiction book and a fictional journey, but there’s a lot of truth in there as well.  People who have read it say it’s “gritty” and a “tough read”.  Personally I take those as compliments because it’s supposed to be that way.  It was a tough life LOL.   I suppose it’s just strange to open up and share something that’s very personal in such a public way, but I also think people will enjoy it.  I think some people will probably not enjoy it.  But I’d rather have people have one emotion or the other and not just blah.

The real strange feeling has been having the book be “done”.  I mean for how many months I’ve had this manuscript to tinker with, and read, and edit and enjoy my time with.  But the publisher has had it for a while now and it’s out my hands at this point.  I know at some point I’ll probably want to change something after the fact, but maybe that’s a good lesson to learn about letting go.  Either way, the next week will be fun leading up to it and after that…well we’ll see.

Behind the Mic—Guest John McGary


John McGary

John McGary

Our guest today is the voice of Evangeline Downs in Louisiana, Mr. John McGary!  John is a well seasoned announcer and on a nightly basis shows his skills as Evangeline Downs is notoriously awesome for offering some of the biggest fields in racing!

How did you catch the horse racing bug?

JM: My mom and grandfather were avid horse bettors and I used to go with them on Saturday’s when I was a little kid. My grandfather showed me how to read the various pools and calculate the minimum win-place-and show payoffs for each horse, and then as soon as the numbers were posted if I correctly told him the payoffs he would make a $2 bet for me the next race (the only freeroll I’ve ever had in my life, boy do I miss him!!).


We all remember our first race call over the speakers, what do you remember about your first call?

JM: Hmmm, not much other than I was very nervous. I had been practicing for two years or so in the press box at both Calder Race Course & Gulfstream Park as well as calling qualifying races at Pompano Park. Gary Seibel, the announcer at Pompano was set to host the Hambletonian and various other shows on ESPN and was going to miss a few nights in the coming months so they had me come in and call a handful of races to see if I could do it. Very stressful, but somehow I did well enough that they gave me the go ahead (Thanks Gary!!).


You’ve had to travel a lot to pursue this dream, where all has announcing taken you?

JM: Let’s see Jason, I have called at 20 or so tracks (about 10 full-time) in the following areas,  South Florida, Northern California, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, and Michigan.


There’s a tradition at Evangeline for the announcer to say “il son partis” at the start of the race.  Were you asked to say that when you got there? Have you always used that as the call at the start of a race there?

JM: Yes, I was asked, but the man who hired me, the late David Yount gave me the option of saying it or not. I started out saying it once or twice a night, but soon realized how important it was to the local fans and now I have come to really embrace it (whenever someone finds out that I call the races at Evangeline the response is always “Ils Sont Partis” or “My parents or neighbors own/owned horses” it really is part of the racing fabric down here. All racecallers (myself included) have pretty big egos but the truth is we call the races for the fans and the horsemen, not ourselves and should always remember that.


You got to call on the California Fairs for a few years, what was your favorite spot on the Fair Circuit?

JM: Now this is a tough question. I had the greatest boss and really working at the fairs and each of the ones I worked at was unique and enjoyable. I called at six of the seven (Santa Rosa, the biggest of the 7 the exception and my not working at Santa Rosa was the reason I left when the Evangeline Downs job was offered to me). In a photo, I will say Fresno over Pleasanton.


You’ve also been an avid poker player, do you find gambling with horses and poker different or similar? How so?

JM:  I think betting on Poker & Horse Racing is similar in quite a few ways. In both you are playing against other players and not the house or casino and if you make better decisions long term compared to your opponents, you will be a winner. Also, what makes both games so interesting to me is that while they are both strategy based games there is no one correct approach or program to win, the old adage “there is more than one way to skin a cat” rings completely true in both games.


Since Evangeline is “home of the biggest fields” do you ever at the end of a night of racing there turn your program to the last race and see 12 or 14 horses and get annoyed? What are the challenges with big fields for you?

JM: No, I don’t. In fact, I have been lobbying for several years (to no avail) to increase the field size to 16 or even 18. It is proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that the customers (bettors) prefer bigger fields over smaller ones (even lower quality groups). Now, I understand that the bigger the field, the harder it is to win, so I think a staggered purse which increases/decreases based on field size would make it a win-win for both the customers and the horsemen. For me, the challenges with bigger fields is that the more horses the harder the memorization process. Also, the lighting isn’t the best here (it is always easier to call during the day in my opinion) and I am pretty low to the ground, which makes it more difficult to pick up all the horses in a tight group.


If you could call one race in 2014, any race, what would it be?

JM:   Julie (my wife) and I are Southern California natives, so I have two. #1 The Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Race Track & #2 The Champion of Champions Race at Los Alamitos Race Track.

What are some of your best scores as a bettor?

JM: Don’t bettors like to tell bad beat stories much more than winning ones? Ok, I have had a few notable wins, a Pick Six back at Cal-Expo when I was calling the harness races back in 2003-2005. It was pretty fun calling the final leg when the horse I had stormed to the front in mid-stretch and pulled away. And in poker, I’ve had some decent wins as well in cash games but the losing stories are the ones that I remember.


 If the races are over at Evangeline and I want to have a good meal in Opelousas, where are you sending me?

JM: If you like spicy food, I would say let’s go to Pimon Thai in Lafayette. Very authentic and spicy!!  Unfortunately, I don’t eat much Seafood, but for those that do, Prejean’s located next to the old Evangeline Downs has everything Cajun that a foodie could ask for!!



