by Garnet Barnsdale
Last week I was reading an article in a mainstream sports publication that polled several announcers with a few questions, so I thought it might be fun to create a similar piece here polling some prominent harness racing announcers.
Here are the three questions I posed:
1. What race sticks out to you as your best race call and why?
2. Which race is your favorite to announce and why?
3. If there is one race call that you’d like to take back if you could, which is it and why?
Here’s what they had to say:
Ken Middleton – Woodbine Mohawk Park
“The call that I remember as my fondest was the 2008 Pepsi North America Cup which saw Somebeachsomewhere demolish the competition. The race was anything but action-packed as Somebeachsomewhere quarter pole-moved to the front and won easily. What separated that race from any other that I called was the crowd’s interaction during the race — and to me that assisted the race call itself. The crowd roared at the head of the lane and as a race caller you really get a chance to feed off of that energy. It was just a reactionary call to the moment and I felt I did the horse and the race justice.
“There are lots of incredible races I have the privilege of calling each year, and if I had to put my finger in one in particular it would be the Pepsi North America Cup. It’s one of the richest of the season, it’s the one that is the official launch to stakes season and it features the always compelling Glamour Boy division.
“I can’t really think of a significant race that I flubbed. I’ve made lots off gaffes by calling wrong names in some overnight races, but I really can’t think of a major flub in a Grand Circuit race where I said to myself, ‘I’d really like a do-over in that one.’”
Shannon “Sugar” Doyle – The Raceway at The Western Fair District
“My 2008 Tajma Hall track record got some play last year in the ‘Canada’s Best Race Call’ poll — and I am really proud of that one — but I believe my best race call to date would be the 2014 Molson Pace. It would be my first ‘big race’ call in Ontario after coming in from Alberta months earlier. State Treasurer would make a bobble at the start leaving from the rail and would be sitting last before the first turn. If I had anything scripted for the early going (thankfully I hadn’t) it would have been thrown out the window immediately. This race was also my first opportunity to call the great Foiled Again and he was getting something special during the race regardless… As they turned for home ‘This is Foiled Again being awesome — it’s awesome being Foiled Again!’ was my only scripted piece for the call and it worked out well. In the end, a three-across finish went to State Treasurer over Apprentice Hanover and Foiled Again. I’ll go back and watch it, from start to finish, every now and then. It was a great horse race with some real nice horses. I don’t think you’ll ever see another invitational horse make a break, sit last and then circle them for the win on any half-mile track.
“My favorite race to call is always the ‘big one.’ Out west it was the Western Canada Pacing Derby and here in Ontario at The Raceway at Western Fair it’s the Camluck Classic (formerly the Molson Pace). It’s the best horses and drivers competing for the biggest purse of the meet and in front of our biggest crowd. If a guy can’t get excited for that then something’s not right.
“One I’d like to have back would be a thoroughbred race from 2001 in Edmonton. It was very early in my thoroughbred announcing career and I was just getting familiar with the jockey’s silks. On this day I had been sick — frequenting the bathroom between races — which allowed me very little prep time to memorize the horses and jockey’s silk colors. The perfect storm materialized that day — a 10-horse field, sprint race with a few different sets of blue colors in the race. Before I knew it, the race was over and I called the wrong winner, and of course, the victorious jockey was wearing blue silks. I chalked it up to being sick and unprepared to call that race and you know what: it wasn’t the first time someone called the wrong horse a winner and it won’t be the last.”
Ken Warkentin – Meadowlands
“I like to believe my best race call is still to come. By constantly working at it, always trying to improve, then one can reasonably expect something better. With experience and preparation you’ll be ready to do justice to those exciting races when they happen. You’re always trying to paint that perfect word picture.
“If I have to pick one from recent memory, maybe last year’s Meadowlands Pace when Best In Show rallied for the big upset. What a finish and what a drive by Brian Sears. There were also some great races on Hambletonian Day when everything came together.
“Speaking of the Hambletonian, that has to be my favorite race. It’s the sport’s most coveted prize and I’ve had the great privilege to call 20 editions. There’s so much history, build up, international interest, national television coverage, roaring crowd, a million dollar purse. Hey, there’s even a trophy. Horsemen target that special day and it all comes down to timing it just right. You can always count on great drama and the adrenaline rush is indescribable.
“Sometimes, I think I want them all back, so I could make corrections and adjustments. But obviously it’s not a voice over where you have time to mold that piece of clay to your liking. There’s no editing a live race call and that pressure makes it exciting.
“It’s a performance. Singers and actors will tell you for no particular reason some days you have it and some you don’t. You’re human, and you just have to let it happen and move on.
“Sports play-by-play announcers correct midstream and have a support staff to assist them during the game.
“You’re in the booth by yourself, and you may hear or read about a mistake much later from the self-anointed experts.”
Gabe Prewitt – Red Mile and Pompano Park
“We are always fortunate enough to get some special moments in the fall at Lexington, and I remember being speechless after Homicide Hunter in 2018 became the first sub-1:49 trotter in the sport’s history. I think as a fan of the sport, I was just thrilled to witness that moment and hopefully the excitement carried over to the race call as well. Another that sticks out was the Snowstorm Hanover win in the Kentucky Futurity. I was thrilled for the connections and he came into that day completely overlooked. The final was an off track, and he appeared to be collared but fought back to win in an exciting finish. That was the first year I had the honor of calling the Grand Circuit races in Lexington which also made it special. I believe the best race call I’ve heard was Sam McKee describing Always B Miki’s world record in Lexington. His excitement was spot on and it was an incredible thing to witness in person.
“The first day I ever walked into the track to watch a live harness race was on a Grand Circuit afternoon in Lexington with Sam McKee on the mic, on a day I was likely supposed to be in class. I remember thinking, ‘Where has this place been my whole life?’ Sam was a dear friend and my mentor in the business, and we miss him dearly every day. There is something special about those two weeks in the fall, and I would have to say my favorite would be our signature Kentucky Futurity. For a kid from central Kentucky, it doesn’t get any bigger than that.
“I would have to say the 2019 KY Futurity. I’m sure there are plenty I would like to have back, but that one is still fresh in my mind. There were a lot of strange variables (12-horse field, double tiered throughout), but the worst part was we had torrential rains in Lexington all afternoon and by that time the drivers were completely covered in mud. Don’t Let’em, who was a personal favorite of mine, closed from 10th I believe to rally into second behind Greenshoe. I literally couldn’t see a thing when the horses were coming head on at us, so I didn’t pick up Don’t Let’em until very late. I wasn’t happy with myself walking out that afternoon.”
Roger Huston – Little Brown Jug
“No question it was Wiggle It Jiggleit in the Jug. The way the race developed with the slight miscue in the first turn, first up after the quarter and head-to-head for the last 3/8 of a mile. The battle has turned in to a War! Lost For Words opens up and then Wiggle It JiggleIt fights back to win in the final stride. It was just plain high energy from the get go and I was in it. Fans probably say Falcon Seelster for the line, ‘If you haven’t been on your feet you better get up now.’
“Without question The Little Brown Jug, year in and year out with a crowd of 40,000 plus. You can hear them react to your every word. It is the one track in the world that drivers can hear every word you say and you see them react to your call as well. Several have admitted that they reacted to what I was saying.
“I was in Australia and called a race with 12. I had a phrase that I would us in those days, ‘So and so is nailed to the rail (locked in). In that race, it was the horse named The Messiah. ‘The Messiah is nailed to the rail.’ Wrong horse to say that.”