By TONY TAGLAVORE, Journal Sports
“What did you have for dinner last night?”
“What did you do yesterday?”
For those of us in our 50’s, some things are just hard to remember.
But not for Louisiana Downs track announcer John McGary.
“If we have a 12-horse field, I can memorize them in 3 or 4 minutes,” the 56-year-old said.
“If it’s a 6-horse field, a minute or two.”
McGary has turned his excellent short-term memory into a 30-year race-calling career. The Fountain Valley, California, native is in his eighth year as the voice of Louisiana Downs. Between racing seasons, McGary packs up and moves west, calling the action at Zia Park in Hobbs, New Mexico.
“I happen to have been a fan of horse racing my entire life, and it’s worked out pretty good,” McGary said. “Being a fan helps. If you enjoy what you do, you bring a passion to it. It’s better.”
Much like a horse moving to the outside mid-stretch, McGary made a bold move in order to get his first career start.
“Like only a young guy can do, I walked right up to the general manager (of Pompano Park in Florida) and said, ‘Hey, if your guy ever gets sick or takes some time off, I can do this.’ He said, ‘Let’s get you some press credentials and have you go upstairs and practice into a tape recorder.’”
A year or two later, McGary was filling in for the track’s regular announcer once a month. Since then, McGary has worked full-time at 12 tracks, from Michigan to California, Ohio to Texas. Add in his part-time work, and McGary’s voice has been heard from more than 25 tracks across the country.
“I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve worked pretty much steady for the past 20 years. I’m very thankful for what I have, and I still enjoy going to work every day.”
McGary gets to his booth high atop Louisiana Downs about two hours before the first race. But it’s not until the post parade for each race that McGary starts his prep work.
“I have to see the horses. It doesn’t matter what it says in the program. I have to see the horses, because they don’t always have the same (jockey) silks. When the horses come onto the race track, I will write the silks down on the program page. I will then just put the silks to the horse’s name.”
McGary uses this example: “My name is John McGary. If I see Blue, and John McGary, I will look through the binoculars and say ‘Blue is John McGary. Blue is John McGary’ … If there’s more than one of the same (color) silks, then I will go to the (jockey’s) cap and then (his or her) sleeves. ‘OK, red with a black cap is Louisiana Downs. Red with a yellow cap is Secretariat.’ I just say that out loud. I keep repeating it out loud while looking through the binoculars, while the horses are heading toward the starting gate doing their warmups, until I have it down.”
Once the horses have crossed the finish line, McGary — in an ironic twist — has to quickly become forgetful.
“As soon as the race is over, you empty it out, rinse, and repeat.”
When you’ve done something for three decades, you’re bound to have made a mistake. McGary is not too proud to admit he’s called the wrong winner just twice in three decades.
Not a bad right-to-wrong ratio.
“I try and go out on a limb, but I try and protect myself. Like, ‘Tony on the inside, John on the outside. John, I believe, by a nose.’ Or ‘Maybe.’ Or ‘It’s close.’ You try to tell the fans who won the race, but if you’re not sure, you always want to hedge.”
McGary’s wife of six years, Julie, lives in Las Vegas. While working at Louisiana Downs, McGary tries to fly home every three to four weeks.
“It’s the sacrifice you make to do what we do,” McGary said, “to do a job you really have a passion for, that you really enjoy. You have to make sacrifices in this life. It’s a sacrifice that I and many other announcers make. God willing, I will continue to make it until it’s time for me to retire.”
McGary says that won’t be any time soon. He still has a lot of races to call.
And a lot of horses to memorize — in a matter of minutes.
Louisiana Downs races Saturday through Tuesday, through Sept. 27. First post time is 3:05 p.m.
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