“Thinking will not overcome fear. But action will.”W. Clement Stone
This week will be the final week ever of racing at Gulfstream Park West and I’m abnormally sad about it. Now I know and respect that there are many people with much stronger ties to the track. There are folks out there who are losing where they work. Others who are losing the track they grew up going to. Or the track they cut their teeth at. All I’m losing is a place I filled in announcing for a few weeks the last couple of years.
I never got to experience Calder Race Course. All I knew of Calder was that it was generally the first track simulcast in the morning at Emerald Downs with the 9:25am Pacific first post time. I remember reading Mike Welsch’s analysis of the races. I remember Phil Saltzman and Bobby Neuman’s distinct voices calling the races there. I do have a strong memory of Ema Bovary winning the Princess Rooney there back in 2004 as she was an Emerald Downs based horse on the big stage.
Whenever I say Gulfstream Park West people often correct me with “you mean Calder. It’ll always be Calder.” I generally reply “respectfully, it’s not Calder anymore.” The Grandstand was knocked down a few years ago, the bushes by the wire haven’t spelled out Calder in years. I truly don’t think I ever got to experience Calder. I got to experience Gulfstream Park West. Gulfstream Park West meant being at the races with maybe 100 people watching in a tent. It meant going over to see Victor in the jocks room to get the changes. It meant climbing the most rickety stairs possible to get up to the top of three trailers that were stacked up on top of each other to call the races. It meant a sore back from leaning out the window to see the horses at the top of the lane. It meant 12 horses running straight at you while you had no height to produce a good depth or angle to see who’s in front. It meant praying the air conditioning would work each day because it was so hot and humid outside that fat me would croak without it. It meant talking to Eddie the camera guy between races. It was easily the toughest and least comfortable place I’ve ever called races. And I loved it beyond belief.
In September of 2018 I was taping an episode of my podcast for BetAmerica when my phone said I had a direct message from my buddy Peter Aiello. Pete calls the races at Gulfstream Park and Gulfstream Park West. Here was the message.
I told Pete to let me think about it. As I wrote in my last blog, anxiety was a MAJOR issue for me for a lot of years. 2016 and 2017 had been pretty tough, but early on in 2018 I had really began to see some progress. Throughout that summer of 2018 I pushed myself more and more and was experiencing significant improvements in all avenues of life. I was traveling, going to baseball games, going to parks, hiking, I lost some weight, I was doing well. And part of the reason for that was because I made it a bit of a mantra to say “yes” to things. So even though I was scared as hell to drive to Miami and maybe even more scared to call races, I told Pete yes, I’d be there.
I asked Pete in the interim before I came down “why did he ask me?” He responded “I thought long and hard about who would really appreciate the chance to do it. And I figured you would.” I get misty-eyed just thinking about how much it means that he thought that and acted on it. My announcing career was dead in the water. I hadn’t called a race in three and a half years. I had applied for a dozen jobs and not gotten a sniff. And truth be told, I didn’t deserve a sniff. And even if I had gotten something in 2016 or 2017, it would have fallen apart because I wasn’t mentally healthy.
Pete was right about what he said, I did appreciate it. But there were any number of people who would have appreciated it as well. And I’ve been really blessed with some great opportunities in announcing the last couple of years that likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gotten that first shot at Gulfstream Park West in 2018.
I still remember that drive to Miami. I didn’t tell anyone I was going outside of my mom, my lady friend, and I think Frank Mirahmadi and Travis Stone. I drove from Seattle to Vegas. To Amarillo, Texas. To Jackson, Mississippi. To Jacksonville, Florida. Then to Miami. I remember in Jacksonville it was like 65 and sunny and I thought “oh man this is so nice.” Then as I got further south on I-95 I realized “ok well it’s a little humid.” Then I pulled into the Miami metro area. I went to a Whole Foods and from just the walk from the car to the store I was sweating. Like, a lot. The entire drive in mid-November across the country had been through temps in the 40s. It was 88 and humid and I thought I was gonna die. I went and visited Pete, got the lay of the Gulfstream Park West land, and then went to my hotel.
November 14, 2018 came and I remember being in that booth early that day. I decided to turn my phone off and just try and do my best. I knew I wouldn’t be that good calling races. I had fully anticipated being very nervous. And I was. The first race came. I took a deep breath, and the gates opened.
You can hear the nerves in my voice. I’m running out of air cause I’m breathing shallow. But I got through it. And the next race went better. As did the one after that. My entire goal with that first trip was just to be able to end my announcing career on my terms. I had left Louisiana Downs three and a half years earlier a complete wreck. I was sad and anxious and just a mess. This was my opportunity to call some good races for two weeks and get rid of the bad taste with how it ended. I truly never thought it would lead to more announcing opportunities even though I’m certainly happy it did.
I had a blast those two weeks in Florida in 2018. Calling the races at GPW. Visiting Pompano Park, watching greyhounds at Palm Beach Kennel Club with my friend Gabe, going to see Gators on those cool fan boats. Having a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with the Tweedle’s in Boca. Just great. I even got to go back in 2019 and call the races at GPW for a whole month. The last race I was there for in 2019 I gave a little tribute call to Phil Saltzman. I didn’t know if GPW was gonna be around for 2020, or if I’d be going, so I thought it was appropriate for my last memory there to honor the longtime Calder voice.
Covid kind of killed any chance of me going back this year to fill in for Pete, but that’s ok. I’m filled with memories of my two stints at GPW and the rebirth it meant for my racecalling career.
My favorite memory at Gulfstream Park West actually occurred in the parking lot there. Back on that first day of calling there, November 14, 2018, the one with the nervous video linked a ways back up in this now probably too long blog. I remember walking out to the car to head back to my hotel. I was swollen with pride. Happy to have gotten up there and faced my fears and to have done the job again. I turned my phone back on and was greeted by a slew of texts and congrats. I read them all, and then I called my mom. She more than anyone had had a front row seat to my struggle with anxiety and depression. She’d been to the hospitals, she’d seen the freak outs, she’d seen the spark go out in my eyes. She’d gotten so many phone calls with “I just can’t do it anymore and I’m coming home.”
She answered the phone and I could hear the caution in her voice wondering how the day went. I called her fully intent on telling her that I had fun! And that it was a great day! And that some of the calls were even decent! But when I heard her voice all I said was “I did it.” And then I started crying. I cried for probably thirty seconds before gathering myself to tell her “I’m just so happy mom. This is a good cry.” She sat and listened while I whaled over the phone. After a certain point she just kept saying “get it out. Just get it out.” I must have sat in that parking lot and cried for twenty minutes. Looking back I think it was just all the emotion of not just a victory, but truly feeling I was getting my life back. Maybe I was finally leaving anxiety in the rearview mirror, or at least just relegating it to an occasional nuisance as opposed to the all-consuming, life altering, identity defining problem that it was. And I wanted to share that with my mom because she’d always done everything she could to give me a chance to have the life I wanted. That emotional release is something I’ll never forget. I’ve never been so run over with emotion. It was honestly one of the best days and moments of my life. Sitting there crying in the parking lot at Gulfstream Park West.