First, a very long overdue thank you to Tim (T.D.) Thornton who invited us to be his guests at Suffolk Downs as the horse racing season was winding down last fall. Thank you! We loved it and will be back for more racing.
As long time horse race fans, we were very excited to get our own private tour of the behind the scenes look at what goes behind calling a horse race. We first had to cross a catwalk that soared above the grandstands, then followed winding hallways that seemed to go nowhere. When we finally arrived at the offices for the officials it was truly a step back into time. While waiting for T.D. to arrive, we were seated in what used to be the press booth. There were many chairs and tiny, wooden windows that overlooked the track from high above the stands. It was somewhat eerie and exciting at the same time thinking of the cigar-chewing, bourbon drinking reporters who spent countless hours at Suffolk Downs covering the races.
In T.D.'s booth, a simple walk across plywood on top of the roof gets you there, where he alone sounds the bugle (a well kept secret as to whether there's an actual bugle) and then calls the race, there exists an old, heavy wooden desk. When you slide out a little panel above the drawers, there is an ages old, hand-written list of whom to call in case of emergency. My guess is most of these contacts are now watching horse racing from heaven. It's amazing to think of how many people have used that desk over the years, possibly going back to when Seabiscuit made his appearance in 1937.
Now on to today's action. We watched T. D. prep for the upcoming race, which involved color coding the entries on his race card and attaching a mental note to each horse. He then methodically rattled off in a mumble his notes and repeated them again, while we stood by very silently. It was amazing to see and hear him call the race. I'm still dumbfounded how he pulls this off.
Once a race is over, his mind completely clears and he moves on to the next race. He attributes his ability to not confuse horses from one race to the next to a potential "character flaw," his words, if I remember correctly. T. D. is able to completely forget what just happened. I'm thinking this has to be a nightmare for his wife if there's a really good argument going on. On the flip side, it could have its benefits as well!
Of course, occasionally there's a miscall as indicated in the photo below. T. D. seems to be a pretty even tempered guy, but as with any professional, you hate to screw up! As an aside, try to say "sitting chilly" (a term used when a jockey lets the horse do the work, thereby biding his time) three times and see what you get.
T. D. has been involved in horse racing for most of his life and has written for many publications, not only about horse racing, but other sports as well. He's one of the fortunate few to be able to eke out a living while following his passion for horse racing and writing.
In 2007, his book "Not by a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard Luck Horse Track" was published with many good reviews. This book follows the 2000 racing season at Suffolk Downs, which like many other tracks has seen a loss in attendance and revenue.
However, while attendance may have dropped significantly, revenues are only slightly down in comparison, thanks to Off Track Betting parlors and continuous links to other tracks across the world. The picture below is the server room where live feed from tracks across the country come in. There's a whole other bank of monitors and computers directly across from where T. D. is standing. Two ladies monitor the entire show from here.
While, it's great that there's other sources of revenue, for real fans of the sport itself, you just have to be there in person. To feel the power of the horses as they thunder either away from the gates, and inevitably, toward the finish line, is an truly an unbelievably awesome feeling.
Suffolk Downs may not be the beauty that it once was, as the lower level "frost heaves" can toss a beer from an unsuspecting bettor's hands in seconds, but it's still a great place to spend an afternoon outdoors with a racing form in one hand and a cold beer or hot dog in the other hand.
May 2nd kicks off the 2009 live racing season in conjunction with a simulcast of the Kentucky Derby. We may not be there this weekend, but will definitely find our way there on other sunny days.