Voice of Pimlico

Announcer's trifecta: knowledge, timing, acting

The Preakness

May 16, 2008|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun Reporter

Dave Rodman would like to say that what drew him as a child to horse racing was his deep and abiding love for the animals - those proud, glistening beasts whose names now roll off his tongue in a cadence as rhythmic as the churning of their hooves on the track below.

He'd like to say that, but he can't.

"I've always enjoyed being around the track, but I can't say I was in love with the horses; it was more the gambling aspect of it," said Rodman, who, as track announcer at Pimlico, will be calling his17th Preakness tomorrow.

It's a safe bet that he will do so without a hitch - despite calling the 133rd Preakness from a glassed-in rooftop booth that resembles a low-rent 1960s bachelor's pad, right down to the foam futon and Scotch-taped headset.

A safe bet because, although he flubbed his first horse race call, Rodman, the voice of Preakness since 1991, has become known as a sure and steady performer.

His roots in racing go back to his childhood in New Orleans, where he would tag along to Jefferson Downs with his father, a "casual horse player" who would let his son make some picks, and pony up the cash for $2 bets.

"My father passed away before I got my first announcing job," Rodman said in an interview Wednesday, sitting on a bench outside the Stakes Barn at Pimlico. "I wish he had lived to see me do a sport that he loved."

Whether it was the memory of the time he spent with his dad, the mental challenges of handicapping, the thrill of the race or his eventual connection with the horses, the track - not the radio career he started out in - became Rodman's vocation and second home.

It's where he plans to stay "as long as my eyes hold out, and as long as there's racing somewhere."

Fresh out of high school, Rodman went to work as a disc jockey, first in Pascagoula, Miss., then back in New Orleans.

By the 1980s, he was less than thrilled with the direction of radio: "The formats were changing. They wanted me to play middle of the road stuff, and I was a rock 'n' roll kid. I liked Led Zeppelin, Styx and Boston. They wanted songs like "Fool If You Think It's Over."

While still a disc jockey, he got a part-time job at Jefferson Downs, walking horses.

"After their morning runs, they would need to cool down and the tracks generally hired pretty much anybody for that."

When he heard that the job of track announcer was opening up, he decided to try his hand - or, more accurately, his voice.

With his old tape recorder, a racing program and some binoculars, he'd sit amid the pigeon droppings on the track's roof and practice calling the races.

He quickly learned that though being a "fast-talking Top 40 DJ probably really helped me," there was more to it than being fleet of mouth. He also realized that betting on and calling the same race doesn't make for a good mix.

"Generally, I would have placed a bet on the race, and I'd get more interested in that. So it was like 'They're off!' and then I didn't get too far."

Eventually, the owner - whom Rodman had been presenting with audition tapes - agreed to let Rodman call a race.

"I called it well," Rodman said, "except for saying the second-place horse was the winner."

Despite the flub, he was hired and became the announcer at Jefferson Downs until 1984, then at Louisiana Downs until 1991, the year he came to Pimlico.

If stepping into Pimlico's cavernous halls is like dipping your toe into the 1960s, entering Rodman's Plexiglas booth perched high above it all is like doing a belly flop into the pool.

There is vintage wall-to-wall carpeting on the floor and gray carpeting on the walls and ceilings, for reasons Rodman doesn't know. There's a table with black paint chipping off, a navy blue foam futon and two vinyl chairs, one of which Rodman describes as "avocado," though its color resembles one well past its prime.

Rodman's booth is decidedly low-tech. There's a window air conditioning unit that Rodman suspects is older than he is (it works) and a rotary phone (it doesn't).

When calling a race - he watches most of it through binoculars mounted on a monopod - Rodman stands beneath a fluorescent light, atop a plywood platform, and his headset has tape on it, holding the ball of foam to the mouthpiece.

"Aesthetically, it isn't much," he said, but "it's the best seat in the house." Besides, the retro nature of his booth reflects the state of the sport, which Rodman believes needs to start looking at ways to attract a younger crowd.

He expects the number of tracks to decline in the next few years, and sees the death of Eight Belles after the Kentucky Derby, on top of Barbaro's death after a 2006 Preakness injury, as "an opportunity for racing to take a look at itself and correct itself."

"I don't get too political, but on medication issues and general racing issues, the sport needs to come together and come up with one plan, one rule book, one national standard."

By Wednesday, Rodman was well into his Preakness homework, studying the horses' names and checking pronunciations.

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