When Nature calls,announcers deliver

Jun 21, 2005 6:17 AM

I earned I large slice of my daily bread for 15 years as a race-caller in Chicago, Detroit and Boston, so I know a good race call when I hear one.

Vic Stauffer, the track announcer at Hollywood Park, gave a classic last week. There was an earthquake in Los Angeles, as you probably know, and one of the least stable places during an earthquake is a track announcer’s booth, located high atop everything else.

Stauffer thought so too, when his booth began swaying while he was calling the second race at Hollywood.

He paused in his call, and announced to the crowd, "We are in the midst of an earthquake."

And he added, "By the way, folks, I want you to know that I love you all, and horse racing was my first love." He then said, "I better make this my greatest race call." And he did.

As the winner Dark Beauty and place horse Pleasant Thunder came charging down the stretch heads apart, Stauffer called, "These two come to the wire in the shaker. It’s a photo."

And putting the whipped cream on the dessert, he added, "I don’t know who won, nor do I care."

Stauffer never got to mention the horse that finished last in the six-horse field, but he should have. Her name was Havin A Good Time.

Race calling is an art, like others, that lies largely in the eyes of the beholder. Or in their ears.

In the west, racegoers fondly remember Joe Hernandez, and he was to them the epitome of callers. He went East one year to do the Derby, and no one could understand him.

For New Yorkers, the immortal was Fred Caposella, king of the callers on the metropolitan New York circuit at Aqueduct and Belmont for years. He set the standard for them, and was succeeded by two of the very best in Dave Johnson and Tom Durkin.

Years ago, a classic caller named Roy Shudt, out of Troy, New York, set the standard for harness racing. He called from coast to coast, from the old Western Harness meetings at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita to Brandywine in Delaware — now a shopping center — and his distinctive voice and calling style made him a popular figure East and West.

I showed up one year at Santa Anita to write features after the Chicago season ended — it actually ended in those days, unlike now when it goes nonstop year-round — and Roy grew nervous. I had my own fans in Chicago, and he was sure I was on the scene hoping to replace him.

Kent Cochran, one of the best of the West Coast race writers at the time, kept telling me Roy was upset. I decided that I would have some fun with Kent, vastly knowledgeable but occasionally humorless. I got some mascara and painted a beautiful shiner on my left eye, complete with bruises on my cheek.

I walked into the press box and Cochran looked up from his typewriter. That’s what people wrote with in those days.

"What happened to you?" was his logical first question.

"Roy and I got into it," I told him. "You kept telling him I was after his job, and we got into one hell of a fight on the roof."

Cochran was aghast, until the laughs of the 10 newspapermen then covering for each of the Los Angeles dailies of that day reached his ears.

The racing season was only six months long then and I spent my winters announcing for the Harlem Globetrotters. We played a game in Troy, New York, and I had Roy join me.

It was 1953, the year that Brandywine opened, a huge success. I asked Roy if he got any stock in the track, knowing it would be a big winner.

"No," he told me, "I missed out on it. But it won’t happen again. I’ve loaded up on Ponce de Leon."

Ponce de Leon opened that winter near Jacksonville, Florida, in a swamp. Alligators literally crawled across the track on opening night. I was there, and thought of Roy.

Ponce de Leon, and Roy’s stock, were gone before the season ended.

The alligators are still there.