And they’re racing! How I learned to call a horse race
Tomorrow, on the first Tuesday in November, millions of Australians will stop whatever they are doing for a few minutes to listen to or watch the Melbourne Cup. All over the country, people will tune into their radio or television for the race which stops a nation.
Much of the excitement of the event will be brought to them by a few race-callers, whose accuracy and colour will live on in their memories of the 2009 cup.
Racing without the callers would be dull. Yet for the first 64 years, there was no radio commentary of the race.
When Windbag won in 1925, Bill Priestley’s call was the first time the race was heard on radio. Race calls had only started the previous year when Ike Treloar called a Port Adelaide meeting. The new idea soon spread as radio stations around the country took up the coverage.
The race clubs didn’t warm to the idea. For more than a decade the commentators had to find vantage points overlooking the racecourse from where they could describe the action. Clubs retaliated, erecting fences and other barriers to obstruct their view.
In 1937 the issue came before the High Court when the Victoria Park Club sought to prevent Cyril Angles describing the races at Adelaide. The Chief Justice, Sir John Latham, observed that “Angles stands on the platform and comments upon and describes the races in a particularly vivid manner.”
“The evidence shows that some people prefer hearing about the races as seen by Angles to seeing the races for themselves,” he added in allowing the practice to continue.
The clubs reluctantly allowed the commentators on-course, often broadcasting from among the crowd. But as late as 1956, the secretary of the Victoria Racing Club claimed the clubs had nothing to gain from race broadcasting.
These days they are an integral part of the racing industry, a vital link between the event and the public, whether on-course or elsewhere.
Growing-up in a racing family, I was attracted to race calling from an early age. As my father was secretary of the local race club for over 20 years, we attended a meeting most Saturdays. In those days there were very few meetings on other days.
From the age of about eight, I would find a place at the top of the grandstand to practice my calling. Using my father’s battered old 7 x 40 binoculars, I provided a commentary for anyone who wanted an alternative to the course broadcaster. In between races, I would study the colours, repeating the horses’ names to myself as I scanned the jockey’s silks until the word association was automatic.
It’s a practice I still follow when I go to the track.
On the Saturdays that we didn’t attend the races, I would tune into the radio, studying the techniques and voice patterns of the callers. My father bought me a tape recorder when I was 12, allowing me to record and reviews my efforts.
My brothers were the subject of many calls as they raced around the farm.
Despite his love of the sport, my father insisted that I get a degree. “You can always come back to race-calling,” he would say. For a decade while a student I worked part-time as a sports commentator, calling everything from athletics to speedboat racing.
Eventually I gave it away, as family and career beckoned. In retrospect my father was correct. In the space of a decade the races were dropped by most radio stations. In the end, the industry had to purchase its own outlets.
In recent years there has been a revival as betting has expanded worldwide.
Whether the race is at Flemington, Sha Tin in Hong Kong, or Ascot in the UK, the callers have learnt from the legends of the airwaves in Australia.
For decades, callers like Bert Bryant, Bill Collins and Joe Brown in Melbourne, Ken Howard and John Tapp in Sydney and a host of others around the country enlivened our imagination.
Their colourful descriptions brought the events alive. Ken Howard’s “London to a brick on” to describe a sure winner, or Bert Bryant’s “stone motherless last” evoke an era when radio was king.
We learnt that “scraping the paint” was a horse on the rails, and “via the cape” was one racing extremely wide on the turn.
Sometimes they got it wrong. Bill Collins’ “Kingston Town can’t win” before the champion claimed his third Cox Plate tops the list.
In those days, it didn’t matter if they made an error or two, not that many did. But they added personality and colour to racing that has been lost partially in the era of pay television and instant replays.
There are some great callers today, like Greg Miles in Melbourne, who rivals the best of the past. Australians are also succeeding overseas, led originally by Jim McGrath in the UK, Rob Geller in Hong Kong and Michael Wrona is the US. In recent years, the standard of calling overseas has started to rival the brilliance we take for granted here.
Race calling is a skill that few succeed at. It requires much practice, a sharp memory, good eyesight, steady nerves and a colourful turn of phrase.
When you listen to the Melbourne Cup, spare a thought for the caller, rapidly naming the 24 horses from a long distance, noting who is travelling well or not, watching for signs of tiredness or over-racing, maintaining the fluid description when jockey’s colours are obscured or similar to others, and providing an accurate, colourful commentary.
Australian racing has been enriched by having so many great callers over the years.
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