Behind the Mic—Guest Robert Geller

Robert Geller (right) and me up in the booth at Emerald Downs

Robert Geller (right) and me up in the booth at Emerald Downs

Robert Geller has been the announcer at Emerald Downs since the track opened in 1996.  He’s also been the race caller at Sunland Park for the last decade and before coming to the US he was the announcer in Hong Kong and before that was in Australia.  He’s one of my favorite announcers to listen to and one of my favorite people in horse racing.  So glad to get to share this interview with you!

How did you get into horse racing?

RG: It wasn’t that at a certain point I suddenly “got into horse racing” as I was always in it, from having been an avid spectator. I was taken to the track as a kid when I was four. It was a ritual every Saturday of my life so it really wasn’t something that I even necessarily thought about as a choice and not as a professional path until I was 21. My childhood was just one big obsession about horse racing. Part of that obsession included creating a mock racetrack on the floor boards of my bedroom. I used toy cars, buttons and “Monopoly”, “Totopoly” or “Life ” board-game pieces as horses then rolled the die to create margins for fictitious races I would call. By the time I decided to pursue race-calling, after graduating college as a qualified speech pathologist, I was highly seasoned as a race fan. I would drive over 200 miles both there and back to do harness trials and had secured practice spots in the grandstands of several country or provincial tracks to begin calling into a tape. If racing is in the blood then our family has it in the DNA. One grandfather was a bookmaker in Brighton, England and the other had at one time owned a dog track. When we emigrated to Australia, like it or not, my sisters and I would be off to the races every weekend as a family. My parents and I were constantly listening to every racing program on the radio and TV. It was just fortunate that I happened to enjoy it.

Most of us remember our first live call over the speakers, what do you remember about yours?

RG:  I was working as a bookmaker’s clerk at a small picnic track, Alexandra, in my home state of Victoria when an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the race-caller had not shown up, putting out a plea for anyone who thinks they would be able to call a race. Two of us went forward and they decided to let the other guy, Craig, do the first and me the second. I begged with my bookmaker to release me a little earlier so I could learn the colors but by the time I juggled getting up the rostrum with a pair of binoculars, race program and a hand-held microphone, they were almost off, nor did it help that the race was a sprint.  Not surprisingly it was a patchy call that met with back-handed compliments such as “not a bad try.” Naturally I was very disappointed because I had been secretly practicing solidly the last two years which nobody on track, my bookmaker included, had any idea of. Before I was up again, two races later, I urged my boss to have his aging dad fill in for me so that I had more time to learn the colors and the result was great. I knew then that I had a chance to do this for real.

You got to call races in Hong Kong which features some amazing races.  What are some of your best memories from being there both on and off the track?

RG:Hong Kong is such a vibrant city with a rich cultural history. The Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, being one of the most powerful organizations in the colony, was my official full-time employer unlike previous English commentators that were contracted in for the race-day. With access to all of its departments, I learned to see things through many a different lens. Hong Kong racing is an international melting pot boasting several of the world’s most talented jockeys, lured by a sympathetic weight scale and phenomenal purse-money. There was never a question of Hong Kong not having the highest single season turnover of any racetrack in the world, it was simply a matter of by how much. Throughout my tenure I saw consistent growth in the quality of imports and the savvy development of its international race series that was in its infancy when I started. Happy Valley night racing with its tighter track, set against a backdrop of high-rises that included the building where I lived, was always exciting. Sha Tin, with its wider picturesque courses felt grand. Full fields of up to 14 were the norm and both venues were always packed with large crowds, 40,000 to 60,000, considered common. I took the time to explore the culture and discover the Asian region as a whole. I savored the foods, enjoyed both cosmopolitan and market life, formed friendships with expatriates and locals, learnt the customs, dabbled in the Cantonese language and reflected, at times, long and hard, on my own personal journey in relation to what I was experiencing.

You came to the States to call at the brand new Emerald Downs in 1996.  What do you remember about first arriving in Seattle and what was the atmosphere like at a track that was replacing a beloved place like Longacres?

RG: When I arrived in Seattle in the summer of ’96, the skies were crystal clear, the mountain was out and there were Go Sonics signs all over the city. We were merely a week from the opening of Emerald and there was tremendous unity and desire among everybody involved. Director of Publicity, Joe Withee accompanied me on radio spots across town and extended me a helping hand at every juncture. I was personally received with overwhelming warmth and genuine excitement from everyone about being the voice of the track. I knew of Longacres indirectly but it would take years for me to fully grasp the depth of impact its closure had had on the racing community and the emotional, historical ties with that era. The family of Longacres track announcer Gary Henson was the first to wish me well. Track Owner & President Ron Crockett had made it clear even before day one that he really wanted and believed in me. He would drop into the booth regularly, delighting in crazy horse names like Boggy Bon Bons and more importantly, steered the ship through the stormy seas of returning live racing to Western Washington in a manner that demanded pride and commitment from the top down. He is a man of vision and doesn’t suffer fools well. It was a true blessing to be the first and still to this day, only announcer the track has ever known. It is like being handed the keys to a brand-spanking new car. Everything was untouched. There were teething problems, to be expected, given the enormity of such a huge capital investment. The speakers failed on opening day but the atmosphere was festive. It reminded me of how racing used to be when I was growing up, people there to have a good time and gave me the contrast I was looking for from Hong Kong. Strawberry Morn ran away with the US Bank Stakes but few heard it. In the TV studio, the audio on the race-calls was lost so that after the last race, I had to go down and re-record every single race. It was a team effort from day one and remains so today. The youthfulness that the industry talks about wanting is absolutely there at Emerald and always has been. As with its very opening, crowds show up for a day at the races. There is no casino gaming or its derivatives, there is horse-racing. Those of us that have been at Emerald since June 20, 1996 share a unique feeling of personal satisfaction and a deep bond that doesn’t come along every day.

