I first found out about Robert Geller when my dad told me that Emerald Downs, the new track that was being built, had “hired some British guy.” At the time I was kind of bummed because long time Longacres announcer Gary Henson was my horse racing idol. I used to ride my bike around our neighborhood in Renton, whipping it with a stick and screaming “And here comes Captain Condo trying to get to Snipledo” in Gary Henson’s gravelly voice.
So when Longacres opened in 1996 I went with my old man and enjoyed the races at the new track. I didn’t go much to the races there as I was more caught up in high school, baseball, and other pressing matters for teenager. I didn’t really start coming back to Emerald again until the summer of 2001. My dad was sick with melanoma, yet he would still trek out to Emerald Downs each weekend, oxygen tank in tow to play the races. Our last day at Emerald was July 22, 2001. He died two days later. I kept coming out to the track though hoping somehow to keep our memories alive.
I left Seattle to go to law school at Gonzaga and that was a bust. After dropping out in early 2004, I emailed a guy named Victor the Predictor and asked him if he knew if Emerald Downs was hiring. Just my luck, they needed a turfwriter and media assistant. Perfect. I applied and got the job. I remember opening night, Robert Geller came bouncing into the media office, saying hello to my boss Grant and I was introduced. He had an energy and glow about him that were unmatched at the racetrack. Willy the Cat set a world record that night. But throughout that year of working at Emerald Downs I got to meet Robert more and more when he would pop in. He was ALWAYS in a good mood and lit up any room he came in. I became fascinated with him and his racecalls and would listen to all of them. I was so inspired that I even picked up a set of binoculars at some point in the year and started practicing announcing Emerald’s races from the suite next to the media office.
After a few months of practicing I brought Robert a tape of my practice racecalls. I asked if he wouldn’t mind listening and offering some critique. He put on a pair of headphones and nodded his head up and down as I stood there in total fear of him saying “you’re awful and you should never call a race.” Because trust me, these calls weren’t good. But he took off the headphones and he told me that I was doing great and to keep practicing and that I had a future if I kept at it. I practiced even harder after that and within a year landed a job announcing at River Downs. I talk to lots of people in lots of professions and many say how they received some kind of support early on. Someone who believed in them and helped them to believe in themselves. For me that was Robert Geller.
Throughout the last ten years as we both shuttled across the country calling races, he at Emerald and Sunland, and me at River Downs and Portland Meadows, we talked about announcing, about life, about other announcers, about horse racing, about everything. At some point Robert became less of a colleague and more of a friend. I interviewed him several times on my various radio shows and always ended up talking more than the allotted time because I still just found him interesting. He even let me call a few races from the booth at Emerald which was one of the thrills of my time in horse racing.
I could make this story about the racecalls, because there are many that come to mind when I think about Robert. But we all know how good of an announcer he is. I’ve sat in the booth with dozens of announcers and no one has made it look as easy as Robert does. If you sit upstairs with him on a day of races, chances are at a minimum ten or fifteen people will stop in to say hello, talk, or watch him call a race. Even with that constant flow of people, he peers out over the track with a minute to post, memorizes the field, and delivers with pinpoint accuracy and fantastic wit, another gem of a call. For what it’s worth, Wasserman’s 2008 Mile win is my favorite Robert racecall and moment at Emerald. But what I like about his calls is they are never scripted, always fresh, and always right off the top of his head.
But the race calls aren’t what I’ll remember of Robert and Emerald Downs. I’ll remember all the smiles of his. All the smiles of people who were visiting him upstairs. His fantastic laugh and his big heart. You’d be hard pressed to find a racing community that has a stronger bond with their announcer than the one Robert created with fans at Emerald Downs. When news of his hiring at Woodbine was made public, be it on social media or internet racing chat boards, the response was almost all the same, “we’re sad that he’s leaving but happy for him.” That’s kind of how I feel. Robert deserves to call big races on a big stage, which is exactly what Woodbine will offer him. When that job came open I told Robert and many other friends “Robert would be perfect for that job.” And he will be. He’ll be great and the people of Toronto will learn to love him as we do here.
I was watching the Shawshank Redemption the other night, one of my favorite movies and there’s a quote that stuck with me when thinking about Robert. “I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. Still, the place that you live in is that much more drab and empty now that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”
Now granted Robert wasn’t locked up and Emerald is far from drab, but I will be sad when Robert leaves. I think most of us Northwest racing fans would be quite content to have him stay here forever. I will miss going upstairs to the 6th floor and walking into his room and greeting him with a “Bobby G.” I’ll miss hearing “All in…locked up” before each race. I’ll miss seeing my friend.
Cheers to Bobby G. and to what lies ahead for him.