01/10/2014 4:25PM

Jay Hovdey: Mirahmadi champing at the microphone

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Frank Mirahmadi awoke Friday morning to a layer of fog shrouding the backstretch of the racetrack at Oaklawn Park. Any other day such a weather event would be of no consequence. In fact, as Mirahmadi began his routine, it occurred to him that there were millions of frozen, snowbound Americans who would trade in a heartbeat for conditions no worse than a little low visibility and temperatures in the 50s.

But this was Oaklawn Park’s opening day, and track announcer Mirahmadi pleaded guilty to wishing for nothing less than a perfect stage to begin the richest meet in the history of the storied track.

“I could barely sleep last night,” Mirahmadi said. “This is a very exciting time. Opening day is an event here. The 10 o’clock news last night led with the story. The passion in this town for the opening of their track is something I’ve never experienced before.”

Mirahmadi can be forgiven for his bare-knuckled boosterism. Now beginning his third year as the man who replaced Oaklawn legend Terry Wallace, Mirahmadi is still in thrall to the charms of historic Hot Springs, where racing people have gathered for more than a century.

In hiring Mirahmadi, Oaklawn owner Charles Cella landed a natural-born brand ambassador who prefers to rub elbows and swap tales with the public rather than go home after work with a bucket of Chinese takeout. He’s already got a rotation of choice spots in town where you’ll hear, “Hey Frank!” when he opens the door.

“They know when I’m in town,” Mirahmadi said. “Rod’s Pizza Cellar will see me regularly. Belle Arti has maybe the best marinara sauce in the country. I am the world’s heaviest vegetarian, so I have very picky eating habits. Fortunately, the food in town is outstanding.”

Mirahmadi makes his permanent home in Sacramento, but “permanent” to most track announcers is a relative term. The chance to front a choice meet like Oaklawn’s makes the miles disappear, and Mirahmadi had no sooner hit town again this week when he went right to work. On Wednesday he was the featured speaker at the Rotary Club. Wednesday night he appeared at the annual Oaklawn Park kickoff party and introduced Wayne Lukas to the crowd, a particular honor for Mirahmadi, though a moment rife with temptation.

“I go back to Terlingua as a fan of Wayne’s horses,” he said, referring to one of Lukas’s first major horses, back in the late 70s. “But I did restrain myself. I was very rank, but I was under a stranglehold not to do the impression.”

It should be noted here that Mirahmadi is a gifted mimic, with a voice that lives on the verge of a dead-bang Rodney Daingerfield and morphs easily into any number of fast-talking, Runyonesque characters. When Mirahmadi does Lukas, he usually stops the show.

“It’s by far the most popular impression I do right now, especially at these kinds of events,” Mirahmadi said. “But this was about him, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate, because the key with an impression is to overdo it and hopefully get a laugh. Even though it would be entertaining, out of respect I just think it’s best to leave the impressions alone. But it was hard to do, believe me.”

Mirahmadi was getting ready to cut loose with his best Frank Mirahmadi beginning with a 12-horse field going six furlongs in Friday’s Oaklawn opener. At that point in the conversation the starting gate was still hidden in the fog. Post time was in less than three hours.

“It’s supposed to clear up,” Mirahmadi said. “And I’m told that rain will also get rid of the fog. The general manager informed me I was the only one pulling for that.”

Since Oaklawn began opening as early as January, weather has begun to play its part, but that’s hardly unusual. There are, however, a few idiosyncrasies to which Mirahmadi has had to adapt.

“When I give the changes, on several occasions I’ll say, ‘The main track is fast,’ ” he said. “Then I’ll hear one of my buddies in the TV department say, ‘Oh yeah? What other track is there?’ ”

Oaklawn has no turf course.

“The biggest challenge is the one-mile race,” Mirahmadi said. “I have forgotten in the past that the race is over at the first finish line, which happens to be a sixteenth of a mile away from my booth. It is impossible to call a photo finish with the naked eye, so you have to switch and look at a TV.”

There are miles to go before Mirahmadi gets to the climactic $1 million Arkansas Derby on closing day, April 12. It’s a race that has produced such classic winners as Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin, Super Saver, Summer Bird, and Oxbow in recent years. As Friday’s opener approached and the fog began to lift, Mirahmadi’s biggest concern was not getting so pumped that he’d lapse into a rat-a-tat Cappy Capossela impression when the gates for the first popped open.

“The last horse race I called would have been at the Big Fresno Fair in October,” he said. “My comment in the Racing Form would be, ‘Freshened, beware.’ ”