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PREAKNESS 2014

Ellicott City resident prepares to call Saturday's Preakness

Pimlico's Dave Rodman among nation's top race announcers

By Pete Pichaske

6:15 AM EDT, May 14, 2014

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If you go the Preakness this weekend, odds are you'll recognize the voice calling the race.

That's because the voice belongs to Dave Rodman, who has called the Preakness — and every other horse race at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course, except when he was sick or on vacation — every year since 1991.

"I've never really put a number to it," said Rodman, when asked to estimate how many races he's called. "I'm not trying to break any world records or anything."

Perhaps not. But Rodman, who moved to North Laurel when he got the Pimlico job 23 years ago and now lives in Ellicott City, already has secured a place among the nation's elite horse racing announcers.

In her 2010 book, "They Call the Horses: Eleven Race Announcers at American Thoroughbred Tracks," horse racing enthusiast Edie Dickenson included Rodman among the country's 11 top racetrack announcers she profiled.

"He's definitely one of them," Dickenson said in an interview from her home in Nevada. "He's called some really good races. … He's been doing it a long time, he's very accurate, he's able to make close calls."

What sets Rodman apart, she added, is his passion for horse racing.

"He's so good because his enthusiasm comes across," she said. "He's got such passion. … And, he's a good guy."

Gary West, who covers horse racing for ESPN.com, called Rodman the best track announcer in the country.

"Dave Rodman is universally respected as one of the best track announcers in the country," West said in an email. "It's an exclusive club; dues are years of dedication. And for my money he's the best."

Rodman, 55, does not deny his enthusiasm for horse racing, or for calling the races.

"I love the game. It's a great game to be around," he said. "To me, this beats working for a living." 

Early passion

Rodman's love affair with horse racing began at a young age. He started going to races in his native Louisiana when he was 8 or 9.

"My father would take me to a track outside of New Orleans, which is now closed, called Jefferson Downs," he recalled. "He would sneak me in past security, since I was too young."

Rodman continued to follow the horses all through high school, and after high school got a job as a disc jockey on a small radio station in Pascagoula, Miss. After a few years, he grew disenchanted with the radio business and began working part time back at Jefferson Downs, walking horses.

When he heard that the track's announcer was leaving, Rodman's interest was piqued. He started practicing, calling races from the track roof, outside the press box.

"It was the pigeons, the rafters and me," he said. "My first few calls, I basically said, 'They're off,' and that was it."

The announcer helped him improve, listening to Rodman and critiquing his tapes. And one night, Rodman recalled, "they threw me in. Just said, 'Here, you're going to call the last race.' "

He called the race, management liked what it heard and Rodman was hired as the new announcer in 1981.

Three years later, he left Jefferson Downs to become the announcer at Louisiana Downs, in Shreveport, La. Seven years later, when the Maryland job opened up, Rodman applied. He sent his resume and tapes to Baltimore and got the job without having to make a personal visit.

He started in 1991, announcing races at Pimlico, Laurel Park and the state fair in Timonium. The number of race days at those Maryland venues has dropped by about one-third since he started, but Rodman has supplemented the work by announcing at Colonial Downs, the now-troubled racetrack in Virginia.

Rodman said there are fabled racing venues where any announcer would love to work, such as Saratoga Race Course in New York; Santa Anita in California; and Churchill Downs in Kentucky, home of the Kentucky Derby.

But he said he is more than happy in Maryland — especially since slot machines came to the state and part of the revenue has been funneled to the racetracks.

"It's rejuvenated the sport in this state," Rodman said. "It's saved our jobs, and kept Maryland racing alive on the national scene.

"I'll stay as long as they'll have me," he added. "The racing's great and improving. … And I think anybody would want to call a Triple Crown race."

Bird's-eye view

At Pimlico, Rodman works out of a cramped booth atop the grandstand, almost directly over the finish line. The booth is stocked with a half-dozen TVs, and when he's at work, Rodman keeps them tuned to races at Pimlico and elsewhere.

Wall-to-wall windows look out on the track. During races, as he makes his call, Rodman follows the action with a pair of binoculars mounted on a pole that he props on the windowsill.

His calls are crisp, confident, concise and rife with the passion Dickenson and others admire.

Part of his success is due to preparation. Before each race, Rodman memorizes the colors of every jockey's silks — the jacket and cap the jockey wears — notes them in his program, and calls the race based on those colors.

He also studies each horse — he handicaps some of the races on air for Pimlico listeners — and learns their tendencies and how they are likely to race.

Still, Rodman said, an announcer has to expect the unexpected.

"You can't always rely on handicapping," he said. "The gate could open and a horse could stumble at the start, or it gets squeezed back. So you can't really script a call. … Anything can happen during a race."

Rodman said calling a horse race is part practice, part passion.

"I can probably teach somebody how to call a race, the mechanics of it. But you need to understand the game," he said. "All the good announcers that I know have a passion and love for the game."

Michael Gathagan, vice president for communications at Pimlico and Laurel Park, said Rodman's ability to call one race after another, correctly identifying every horse in every race, is dazzling.

"He's the best," Gathagan said. "It's crazy. To be able to memorize all those names in a race, then forget all that and memorize all those names in a new race, and to do that nine, 10 times a day — it's amazing."

Racing writer West said of Rodman: "He's not only accurate, but he also has a feel for a race and its flow, a perspicacity that enables him to anticipate where the race is going, what horses are struggling and which ones are preparing to charge. He describes a race, he doesn't just call it, and he describes it so that even a radio listener can see it."

West called Rodman's call of the 1997 Preakness, won by Kentucky Derby Winner Silver Charm in a photo finish, "the best I've ever heard."

A special race

While he tries to bring his passion for the sport and for accuracy to every race he calls — three dozen races per week during the season — Rodman concedes that the Preakness, the middle race in horse racing's Triple Crown, is special.

"It's the neatest experience — the entire week — that I've been through in racing," he said. "The Derby winner's going to run in one place to win the Triple Crown, and that's the Preakness. So all eyes are here to watch that race.

"It's a great party week, but it's also a very important race on the national racing scene."

More than a week before the big race, Rodman was already deep in his preparations. He'd watched this year's Kentucky Derby "over and over" and studied video of the horses that will run in the Preakness but didn't run in the Derby.

"I've been following each horse, knowing running styles and most importantly, knowing the silks. I can tell you [Derby winner] California Chrome's silks: purple and green."

By Preakness Day, Rodman will know which horses are fast out of the gate, which ones are the strongest finishers. He'll have an idea how the race is likely to be run.

He'll also know, from experience, just how wild the scene below him will be.

"On a normal day, I have a clear view" of the infield and the entire race. "But Preakness Day, there'll be people in the infield, different colors everywhere. There's cooking going. …

"And the noise level, the electricity of the crowd. When you say 'The horses have reached the starting gate,' the crowd goes wild. You can feel the electricity kind of rise through the air."

The noise level rises during the race, he said, and by the finish, "It's like being there at the last moment of the Super Bowl when somebody kicks a field goal or gets an interception."

Rodman said he has to work hard to convey all that excitement of the Preakness without getting carried away and blowing the call.

"I have to keep calm no matter what happens," he explained. "That's the big challenge of it, versus just calling an everyday race. There's no rewind button on the call, for me.

"You're obviously going to be a little more up and enthusiastic, have a little more adrenaline flowing to make the call because you know it's very important. I just try to not stumble over any words. 

"I'll see how it works," he said. "So far, in 23 years, it's gone OK."