By Gary McMillen
A modest man of proper etiquette and meticulous with language, Fair Grounds race caller Michael Wrona is forced to admit that he has a special gift. "Calling the races is not a job for everybody," Wrona says, clicking the toggle switch to the public address system. "At minimum you need a voice that is not irritating to the human ear. You need to have keen eyesight. The most important aspect is that you need very good short-term memory." Short-term memory as an occupational hazard -- don't get too close. Wrona makes it sound like a disease. "Race calling has forced my brain to be very focused on the short term," Wrona explains. "You have less than ten minutes to cram the horses' names into your memory. Immediately after the race you have to mentally wipe the slate clean. You could have a horse in the next race with the same set of silks so you have to forget." Ten times a day, Wrona's craft requires him to commit to memory the entire field of horses in each race. The process (think of a sponge as a guided missile) starts when the first horse steps on to the dirt. Wrona shifts mind, body and breath into a purposeful mantra. The intention is to absorb a composite mental picture of the horse and align it with a name. Wrona will have to pull that memory trigger during the actual race call. Repeating the names of the horses over and over, back and forth, Wrona burns the images into his mind. It's the art of gazing and the science of focus, searching for the one hook of detail that will help him to remember under pressure. There is no 2-minute warning or time outs in horseracing. Once the gate latch springs open, Wrona has to be ready. "I like to get a good eyeful," Wrona explains. "You can't always rely on memorizing the colors of the cap or the silks. Different colored blinkers or a certain bridle may be the mark. Equipment like a shadow roll can become the main identifier. Of course, you got to love a gray." A self-imposed minimum requirement for Wrona is to call the entire field at least once during the race. "If I don't get through the whole field at least once then I am filthy on myself," he says, drifting to Australian slang. "Every owner, every trainer, every player that has bet $2 deserves to hear the name of his horse." For the wagering students who have boxed the trifecta, Wrona is a blessing. "I am mindful of the players taking a dip in the exotics," Wrona says. "I just don't concentrate my call in the stretch on the likely winner. I like to be mentioning horses that are trying to get up for third and fourth. If that means calling a horse that is running last at the eighth-pole then that is what I am going to do." Wrona likes to mix equal parts of accurate information with entertainment. "My objective is to paint a bigger picture than just the names and the margins," he says. "I think you can raise it up above just providing the basic facts and spice it up a bit with some humor now and again. I don't ever want to be branded a comedian but to give them a chuckle once in awhile doesn't hurt anyone." The power of split second cliché can be the icing on the cake of a race called with imagination. Audiotapes can provide evidence of times when Wrona described horses that "gave in like a pricked balloon" or was "flat as a lizard drinking." "I've got a whole list of things floating around in my head," Wrona explains of his wit that can be unleashed quicker than a kangaroo kick. "Sometimes they pop into my head and I let fly with it. You just hope the horsemen have a sense of humor." Wrona is tuned in to the quirks and personalities of the horses that he calls. "It doesn't happen often but sometimes I'll just be taken by a horse," Wrona says, putting on his headphones. "More than anything else, acceleration is what impresses me. Acceleration and tenacity, those are the signs of a good horse." In 1983, at the age of 17, Wrona grabbed the microphone for the first time on a holiday weekend at a cattle station in the remote outback region of central Australia. "I had to fly part of the journey in a little three-seat plane to get there," Wrona remembers. "They didn't even have a tent for me to sleep in. I just laid under a blanket and looked up at the stars." Part rodeo, part racing, the track in the middle of nowhere had a public address system but no outside rail. It took 20 minutes to round up horses that bolted on the turn. Standing on a 44-gallon steel drum, a bookmaker accepted bets in the infield. Long-term memory being an admitted issue, Wrona cannot remember if he was even paid for the assignment. Seven years later and the Australian race calling legend, John Tapp, would be the catalyst for Wrona to come to the United States. In 1990, Tapp was offered the track announcer position at Hollywood Park. He declined but recommended the youthful and exuberant Wrona. "I was totally unaware that he had any knowledge of me," Wrona says, "but he must have been keeping a sneaky ear on my progress." With the chance of a lifetime, Wrona resigned (over the phone) from his job at a radio station and began his American experience where his accent, diverse commentary and attention to detail made him popular at top-level tracks. Short-term memory or just plain restless, the man who makes his living with words is suddenly at a loss for them. Asked to chart the definition of his role as announcer/commentator, Wrona sips a glass of water and ponders longer than usual. "The highest compliment a race call caller can get," he finally says, "is to have someone say that they closed their eyes and listened to your call and knew exactly what was unfolding and where their horse was in the race."