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.

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