The Longacres Mile is one of my favorite races every year.  What are a couple of your favorite Mile’s?

RG: Everyone loves a great stretch duel and there was none so stirring as that between Taylor Said and Winning Machine who went head-to head in the 2012 Longacres Mile (Video Below). The narrow win by Taylor Said continued the dream run by Kentucky Derby and Preakness winning rider, Mario Gutierrez. The poster boy that year, Mario never forget his fan base in the Pacific NW,  having ridden principally at Hastings in Vancouver and visited Emerald for stakes races. The reception when he brought the Canadian shipper back to the winner’s circle felt second only to that of Jennifer Whitaker on Wasserman who won the 2008 Longacres Mile in a breathtaking close, in what was to be his second of five consecutive runs in the race. The local hero brought thunderous applause and remains one of the most memorable track moments. The other standout Longacres Mile for me was in 2003 when Skyjack powered away to a record-breaking 6-3/4 length winning margin, treating his rivals with utter contempt. 

Almost every announcer I know has a story about Luke Krutybosch.  What are your best memories of Big Luke? 

RG: Luke held a special place in his heart for Sunland Park and the racetrack is very proud of what he achieved in his career. If he wasn’t on the phone to tease me about my mispronunciation of New Mexico sire Thatsusintheolbean, it was a prank call about something I had announced in Spanish. To me, one of Luke’s great gifts, aside from his creamy smooth calls, was that he valued each racetrack equally, big or small.

I know getting the Sunland Derby to become graded and become an official Derby trail race was a long process.  Now that it’s a legitimate Derby prep, how important is that race to the track and New Mexico?

RG:  The New Mexico region, in particular, communities in southern New Mexico and the greater El Paso area, have embraced the Sunland Derby as a significant event on the calendar. Its appeal is far broader than just the racing fans. There is a tremendous sense of pride in knowing that the Sunland Derby has helped to bring healthy national focus to the region. Not only is the track filled to capacity on that day, the traditional United Blood Services Fundraiser held in the track’s beautiful Signature Showroom is one of the premier social events on the calendar. The event draws a high profile keynote speaker every year, more often than not of Dallas Cowboys fame and out-of-town Derby guests.

It cannot be overstated what a mountain this track was made to climb in order to get the Sunland Derby graded. I could go on about this subject for a long time but I will not as the proof is in the details but suffice to say New Mexico was fighting a bias of traditionalism and perception. The resounding win by Mine That Bird and subsequent placings in the Triple Crown races, sealed the deal in terms of getting graded status that had been long overdue. His upset win came just in the nick of time for New Mexico racing, having found itself in a catch 22 situation. Ruler on Ice, winner of the 2011 Belmont Stakes, is another example of a horse that spring-boarded from a Sunland Derby run to success in a Triple Crown race. The industry has in general come to accept the Sunland Derby as a legitimate Kentucky Derby prep though I am tired of people acting surprised when horses from the race go on to do well. Racetrack owner Stan Fulton had always wanted to see New Mexico racing advance to new heights and I am so happy to be a part of his team that has helped bring his vision of the Sunland Derby to a reality. There is an inevitable sense of growth and momentum when everyone wants the same, beneficial result. It is a win-win situation.

In 2014 you have a “Call any Race you want card” and can cash it in anytime.  What race would you cash it in to call?

RG: I really no longer think that way. The one race that has always had a hold on me has been the Melbourne Cup that I would gladly go back and call for HRTV or TVG with all the other TV coverage that goes with it but nobody has bitten yet. Within the US, it would be the Belmont Stakes.

You always have lots of guests up in the booth.  Any crazy stories or famous folks you’ve had up there?  Greg Wolf doesn’t count 🙂

RG:  Despite the drawbacks of having people in the booth, especially when it’s probably the smallest one in the entire nation, the negatives are outweighed by the positives. Management likes to bring people through and is respectful of boundaries so I embrace it. How else could I have met Mel Brooks? 

Celebrities aside, many fans have found it to be a memorable experience and in turn, I have had the chance to meet them in a more meaningful way. There are a number of teens that for one reason or another have had the hardest time fitting in at school or with their peers that have found horse-racing to be very emotionally healing. .For them, a visit up with me in the booth has gone a long way to making them feel respected and included.

And yes, there are the unusual and awkward moments. I have been told I have a habit of attracting women that are overly-fascinated by my accent or what I do but then that’s the world isn’t it?  My overly-polite British-style upbringing has, at times,led to double messages but being watched while I call a race has never really bothered me.

If the races are over at Emerald and I want to go to a great meal, either in Seattle or Tacoma, where would you send me to?

RG:  Asado on 6th Avenue in Tacoma. Their steaks are like butter.

Behind the Mic–Guest Michael Wrona

Michael Wrona

Michael Wrona

Our guest today is the great Michael Wrona, the voice of Golden Gate Fields in the Bay Area of California.  Michael is in one word…awesome.  One of the most original and accurate callers in the US, he is always a treat for fans to listen to day in and day out.  He’s been the racecaller at Arlington Park, Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park, Lone Star Park, Turf Paradise and others before setting down in Northern California.  Very excited to have him on the blog!  RACINGGGGG!

How were you introduced to horse racing?

MW: Some friends introduced me to racing just after I started high school. I became a fan by listening to race calls on the radio, which were broadcast live from tracks around Australia. At some point, my grandfather gave me a horse racing board game, from which I derived the most enjoyment by abandoning the rules and calling out the plastic horses’ names as I moved them around the track to the roll of the dice.

