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This column appears in the Nov. 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
There are a few things in life that look easy but should never, ever be tried by amateurs. For instance: training circus bears, ski jumping and Madonna.
But when Santa Anita Park asked me if I'd like to try calling a horse race -- for fun -- ahead of the Nov. 6 Breeders' Cup World Championships there, I didn't think this was one of these things.
I was very wrong.
Before this, I loved race calls. Remember Chic Anderson's chilling 1973 Belmont call of Secretariat? "He is moving like a tremendous machine!" Remember Dave Johnson's goose bump, "And down the stretch they come!" Remember Phil Georgeff's "Here they come, spinning out of the turn"?
But as the big day grew closer, terrifying horse names I'd read from past races peopled my sleep. What if I got Shesellsseashells? Or the complete career-ender, Rubber Buggy Bumper? Or a YouTube five-star job like Hoof Hearted? (Say it fast.)
With two days to go, I began to understand why Kentucky Derby announcing great Tom Durkin admitted to taking the stage-fright medicine Inderal before big races. "Bob Costas is one of the greatest broadcasters ever," Durkin has said, "but he can't do what I do."
First, there is a matter of memorizing all the horses' names. What if I got a 12-horse field? I can't even remember why I go down to the basement. Then there's keeping a steady stream of words coming out, no matter what happens. There are two places where a big gap is grotesquely obvious: in a smile and in a race call. "Ahh, you'll be fine!" said Trevor Denman, the legendary Santa Anita announcer, who's been there 26 years. "You're not going to get it in one try anyway, so why worry?"
Perhaps the world's only vegan horse-race caller, Denman is a gentle 57-year-old from Durban, South Africa. Besides trying to teach me how to keep my crappy free set of binoculars trained on horses two zip codes away moving at 40 mph -- and besides telling me to stop repeating the phrase "And then back of him you have ..." -- he had to listen to my limitless and lame attempts at catchphrases. Many were tried. Many were denied:
And they're off like a prom dress!
He's losing to the ambulance!
And they make a turn for the better!
Then there was this sickening development: The day before, workmen started putting up Tilt-a-Whirls and Ferris wheels and giant plastic slides in the infield, blocking my view of chunks of the backstretch. "Saturday is Carnival Day," Denman said. "You'll have to do your best." What was I supposed to do, lie?
And a fog bank has descended on the field!
That droopy-eyed morning, before I went to the track, I was so nervous I made my poor wife "race" six colored napkins around our shag rug, with me trying to memorize names, mention poles and not leave gaps you could drive the QE2 through. It did not go well.
"But that will be funnier, right?" she said, hoof-heartedly.
I searched the house for Inderal.
Finally, Denman gave me the binoculars and microphone headset. Not nearly ready -- hyperventilating and wishing I could disappear -- I was up.
It was post time.
Have you ever been in a car wreck? It seems like it's going on forever, but then later you realize it was over in about 2.3 seconds? That's what this felt like.
Six horses, six-and-a-half furlongs, 75 seconds of fear, sweat and thrill. My hands were shaking, which made the binoculars shake, which meant the horses kept bobbing in and out of view like Whac-a-Moles. I believe I might have said, "And they go behind the inflatable Spider-Man!" I know I said that one horse was so far behind, "it looks like Kirstie Alley's on his back!"
As they made the far turn, I heard myself scream, "The first turn, the far way away!" At that moment, I thought, What is this, Sleeping Beauty? Which made for a par-5 gap. Sigh.
I do remember that as Bad Boy pulled away from the field at the end to win I wanted to holler something classy like "He's not even leaving footprints!" Instead, out came "Somebody test that horse!" Then I took off the headset and saw the Santa Anita official in the booth looking at me as if I'd just shot his Chihuahua.
Hey, who wants to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl?
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