Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

The art of the race caller

Information-based speeches are a lot rarer (and harder) than you’d think. You may imagine that a scientific conference presentation, or a report to shareholders is all about the facts, but it isn’t really.  You’re also trying to impress the audience with how clever you are, or reassure them about the success of the company.

Purely information-based speeches are tough gigs. Think of a witness testifying in court, or a student announcing the results at the athletics carnival, or the returning officer announcing who won an election.  You can’t really prepare the material before you start, you have to be 100% accurate, there’s no chance to elaborate, explain or use any of the normal techniques that speakers deploy to engage or entertain listeners….  Worse, you just get one go at it.   If it’s out of your mouth it’s on the record.

Consider then the extraordinary skill of the race caller.  One of the only truly, purely informative speakers we have.

His (and I think they are all men) arsenal starts with a formidable memory for facts… which horses, what jockeys, what colours, what scratchings… Then he needs perfect diction, vocal clarity, a poet’s  turn of phrase, a talent for descriptive gymnastics on a subject that moves at eighteen metres a second, as well as the ability to improvise when necessary.

Races are broadcast without the normal 7 second delay,  so there is no safety net. Under pressure there’s the odd  mispronunciation: ‘Sh**t’s coming down the inside’ instead of  ‘She’s coming down the inside’ for example. There are many callers with  a fly in their mouth or a coughing attack mid race who  keep on going. In his early days as a race caller Ray Warren lost the field in a heavy fog on the other side of the  track –  so he just made something  up until they emerged,  did a quick adjustment and no one was any the wiser.

Australians love their race callers, as The Roar  recently reported, and ours are the best in the world by far. They live or die by their accuracy. Bert Bryant supposedly once  said, mid race, that  Kingston Town  couldn’t  win from there  – which of course it did. Years later he said ‘I called over 5000 races correctly but everyone only remembers that one’.

Greg Miles is now number 1. He’s called 29 Melbourne Cups but says he still feels nervous.  Then there’s Bill Collins, who practised as a child by calling the race between matches floating down the gutter. But my vote goes to Ken Howard. If you want to time-travel back to when shops were closed on Saturday afternoons and cappuccino was ‘continental’, listen to this, courtesy of the ‘Sounds of Australia’ collection at the National Film and Sound Archive.

Fun fact from the Victorian Racing Club: In 1866, two horses with the same name, Falcon, ran in the Melbourne Cup, and in 1867 there were two Tim Whifflers (one of them won).

My thanks to PSD.


7 comments on “The art of the race caller

  1. Claire Duffy

    Yesssss! thank heavens…she’s just not an Aussie.There’s the next challenge.

    • Craig Braddick

      Clare: This is Craig Braddick. Thank you for the comment on my blog. Incidentally there is a v.good race caller in Australia called Victoria Shaw who I am hoping to bring to the USA sometime over the next year to call some races.

  2. parrarobbie

    IT was Bill Collins who said “Kingston Town can’t win”,mid-race,not Bert Bryant.

  3. Victoria Shaw

    Hi Claire – I am amazed that no one has pointed out to you that Race Calling or Broadcasting began here in Australia – 1922 at Port Adelaide. Arnold Trelor was the first man to call the action. Melbourne followed with race broadcasts in 1924 and Sydney by 1926. The rest of the world followed. We also invented the form guide. You should research Joe Brown – Greg Miles was his understudy.

    Victoria Shaw.

    • Claire Duffy

      Thank you VIctoria – I am honoured to have your response. That’s great background from one who knows.

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