Horse racing is much more easily accessible in Australia than the United States. I would revel in the free, detailed form guide in the newspaper, conducting weekly handicapping discussions over the phone with a friend under the aliases of prominent racing figures (I would always “be” Johnny Tapp, who had quickly become my favorite caller). The form guide also listed the jockeys’ silks, which inspired me to begin drawing the colors of horses of that era on small pieces of paper, which I would push across my bedroom floor while calling into a tape recorder. All of this happened before I ever attended a race day. 

Most of us remember our first race call, tell us about your first try behind the mic?

MW: I’ll give you three “firsts”: 

My first call over a Public Address system was in April, 1983, at a small track near Brisbane named Kilcoy. I was 17. It actually went so well that I was offered a second race to call that day. 

My first full day on the P.A. came two months later, and required traveling (in a 3-seat plane for part of the journey) to a cattle ranch in the Outback. Named Brunette Downs, it was literally in the middle of the continent and staged two days of racing annually, drawing participants from “neighboring” ranches hundreds of miles away. I could write a chapter about the occasion; suffice to say I apparently performed adequately enough to be invited back the following year. 

My first call on radio, which I think was later in 1983, was a disaster. The area right behind the gate was obscured by trees and I was nervously adlibbing while the last horse refused to load. I was updating odds from a monitor in the booth when someone rushed in and pointed me to the field, already a furlong into the race and minus the gate rogue, who’d been a late scratch. (Incredibly, there had been no communication from the stewards.)

What was it that led you to move to the US to call races?

MW: The catalyst for my move to the U.S. was Trevor Denman’s popularity at Santa Anita, and the inability of Marje Everett to procure his services at Hollywood Park. Hollywood had been through a quick succession of announcers in the late-1980s, and in 1990 Marje decided to launch an international search. This led her to offer the position to the leading race caller in Sydney, John Tapp. When John agreed only to come for a working vacation with his family, Marje asked if he could recommend someone (younger, with fewer commitments holding him in Australia) to accompany him on the trip. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from the race caller who had fired my imagination more than any other – my idol, whom I didn’t even know was really aware of me – and within about six weeks I was bound for California on a jumbo jet with him and his family.

Of course, within a year Marje had been overthrown in an unsavory proxy battle, from which I was part of the fallout. Suddenly, the political landscape changed and Santa Anita allowed Hollywood Park to use Trevor. It was just the first of many occasions when the proverbial rug was pulled from under my feet. I’d already resigned (over the phone) my position in Australia, and things appeared extremely bleak until an expression of interest from the northern California tracks. (Allow me to clarify that I have never harbored any resentment toward Trevor – on the contrary, I have always respected him as the trailblazer, solely responsible for all opportunities afforded subsequent foreign race callers in this country.) 

You’ve had to move quite a bit over the years to pursue this career. Is the moving something you like or just tolerate?

MW: I’ve moved around more than almost any announcer in history, largely due to circumstances beyond my control. Constantly moving in and out of short-term living arrangements leaves one feeling ungrounded. This problem was accentuated by being married to someone who was also pursuing a geographically specific career (musical theater, which, at one point, had her in five Manhattan sublets in three years, while I was back and forth between my own seasonal race calling engagements). Throw a few storage units into the mix, and it begins to border on debilitating.

You’ve called some historical moments in racing history, what’s the most nervous you’ve ever been before a race?

MW: Probably the 1990 Hollywood Gold Cup. I was 24, had barely been in the country a couple of months, and was thrown into the cauldron of a Grade One event pitting the reining Horse of the Year against a future Horse of the Year. At the start, I fumbled and stumbled through a few names before aborting and going back to the leader. Then, just as I was feeling more comfortable, Sunday Silence and Criminal Type took off together at the 3/8-pole and it was unrelenting thereafter. They might have been exhausted at the finish, but I was a spent force too! My voice cracked just after the finish line but I was relieved to have correctly called the photo, as there was enormous pressure at the time concerning whether I should have even been allowed to nominate a winner in finishes that were closer than a neck.

I called one other Gold Cup, nine years later, and couldn’t help but note the improved vocal control. (In 1999, Real Quiet did what Sunday Silence so narrowly failed to accomplish – become the first horse since Ferdinand to win the Kentucky Derby and Hollywood Gold Cup.)   

EDITORS NOTE:  couldn’t find the 1990 Hollywood Gold Cup, but here’s Michael calling Best Pal in the Hollywood Futurity! 

You were one of five announcers who called a week at Churchill Downs in the 2008 fall meeting. What was that week like for you? 

MW: It was an honor and, for a time, exciting. Unfortunately it deteriorated into a nightmare, as I began to lose my voice, missing a meet-and-greet event with some fans and ultimately not being able to finish the final day.

You get to watch Russell Baze on a near daily basis. What do you think it is that makes him so good as a rider?

MW: Russell’s work ethic continues to impress and amaze. At 55, he remains incredibly committed. Within a race, his strength and determination often won’t allow a horse not to win. In that sense, he reminds me of Pincay – ironically, given that it’s the great Laffit from whom Russell wrested the record. I might add that both men happen to be extremely classy and humble.

In 2014 you have a “call any race you want card”,  for which race would you cash it in?

MW: Across the 1990s, the Met Mile was my favorite American race but, these days, I have no clear pecking order. One of the problems with U.S. racing is that the best horses spend most of their careers avoiding each other, and not even the Breeders’ Cup can entice them all.  

