Racing commentary — the hardest of all

By Errol Hobson

Friday, April 21, 2017

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As a racing enthusiast and an ardent lover of the equine athlete, I’ve always maintained that horse racing commentary is by far the most challenging and complex to undertake in the sporting world.

Nevertheless, Jamaica has had quite a few good commetators plying their craft since the advent of horse racing at Caymanas Park in 1959.

The first ‘toaster’ I can recall as a child was the late Desmond Chambers, the well-known and probably the orginal ‘good morning man’ announcer on radio. He was indeed quite brilliant. After the passing of Chambers, a gentleman by the name of David Vernon came to the fore. He was rather comical when commentating and was known for his ‘cake walk’, and ‘money for jam’ trademark phases. A well-travelled, let’s say, rumour about Vernon was that while commentating one Saturday, he actually left the commentary booth before the race was finished and rushed downstairs to lead in eventual winner,
Low Road, a horse he had connections with.

Donald Thompson did not stick around for long, but he too did the sport well with his commentary. I can recall specifically a A-1 race, The Dragon Mile, when the illustrious Legal Light was taking ‘dead aim’ at the 16th pole on an imported horse named
Regal & Bold, at the time ridden by Karl Brown. Thompson got totally caught up in the euphoria of the event, and said "......and here comes Regal Light, apparently calling both horses names in the same breath. That in itself is the kind of excitement the ‘Sport of Kings’ always generates. Then came the effervescent Chris Armond. Chris had a naturally strong commentating voice and his commentaries were laced with catchy phrases and you could hear the excitement in his voice, especially when he was dealing with big races or when there was a close finish. It is true to say that Armond stepped up the business of racehorse commentary more than a few notches.

After Chris Armond came probably the best of lot, Brian Rickman, usually assisted by the popular Howard Abrahams. Abrahams has also gained quite a reputation for his ‘up on the roof’ pre-race analysis.

‘Spuddy’ as Rickman is well known to racing fans, brought a lot of elegance, panache, energy, style and boldness to his craft. Brian fashioned the ‘scraping paint’, ‘need a tow truck’, ‘has cried enough’, ‘switched on the after burners’, and best of all to me, ‘winning by an airstrip’ among other trademark and truly unique phrases. Who will ever forget the brilliant commentary by Rickman shortly after the passing of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. The race was a five straight and when
Buzz Nightmare was pulling away from rivals, Rickman, at his best, came up with a peach — ‘
Buzz Nightmare floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee’— in honour of boxing’s greatest. This was truly timely, truly brilliant.

Abrahams is not as ‘flashy’ as Rickman, but there’s one thing for sure with Howard, when he calls the order of finish in a tight race, don’t second-guess him... a so it go. In the preceding paragraphs, I wanted to lay a foundation before getting into the meat of the matter — the horrendous task race callers have in preparing and doing the actual call of a race.

Now take for instance this scenario. Here is a maximum field of 16 horses facing the starter going 1,000 metres or five furlongs. Commentators have the onerous task of calling all 16 horses in this, the minimum trip, which will sometimes end in less than a minute.

I have oftentimes personally observed Rickman and Abrahams upstairs ‘up on the roof’ doing a quick overview of the horses in a race. Commentators basically have at their disposal approximately 10 minutes in which to take notes of certain horses, for example, the silks (colours) of the owner(s), and you must also bear in mind that some owners can have more than one runner in a race. In such an occurrence, the commentators rely on the colour of the caps in order to differentiate the horses who share the same owner(s).

Commentators sometimes make specific notes on the equipment a horse might be fitted with, like the cheek pieces or nose bands. That helps a commentator to memorise which horse is which. Not to be outdone, the number on the saddle cloth, when it can be seen, or the arm band of the rider are particularly welcomed by commentators especially nearing the end of a race.

The part I find rather egregious is the name some owners give to their horses – names which I think are real tongue twisters and nightmarish for most race callers.

I recently saw a YouTube video with one of the great race callers Larry Collmus, who plies his trade on the New York racing circuit, where an owner had two horses in a race. Their names were The Wife Doesn’t Know and The Wife Knows Everything. Collmus had a hard time keeping pace with both horses and as it turned out both horses were fighting out the finish. That to me is hellish, and I don’t think it can get any worse.

But the nightmare doesn’t end with names only; there is also the factor of bad weather conditions. Not so long ago it was raining heavily and was quite foggy at Caymanas Park. The horses were off for a six-furlong dash and Rickman had great difficulties seeing the horses, and even then he still made a brave effort to call the race. Being the great caller that he is, Rickman was equal to the task. It was only when the horses were at the furlong pole that he really had a clear view of what was happening.

In concluding, I lift my cup/hat to all race callers. I don’t know how unnuh maintain unnuh sanity!!





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