It’s eerily quiet high above the grandstand. There’s no roar of the crowd. No electricity reverberating through the grounds. The only sounds are the pounding of hooves, the crack of whips and the jockeys exhorting their mounts on to the finish line.
Yet a lone, solitary voice can be heard amid the silence.
Horse racing is battling the coronavirus. But it’s a tough fight to remain in business. No fans are allowed inside to watch and wager. Simulcasting remains the lone lifeline the public has to stay connected. And in many jurisdictions, even that valve has been turned off.
In Nevada, you can’t make a bet on horse racing. There’s no TVG account. No NYRA Bets. No Twin Spires to aspire to. All are not available to Silver State residents. In Nevada, William Hill, Station Casinos and South Point have turned off their racing mobile apps.
If you’re a horseplayer in Las Vegas and want to drive to Arizona, forget it. All Off-Track Betting locations are shut, as are the state’s two primary tracks — Turf Paradise and Arizona Downs.
Still, racing manages to continue in a select few places, including California and Florida. And if you’re going to have racing, you need an announcer to let those who are viewing the proceedings and betting know what’s going on.
Peter Aiello is the track announcer at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. He not only has seen the difference, he feels it.
“I think I notice it the most when the horses head to the gate and come back to the winner’s circle,” Aiello said. “Those are the times I notice (and often times hear) the crowd below. During the race, I try to be like Kevin Costner in the movie “For the Love of the Game” and just completely block out everything when it’s time to call the race.”
At Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Vic Stauffer says it’s not business as usual when he turns on his microphone, as much as he wishes it were.
“Especially at Oaklawn calling without on-track patrons is very strange,” he said of the popular Arkansas track which draws big crowds, particularly on the weekends. “I drew energy from them. Gives a feel of a real-time live sporting event. It’s much different these days.”
Michael Wrona, who calls the races at Los Alamitos Race Course in Southern California, said he notices the difference the moment he walks into the track.
“It’s quite strange not seeing anyone,” he said. “But normally, I don’t come into contact with a lot of people. Because of my location at Los Alamitos, I don’t get to see much of the apron and the paddock where they saddle the horses.
“But I certainly notice there’s no crowd yelling. I have my window open when I call the races and not hearing anyone yelling is definitely different.”
Wrona has called races all over the world. Perhaps the opposite of what he’s currently experiencing is when he calls the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, Calif., every August.
“At Santa Rosa, I have people all around me,” he said. “It’s almost like being in a fishbowl.”
If you go to the various track websites or watch the races on television and you hear the calls, it sounds normal. Aiello said his routine hasn’t changed.
“I’m very much a creature of habit when it comes to calling races,” he said. “The very worst thing I could do would be to do anything different as far as preparation goes.
“My daily routine has been a bit different over the last couple of weeks only in that I have been limited to my social interaction. I enjoy talking with and visiting with everyone before the races but obviously that’s not the prudent thing to do right now so that’s been about the only change.
Wrona said: “I’ve been preparing exactly the same. But I do have to be mindful of how I welcome and farewell people since we don’t have spectators at Los Alamitos. I’ve modified my introduction.”
Stauffer said he too has tweaked things a bit.
“I’m not doing anything differently,” he said of his daily prep to call the races. “Very minor adjustments. For example, when I give the changes, I say ‘Thanks for tuning in’ rather than ‘Welcome to.’ Not much other than that.”
Aiello said he has less distractions, especially on big days at Gulfstream.
With respect to (Florida) Derby day, sometimes the big days have been a bit hectic on-track which can mess with or throw off your concentration or momentum,” he said. “So if anything, it may be easier to prepare than in years past as I will have absolutely no distractions or anything to knock me out of my routine. Famous last words, but certainly no excuses.”
An Important role
On a normal racing day, the announcers carry the burden of being responsible, making sure they’re accurate with their calls and keeping the public informed with any changes. They also know how important it is to play a role in keeping racing alive during these different and difficult times.
“For me, I feel it’s very important,” Aiello said. “As stressful a time as we find ourselves in, it’s really important to allow people an outlet to escape the stresses of life for a while. And I’m very grateful to be able to play a small role in that process.”
“I’ve had folks on social media tell me how much they appreciate getting to tune into the Gulfstream races and how it provides them with some form of normalcy. That’s a great feeling and reassures me that just because they aren’t any people around, there are still a lot of people hearing me and enjoying our great sport.”
While the coronavirus spreads throughout the country, Stauffer and Aiello said they feel safe doing their job and they feel for their colleagues who are unable to do what they love, which is call races.
“I’m one of the very few whose life is pretty much the same,” Stauffer said. “Of course there’s a different feel. We do social distance in the press box. Other than that the reality is amazingly similar to before.”
Aiello said: “I consider myself very lucky in that Gulfstream Park has worked so well with the government of the State of Florida to still be open and running, allowing us to be that outlet for so many, both on and off the track. We’ve increased safety standards to comply to with all executive orders and being isolated on the roof, I feel very safe.”
And sane. Wrona’s wife works at Los Alamitos as a mutuel clerk. But with no bettors allowed on the premises, she is staying home. For him, working provides a big mental benefit as well as an economic one.
“I’m very grateful that I’m able to keep working,” said Wrona, who also does some writing for publications and websites in his native Australia as well as in South Africa. “I remember going to Keeneland in the early 1990s when there was no track announcer and no one realized the race was on,” he said. “That experience told me how important it is to have an announcer to let people know what’s going on, including when the race begins.
“I think it’s important to create a little atmosphere and enhance the way the race is run and let people know how their horses are doing. Of course, when you’re calling a quarter horse race, you don’t have a lot of time.”
For Wrona, calling the entire card on a given night at Los Alamitos can go quicker than the running of the Kentucky Derby. But he knows people are watching and wagering and he owes it to them, and himself, to be professional and give the very best call he can every race.
“People need diversions in times like this,” he said. “Racing can help with that. It’s marvelous that NBC Sports Network is taking some of TVG’s shared content and showing it. It’s exposing more people to the sport and there’s potential for horse racing to not only survive, but to thrive.
“With more people watching, they might want to come to the tracks again once they reopen for customers and it can bring new fans and turn it into a real positive for the sport.”