Jan. 18, 2011

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Long before the movie "The Sting" depicted a broadcaster off by himself with copy from a teletype machine reenacting the call of a horserace to bookmaker shops at various locations, I had heard that there were people who did just exactly that sort of broadcast in a number of sports.

A good friend of mine, the late Jim Elder, spoke of doing just that in order to get baseball games on his radio station decades ago.  I think the team in St. Louis then was called the Browns.  With just the copy and some creative noise, you could give your listeners the same feeling as if they were at the game.

Those days are long since past.  They are even romanticized to some degree in movie reruns and retro presentations of a society which existed in our country many decades ago.

Imagine if that were to exist nowadays.

It did.  On Monday at Oaklawn, as the town of Hot Springs was engulfed in a day-long "pea soup" fog which never relented and took the experience of watching live racing into a different dimension.

Faced with the task of entertaining a holiday crowd, lured largely by a Zenyatta bobblehorse giveaway and the Smarty Jones Stakes, including the best of the locally-based three-year-olds, I became that old-timey announcer.  Although I didn't have tickertape, I had the form and my program and my wits.  Two other things I did have were about 3/16th of a mile view of the homestretch and a team of cooperative stewards, who allowed me to call their office to eavesdrop on the conversation at the starting gate.

When the bell rang at the gate, I knew to say "They're Off!!".

From then on it was up to me to fill the time until the horses came into view for the final furlong.  There was a short view of the horses entering the final turn, thanks to the "head on" camera on the turn.  It allowed me to certify the first couple of horses.  Then I got the chance to build the drama of the race until the reality of the horses appeared late in the race.

What I discovered is that horses change places a lot more than I even realized in the final three furlongs.  On a track which appared to favor come-from-behinders, being the announcer at that point was a challenge.  Not many of the leaders held position and I scrapped to come up with the real leaders when they emerged from the fog.

But the fans appreciated the effort. The fifth race, Habitual catching Doc's Friend in the stretch, was the only race I really felt confident about.  The fog had lifted just enough and I could recognize Calvin Borel on Habitual better than the horse himself.

In the aftermath, I don't wish that same fate on any announcer.  But I'm thankful that I'm old enough that I've learned to adlib and not depend on trite old remarks like "You can seem 'em as well as I can" or "They're out in a fog".  I wanted it to be fun for all of us and, remarkably, I think it turned out that way.

I could never have imagined a day like that and it will probably never happen again, except for a race or two.  But I'm thankful for the challenge and that I had an Oaklawn audience which understood the situation and were good-spirited about it all.

I had dreamed that Zenyatta would be Horse-of-the-Year.  On the other hand I had dreamed that Arkansas would beat Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.  I insulated myself against the possibility of her losing.  Then came the announcement.  Another great moment on the most unusual of days.  And what nice things for Jerry Moss to say about Oaklawn and our owner, Charles Cella, in his acceptance speech.  In case we forgot the impact of Oaklawn on its many visitors, Jerry Moss brought us great praise ane helped make it all worthwhile.

I never imagined a day like yesterday.  But I should have known.  When I did an interview on a retro-rock Little Rock radio station prior to  the races, the song they played before my interview was "Imagine" by John Lennon.

Imagine that.



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