01/12/2012 12:14PM

Oaklawn announcer Mirahmadi finding his own voice

Benoit & Associates
Frank Mirahmadi will begin his job as the new track announcer at Oaklawn Park on Friday, when the meet opens. He replaces Terry Wallace, who had called the track's races for 37 years.

For 37 years, Terry Wallace was the voice of Oaklawn Park, the historic track in the old Arkansas spa and gambling town of Hot Springs, where fans still flock to the races. The crowd on the apron can’t easily follow the live action, and the voice of the track announcer remains a primary guide, the sound of authority.

Wallace no longer occupies the Oaklawn announcer’s booth as the track begins its 2012 meeting. But if the new occupant so desired, Wallace’s voice still could ring through the opening-weekend air. Frank Mirahmadi, the new guy in the booth, can do a pitch-perfect Terry Wallace. He can also make his race call replicate that of Southern California icon Trevor Denman. His Dave Johnson – “And down the stretch they come!” – is spot-on. Vic Stauffer, the voice of Hollywood Park, also is in the Mirahmadi repertoire, as is just about any other person who has called a horse race in North America.

Mirahmadi has a gift for impersonation. In 2009, in his last race call as announcer at Turf Paradise, he employed 23 voices to describe the action. In a race the day before the 2000 Breeders’ Cup, a guest-announcer day, Mirahmadi used the voice of every other announcer who took a turn on the card.

But the circus-sideshow act travels only so far. Getting the Oaklawn gig means Mirahmadi, 44, will for the first time take the microphone at a major race meet and be asked to play things straight, day after day, race after race – Frank Mirahmadi doing Frank Mirahmadi. And finding his own voice has sometimes been challenging for a man so adept at taking over the voice of others.

“It was so much easier for me to call in all those other voices,” Mirahmadi said in a recent phone interview. “But I think I’ve done all I can do with the impressions. I don’t think there’s anything more I can do there. The whole goal was to get here, but I’ve often wondered if they would prohibit me from getting a big job. You have to be taken seriously if you want that kind of job.”

A Mirahmadi race call from Turf Paradise in 2009.

Mirahmadi’s own calls are decidedly straightforward, sitting on the opposite pole from the many announcers – like Tom Durkin, Stauffer, and John Dooley – whose cadence rises mightily during the stretch run of many everyday races. Mirahmadi’s calls are more like those delivered by Kurt Becker, the announcer Keeneland hired to take over from the silence that used to accompany races there.

Keeneland required reserve and accuracy, with a touch of drama thrown into the big moments, and that’s what Mirahmadi delivers day to day. It’s others who clamor for the impersonation calls now.

“In Northern California my boss wanted an impression in the last race every day,” Mirahmadi said. “Last summer I didn’t want to do it, and he was upset.”

Mirahmadi has worked six seasons as the voice of the California Authority of Racing Fairs and has also served as a race analyst for Television Games Network since 2007. His first regular job was at Hialeah Park, where he called from 1996 until Thoroughbred racing ceased there in 2001. In 2000, Mirahmadi got the job at Louisiana Downs, where he worked until 2005. The Turf Paradise job lasted two seasons, and he was a backup announcer at Fair Grounds for a couple of years.

The résumé comes across as somewhat flat for a guy with so much talent. Mirahmadi obviously can entertain when the occasion requires it. His calls are sharp and accurate, and he possesses the skill he most prizes in his idol, Denman − the ability to spot a winning move before most of the public notices it. What has impeded a more sharply rising career trajectory is, in a way, the same exuberance that makes Mirahmadi good at what he does. The man has a passion for the sport, all parts of it, gambling included. He is far from alone as an announcer who likes to bet, but sometimes the betting has carried Mirahmadi into darker realms.

“There’s no question I love action,” Mirahmadi said. “There’s nothing quite like the thrill of that. I’ve gotten caught up in the high-paced action of wagering all my life. There’s a certain thrill when you’re living on the edge that’s like nothing else. I’ve made some mistakes in the past. Anyone who knows me personally knows I’ve had to overcome some personal issues in my life.”

Mirahmadi said he has left behind his overzealous gambling periods, and there never was “an issue betting on the races I’m actually calling.” Simulcasts from the major tracks in Florida, New York, and California were his thing. Mirahmadi had a network of colleagues and friends throughout the sport, all of whom seemed to possess an endless string of tips and touts, “steam” in the parlance of the enthusiast. A row of monitors with races going off near-simultaneously formed the basis for “screen-to-screen” action, Mirahmadi somehow able to follow race-shape development at two or three different venues.

But that’s how Mirahmadi’s mind works: at an unusually rapid pace, with the ability to leap to associations typical mental processes can’t reach. It’s what drives his gift for mimicry and what makes him perfect as a race caller, a job that requires a great memory and quick thinking.

Mirahmadi, though, said it took time for him to learn the craft when he began announcing.

