I remember my last thoughts clearly.
“Why am I doing this?” and “What was I thinking?”
But then the gates opened.
“And there they go!”
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What happened during the next 1 minute, 9.31 seconds is a blur. But it’s a minute of my life that I will never forget.
I realized my childhood dream of calling a live horse race, the sixth at Emerald Downs on Sunday.
“My Boy Butch shows speed along the rail, and Attaboy Lucky is right there as well.”
I didn’t sleep much Saturday night, or Friday night either. I was too busy practicing in my head. For 48 hours, I went over and over each horse’s name. I am sure that in 20 years, I will still be able to recite the six who ran, in post-position order.
This was a big deal to me. From the time I was 10 and my dad took me to the horse races for the first time, I have been calling races — whether it’s in one of my cars (Mustang Mitch and Barry the Bruiser had great records) or watching replays from the comfort of my sofa. And always I try to do the best imitation of the announcer I grew up with at Longacres, the late Gary Henson.
He had a great voice, and I loved listening to him. I would imitate the calls of his biggest races over and over again, doing absolutely no justice to him but enjoying it all the same.
“We’ve got a two-horse battle for the lead. Attaboy Lucky is on the outside, and now My Boy Butch is content for second.”
And a funny thing happens when I imitate calls. I talk slowly enough that I am actually understandable. I have often been told that I have my own brand of English, talking a million miles an hour. Only after years around me is it possible to become fluent in “Hansonese.” Even my wife still needs a translation at times. But when I am in race-calling mode, I am understandable. Friends have suggested I should try to be in race-caller mode all the time.
“Regal Valid is in a nice stalking position in third.”
I went to the announcer’s booth early to get the lay of the land. The last time I had been so nervous was six years ago in China, when we were told the baby girl we were adopting would be at our door in five minutes.
In contrast to me was the absolute calm of Robert Geller, who has been calling races at Emerald Downs since it opened in 1996. He can have casual conversations and crack jokes minutes before a race, then turn it on in a matter of seconds and make fantastic calls.
Geller follows the horses with binoculars from high above the track, a perspective I am not used to. He tried to boost my confidence. It didn’t work. I was petrified. Would I be able to move the binoculars as the horses ran? If I moved them too fast or too slow, I would be doomed.
“Attaboy Lucky is tough, he digs in.”
Geller suggests that I announce the horses in the post parade, that it might relax me. I felt good about it until he told me the jockey of Regal Valid was Ronald Richard and not Rene Richard. I went back to the microphone and apologized.
Three minutes left. There was still time to run away.
But then I thought, I’ll be on a plane to North Carolina in a few hours. After covering the U.S. Open, I’ll be on vacation for two-plus weeks. By the time I get back, everyone will have forgotten if I made a total mess of things.
“Regal Valid is moving hard on the outside. Regal Valid is coming on strong.”
Next thing I knew, the horses were running and I was talking.
I cannot tell you if I was using the binoculars, watching the race with just my eyes or sneaking peeks at the TV. I honestly can’t remember. But something funny happened. My instincts took over. I have watched so many races and made so many calls to myself, it kind of just happened. And that was good, because there is no time to think. The horses aren’t going to slow down for a tongue-tied announcer to regain his composure.
“Attaboy Lucky digs in. He’s resilient. Those two horses are head and head.”
When the horses crossed the finish line, I had a feeling of relief that has only been equaled once in my life, when reaching the top of Dead Woman’s pass at over 13,000 feet on the trek to Machu Picchu in Peru. It was relief and a great sense of accomplishment. I might not have been great, but I knew I hadn’t botched it.
“Regal Valid now takes the lead. He’s out there by 2.”
When I got home, I watched the replay.
There were some pregnant pauses, and I sound a lot less like Gary Henson in reality than I do in my mind.
Now I have even more respect for how great Henson was and Geller is.
But I wasn’t bad. And trust me, that’s more than enough for me.
“It is Regal Valid! Attaboy Lucky holds on for second.”
Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943 or firstname.lastname@example.org