If I’m at Golden Gate Fields and want to go out for a great meal or beer or glass of California wine, where are you sending me?  I’m willing to pay a toll for this meal 🙂

MW: The track is surrounded by an embarrassment of riches when it comes to microbrewed beer (of which I’m rather fond). There is no particular standout – the destination is often dictated by seasonal brews. I also enjoy wine, but have no favorite place. Sorry to be noncommittal, but we’d just have to see where the wind (often quite gusty on the Golden Gate Fields roof) blows us!  

Thanks so much Michael!!

Behind the Mic–Guest John Imbriale

John Imbriale is an announcer on the New York circuit, calling most of the Aqueduct season as well as backing up Tom Durkin during Belmont and Saratoga.  John has been with the New York Racing Association for decades and has many other duties with NYRA in addition to his fantastic race calling.

How did you catch the horse racing bug?

JI: Following Affirmed and Steve Cauthen through the 1978 Triple Crown races.

We all remember our first race call, what do you remember about your debut behind the mic?

JI: I was at Belmont Park in an announcer’s contest in the summer of 1979 and it was, by far, the most nervous I’ve ever been doing anything.

Calling in NY in the wintertime, any crazy weather days in the booth that come to mind? Fog, snow etc

JI: As I like to say, I’m at my best when I can’t see a darn thing!  Fog is always fun at the Big A.

You’ve gotten to call some amazingly talented horses in your career, who do you think is the best horse you’ve ever announced?

JI: I did get the opportunity to call Artax in a race.  He may not have been the best horse but he was probably the fastest.

Of the three NY tracks, which announcers booth is the best/easiest to call races from?

JI: No doubt Aqueduct – sight lines are terrific, no obstacles in the infield.

Do you have other duties with NYRA in addition to calling the races?

JI: I’m also the Director of Production and work on a regular basis with the various shows we produce. 

You get to share the race calling duties at NYRA with the great Tom Durkin.  What’s your favorite Tom Durkin call?

JI: That’s like asking for my favorite Sinatra song.  Very difficult to pick one but I’ll say the 1998 Belmont Stakes when Victory Gallop nosed out Real Quiet and denied him the Triple Crown. 

Are you a handicapper and do you play the races?  If so what’s one of your most memorable scores at the windows?

JI: I used to play, never had a memorable score, so now I don’t play.

With all the changes in racing going on, what do you see ahead for New York racing for the next five years?

JI: Not sure.  Many people much smarter than me will hopefully steer us in the right direction. 

The last race at Aqueduct is over and I want a great meal in Ozone Park, where are you sending me to?

JI: Don Peppe’s.  Italian restaurant 2 blocks away.  The best baked clams anywhere!

Behind the Mic—Guest Jonathan Horowitz

Jonathan with Michael Wrona at Hollywood Park in 1999

Jonathan with Michael Wrona at Hollywood Park in 1999

Jonathan Horowitz was calling races at big national and international tracks like Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Lone Star Park, Gulfstream, Goodwood and many others at the young age of 14.  After going to college at USC and pursuing graduate work at the University of Maryland, Jonathan has returned to announcing as the full-time racecaller at both Zia Park in New Mexico and Arapahoe Park in Colorado.

How did you catch the horse racing bug?

JH: Going to the racetrack was a Horowitz family activity for both my father and his father and then for my parents, brother, and me.  I was fascinated by how the announcer was part of the live experience at the racetrack by giving a running commentary as the race was unfolding.  There’s no way to rehearse what to say ahead of time like an actor or actress.  So I used to bring binoculars and a tape recorder to the racetrack and see if I could commentate the race.  And I discovered my passion.

You had the unique experience of getting to call races at the track when you were just a kid.  How’d that all come about and tell us about getting to call races at some big tracks before you were even allowed to drive a car!

JH: My first race call was at Los Alamitos Race Course in October 1999 when I was 14 years old, and I became the youngest person ever to announce a horse race in the United States.  About five months before, the Los Alamitos management had first noticed me practicing announcing with my family in the Vessels Club.  I thought they were going to tell me that I was disturbing people.  Instead they were inquisitive about such a young person who wanted to announce.  I met owner Ed Allred, general manager Rick Henson, announcer Ed Burgart, publicity director Orlando Gutierrez, and guest relations head Julie Farr, and I am so grateful for their giving me my start.  They asked if I would like to announce the American Quarter Horse Youth Association Stakes for horses owned by kids who were 18 and under on Challenge Championship Night.  Having a young announcer fit with their goal of getting youth involved in horse racing.  What I remember most about that first race is that the headphones were too big for my head and fell off in the middle of the race.  I still see the image of my catching the headphones out of midair and finishing the call.

 After going to college you took the helm at Arapahoe Park.  Tell us about that track and your first announcing job!

JH: I was in the final semester of my master’s degree program at the University of Maryland and accepted the job at Arapahoe Park on my birthday, March 30, 2011.  I could not have asked for a better first full-time race calling position than Arapahoe Park.  The feeling among everyone—from the fans to the horsemen to the management—is like a family.  The racetrack is expanding, and I take tremendous pride in being part of a growing racetrack through my announcing, writing articles about the races, teaching “Wagering Do’s and Donut’s” classes, and starting our social media presence.  Last year Chips All In became the first horse that has ever raced in Colorado to compete in the Breeders’ Cup.

You’re also the announcer at Zia Park in Hobbs, NM.  Is there actually anything to do in Hobbs other than go to the track?

JH: One of the most rewarding benefits of being an announcer is getting to travel and live in parts of the United States that I never thought I would visit.  The area around Hobbs has some attractions that I think epitomize Americana.  There’s the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas about the rock-n-roll pioneer who created a sound that subsequently influenced The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and so many others.  Carlsbad Caverns shows the beauty that can sprout in the Southwest deserts.  Hobbs is a growing city with some of the friendliest families I’ve ever met.

