Learning to connect again

It’s been a very busy and interesting last week and a half since I last wrote on here.  I went up to Seattle and did a couple of book signings, saw family and friends, and since I’ve been back in Portland have been staying busy, and had to say goodbye to my therapist of five years yesterday as she’s moving away.  One of the constants throughout this last week and half though is getting notes and messages from people who are reading Southbound and saying such nice things.  That’s kind of been the most pleasant experience so far since the book has come out, is that connection with people.  I’ve had total strangers, some as old as in their 80’s write and tell me they liked the book or related to something in it.  The only real word I can use to describe it is a connective.

See, I’m someone who has kind of become disconnected.  I’m someone who isolates.  Someone who has hidden away.  Some people use the word agoraphobic, but I prefer disconnected.  At some point I made the connection in my head that my anxiety was less severe when others weren’t around and I was in the house.  I allowed my world to slowly shrink and shrink and shrink until leaving the house at all became a chore.  Grocery stores were the worst.  I would run in, grab what I needed and pray the line at check out was short.  I’d stand there, my hands gripping the railing, hoping my legs wouldn’t give out and internally so irate when the checkout person wanted to make small talk.  Just please scan my stuff so I can get out now!  I even had Safeway deliver my groceries one day, resigning myself to the possibility of just staying in the house forever.  I didn’t go home for Christmas, had dinner on New Years Eve alone at 6pm at Elmers Pancake house.

The funny thing is….I’m not an introvert.  At all.  My natural habitat is amongst family and friends and I allowed my anxiety to take that away from me.  One of the most interesting changes I’ve noticed in myself is the two things I’m probably most scared of…flying and heights…were two of the things I loved most as a child.  I’ll never forget when I heard our baseball team had qualified for the 15 year old World Series…I was most excited about two things.  I was gonna get to fly to Chicago!  And I was gonna get to go to the top of the Sears Tower!!!   Now, you couldn’t pay me enough to do either of those things.

So my focus lately has been re-engaging and trying to reconnect.  And honestly..it’s working.  In January, I couldn’t be anywhere public for more than 5 minutes without having extreme anxiety.  Today I was out and about running errands, doing work and talking with people from 7:30am to 3pm!  I went to my trainer at the gym, had breakfast, went and did some work for a few hours and talked with tons of people.  And magically…even though I was anxious….I felt happier.  I’m supposed to be around people.  I’m fun and funny and bring joy to people’s lives and they do the same for me.

I think I owe some of this desire to reconnect to Southbound.  People have reached out but I’ve also reached out too.  I went to my mom’s casino for a book signing and was in the casino for like 90 minutes, surrounded by family and friends and strangers and all that.  Now 2 months ago I wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes in there.  Granted after the 90 minutes I had to go sit in my car and do my breathing exercises, but progress is never swift!  The next day I had an hour breakfast with a couple of my best friends in the world, visited another friend, went to my dad’s cemetery plot, and then did a one hour book signing at Emerald Downs in the middle of the crowded paddock.  I talked with strangers about the book, talked with friends.  It was terrifying but it was progress.  The anxiety recovery is so much different than the compulsive gambling recovery.  Gambling I can make go away.  The anxiety will always be there.  But the good news is I have the choice to run from it, or just bring it along and not give it the attention and let it dissipate as I spend time around the people, places and things I love.  I’m gonna go ahead and work on the latter.  Feeling loved and working on being connected once again.

Southbound’s first ten days

So I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in these last days since Southbound came out reflecting on the experience of having a book out in the world.  First of all….the feeling of knowing people are reading a book I wrote is pretty overwhelming.  So far the reception has been almost universally positive which is quite nice and quite strange as well.  It’s a little odd hearing people’s reactions and opinions on something you wrote, even when it’s good.  But the response has been so nice and people have been very kind.  I think Southbound will be something that builds and grows and hopefully people will pass it on to friends if they do enjoy it.  And of course some people will hate it, but I suppose some people hated To Kill a Mockingbird for pete’s sake!

One of the definite highlights was having the book rise to the #1 spot in Horse Racing books on the first day it was out.  I think the book at one point even got to #2,600 overall in all books on the rankings, which out of like 10 million books seems pretty damn good!

Another highlight is seeing people post pictures on social media of the book arriving at their homes.  Some complete strangers messaging me to show me they got the book.  I mean, how cool is that?

The best part was undoubtedly my mom calling me after getting the book.  She’s starting reading it and I’m sure it’s probably a little strange for her.  She did however read the acknowledgment section.  She called me and told me “that was the nicest thing anyone’s every said or written to me in my life.  My main goal in my life was to be a good mother to you guys and I’m so proud of you both.”

It’s the best review I’ll ever get 🙂

Mom holding Southbound

Mom holding Southbound

Behind the Mic–Guest Peter Aiello


Peter kicked back relaxing in his "booth" at Hialeah

Peter kicked back relaxing in his “booth” at Hialeah

Our guest is Peter Aiello, the voice of Hialeah Park as well as Gulfstream Park during the summer months.  Pete is a young guy in his twenties and already is a remarkably talented and seasoned announcer.  He has a passion for the game and is one of my favorite people in racing to talk with.

