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.