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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Who's in the Booth Matters

A friend of mine, who has called races and still does it on a part time basis passed these thoughts (edited for brevity) on to me.

This past week, a track I play didn't have their longtime/regular announcer announcing at the end of the week. After several days of listening to this substitute, and he has substituted there before, I made a friendly call to the track about this gentleman.  The response I got was they were quite satisfied with the job he was doing.

Based on that puzzling response, I had to offer my opinion - - which was..........So you're okay with horses, drivers & trainers names being mispronounced over & over again, horses being miscalled during the race, the time of the race described as the "running time," which for those involved in harness racing KNOW that "running time" is a THOROUGHBRED term (I could have pointed out more)! Trainers names being used during the call (last I knew, you called the horse & maybe the driver). The response again was they were pleased.

I politely said that it was a mockery to the sport of harness racing, and for no one to correct this person - - perhaps on just on how to pronounce the names, said something about those in charge. I finished by saying you have very hard working trainers & drivers, and the least they can get is to have their name pronounced correctly. My comments were met with a defensive response.   

Back to me.

Later, we talked and he was still bewildered by the track’s response.  He was amazed how the track could be satisfied with this person’s performance and more importantly, how apparently no one has talked to this announcer to give constructive criticism.  I agreed with him.  While I could understand how someone at the track could be defensive (not very good customer service skills), didn’t they notice the problem?  Someone shouldn’t have to call to bring it to their attention.    Assuming, based on the terms used in his calls, that the substitute has a thoroughbred background, wouldn’t someone tell him ‘We don’t say running time in harness racing’?  If a person consistently says a person’s name wrong, wouldn’t someone have a conversation with the announcer and politely correct him and offer some advice?  After all these drivers and trainers work hard at their craft, the least someone can do is get their name right. 

I understand no one is perfect, but if you are satisfied with a track announcer who makes mistakes consistently, at least offer constructive criticism so they improve their race calling.  In this industry where at times track announcers play musical chairs, you are not doing this person any favor by not offering him some assistance, after all while you may be satisfied with his race calling, there is a darn good chance when they submit to a potential employer samples of their work, they are going to find themselves still looking for a job wondering why they can’t find employment as a race caller.

More importantly, there is the bottom line.  Don’t racetracks care about handle anymore?  How long do you think knowledgeable horseplayers, on-track and especially off-track, are going to put up with a race caller whose performance is consistently bad?  It’s not going to be long before a gambler says they can’t take it anymore and they are going to say ‘so long’ and find another track where the race caller is better.

In my case, it took one race for me to say good bye to a different track.  A stakes race was being contested at a track I normally don’t play so I decided to give that track a try.  After one race, I was done; the announcer stumbled through the race, calling the wrong horse’s name and other mistakes.  I wasn’t mad, but the call was so horrible, I couldn’t subject myself to it.  The next day  I contacted someone from the track to see if the regular announcer and backup were unavailable the night before; it would explain why they took almost anyone and put him in the booth.  Imagine my surprise when I was told this was their regular announcer?  Needless to say, until someone else is in the booth, I won’t be playing that track again.

Perhaps these two tracks are isolated incidents but they leave a bad impression on the industry.   How can an industry expect to grow its customer base if they are tracks satisfied with callers who call a race like they were calling the fifth race at Arlington Park or have reached a point where it is time to step down but are unwilling to do so?  For the gambler, especially in simulcast land their first impression about your track is often going to be formed on the basis of your track announcer’s presentation.  You can have $100,000 claimers racing at your track but if you have a track announcer who sounds like a graduate of VFTRG’s School of Race Calling, you lost a customer.

I understand tracks have budgetary limits.  Not everyone can afford to hire a top tier announcer.   However, what goes on in the race caller’s booth is just as important as what goes on down on the track.  Race callers are the voice of the track.  Each track has an obligation to have the best announcer possible in their booth that they can afford the same way they seek the best racing stock possible. 

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting any track just go out and fire an announcer either.  If an announcer has deficiencies, work with them and see if they can improve their race calling.  A good track announcer should be willing to accept constructive criticism and seek ways to constantly improve their call.  That being said, if they can’t cut the mustard there should be no settling, especially when there are track announcers available ‘on the bench’ for various reasons as well as those looking (and willing) to move for a better opportunity. 

Track announcers are not an afterthought, they are just as important as your driving colony.  The sooner tracks realize this, the better off everyone will be. 

Those thinking of responding to this thread.  While comments will be accepted, the purpose of this entry as with this blog is not to throw anyone under the bus.  Comments where specific people are named in a negative manner or can easily be identified  (i.e., 'the track announcer at VFTRG Downs') will not be posted.


JLB said...

I have been to over 120 different racetracks, and I can clearly remember how much I enjoyed some of the announcers, even going back 30 years or more. Naming these won't be affected by your appropriate editing suggestion (Carl Becker at the Red Mile, Tony Butler at Green Mountain are just two from days gone past). Conversely, I recall gritting my teeth literally hundreds of times ontrack when an announcer at a prominent metropolitan oval in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, would call every race in exactly the same manner, whether it was a top stakes race, or a bottom claimer. Having said that, I am afraid you are being a bit too sensitive, although the reason does not reflect well on the industry. The fact is that most tracks have at best a few hundred patrons in live attendance, and many following simulcasts at the track do not even hear the audio. Thus, the problem exists only for those, like you and me, who stay home and watch and wager through the computer. While some of us hardcore fans may indeed cringe at the announcers, for all the reasons cited in the article, the fact is that hardcore gamblers on these ADW's probably do not care.

Anonymous said...

ive been playing mostly one track for years. it has, arguably, the worst announcer in the sport. Has since i started playing there many many years ago. I have, at times not played tracks because of announcers, but it comes with the territory.
Remember who you supported last year. Although not an announcer many tv channels were changed or muted when --- came on.

Pacingguy said...

Yes, I remember who I supported :-) but at least that individual didn't call the races. I guess some ADW people don't listen to the signal, but I would suspect most people listen and watch, especially when you don't necessarily get the whole field in the picture.

Yes, there are great announcers, good announcers, fair announcers. I can deal with those, but a horrible announcer, no can do.

Anonymous said...


A roadblock to improving as a race caller may be the nature of the job.

Radio or television stations have many people involved in announcing and they can learn from each other. Most tracks have just one announcer at a time.

That doesn't excuse a horrible announcer's work, but it can explain part of the problem.

Just as teaching a person how to paint doesn't necessarily create an artist, neither does teaching someone to speak and read into a microphone create a race caller.

Coaching and regular critiques will improve an announcer's work, but much of the talent comes from within.

Announcers who routinely fail to help bettors follow their horses and can't pronounce names correctly should be guided to another line of work by track managers.