1.  How did you catch the horse racing bug?

My story is really no different than a lot of other racing fans as far as that goes. I come from a long line of horseplayers so we all used to go to the races while I was a kid. I think the first memory of horse racing was when I was 3 years old and we went to Hialeah Park. My grandma bought me a pink jockey suit from the gift shop and that was the end of that. Like I said, I was bred to enjoy it so my mother and grandmother really didn’t have anything they could do about it. I think the first time I ever handicapped a race using the racing form was when I was 12 with my dad at Gulfstream. The horse’s name was Rebridled, Richard Migliore rode him and he was the 6 (funny how you remember these things). I told my Dad I wanted to bet him to win (at that point I was betting $2 place each race). He balked, wouldn’t do it and the horse won at 23-1! I cashed my place ticket mind you, but that was actually my first “story” at the track too! After that, pun intended, I was off to the races.

2.  We all remember our first time calling a race over the speakers, tell us about your first race call?

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was during closing weekend at Rillito Park in Tucson, AZ. Luke Kryutbosch helped set it up for me. This was actually the final season that Rillito had a press box (it was condemned weeks after the meet ended). The race was for maidens going 4 furlongs for a $1,100 purse. I can remember vividly NOT being that nervous. I think I was just so focused and excited to be getting the opportunity that I calmed myself down. Looking back on it now, I am not ashamed of the call one bit. My best work? Hardly. But I stand behind it for it being my first call. The cadence was a bit fat (even for me) and you could hear a little nervousness in my voice. I remember climbing downstairs only to be met by Luke (turns out Turf Paradise had cancelled that day so he drove down to hear how I did). I remember asking him “Well, how did I do?”. He grinned, chuckled and said “Well…YOU DON’T SUCK!”. It was a truly memorable experience.

3.  We both have had the great pleasure of announcing races at River Downs.  What is it about that track that made it so special?

Well, for me, it was the fact that it was my “big break” (thank you for that). (Editors Note…Pete took over at River Downs after I left in 2008) The other thing about it is, it is truly a beautiful place. The old announcer booth (our booth) was really the envy of the entire country, with perfect sightlines and a great view. We really were spoiled. Also, the people in and around Cincinnati ended up really being my family. I met and still have so many good friends in that area that I really still feel like that is “home”. It will be strange this summer when it sinks in that my experience there is likely over. The other somewhat ironic thing about it was, I can remember first going to River Downs with my dad when I was 14. Even at that time, I commented to thing “what a cool place….I’d like to work here someday”. Little did I know…..

4.  Who were some of the announcers you loved listening to when you were younger?

Well, as many races as I watched as a kid, I suppose I heard just about everyone. As with anything, I had some strong regional influences. The guys who were down here, namely Phil Saltzman and Frank Mirahmadi were the guys who unknowingly taught me “how it was supposed to sound”. Listening to Phil was really a helpful thing with regard to announcer “fundamentals” (What do you say and when do you say it). I got to the point where, even as a fan, I knew what he was going to say before he said it. What that ended up doing for me was establishing the core “base” of me as an announcer. To this day, I still use some of Phil’s phrases if I get hung up or need to reset or start over. It’s just a comfort thing. That said, the guy who I loved listening to more than anyone else was Dave Johnson. His delivery was just perfect and I think it was listening to his race calls during Triple Crown races that really got me excited about the game.  I still get chills hearing “And DOWN The stretch they come!”, It was a great thing getting to meet him and having his critique my work. Like a budding guitarist getting to have music looked over by Stevie Ray Vaughn, Peter Frampton or Jimi Hendrix.

5.  You’ve always been a big advocate for small tracks/fairs etc.  What are some of your favorite little tracks to visit and to play as a bettor?

Well, a lot of the places I used to “cut my teeth” as an announcer are no more. The AZ Fair circuit ran out of funding only a couple years after I got into the business. I used to LOVE to go to those places, bet on those races and call the action. In my view, it was really horse racing the way it was meant to be. No fighting, no animosity between track officials and horsemen. Everyone working together to put on the best show they could, all the while smiling, laughing and enjoying putting on the show. I’ve found that a lot of times the smaller venues tend to run a very good operation, simply because everyone checks their egos at the door and does what they can with what they have. I’ve never been (though I WILL GO) but I really enjoy the Ferndale meeting. Bull ring racing is my cup of tea. It adds a whole new dynamic of strategy and handicapping that I really enjoy. Rillito Park, where I started, would still rank up there in terms of small tracks I love to bet. Alas, they do not simulcast their signal so I can’t get any action or watch the races unless I travel there (which I did last year and it was simply tremendous).

6.  You’re the announcer at Hialeah, tell us about the track since it’s re-opened.  What were your memories of that track as a kid and now as the race caller?

