07/15/2008 11:00PM

A voice that drew you close


From a perspective of ongoing mental health, it is probably not a good idea to treat every encounter with every good friend as if it could be the last chance to say hello and goodbye. There would be something dark and desperate in the behavior, no matter how benign the intent.

Still, as the death of Luke Kruytbosch so vividly displays, a case can be made for constant surveillance. The ranks of the talented seem to thin out without much warning. Overweight or not, stressed out or not, Luke made it only to 47. That's a great old age - if you're a bullfighter or a lion tamer.

For a racetracker, though, with the appetites and enthusiasms of Kruytbosch, mid-40s should be prime time, a stretch during which the experiences of youth can be tapped with just enough maturity to pay off in large and entertaining ways. Luke was an institution in the making, having already separated himself from every other race caller out there not named Durkin or Denman. As far as the sound of racing was concerned, the next 20 years could have belonged to the Big Guy.

"He had the potential to be No. 1, no question," said Trevor Denman, who arguably occupies that spot. "When he got the job at Hollywood Park [in 1996, succeeding Denman], I thought the future was his."

Kruytbosch was blessed with accuracy, a sense of drama, and a great voice - a deep, resounding baritone that drew an audience close, if only to see how it was done.

"No question, he had a terrific instrument," said veteran publicist Dan Smith of Del Mar, where such distinctive voices as Joe Hernandez, Harry Henson, and Denman have held forth through the years. "You never had to look up to know it was Luke, and what you heard was good."

Although he spent a good portion of the year calling at Ellis Park and Turf Paradise, in addition to his main role at Churchill Downs, the simulcast/Internet era guaranteed that Kruytbosch was never out of mind for long. His voice was ubiquitous, his physical presence was commanding, and he became a true celebrity everywhere he worked, whether it was Santa Fe, G. Rollie White Downs, or his beloved collection of Arizona fairs, all of them now jewels in the Kruytbosch firmament.

It was at Turf Paradise, though, that Kruytbosch felt about as home as a racetrack gypsy could feel. Eugene Joyce, the president and general manager, was still reeling at the news of Luke's death two days after the fact.

"Aside from his consummate professionalism, and his excellence as a race caller, he was just so much fun to be around," Joyce said. "He was a one-man marketing campaign for Turf Paradise, 24/7.

"His calls truly cut through the noise, the cacophony of calls out there in simulcast-land," Joyce went on. "It was because of Luke that Turf Paradise got to be mentioned in the same breath as Churchill Downs, and we claimed him as our own. We knew him when. It was like when I used to go to Oklahoma, I'd see all these New York Yankees caps on guys. It was because of Mickey Mantle, a native son, who made it to the big time. Luke was our Mick, our house celebrity."

Joyce described Kruytbosch as a one-man "social lubricant" around the racetrack, breaking down barriers of class and job title with egalitarian ease.

"He related to everybody, and everybody related to him," Joyce said.

And yet Luke died alone, of heart failure, in his apartment near Ellis Park, offering at the end an uncomfortable metaphor for the profession he'd chosen.

"Please don't take this as if I'm talking about myself, but it's a cold fact - this can be a stressful job," Denman said. "The scrutiny is intense, even moreso now that Internet has been added to simulcast, and you've got to be as sharp in the fourth race on Thursday afternoon as you are for the big ones. You might not get fired for a bad call, but your career is right there on the line. If you are inclined toward health problems, if you don't have a strong mind, the job can bring them out."

The death of Kruytbosch echoed every heartbreaking loss of a good one gone too soon. A good one like Charles David Anderson.

Chic Anderson had the pipes of an opera tenor and the dramatic lilt of a storyteller when he called the races in both New York and California. He worked hard and played hard, and by the time he was firmly established at the top of the heap, his health was on the slide. He died in March 1979 of a heart attack, less than a year after he called the epic Affirmed-Alydar Belmont Stakes. Anderson was 47.

Kruytbosch hadn't made it to Anderson's level . . . yet. But few doubted he had the right stuff. Joyce reflected and thought of a piece of a poem, by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

" 'My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night,' " he began. " 'But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends/It gives a lovely light.'

"Luke," Joyce added, "was a Roman candle."