By Joe Bianca
With the start of the prep season for the Kentucky Derby focused on Fair Grounds for the GIII LeComte S. Saturday, we talked to longtime Fair Grounds and Arlington racecaller John Dooley about how he got involved with racing, what influence the city of New Orleans has had on his life and more.
Q: Let’s start with the basics: where did you grow up and what was your first experience with the racetrack?
A: I grew up in Staten Island. New York-born and raised. One summer while back in my high school days, my family and I went to upstate New York in August, and of course there was racing at Saratoga, so I had a chance to go to the Spa, enjoy the racing and I was hooked, basically from the age of 16 on. I’ve been involved in it for quite some time now. My parents have no involvement in racing at all, but they loved going to the track with me. Growing up in the New York area, there was Meadowlands, Monmouth, Philadelphia Park was only an hour and 10 minutes away from Staten Island. So I started going to more and more tracks, enjoyed the atmosphere, enjoyed the handicapping. I went to St. John’s University in Staten Island, graduated with a degree in sports management in 1987 and while going there, I had an internship at the Meadowlands and an internship at the New York Racing Association. That really got my foot in the door to start working full-time in racing.
Q: When did you first consider becoming a racecaller? Did you have a ‘big break’ moment at some point?
A: It was actually that first time I went to Saratoga. Marshall Cassidy was the announcer back then, in the mid-to-late eighties. I remember going there and hearing the announcer call a race and whip up the crowd, the excitement of it all. I remember looking up at the announcer’s booth at Saratoga thinking, “You know, I wouldn’t mind doing that one day, that would be a really fun job.” I set my sights on how I got to do that, how to get from A to B. Having been an intern for Meadowlands and NYRA in publicity, I got a job in the summer of ’87 working at Monmouth as the press box manager and statistician. I took over from Jim Gagliano, who’s now like the czar of The Jockey Club. After that summer, I ended up getting a full-time job in the fall of ’87 with NYRA and I was with them for many years. I would practice races on the roof at Belmont, Aqueduct, Saratoga, practice, practice, practice race calls. Tom Durkin eventually became the announcer in the fall of 1990, so it was great getting to work with the voice of the Breeders’ Cup, being a backup to him. He was a real mentor. Then in 1991, I decided to spread my wings and took the racecalling job at Thistledown. I was there until I came back to NYRA for a little bit in 1996 to work with Tom during a Breeders’ Cup year, and I was also working simulcasting. Then I got a job at Lone Star Park as the racecaller in 1997 to work with Corey Johnson and the late Steve Sexton. I really thought that was going to be an amazing place for racing because it was such a great market and they were really enthusiastic about bringing racing to the DFW Metroplex. It was an incredible experience to be down there and be the first announcer at Lone Star. I was there from 1997-2000, which takes me to the present, starting at Arlington in 2000.
Q: What have been your impressions wintering in New Orleans? Was there a lot of culture shock for a New York boy living down in the Bayou?
A: It’s funny, I had never even been down here to visit before I got the job in 2004. But yeah, I couldn’t believe what it was all about. A city where they love their history, they love their racing, they love their food, they love their Saints and they love Mardi Gras. Being a part of that was a bit of a culture shock, but I always loved spicy food, I love crawfish etoufee, love seafood, so I figured all that would be a great fit. This is also the 146th Thoroughbred season here, so the track has withstood everything, natural disasters, etc. It’s stood the test of time. And this is New Orleans’s tricentennial, 1718-2018, so putting all of that in context and being the racecaller at the Fair Grounds and being a tiny part of New Orleans history, it’s something that I’ll always remember. It’s a cool vibe, it’s a fun city, and I love the fact that it’s a sports town.
Q: This is more of a macro question, but now that there’s Trakus and other ways people can follow their horses independently, why do you think there’s still such an appetite from the fan to have racecallers?
A: I think it’s still the excitement that it brings. I guess you could watch another sport with the sound turned off, but I still love even radio announcers. I loved growing up with The Fan [New York’s WFAN sports talk radio], Mike Francesa, listening to radio calls. Yes, you have Trakus, you have other ways of following the race, but it’s amazing to me in a good way how if a track loses the audio signal, it just seems different. I could be watching another track and if there’s no audio, I’ll go, “Where’s Larry Collmus? Where’s the call?” It’s a whole different thing and I think it sometimes makes people go, “Oh yeah, we do kind of need the announcers.” It’s not the same to say, “Oh, my chiclet is coming,” instead of an announcer going, “Here comes this horse in a Ramsey red cap or the Godolphin blue on the far outside.” It’s still a part of the flavor of going to the track. Even just, “it’s post time,” it wouldn’t be the same if nobody said that.
I’ll always remember Al Michaels’s “Do you believe in miracles?” call. Although it wasn’t horse racing announcing, I loved the fact that a moment in time can be captured with words, and a race can be that way too, as Tom Durkin articulated over his outstanding career. Just to be a part of that is humbling. It’s just exciting every day to come to work and see what might happen.
Q: What are the similarities and differences between calling races at Arlington and Fair Grounds, other than having to deal with a lot of trees at both tracks?
A: It’s funny, one time I had a chance to go see the Arc de Triomphe. It was the year that Sea The Stars won  and they have the Petit Bois, or Little Woods, and I joked that we’ve got that at Arlington too. But it’s part of the track’s DNA. Here at the Fair Grounds, some of these trees have been here for decades upon decades and they’ll probably outlast the track. I was saying to Joe Kristufek the other day, “Yeah, they’re hard, but they’re gonna outlive us.” They survived Katrina and so many different catastrophes, and they’re part of the charm. As a racecaller, you learn to call through them.
As for differences, at Arlington it’s an all-weather track, so the pace of some main track races can be slower. Here we have to deal with a fast track to a sloppy track and the long stretch. Horses sometimes are more patiently ridden here because of that, as I say, “daunting Fair Grounds stretch.” It’s definitely a different type of configuration, has different running styles. But calling races in two great cities, I’m fortunate.
Q: What do you do to get ready for races in terms of memorization?
A: I have my Crayola ink markers that I use. I don’t care if it’s a walkover, I would still color the silks and saddle towel into my program. You also see a lot of the owners year in and year out, and that helps. Definitely the short-term memory and quick association. Coming in in the morning, doing my homework, looking at the pace of a race and just being prepared. That was the one thing that Tom Durkin always instilled–preparation. I’ve been calling races full-time since 1991 and even today, it’s still about the preparation. It could be a sleepy Thursday in New Orleans, but you have to be prepared and be on your game every day, because there’s money in the pools and there are owners and bettors to be accountable to. And they’ll let you know if you make a mistake.
Q: Last question, you do the Fair Grounds handicapping pre-show, you said you grew up as a handicapper, do you still play the horses?
A: Not as much as I used to, but I love watching races from Hong Kong and over in England, so yeah, I enjoy it. I can’t say I do it on a daily basis, because being a racecaller is time-consuming enough, especially with the preparation aspect of it, but for a race that I’m not calling, sometimes I’ll look up and see that a horse has maybe gone from Fair Grounds to another track and if I think it’s value, I want a little something on it.