Re-calling when horse races were only heard

January 03, 2012 3:04 AM

A day at the races today in Las Vegas is sitting at an elegant casino in a lap-top of luxury.

Races across the USA are going on right in front of you on TVs at your own cubicle with the ability to bet them at any time for pretty much any amount on the pari-mutuel board.

It’s hard to believe that back in the day race results were not often known until reading the papers the following morning.

"Technology had a lot to do with how racing is today," said Ralph Siraco, noted horse racing analyst and popular Las Vegas radio personality. "I enjoyed every minute of it. And now with the racing show, I am a very fortunate person."

Siraco has indeed seen it all in the history of horse racing, Las Vegas style. He has called both thoroughbred and harness racing live, but more importantly was part of an era a generation ago before simulcasting existed.

It was a time when race results came in on teletype and runners would get the information out to bettors. And the job of race caller was literally on the line depending on how fast a runner could deliver the info to his clients.

"With live race calling, you are describing what is in front of you. Re-creating is trying to put into words what happened," said Siraco, whose job was to present the results to an audience that would stare into a speaker listening to his every word religiously.

"I had to turn the race over as quickly as possible," Siraco said. With two services in the business of disseminating the results, seconds meant a lifetime. The one turning it out fastest got the most business."

Siraco worked for Las Vegas Dissemination Company (LVDC), now the industry leader for pari-mutuel wagering and race track simulcasting. Back in the 1970s and early 80s, dissemination was a battleground between GamingToday founder Chuck DiRocco, Ken Swanson and later Tommy Roberts of Roberts Communication.

"Part of my job at LVDC in 1983 was to re-create races for both Southern California and New York tracks," Siraco said. "DiRocco owned one service and Swanson the other. Eventually Chuck bought him out. Then Roberts got involved."

The re-creating of races was a theme of the Academy Award-winning movie "The Sting" (with Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Robert Shaw), except in real life the results were not tampered with.

"I was definitely playing to the crowd," Siraco recalled. "On any given day, a celebrity could show up making a big bet. Shecky Greene and Pat Cooper were frequent horse bettors. We could embellish the race calls, but the top four finishers had to be right."

A typical day back then would have a couple of workers in the morning go over the race cards and update the scratches to customers. Once the East Coast tracks like Aqueduct and Pimlico were done, a second shift came aboard and worked until the last race was run at the Southern California tracks like Santa Anita.

"Often we would come across a ‘steamer’ or hot horse," Siraco said. "Our chart involved getting only the first place through fourth finishers. But, if a steamer was involved, we had the liberty to say that horse was challenging for the lead when, in fact, it could have been trailing badly in last. All that mattered to the clients was that the first four finishers were called correctly and quickly passed along by the runner by phone."

All of this was done, of course, "for entertainment purposes only."

"Re-creating races was part of the romanticism that is gone from racing today," Siraco said. "Joe DeLuca was the iconic race caller in Vegas. When he called a race, it was like the voice of God to these Damon Runyon bettors who saw him as a cult figure."

Re-creating races eventually gave way to simulcasting when DiRocco and other disseminators got approval from gaming authorities to bring in the live signals from racetracks around the country.

"Bettors didn’t want the old technology of people calling races anymore," Siraco said. "They wanted to see it on TV."

Not only that, but bettors wanted to bet the races conveniently, pari-mutuel style, just as was done at the tracks. And in the mid-1980s, that became reality in Las Vegas.

"Caesars pioneered a deal with NYRA (New York Racing Association) as the first major simulcastor," Siraco said. "Racing was no longer ripping results off a teletype and handing them to a guy on the air, while another guy was racing to a phone telling clients the outcome or giving information on who to bet in the next race."

When asked if horse racing was a more romantic time then rather than now, Siraco couldn’t give an exact response.

"I’ve always loved the game so when you are younger it’s natural that those days are more romantic," he said. "Kids now may say this is the best time."

The feeling of knowing the results before most everyone else did is a rush Siraco and only a choice few experienced.