Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
The Melbourne Cup has just stopped the nation – as it always does, which makes it timely to consider the extraordinary skill of the race caller. One of the only truly, purely information-based speaking jobs there is.
Race Calling 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 has followed.
A race caller needs a formidable memory for facts: which horses, what jockeys, what colours, what scratchings… Then he (and yes there are a VERY small number of female race callers but the job is still overwhelmingly done by males*) needs perfect diction, vocal clarity, a poet’s turn of phrase, and the ability to perform descriptive gymnastics while the subject moves at eighteen metres a second. Oh, yes – and he has to be able to improvise when necessary. Race callers can’t prepare completely before the event – obviously. Yet they have to be 100% accurate, and once it’s out of the mouth it’s on the record. In pre-digital days, the radio race call fed the newspaper story, and the TAB paid out on what it said.
Races are broadcast without the normal 7 second delay, so there is no safety net. Under pressure you can hear the odd mispronunciation: ‘Sh**t’s coming down the inside’ for example, instead of ‘She’s coming down the inside’. Supposedly there are callers who keep on calling even though there’s a fly in their mouth or they’re having a coughing attack. I can’t be sure that this story truth or rumour, but it’s said that 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. Bill Collins 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 30 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. It’s a wonderful reminder of how Aussies used to sound.
And to close, here’s a 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).
*Watch for more on this soon, when Speak For Yourself talks to Race Caller Victoria Shaw