04/08/2010 12:00AM

Q&A: Terry Wallace

Barbara D. Livingston

Track announcer and media relations director at Oaklawn Park, he recently called his 20,000th consecutive race at Oaklawn

Birthdate: June 21, 1944, in Cleveland, Ohio

Family: sons Ernie, Jake; daughter Sarah; four grandchildren

Got into racing because. . . I was hired to be a parking-lot attendant at River Downs while I was taking some summer classes at Xavier (in Cincinnati). For an extra $5 a day, after I did the parking lot thing, I was the press box runner, getting food and making wagers for people before those luxuries were commonly provided in racing press boxes. That's where I developed my love for the game.

How did you make the switch to being an announcer? I had gone to school for a year in France. For fun, while working at River Downs, I was messing around with a tape recorder, calling races in French, just for laughs. Jim Hines was the announcer there. He told me to call the races in English, and he would critique me. Later on in the season, John Battaglia - Mike's father - who ran Latonia (now called Turfway Park), needed someone to fill in at the beginning of the meet for Chic Anderson, who had a conflict. Mike was too young then. John asked Jim Hines, but Jim was committed to the Great Barrington Fair. He recommended me. But they hired a guy who would call the races on radio at Keeneland, this in the days before Keeneland had a track announcer. But that guy got into a car accident two days before Latonia opened. John was in a jam. John asked if I was still interested.

How did you get hired by Oaklawn? After Chic got to Latonia, he would have me fill in when he did national calls. He'd have me fill in for him at Miles Park and Churchill Downs, too. When he left Oaklawn for Santa Anita, he recommended me, and I started at Oaklawn in 1975.

You've called every race at Oaklawn since being hired as the track's announcer in 1975. Did you suddenly realize you were closing in on 20,000 consecutive calls at Oaklawn, or is it something you had kept track of for a while? I became aware of the number of races I'd called some time after one of the big racing periodicals did a story on Joe Hernandez and his record (15,587 consecutive races) at Santa Anita. One of our local guys thought that I had done at least that much and we found that I was already past 16,000. We then called the ultimate expert on race announcing, Phil Georgeff, at his home in Alabama, and he admitted that he knew of no one who had done as many consecutive race calls. The key word was "consecutive," because Phil outcalled every race announcer who ever lived, calling Thoroughbreds in the afternoon and harness horses at night in the Chicago area for decades.

You always wear a tuxedo for Arkansas Derby Day. How did that tradition start? When I got a tuxedo I decided to wear it for important days at the track. Now I think it classes up the act and I see that some other announcers have taken to dressing up for their big days. I think it's something we should do.

Oaklawn's owner, Charles Cella, tried to get Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta together. What's it like working for someone so passionate about racing? Working for Charles Cella is great. You know he always has your back. He knows I will always perform with dignity on the job, but that we have some fun. As long as we do things with good taste, Charles is fabulous. I am disappointed for him that the Rachel Alexandra/Zenyatta race didn't come off, because it would have allowed for his track to have the eyes of the world. He has been great for racing. He deserved a better return on his investment of time and emotion, not just the money.

Simulcast bettors know you've got quite the collection of bobbleheads in your booth. What are all of them? I have lots of different bobbleheads. The most consistent on the set are the Beulah twins, and something we call Amoeba Head. It's a horse head with an alarm clock. I used to have it make picks, for fun. One day it picked a longshot winner, a mare named Amoeba Head, so it became known as Amoeba Head. There is also a little Pat Day doll that was a giveaway at Churchill Downs many years ago. Others are often gifts from patrons.

Favorite race you have called: It's always hard to pinpoint just one race. I was certainly very excited about the 2003 Apple Blossom with Azeri's dramatic win over Take Charge Lady. I was equally excited about Smarty Jones's win in the Arkansas Derby, since I had liked him from before the season started and it was second leg of the $5 million bonus, and he had a very real chance to win it (which he did by capturing the Kentucky Derby).

What's the best thing about living in Hot Springs, Ark.? Hot Springs is a great town for generous, friendly people. For a small town it has a lot of variety. I have been very much involved with the American Cancer Society here. We stage a big event called Relay For Life on the Oaklawn infield each spring. It is a very popular family event for charity and symbolic of how folks from here respond to those in need.

Former President Bill Clinton is from Hot Springs, and his mother, Virginia Kelley, was a regular at Oaklawn Park before her passing. Did you get to know either of them over the years? I have been acquainted with the entire Clinton clan, including his brother, Roger, and stepfather, Dick Kelley. I like them all. She was the race lover above all. Bill, who is still called "Billy" by his classmates, has always been good to people in town and certainly has been to me. His stepfather was a real gem and, like his mother, a cancer survivor who impressed me with his bravery in the face of the disease. Roger is just Roger. Kind of like Manny being Manny. A different kind of cat.

Favorite musician: Louis Armstrong. I love all kinds of music and am proud that one of my sons (Jake) has a doctorate in music and is on the faculty of Southeast Oklahoma State University.

Other hobbies? I love to play tennis and to volunteer for a number of organizations in town.

People most admired: I really admired Chick Lang Jr., with whom I worked before his untimely death due to brain cancer (in 1994). He and his father were great for racing, both displaying great dispositions and intelligence about the sport. Young Chick's death was what inspired my work with the American Cancer Society. I also admire Charles Cella and how he has kept this little track, virtually in the middle of nowhere, at the elite level in the sport. All the opportunities I've had for the last 35 years are somehow tied to his track and my involvement with it.