Much is different this summer at Saratoga Race Course. While there are no fans in the stands, there is still an announcer in the booth calling the races. Four decades since he started working for the New York Racing Association, John Imbriale is now announcing its premier meet full-time.
Head up some stairs tucked away next to the Clubhouse at Saratoga Race Course and you’ll find the announcer booth. With enough room for a desk, a couple chairs, and his microphone stands John Imbriale – also known as Johnny I. – preparing for the next race.
“Stop War and Peaceful, is that an exacta for you or what?”
This is the second Friday of the Saratoga meet, the 32nd day of live racing in the NYRA season that started late at Belmont because of the pandemic.
Binoculars up to the glass, it looks like Imbriale is calling for nobody.
Just below the announcer booth the security staff, a select group of owners, and members of the press watch the race. Imbriale’s calls are still heard on the speakers throughout the grounds and on simulcasts.
“It’s Peaceful trying to hang in there, less than a 16th to the finish. Peaceful kicks clear to lead by two, and Peaceful is the winner. Sparkling Sky was second, photo for third…”
After a life-time of work in racing and even a short-lived retirement, this is Imbriale’s first season as NYRA’s main announcer.
Imbriale says he was hooked by horse racing in 1978, when he saw Affirmed take the Triple Crown at Belmont.
“I still have a winning ticket. My last winning ticket, probably,” laughs Imbriale.
42 years later, Imbriale called the Belmont Stakes – normally the last jewel of the Triple Crown. It came first this year, with the Preakness and Kentucky Derby set for the fall.
That ’78 Belmont remains Imbriale’s favorite race as a fan.
“It was a great rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar. Young jockey Steve Cauthen rode Affirmed. They had some tremendous battles, probably the best rivalry in the history of horse racing. He was a chestnut, which I think is the most attractive color for horses. And he just got me. You know, it’s like your first love.”
Imbriale saw Affirmed and Alydar face off again in the Travers at Saratoga later that summer.
With aspirations to become a race-caller, the next year, Imbriale won an announcer’s contest.
“The gig was, it wasn’t to get a job as an announcer, it was to get a job in the press office.”
So, in 1979 at age 24, Imbriale started working for NYRA.
“That was before computers and we used old typewriters and, you know, we did the first media guide and things like that.”
Marshall Cassidy became NYRA’s head announcer that same year. Eager to get into the announcer booth himself, Imbriale would walk over from the press box to study with his new mentor.
“I would go next door, primarily at Aqueduct, and do the race into a microphone, into a recorder, and then I would take the tape, go in with Marshall – he had made the real call – go in with him and he would review it with me as we watched the replay.”
In 1990, Tom Durkin became NYRA’s announcer and Imbriale became his backup.
“At the time, we were running six days at Saratoga. So he would occasionally take Monday off, I’d get to call those kind of days, so I was able to get my share of time calling races at all three tracks.”
On the desk in Imbriale’s announcer booth is a package of colored markers. Like Durkin, Imbriale marks up the program to match the colors on the jockeys and horses.
Imbriale says Durkin encouraged him to find his own voice.
“The phrase he used was ‘don’t listen to me’. Which, whatever job I was doing, you had to listen to him, he was the race caller. But what he was saying was, create your own style.”
Imbriale worked as a backup until his brief retirement in 2005. In 2007, Imbriale followed Larry Collmus to become winter announcer at Aqueduct.
When Durkin retired 2014, Collmus was named NYRA’s next lead announcer.
Six years later, after four decades preparing for the role, Imbriale’s dream to become head announcer came true.
Calling the Belmont Stakes in June was a highlight, but like many at Saratoga Race Course, Imbriale has his reasons why the Spa is his favorite track.
“If we were in Saratoga for six months, well it might not be as special. We’re here for 40 days. That’s it. 40 days of racing. You just look forward to it. And, from a racing standpoint, we get the top horses, the top jockeys, the top trainers. So yeah, Saratoga is number one for me.”
And while those on track think it’s strange to hold a fanless racing season – both at Belmont and Saratoga – Imbriale is getting used to it.
“I think we’re now starting to get to the point where we are not thinking on a daily basis of the no fans. We’ve accepted it, that’s what it is, and now we’ve had it for six weeks now, including the start at Belmont…”
Even though fans have been shut out of NYRA’s tracks because of the pandemic, it doesn’t mean they aren’t watching and wagering. The all-sources handle was up at Belmont and the first week at Saratoga.
At the meet that continues through Labor Day, Imbriale says he gives each race his all.
“Because there are literally thousands of people that have something riding on that race, whether it be the owners, the trainers, the jockeys, the grooms, the backstretch people, the gamblers, somebody’s got something on any particular race that you might be doing. It might not be a Grade I race or any kind of a graded stakes, but it’s important to somebody. So that next race is the one that I’ve got to put my commitment to.”