You have a few months off in the wintertime, what do you do when not announcing horse races?

JH: For the past three years I worked at the Library of Congress Publishing Office in Washington, D.C.  I wrote a book with Susan Reyburn and Athena Angelos titled Football Nation about 400 years of history of football in American life that was published last October.  I have also authored a set of sports trivia cards titled The One and Only and contributed to the publication of books about presidential campaign posters and Hebraica at the Library.  I love the idea of being creative through both my writing and my announcing.

Are you a handicapper and bettor?  If so, what are some of your most memorable scores at the windows?

JH: In general I don’t bet on horse races.  However I do have to handicap the races and give my top-three picks on camera for each race at Zia and Arapahoe when the horses are in the paddock.  I want to see my picks do well, especially when I have family, friends, and fans following them.

Most of us have one memory or another about the great Luke Kruytbosch, what do you remember about him?

JH: I still have the program Luke Kruytbosch autographed for me when I first met him on November 27, 1998, when I was 13 years old.  Looking back, that first meeting set off a tremendous chain reaction.  Here was one of the best announcers of his generation encouraging me to pursue my passion at a young age.  The way he selflessly welcomed my family and me into his booth was the impetus for me to contact other announcers and give this my all, and within a year I called my first race over a public address system.  I guess we never really know how tremendous an impact a smile and a friendly face can have on the world.

In 2014 you have a “Call Any Race You Want” card, which race would you cash it in to call?

JH: The race right after the Kentucky Derby.

As a Southern California native, what were your best memories of Hollywood Park?

JH: The Hollywood Park press box is where I learned to announce.  Hollywood announcers Michael Wrona and Vic Stauffer also became friends and mentors for me at a very young age.  I could not have asked for a better boost in confidence than having two top announcers at one of the best racetracks in the country open their doors to me.  My favorite part of Hollywood Park was being really quiet in the announcer’s booth and imagining all the racing legends that ran there and the distinct raspy voice of legendary announcer Harry Henson when the booth shook in the wind.

If I’m in Denver at Arapahoe and the races are done, where are you sending me to get a great meal for dinner?  Same question with Hobbs!

JH: In Denver, Eastside Kosher Deli, and mention my name.  In Hobbs, our Centennial Steakhouse at Zia Park.  Patrick Leckrone, the director of food and beverage, and Mark Cowgill, the executive chef, put together a tasty new menu last year.  And I would be happy to invite anyone who visits me in Denver or Hobbs over for a home-cooked meal.

Jonathan in present day form...on a cake

Jonathan in present day form…on a cake

The Story of Stabone

Stabone, (L to R) Chris Walbridge, Jason Beem, Ryan Armstrong

Stabone, (L to R) Chris Walbridge, Jason Beem, Ryan Armstrong

When most people think of the Seattle music movement they think of the grunge wave of the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Bands like Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Mudhoney (oooooh).  But this is the story of the other Seattle music movement.  The one that occurred in the early 2000’s.  And the band in question is Stabone.  But let’s go back a few years before Stabone took the University District of Seattle by storm.  Let’s go back to September 3, 1996 and go to a small classroom on the second floor of Kent-Meridian High School.  I remember I was so nervous, being in a new school for the first time after transferring for baseball reasons.  Sitting in the corner seat, I looked directly across the room and saw two people.  One a tall gangly guy who was cracking up all the gals in the class and looked like the coolest guy ever.  His name was Ryan Reed.  He was talking to another guy, who was much shorter, probably 5’9 or 5’10 and had a huge collared sweater on.  There were rumors he tucked in his sweater but that can’t be confirmed by anyone but Mike Nguyen.  I digress.  The man with the sweater was Ryan Armstrong.  Throughout the next two years of high school I got to become good friends with both Ryans.  Whether it was golfing with Ryan Reed, or sitting at Godfathers with Ryan Armstrong while he nibbled on his girlfriends’ ear, they became two of my best friends.

I went off to The University of Washington while both Ryan’s went to Green River Community College for 13th grade.  The Ryan’s would often come up to my fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega and party once in a while and I could tell Ryan Armstrong was dying to get to UW.  Ryan Reed hurt his knee like 9 times during his 3 years at Green River and also pursued a solitary life as a fisherman.  But Ryan Armstrong wanted to get to UW and was accepted in spring of our freshman year.  Ryan and I decided to get an apartment together for our Sophomore year.  Ryan brought his drums up to the apartment, I had my guitars and amps and that entire year we played cover songs together.  Scorpions, Metallica, Def Leppard, Black Sabbath and many other awesome butt rock bands were our songs of choice.  Ryan and I would invite girls over to the apartment and we’d play shows.  We needed a name.  Now I had been nicknamed J-Ball or Ball since I was about 4 years old.  And Ryan was performing under the stage name Tony Large, which was a shout out to not only his Italian heritage, but his massive “size” as well.  So using a naming tactic like Hall and Oates, Seals and Crofts, Crosby, Stills and Nash……Ball T Large was born.  However once the school year was over, I moved back to the frat and Ryan moved in with a guy named 46.5 up in North Seattle.  Practices were rare during that Junior year and it appeared Ball T Large was fading fast.

Ryan "Tony Large" Armstrong going to work

Ryan “Tony Large” Armstrong going to work

Then came the summer of 2001.  Ryan Armstrong moved in with Ryan Reed, who finally joined us up at the UW and Ryan’s parents bought a house in the Wedgewood neighborhood.  I was home most of the summer as my dad was sick with skin cancer.  He died on July 24, 2001 and one of the things I did to cope was write songs.  I wrote songs about my dad, one that reflected the sadness of those final weeks and days with him and one that reflected how conflicted I was about him, because like any father and son, we had our issues.  The nice song was called Floating and the conflicted one was called Haggen, named after a can of green beans that had no connection to the song.

