07/10/2013 3:35PM

Jay Hovdey: In the announcer's booth only a professional will do


Russell Baze would have won the 12,000th race of his remarkable career last Sunday at the Alameda County Fair without Frank Mirahmadi’s call, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

The milestone required the dramatic narrative of a professional track announcer, and Mirahmadi – a veteran of 17 years at the microphone – gave Baze’s race what it deserved. Much to his chagrin, Mirahmadi was not able to ice the call with a flourish – a la Tom Durkin’s "incomparable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!" – since the finish came down to a margin indecipherable by even the announcer’s experienced eye. But Mirahmadi held the lingering crowd in thrall, and the posting of the result in Baze’s favor tripped an ovation that was worthy of both the man and the moment.

At the other end of the spectrum, in what was every bit a landmark victory in its own right, the apprentice Cecily Evans, 27, won for the first time in the second race on Hollywood Park’s Friday night holiday program. The $10,000 claimer was of little consequence to the breed, but don’t tell that to the personable Evans, who rides out mornings for Matt Chew, the trainer of her winning mount.

Whether she enjoys a long career or not, years from now Evans will cherish the video of that first victory. When she cues it up, however, she might need to do some explaining about the clearly amateurish call of the race, especially since it took place at a major track. Halting, disjointed, rife with awkward wordplay, it was hardly the way Evans’s benchmark moment would have been interpreted by regular Hollywood racecaller Vic Stauffer, who at the very least would have given extra oomph to a jockey’s first official win.

The announcer was, in fact, local television personality Kristine Leahy, the latest in a seemingly increasing number of novelty celebrity racecallers who are stepping into the booth to see what it’s like to call the play-by-play of a Thoroughbred race.

Well, it’s hard, which they find out right away. Jim Byers, who called the races at Hollywood Park for four memorable seasons in the 1980s before moving on to Remington Park, likened the challenge of calling a horse race to doing play-by-play in hockey, which he does now for the Oklahoma City Barons of the American Hockey League.

"It’s the only sport that comes close to horse racing, in terms of what an announcer faces," Byers said. "There are about 18 minutes of action in a 20-minute period, so you’ve got to maintain focus, then there’s the identification of the players in a high-speed setting. Still, there’s nothing quite like calling a horse race. You only get that one chance."

Since the outcome of a horse race has yet to be determined by the announcer’s call (even though Sandy Hawley once insisted he listened too closely to Trevor Denman and thought he had a race won when he did not), analogies are for the most part useless. A guest caller is not like letting a celebrity fanboy throw a mid-inning pitch or take a snap. It is not like giving the local morning show host a whistle, or letting her drop the puck.

But the outcome of a horse race can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, primarily to those who have invested hard-earned dollars in its gambling options. For a track management to take a cavalier approach to the commentary is a backhanded insult to horseplayers, as if their investment is nothing more than part of an overarching lark of show biz silliness.

"Thinking back to the days when I used to wager on races," Mirahmadi said, "if I’m in the crowd and I had wagered on a race I would not want to hear that kind of a call."

The participants deserve experienced commentary as well. Providing a celebrity caller cover in a $10,000 claimer demeans the horses and their people as part of a disposable sideshow. The use of a guest caller also courts humiliating disaster, given the long list of potentially horrific "what-ifs" that lurk at the beginning of every Thoroughbred race.

Byers, who was paying Hollywood Park a sentimental visit last Saturday before it closes for good at the end of the year, accepted an invitation to call a race. It was great to hear him again, summoning memories of the calls in which he got to name names like John Henry, Precisionist, Ferdinand, Greinton, and Royal Heroine.

"I guess I’ve got no particular problem with guest callers," Byers noted. "Only you have to realize that the announcer also serves a semi-official role as the voice of the stewards. And were something to happen in a race that required a departure from the norm, I think you’d want to have someone experienced."

And something will happen, whether it is a gate malfunction, a subtle stumble, a tragic fall, or a loose horse in traffic or, even worse, heading the wrong way. In such cases I would not want anyone other than the person who knows the job to be doing the job.

Of course, when a track hires Mirahmadi it also gets the cast of "guest" callers – both racetrack and celebrity – in his bag of impressionist tricks, ranging from Rodney Daingerfield to Wayne Lukas.

"When I got started, my way in was the ability to imitate," Mirahmadi said. "That’s what I became known for. There was a point, however, where I wondered if the big tracks would hire me because they would say, ‘Oh, that’s that guy.’ And I know for a fact I missed out on a pretty significant job because of it."

There is, in at least this reporter’s mind, negligible difference between a professional caller morphing into a racetrack version of Rich Little and a flesh-and-blood celebrity guest caller taking a turn. Either way, the call becomes star of the show instead of the horses and riders on stage. Mirahmadi does not trot out any impressions when he’s in the booth for the important Oaklawn Park meet, and he says he has scaled back even in the more informal environment of the Northern California fairs.

"I want it known that I take my profession very seriously," Mirahmadi said. "I don’t think it’s a comedy act."