Hollypark expects new race caller to hit bullseye

March 13, 2001 6:10 AM
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There will be a new voice calling the races when Hollywood Park opens April 20.

They won’t have Chris Kotulak to kick around any more.

Kotulak was fired just one year into a three-year contract. The major reason, in a word, was "accuracy," according to Hollywood Park president Rick Baedeker.

"Accuracy was the one definite factor for not bringing him back," said the media-savvy Baedeker, a lifelong horseracing fan who came up through the ranks.

"Chris was continuing to develop as a race caller, and I still believe he has the potential to be one of the best," Baedeker said. "But he just struggled with some of his calls and we determined we couldn’t afford to wait any longer in that regard."

That massive sigh of relief came from members of the press who, to a man, were impatient, insensitive and unforgiving of Kotulak’s calls virtually from day one. Like vultures surrounding a carcass, they smelled blood from the beginning. If not publicly, they privately vilified Kotulak’s efforts almost before he unpacked his bags upon his arrival from Louisiana. The natives were restless. And they were spoiled. Before Kotulak, they had enjoyed descriptions from the best: iconic Trevor Denman, popular Luke Kruytbosch, and the redoubtable Aussie, Michael Wrona.

Young, trim, blond and handsome, Kotulak is blessed with physical features a model would envy. His unabashed good looks could grace the pages of Gentlemen’s Quarterly and fit to perfection. And Chris is personable and friendly, to boot.

Kotulak has a comfortable and professional presence when hosting or analyzing a racing show, but his warts were exposed when he performed his primary function: calling the races.

"I never heard him call races at Hollywood Park," said Denman, Inglewood track’s announcer until they parted company six years ago. "But I have heard him call in the past and I know he’s capable. I think it was just something mental (that) went wrong. He has the ability, no doubt."

Calling races is a thankless and demanding assignment. The slightest verbal slip generates criticism. Vic Stauffer, who comes in from Gulfstream Park to replace Kotulak, better have his armor firmly affixed.

Kruytbosch, Wrona and Denman were not available for the Hollywood post. All are locked into previous commitments. Rumors of a stock deal gone wrong between Denman and Hollywood were mentioned as the reason for their split in 1995, but Baedeker denied it back then and Denman confirms that today.

"Perhaps people would like to read more into it, but the simple truth is, I gave up Hollywood because of my personal lifestyle choice," Denman said. His annual ports of call are now comprised of Santa Anita, Oak Tree, Del Mar and Fairplex Park. "I enjoy time at my Minnesota ranch. It’s important to enjoy life while you can. You never know when your circumstances will change."

The 41-year-old Stauffer will be expected to offer flair and imagination, in addition to accuracy. At a world-class venue such as Hollywood Park, the voice on the public address system is the track’s direct conduit to the fans. That voice represents the race track. Above all, it must be credible.

"Stauffer was a contender last year and opted out for personal reasons," Baedeker said. Stauffer will continue calling at Gulfstream since there is no conflict in dates. The Florida meet ends Friday.

"We were looking for two things," Baedeker said. "One is accuracy. The other is style. Denman, Wrona and Kruytbosch get high marks in both categories. Frankly, my priority this time around was accuracy. We hope Stauffer can adapt his style to this track and this marketplace. The top priority is getting the names of the horses correct."

Priority, of course, ranks foremost with Denman and his aforementioned peers. But despite their impeccable memories, they are not flawless.

"Calling races is a mind game," Denman says of his method for memorizing the colors of silks for a race, then just as quickly purging them to prepare for the next encounter. "You have to tell your mind to clear out for the next race, obviously.

"The funny thing is, I can go to a restaurant after the races and someone will ask me which horse won the eighth race, and I can’t tell them. I’ve forgotten already."

THE HOMESTRETCH: Kotulak has been offered a position on Hollywood’s inter-track TV network, as well as the role of backup announcer…"We’ve got some new areas I think will interest the fans," Baedeker says about the upcoming Hollywood meet. "We’re completely remodeling the Longshots area. In addition to hosting the usual groups there Friday nights, this fall it also will serve as the area where we showcase the NFL games. We’ve also added 40 handicapping stations to the Turf Club, which overlooks the finish line. We’ve removed some dining tables and taken advantage of arguably the best sight lines in the building. Each station will have its own television and a desk overlooking the track, with plenty of space to roll out your Racing Form and anything else that you use. I’m anxious to see how those go over." Hollywood will offer Friday night racing, except on the Friday night before the Kentucky Derby.