Me playing on my Zach Wylde Bullseye Guitar at a Stabone show.

Me playing on my Zach Wylde Bullseye Guitar at a Stabone show.

Now when I went over to the Ryan’s house, they had a huge basement that was dedicated to playing music.  We jammed all the time down there.  We made videos about being a band.  But we weren’t a band yet.  I continued to write songs and then one day, Ryan said that a guy named Chris Walbridge wanted to come and play with us.  Chris went to Kent-Meridian as well, and even though I’d honestly never really said two words to him while we were in school, Chris was my nemesis.  And he was my nemesis for one reason.  Leading up to the Sadie Hawkins dance of my senior year, I was hoping and praying that this gal who I was in love with would ask me.  I had all my friends tell her to ask me and drop hints that I wanted to go with her.  Instead…she asked Chris Walbridge.  I didn’t care if he was the nicest guy ever, this guy was my enemy!  Well fast forward to late 2001 and Chris comes down into the basement to jam with us.  I was irritated the whole practice, because three years ago this guy did absolutely nothing but say yes to a hot girl who asked him on a date.  In other words I was being very rational.  But musically there wasn’t that much of a connection.  But Chris practiced his ass off.  Like all the time.  And the next time we jammed it was better.  And the next time even better.  Sooner than later, Chris was part of the band.  But we needed a name.  We sat and brainstormed and brainstormed.  Finally, somebody suggested (I’m guessing it was Ryan) the name Stabone.  It was an ode to our favorite character from Growing Pains, Boner Stabone (RIP).  Now afterwards there was some debate on the spelling, because I was contending since it rhymed with Stallone, that we should have two b’s in Stabbone.  But Chris and Ryan lobbied that it should just be one b and they were right and won.

Chris Walbridge on lead guitar.  He looks so boss here

Chris Walbridge on lead guitar. He looks so boss here

Now it was about this time in the band that I was over at the house hanging out with Ryan Armstrong.  I was sitting on his bed with my guitar as Ryan was telling me all about his new love.  She was blonde and gorgeous and had a friend who was like 7 feet tall who wore all black and we called Darth Vader (that’s a whole different story for another time).  Ryan was telling me about all the trials and tribulations that went into him dating this Polish beauty.  I suggested “We should write a trash 80’s love ballad about you and her”.  In literally 15 minutes, the song Over The Top was penned.  It’s loaded with innuendo’s and humor and is named after the 80’s arm wrestling movie.  But it’s catchy as hell and at it’s core, is really a story about a man trying to come to terms with getting in a gal’s pants.

We wrote more songs and started playing shows and Over The Top took on a life of it’s own.  People that had seen us sang along and we knew right away this song was bigger than any of us.  The song even got it’s own special intro with Ryan getting on the mic to tell the story of the song while Chris played the role of backup singer, a position he was great at.

Summer of 2002 saw Ryan and I graduate from the University of Washington.  I remember the weekend we graduated, Friday the 14th of June was my dad’s birthday, Saturday the 15th was graduation and Sunday the 16th was Father’s Day.  I was very emotional.  And that Monday morning we went into Mirror Sound Studios to record what would become our one album, Rock Hard.  It was six songs.  Ken Fordyce was the producer and he would go on 20 minute breaks every hour it seemed.  The tension in the studio was palpable as Ken and I battled over creative control.  Ken named Chris associate producer even though I wrote all the songs and was the band leader.  But all that tension fueled the creative process and we blew through those six songs and after a week we had an album.  The album opened with Alarm, a fast, kick your ass rock song inspired by our friend Ryan Reed.  Obsequious was a riff-licious rocker that had a boss bridge and ending.  Over the Top was over the top, Haggen rocked, Floating was for my dad, and the last song was another ballad.  It was written about and for the girl that Chris had gone to Sadie Hawkins with.  I had carried an obsession about that girl for years and finally put down to words that I was wasting time and wasting words on someone I used to know.  The song was called Wasted Time and it’s fucking awesome.

Stabone played a ton of shows during 2002-2005.  We wrote new songs.  I gambled in my spare time.  Ryan started working towards a career with the fire department.  Chris finished up school.  But the music remained.  People say if you walk along 89th and Wedgewood you still hear the echo of Stabone.  In March of 2006 I was fortunate enough to land a job at River Downs in Cincinnati, Ohio.  We decided we needed to play one last show.  There was even a movie retrospective made about the band getting back together for this last show which you can see below.  The show was amazing and Stabone went into the night as true stars of the Seattle music scene.  This band survived deaths of loved ones, school, booze, drugs, chlamydia, Ken Fordyce, Vader, and many other obstacles.  We’ve always said that Stabone never broke up.  As long as the three of us are alive, anything can happen.  But Stabone was really one of the best parts of my life.  I love Ryan and Chris.  I mean really love those guys.  I love Ryan Reed as he was our honorary 4th member even though he can’t play a note of music.  I love all those memories.  I love all those songs.  Every I listen to the Rock Hard album I get emotional.  Stabone will always live on inside of me, Ryan, Chris and the millions whose lives we touched.

Behind the Mic–Guest John Lies

John Lies in his booth at Lone Star Park in Dallas

John Lies in his booth at Lone Star Park in Dallas

John Lies has been announcing races at Lone Star Park for almost a decade now.  A Southern California native he’s worked at Del Mar as the paddock host as well as calling races at the short but amazing Kentucky Downs meeting.

