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Fitzgerald gets his chance

The latest chapter of Santa Anita's search for a full-time announcer to fill the sizable hole left by the departure of Trevor Denman is unfolding this weekend with another very public audition. This time, it will be David Fitzgerald, a 31-year-old Englishman who is in the midst of making a name for himself back home, where he has combined high-profile race calling with interview assignments and analysis.

Good luck to Mr. Fitzgerald, and high marks for his leap into the unknown. You shall be known as Finalist No. 4.

Last weekend, Craig Evans of Australia was in town to display his wares in what is starting to look like a parimutuel version of "The Voice." There's probably a method to the madness of management's talent search, but it has the feel of something cobbled together as they go along. In fairness, though, the resignation of Denman in December clearly left Santa Anita in the lurch, and the track was lucky that the respected veteran Michael Wrona already was a part of The Stronach Group family at Golden Gate Fields.

The addition of Frank Mirahmadi to the mix also seemed like a natural move since he had covered admirably for Denman in the past and has been a comfortable presence at both Northern and Southern California meets. Mirahmadi had to give up a choice job at Oaklawn Park to be part of the Santa Anita selection process. But then, what's life without the occasional roll of the dice?

The Santa Anita search follows in a high-stakes game of musical chairs among race announcers lately, primarily sparked by the retirements of such household names as Tom Durkin, Terry Wallace, Dan Loiselle, and Denman.

Loiselle's departure from Woodbine gave Robert Geller the chance to jump from Emerald Downs, and his spot there was filled by Matt "The Kid" Dinerman, fresh out of college. The Wallace retirement put Mirahmadi in the booth at Oaklawn, a spot now occupied by Pete Aiello, 30, who cut his teeth calling the summer season at Gulfstream and Gulfstream Park West. And when Durkin climbed down from on high in New York, the job went to Larry Collmus, who had barely settled into his new gig at Churchill Downs, having replaced David Fitzgerald's fellow Brit, Mark Johnson.

"It was kind of fitting that they would hire Travis Stone at Churchill Downs when I left," Collmus said Friday on his way to work at Gulfstream Park. "We were two of the five people who each called a week of the Churchill fall meet in 2008 after Luke Kruytbosch died."

That was a memorable ordeal -- reminiscent of the Santa Anita process -- that dangled a chance to be the voice of the home of the Kentucky Derby. Collmus had the summer job at Monmouth at the time, and to say that he was disappointed that he didn't get the Churchill nod is an understatement. By then, however, he had developed a pretty thick hide.

"For me, it was years and years of hoping something would work out," Collmus said. "It seemed like for a while, every single job I went out for, I couldn't get. I wondered if I had the plague, if I was doing something wrong. And then all of a sudden, everything fell in place."

This included a call from an unidentified number one afternoon at Gulfstream that led him to believe there was a shot that he might replace the retiring Durkin as the on-air announcer for NBC's racing coverage, which included the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup.

"At first, I thought it was a friend playing a joke on me," Collmus said. "I do have a couple of them capable of doing something like that."

It was for real, though, and now -- with Florida, New York, and NBC -- Collmus has the highest profile of any race-caller in America.

The Santa Anita job can be a gateway to the same recognition, and Collmus is sympathetic with the ordeal that Wrona, Mirahmadi, Evans, and Fitzgerald are going through.

"The pressure is on to do everything right," Collmus said, "to make the best race calls you can possibly make under as much pressure as you could possible imagine."

Then again, the first guy in the job basically had to show up one day in the office of Dr. Charles H. Strub, the man who built Santa Anita. By the time the track opened on Christmas Day in 1934, Joe Hernandez already was a budding celebrity at the microphone.

"He was by that time pretty well established as the voice of racing at Bay Meadows, and he was doing a lot of other sports on radio as well," said Dr. Rudy Alvarado, who wrote the award-winning biography "The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez: the Voice of Santa Anita."

"Strub initially balked at the idea, partly because of Joe's nationality," Alvarado said. "But when Joe went to see him, Strub pretty much said, 'The job is yours. You start next week. Don't blow it.'"

Hernandez kept the job for 37 years until his death at the microphone in 1972. Denman was his own institution, calling the Santa Anita meet for 32 years. Wrona and Mirahmadi have made strong cases to pick up the torch, and Evans has made a solid bid. Now comes Fitzgerald, whose audition this weekend will include Sunday's running of Joe Hernandez Stakes.

What pressure?