To sum it up, it’s a completely surreal experience and the definition of coming full circle. As I mentioned earlier, it was going to Hialeah Park as a young child that got me hooked on horse racing. In high school, I did a research paper for my English class on the property (which was closed at that point) and it college, I used to tell my friends how much I wish Hialeah Park would reopen  so I could work there. Of course, my friends laughed at me because it was theoretically impossible. Hialeah was closed and would never reopen. As we know now, that proved to be incorrect. I actually wasn’t chosen as the announcer when I put for it….which was a bit soul crushing. But, again it was funny how it worked out. John Lies (who they hired as the announcer) had another commitment that day so I got to call the races the day Hialeah reopened. This is going to sound ludicrous to most readers, but I honestly cannot imagine topping that from a career standpoint. To be part of something that historic at the very place that I always aspired to work at my age (then I was recently 24) with THAT many people (over 24,000) was surreal. The thing about calling races at Hialeah is that it’s unlike any other place in the country. The press box (which was one of the best in the country) was never restored. Instead, they built an “official platform” right in the middle of the grandstand where old owner boxes used to be. So, day in and day out, it is the loudest, most distracting announcer “booth” in the country because you can hear everything that is going on at all times. Not to mention that there’s a giant pole right in the way of the finish line, making the angle EXTREMELY tough. The point of the story is, not everyone could do it day in and day out.

7.  Almost every announcer I know has a memory of the great Luke Kruytbosch.  What are some of your best memories of Big Luke?

Well, first of all, I need to mention that I would not have a career if it were not for Luke. I met him as a freshman in college as part of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program Mentor Lunch. He gave me opportunities to prove myself that I would never have been accorded had I not met him. I already shared one of my favorite stories when you asked about my first call. Another good one was when I got my first chance to call at a big track, thanks to Richard Grunder & Margo Flynn at Tampa Bay Downs.  I was all set to call the nightcap and had a full day to prepare (which I know now is never really what you want). Anyway! I told NOBODY, I was sitting in the grandstand before the feature, sweating bullets, a complete nervous wreck…and my phone rings. “Luke K” comes up on my phone and I think “Oh no!”. So I answer it “Hey Luke, how’s it going?” he says “So I hear you’re calling the last race at Tampa today” Oh if you could have seen my face…it was like I had just seen a ghost. So I said “How’d you hear that?!!!” He says “Don’t worry about that….I have eyes and ears everywhere. Listen, don’t F**K up…this is your big shot!” HAHA! As if I needed any more pressure!! As it turned out, I did well, amidst having all kinds of things thrown at me during the race (broken equipment, 9 across the track, etc). After the race though, I did promptly head to the bathroom and puke my guts out.

8.  Strange things happen sometimes in the announcers booth.  Have any fun or crazy stories from up in the perch?

Well, on a bet, one time they brought 43 summer campers up to the booth at River Downs, the oldest being about 10 years old. They broke a glass, knocked over a couple chairs and were climbing on top of me as they turned for home. That was pretty crazy. There was another time when there was a wasp’s nest in the insolation above the booth so I had 5 wasps flying around my head during the race. I can certainly confirm the old racetrack adage “Never believe anything you hear at the racetrack and only half of what you see!”

9.  You’ve had to travel a bit to pursue this career.  Tell us about how you got to where you’ve gotten to.

Well, you’re right about that. I have some miles under my wheels. I had my first official job in racing working at the aforementioned Rillito Park in Tucson, AZ. From there I worked all over the state of AZ on the fair circuit. Then I went and worked the summer in the racing office at Finger Lakes in upstate New York.  The following summer I headed to northern Alberta to a little town called Grand Prairie to work at Evergreen Park, the only racetrack to race at night with no lights. It’s so far north, it doesn’t get dark until after midnight. It was truly one of the best experiences of my life. The folks in Alberta embraced me with open arms and treated me great. Those jobs were all while going to school. After I graduated, I got hired to be the assistant racing secretary at Prairie Meadows in Iowa working for Dan Doocy (brother of retired jockey Tim Doocy). You know the next chapter. You left River Downs, and I “moved my tack” to Cincinnati (after a stern talking to by Luke). I spent that winter at Beulah in Columbus and moved back to Florida the following winter to work at Hialeah. Did the spring/summer moving thing for a few years and then my position at Hialeah became more permanent and so I stayed. It was that move that allowed me the unbelievable opportunity of announcing the races at Gulfstream when Larry (Collmus) is not around.

10.  If the races are over at Hialeah and I want to go out for a great dinner, where in South Florida are you sending me?

Depends on what kind of cuisine you’re in the mood for. For a distinctly Cuban/Miami experience, I’d send you to Havana Harry’s (ask Robert Gellar about that for a second opinion). Fried yucca, guava pork chops, mariquitas with garlic sauce and mango chicken. Not to mention some of the most decadent desserts you’ve ever had, like coconut flan and coconut bread pudding! BBQ is Scrubys…no questions asked. Seafood…well that’s a list for another conversation….too many great places to name.

Thanks Pete!


Southbound is out

Southbound launched yesterday and it was a glorious day!  We jumped ahead of the mighty Seabiscuit for a while as the #1 Horse racing book!  Below are the links to buy paperback or kindle version of Southbound.

Thanks everyone for your support!  And if you have questions about the book email me at jballscalls@aol.com.


To Buy Southbound Kindle CLICK HERE

To Buy Southbound Paperback CLICK HERE