How did you get into horse racing?

JL: My Dad was a small-time trainer in Southern California where I was raised. Some of my earliest memories were on the backstretch and in the roaring grandstands at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, and I was a fan at a very young age.

How did you get into announcing and what do you remember about getting that first job offer?

JL:  I wanted to be an announcer since age ten or so when I got the opportunity to meet Trevor Denman and spend time with him in the old booth at Del Mar. I didn’t pursue live calls myself until I was 27 mostly because of my interest in training, which I abandoned at about 25. I was offered the job at Lone Star Park at age 28 off very little experience. I remember feeling a mix of about 80 percent excitement and 20 percent apprehension, based mostly on the fact I had never lived anywhere outside Southern California before including having gone to college there and would have to face the reality of hitting the road to become an announcer.  

We all remember our first race call, tell me about yours?

JL:  My first race call was in July 2004 at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, CA, an arrangement made possible by their track announcer at the time, Vic Stauffer. It was the last race of the day and televised live on TVG. I was very nervous, increasingly so as the last horses moved into line. My heart was pounding harder than any of theirs. It was hard for me to believe that I was actually up there doing this, a very strange and new feeling. All went well enough considering, but there is nothing like getting that first one out of the way I suppose.

You’ve been at Lone Star for nearly a decade now, what have been some of your favorite races and calls since you’ve been there?

JL:  Game On Dude’s Lone Star Derby is memorable because of what he has accomplished since. There was a turf race for fillies and mares years back where two South American-breds turned for home together on the lead in a line of four, and I remember feeling as though this must be what calling races at the Hippodromo is like as the names “Voz de Colegiala” and “Paz Ciudadana” enjoyed obligatory repetition through the stretch call. And the final win by Wasted Tears over that course was memorable for her dominance and hometown appeal.            

You’ve worked at Del Mar during the summers, what makes racing there so special to you?

JL I grew up there six days a week each summer early as I can remember. There is an association with having met Trevor there, though that was the old building. That’s when the “roar of the crowd” really was a roar because all those people packed into those tiny old grandstands created a noise I had never heard before when the gates opened for the first race on Opening Day. Del Mar is very different today but the last five summers I was able to spend there with my Dad before his passing when traveling back to Del Mar from Texas to work as the simulcast host were very special.

Every announcer I’ve met or talked to has memories of Luke Kruytbosch, what are some of your memories of Big Luke?

JL: When I was working at the Southern California tracks in my early twenties my buddies and I would make annual pilgrimages to Arizona for spring training each March. Luke was friends with everyone in the group, of course, and we always visited him at Turf Paradise. He was largely responsible for much of the fun had by all on that trip in those days. One year I was getting buried before winning a $600 jackpot on a dice game called Captain’s Ship Crew that Luke set up for us after the races in the backstretch bar. Years later he gave me my very first opportunity to work as an announcer standing in for him at Ellis Park for three days in August 2004. The last year Luke called Kentucky Downs before his passing I was brought on as their paddock host and he asked me if I wanted to call a race one day that season. For some reason I turned him down but now I wish I hadn’t.    

You announce at Kentucky Downs, which is without a doubt the most unique track in the country.  Tell us about the track and about how tricky calling races there is?

JL: The 1-1/2-mile course runs quickly by the stands the first time into a sharp first turn, wanders up a gradual hill and to the right to “the crest of the rise” (a Luke term) where our view is then of horses running down and away. Then they dip and bank left for the long, sweeping final turn. When they straighten away the horses appear from the stands to be running almost straight at you and still have over a quarter of a mile to go, then the course will undulate in deeper stretch. It does present a number of obvious challenges for the announcer, not to mention the riders, plus I am low and out in the elements. But just like that first call, it just takes doing it and getting comfortable. I wish they had more days.

As a handicapper, what’s one of your most memorable selections or hits at the windows?

JL: Have never been afraid to step up to the window on races I don’t call, but I would have to leave horses my Dad trained or I was otherwise involved with out of it to qualify it as a true handicapping score. A memorable selection was Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby because I gave him out at Lone Star and several people I know that never bet said they cashed because I picked him. And I seem to remember my close calls and bad beats at the windows much more readily than the ones that worked out. Isn’t that awful? I will say that I am a fan of the 50-cent Pick Five because of the low takeout and have had some success but wish they would move it to the last five races of the day instead of the first five to get larger fields and producer bigger payoffs.

Who are some of your influences as announcers?  Any guys you really like listening to call?

JL: As I have heard you say in so many words, announcers are like ice cream flavors and everyone has his favorite. That’s why there are 31 in the shop. For my taste, Trevor Denman is in one race and the rest are in another. 

The last race at Lone Star is over and i want a great dinner, where you sending me to eat in Dallas area?  Same Q for Del Mar

JL: The abundance of good places to eat in Dallas is one of the nicer things about the city. Eddie V’s and Bob’s Steak and Chop House are in a dead heat for steak, Maggiano’s for Italian but Grimaldi’s for pizza, then Chuy’s for Tex Mex. At Del Mar the Brigantine is a “must do” but I prefer places in the downtown plaza area like Pacifica Del Mar or Sbicca just down the street.  

Southbound Book Trailer

Very excited to announce the book trailer for Southbound.  My friend Rob Moog of Archetype Content shot the video for me and Jeremy Hutcheson was kind enough to play the role of Ryan McGuire.  Our goal was to kind of lay a bit of foundation to where Ryan was coming from and what was leading him to head south to L.A. and spend his time as a professional gambler, even though that’s always been a destructive thing for him.  The book will be out in 30 days, I can’t wait!