“It was very difficult. After I’d called a few races in California, I thought I could do this easy, no problem. When I went [to Hialeah] in 1996 I washed out. There were full fields – I was panicking. I know there were a lot of announcers out there howling when they heard those calls. Opening day, my binoculars were shaking. I was like, ‘How did this horse get over to the rail so fast?’ It was a really difficult angle for the race caller there. By the third race, I’m calling this race, the horse’s name was Mugs Mugs Mugs, and I’m yelling, “Mugs Mugs Mugs this and that,” and he’s getting closer to the sixteenth pole, and I realize this is not Mugs Mugs Mugs, but this is Prize of Gold. The lady who does the Equibase charts, she looks over at me and I’ve got my face in my hands, and she says, ‘Don’t beat yourself up.’ And I said, ‘Don’t beat myself up? I’m finished!’ [Track president] Stephen Brunetti called, and I said. ‘I’m very sorry, sir.’  He said, ‘No problem. Just call the next race like Trevor Denman.’ They thought I’d improve, and I did, but it took a while.”

Trevor Denman has been like a lighthouse guiding Mirahmadi’s course. Mirahmadi’s father, an electrical engineer who died in 1997, had started taking him to the races when Mirahmadi was a little kid in Southern California, and Mirahmadi got hooked on the sport at an early age. He said he was a fan of California announcers Dave Johnson and Harry Henson, but it was the arrival of Denman that truly resonated. 

“At Santa Anita, they had this ontrack radio station, KWIN, and Trevor Denman would come on to KWIN and talk about the race, what he was seeing, and then he would talk about it afterward,” Mirahmadi said. “I didn’t care if anyone else was there at the track. I had my headphones, and that was all I needed. I was almost as though [Denman] could see the race before it was run.”

Mirahmadi was selling advertising when he talked his way into a one-race gig on closing day at Hollywood Park in 1992, using tapes of his Denman impersonation to convince management to put him behind the mic. Next season, Hollywood brought him back for a few more calls, one of which – done in Denman’s voice – Mirahmadi terms the best of his career. It wasn’t until 1994, with help from announcer Michael Wrona at Blue Grass Downs in Kentucky, that Mirahmadi put together a tape of race calls in his own voice.

“It was a lot easier for me to call as Trevor,” he said. “I know what Trevor is going to say. When I watch races, I can often predict exactly what he’s going to say.”

No less an authority on Trevor Denman calls than Denman himself said Mirahmadi’s impersonation is “magnificent.”

“It’s frighteningly good, and I was blown away when I first heard it,” Denman said. “I was walking on the track apron one morning and someone said, ‘I enjoyed hearing you at such and such racetrack the other night.’  I said, ‘No, I wasn’t there,’ and he said, ‘Well, I heard you call there.’ That was Frank.”

Mirahmadi’s imitations began when he was little kid standing on a coffee table and belting out the Tom Jones songs his mother played at the family home in Beverly Hills. Mirahmadi said he feared and disliked public speaking as a kid, but imitations in an informal setting constantly bubbled up.

“I’ve often wondered how it all began,” he said. “I imitated things all the time. Things that were unique I just tried to duplicate.”

Mirahmadi’s association with Oaklawn Park began last season, when he served – nominally – as Oaklawn’s backup announcer. Those duties consisted of being available to travel to Hot Springs and fill in for Wallace if need be, but Mirahmadi ended up making one trip to Arkansas from California to call a single race, the first Wallace had missed in almost four decades.

“I called it straight, very simple,” Mirahmadi said. “Around the turn, I said, ‘In the words of Terry Wallace, here they come into the short stretch in the mile run.’ My goal was to not make any major blunders. That was my top priority.”

Mirahmadi said he didn’t have any contact with Oaklawn until last June, when he saw stories reporting that Wallace had retired. In July, after letting Oaklawn’s general manager, David Longinotti, know of his interest in the job, the good news came.

“Believe me, I’ve gotten the call before saying, ‘Thanks for your interest, but we’re going to go in a different direction.’ It’s hard to describe how excited you are,” Mirahmadi said.

“I’ll be honest with you: His ability to imitate people is what drew me to him,” Longinotti said. “But his regular call is very accurate, very entertaining. He has the high energy that our crowd feeds off. And I think that’s especially important at Oaklawn Park, particularly with what Terry has meant to our community.”

Longinotti said he and Mirahmadi have had “numerous conversations” about how Mirahmadi will call the Oaklawn races, about whether to play things straight or play to the crowd with an impersonation. 

“I think at this point he’s reluctant to do it, and I can understand that,” Longinotti said. “I think for the most part he’s going to play it straight.”

And that’s something Mirahmadi, perhaps for the first time in his announcing career, feels good about.

“Terry Wallace, the guy’s been here 37 years,” Mirahmadi said. “The last thing I want to do is come in here and do too much.

“It’s all about accuracy to me,” he said. “That’s what the true fan wants. It’s ironic because when I do those wild calls it’s so different from what I want to do. Yet wherever I go, that’s the question everybody asks. But it’s all about understanding your audience. I had to do that sort of thing to get this opportunity. That was my in. Now I have the opportunity to prove myself at a great track. This is a perfect venue to establish my own voice.”