01/17/2005 12:00AM

After 25 years, Imbriale calls it a career

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NEW YORK - Next month, a familiar face and voice of New York racing will say goodbye. John Imbriale, host of the New York Racing Association's daily "Raceday" television broadcast and backup announcer to Tom Durkin, is retiring. No, Imbriale is not being pushed out the door at a still relatively young age. This is his choice. And even though he will be missed by New York horseplayers who appreciate the savvy in his race calls and his prerace analysis, you can understand why he made the decision.

"At NYRA, the magic number is 75," Imbriale explained. "Next month, I'll turn 50, and I will have also had 25 years in at NYRA, so there's the magic number. I've been thinking about this for a while. Even if I stuck around a few more years, it wouldn't affect my pension that much. It's the right time."

Imbriale got his start in New York racing in 1979 when he won an announcer's contest staged by NYRA as something of a publicity grab.

"I was working for Sportsphone, which was big at the time," Imbriale recalled. "That was before the Internet and ESPN, and everyone who wanted a score called Sportsphone. After I won the contest, I got a job in the press office, doing notes, working on the media guide, answering phones, whatever. At that time, Marshall Cassidy and Frank Dwyer were the No. 1 and 2 announcers, but I did occasionally get a chance to call.

"I started on Nov. 5, 1979, which was the day after the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis. I like to say that my career began the same time as Ted Koppel's because, as you may know, his show 'Nightline' began as a result of that hostage crisis. Ted's going to outlast me, though."

Three years after joining NYRA, Imbriale accepted an offer to be the track announcer for the last six weeks of the 1982 Arlington Park meeting, replacing a Chicago legend in Phil Georgeff. To put it as kindly as possible, it could have been a career-ending move.

"Dave Stevenson, who was a vice president at NYRA, and John Mooney had a history together," Imbriale said. "Mooney took over at Arlington Park as part of new management, and he wasn't enamored with Phil Georgeff, so a deal was made for me to go out there. Eighty-five percent of the crowd booed me. Look, I did screw up the first race I called there. But I got tons of hate letters, some of which I still have. They took good shots at me, like saying going from Georgeff to me was like going from Secretariat to a $5,000 claimer.

"I had discussions the following spring about going back, but I didn't have good vibes about it and declined. It turned out I was better off. Arlington Park ownership changed again, and they brought Georgeff back."

After his aborted career as the voice of Chicago racing, Imbriale undertook various duties at NYRA.

"One of the things I did," he said, "was serve as liaison between NYRA and the Frank Wright show."

For those too young to know, the weekly show hosted by the late, gentlemanly trainer Frank Wright was at the time the only regular coverage of New York racing on broadcast television.

It was also at this time that cable television was gaining a foothold, and it was on the daily cable race replay show "Thoroughbred Action," and the weekly stakes-oriented show "Inside Racing," that Imbriale, working with the legendary Harvey Pack and Frank Dwyer, began to fashion his reputation as an insightful analyst.

"I was involved in 'Inside Racing' from the start of it in 1984," Imbriale recalled. "Soon after, things really started to happen. Tom Durkin came to New York I believe in 1990, and I got to call races a little more than I had. When Kenny Noe came to NYRA, I was named backup announcer and the backup host on 'Thoroughbred Action.' When Harvey retired in April of 1998, I started to host 'Thoroughbred Action,' and the day Paul Cornman quit 'Raceday' [in 1996], I started to do the 'Raceday' prattle."

The prattle is Pack's sarcastic nickname for the live, prerace analysis. What distinguished Imbriale in both his analysis and his race calls was that it was obvious that he was attuned to handicapping and betting.

"If you don't pay attention and don't play, then I don't know how you can do the prattle well," Imbriale said. "I understand the importance of it, and I think it's more important when you're talking about an upcoming race because when you call a race, you just can't let anyone figure out who you bet. You have to be a little more objective. But, when you're calling a race, you should still know things, like if a bridge-jumper is involved in the show pool, and to be aware of how the race is bet."

So, even though Imbriale's retirement does not mean he will never bet a horse race again, how does he walk away from a job that pays him to do what comes naturally?

"It may be selfish, but the No. 1 reason is I don't want to miss any more things with my family," said Imbriale, a father of two children, Michael, 14, and Bethany, 12.

"This job was the greatest job in New York, especially when you're outside on a nice day at Belmont or Saratoga. It couldn't have worked out better."