There are some jobs in life that are not as simple as they might seem.
Near the top of the list, at least in the world of Thoroughbred racing, is the art practiced by the trained professionals who call each day's array of races.
If you disagree, then just listen to the misadventures of some of the guest or celebrity announcers who are occasionally asked to call a race. For the vast majority of them, it's an experience that's akin to a minute and a half of public embarrassment as they rumble, bumble and stumble while trying to detail what's happening so quickly in front of them.
At the other end of the spectrum is someone like John G. Dooley, the smooth talking and quick-witted track announcer for Arlington Park and Fair Grounds who makes such a complex job seem so simple.
"When someone inexperienced tries to call a race, well, they try their best, but …," Dooley says. "It's a job that takes a very unique blend of concentration, accuracy and color. In professional sports you have play-by-play and color announcers, but with a race caller both jobs are rolled into one."
Each day, it's Dooley's job to provide the dialogue for the drama unfolding on the racetrack below him. Approximately nine times a day he has to commit to memory the names, jockeys and racing silks of each starter in a race, and then faces the pressure of having to not only monitor the progress of each horse in a highly accurate manner, but to relate the excitement of the race to his listening audience.
"It's a little different than talking about someone slowly lining up a putt at The Masters. As a race caller you sometimes have to sort out 12 different silks of horses running a quarter-mile in 22 seconds flat. You have to call the horses correctly and also convey the excitement of the race."
"For more than 23 years, Dooley has been masterfully blending all of those skills to become one of the nation's more entertaining race callers. Dooley has a clear and distinctive voice and also possesses a highly colorful and engaging style. He's quick to inject a funny comment into a call, like he did this past Sunday when he said a horse named Stanley Cup was "third and right there in the crease."
As a race caller you sometimes have to sort out 12 different silks of horses running a quarter-mile in 22 seconds flat. You have to call the horses correctly and also convey the excitement of the race." -- Track announcer John G. Dooley
He's also had to cope with some phonetically challenging runners like Epoustouflant, Xbalanque and Lastochka -- and also learned they mean breath-taking or mind-boggling (in French), a Mayan God and Russian female pilots, respectively, just in case he's ever a contestant on Jeopardy.
Major races may be akin to playoff games for track announcers, but sometimes a seemingly mundane allowance or claiming race can present even more of a challenge for a race caller than a Grade 1 stakes.
The seventh race at Arlington on July 6 posed one of those challenges. It was a nine-horse optional claimer worth $20,000 in purse money, but contained the kind of test for Dooley that illustrated why he's one of the best in a difficult profession. Included in the field was Bluegrass Bull, plus Bluegrass Jet, and to make it a threesome, Bluegrass Jam. One race, three Bluegrasses, and one major challenge, which Dooley handled flawlessly. He smoothly and accurately detailed the action, relating how Bluegrass Jam led to mid-stretch before being passed by Bluegrass Bull, who won the race, with Bluegrass Jet making a late charge to grab third. At least 30 times Dooley mentioned a "Bluegrass" over the course of the 2:33.28 it took to complete the race, and not once did he confuse the Jet with the Jam or the Bull.
"That was definitely one of those races where you have to maintain your concentration. It helped that the race was a mile-and-a-half turf race so the pace was slower than normal. The three horses also had three different running styles, which helped," Dooley says.
Dooley was also helped by his 13 years of experience at the Arlington circuit. His ability to associate racing colors with owners is a tremendous asset in attaching a horse's name to a set of silks, and in the case of the July 6 race, a lawn jockey played a key role in helping to distinguish the victorious Bull from the Jet and the Jam.
"I know Brent Gasaway, who owns Bluegrass Bull, and I've been to his house in Kentucky where he has a lawn jockey with his colors on it that I autographed for him," Dooley says. "So, considering it's the only lawn jockey in the world with my signature on it, in a way it's 'shame on me' if I didn't recognize the black with green hoops of Brent Gasaway on Bluegrass Bull."
As tricky as a race like the one on July 6 can be, in reflecting on a career that dates back to 1989, when he called his first race at Philadelphia Park, Dooley points to the 2003 Arlington Million as his most memorable call because of the unexpected action he had to detail.
Early in his career, Dooley worked for the New York Racing Association at its three tracks and was tutored by as good a teacher as one could find in Tom Durkin. Dooley learned from Durkin how calling races involves more than just rattling off names and running positions, and that humor or drama should be part of his portfolio. That need to convey the excitement and/or problems that can sometimes unfold simultaneously in a race came into play in the 2003 Million, when Storming Home veered out badly while leading in the shadow of the finish line, impeding a few other runners and causing jockey Gary Stevens to fall off the horse.
"When you call a race like the Arlington Million in some ways it's easier than most because you're not as nervous. You want to live in the moment and just let the horses tell the story of the race," Dooley says. "But in 2003 Million, when Stevens fell off the horse, it was like calling a race and also announcing breaking news with a Hall of Fame rider down on the track."
Dooley will call another edition of the Million this August, but before that rolls around there will be plenty of tests for him. There will be races filled with horses partially named "Kitten" or "Bluegrass" or "Cat" from popular sires, or ones where trees or poor weather conditions will impede his view of what's happening.
Yet for John G. Dooley, someone who has such a love for his profession that he can rattle off Marshall Cassidy's famed "Runaway Grooooom" call of the 1982 Travers at a snap of the finger, it shouldn't be too tall of an order. Each racing day he revels in a demanding job that he loves, knowing full well that in the announcer's box the "Bluegrass" is greener -- even if there's a Bull, Jet and Jam out there.