A Worthy Calling

By Morton Cathro
Sports history is replete with "the streak," that strung-together necklace of accomplishments proudly worn by great teams and legendary athletes: Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak; undefeated heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano's 49 straight victories; golfer Byron Nelson's 11 PGA tournaments in a row; Michael Jordan's seven consecutive NBA scoring records; Citation and Cigar's sweet 16s.

More recently, the New England Patriots' string of 21 wins has been the talk of pro football. Now, as Santa Anita Park begins yet another winter of sport, the talk among some aging California racetrackers is about a lofty, if lesser-known, streak of another kind--the calling by pioneer announcer Joe Hernandez of 15,587 consecutive races during his reign in Arcadia as "the Voice of the Great Race Place."

From Christmas Day, 1934, when Santa Anita opened its gates for the first time, until his tragic collapse at the microphone nearly four decades later, the granddaddy of race-callers had announced every race, every day, his booming baritone regally echoing the unique drama of the Sport of Kings.

His distinctive voice actually reached far beyond the San Gabriels, for during Santa Anita's off-season, Joe Hernandez worked other major tracks in California, New York, Maryland, Washington, and Kentucky, where he called Middleground's 1950 Derby. His nightly replays on radio brought the sport to seasoned horseplayers as well as to teenage fans such as this correspondent, who in the late '30s preferred listening to Joe to doing homework.

"As a caller of the big races, there was none better," said Dan Smith, veteran racetrack executive who was a colleague of Hernandez'. "The details, energy, and sense of urgency he put into those calls underlined the importance of the moment."

Said Jeff Tufts, another colleague and now the morning line-maker at Santa Anita: "He was a great caller, and very proud of never having missed a day. His voice and rhythm were fabulous, and no matter how good a race was, Joe seemed to make it better."

An aspiring journalist born in San Francisco, Hernandez broke into announcing by accident. While a copy boy on the San Diego Tribune in 1929, he volunteered to sit in for an ailing George Schilling at Agua Caliente, across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. Schilling in 1923 had devised a method to feed his Daily Racing Form chart calls into the track's crude loudspeaker system, thus opening a new era in racetrack history. Its technique refined, the idea eventually spread to Chicago and the East, where in later years popular announcers such as Phil Georgeff and Fred "Cappy" Capossela, among others, were to enjoy lengthy careers of their own.

Hernandez immersed himself in racing, becoming a trainer, auctioneer, bloodstock agent, and Turf writer. He imported Chilean star Cougar II to the United States; he was Johnny Longden's agent in the '30s, and decades later called Longden's historic last ride aboard George Royal. His descriptions at Santa Anita alone were a resonant roll call of the greatest Thoroughbreds of mid-century.

Hernandez' Latino heritage lent a lilting, musical eloquence to his calls. But occasionally, in lesser races, his delivery could seem routine. Nor was he always perfect. Both Smith and Tufts remember a minor stakes marathon at 13/4 miles when Hernandez absent-mindedly switched off the mike as the runners crossed the finish line the first time around, with a mile still to go.

His microphone went dead for good Jan. 27, 1972. Weakened by a heart condition and bleeding internally after being kicked in the abdomen by a fractious horse earlier in the day, a stubbornly courageous Hernandez collapsed while calling the first race. "Terry Gilligan and I rushed to the announcer's booth and found Joe semi-
conscious on the floor," Smith remembered. "We summoned medics; then Terry took the binoculars from around Joe's neck and finished the call."

Hernandez died six days later at Arcadia Methodist Hospital at age 62, the vibrant voice of Santa Anita stilled forever, and a remarkable streak of 15,587 consecutive race calls entered as a worthy footnote in the record books of sport.

Now retired, MORTON CATHRO is a former reporter, editor, and columnist for the Oakland Tribune.