KEITH JONES NEARING HIS FINAL PARX RACE CALL
By Let’s Go Racing Parx,
By Dick Jerardi
Keith Jones remembers his first race call quite well.
Track Announcer Keith Jones at Parx Racing in Bensalem, PA courtesy Equi-Photo/Bill Denver
“Six horses going a mile,’’ he said. “They started right in front of me so I could see them. The winning horse was Blue Bella. If the horses down the backstretch hadn’t spread out, if they had been in a bunch, I would have been screwed because my hands were shaking. I couldn’t hold the binoculars.’’
It was 9:50 p.m. on June 24, 1985 at Garden State Park, the fifth race, six maidens going from finish line to finish line at the 1-mile track.
His last call at Parx is going to be the last race on Dec. 30.
Jones estimates he has called 70,000 races since becoming the full-time announcer in 1987 at what was then called Philadelphia Park.
The new Garden State Park opened April 1, 1985. Jones was there as part of the new matrix board operations team. He had always wanted to be an announcer, but really was not thinking horse racing when he was growing up hard by the seventh fairway at Merion Golf Club.
His matrix board compatriots encouraged him to go out on the roof and try two practice calls per night. So he did.
After about two weeks of secret practice calls, word got to GSP PR director Steve Nagler that Jones was doing it. He got called into Nagler’s office and he was made to play the tapes in front of 10 or 12 people.
“I was embarrassed,’’ Jones said. “At that point, they’re terrible.’’
Nagler took the tapes down the hall to GSP president Bob Quigley’s office. Jones was then told they both wanted him to keep practicing.
By that June night, backup announcer Vic Stauffer had left for another gig. So, when he was deemed ready, Jones replaced regular announcer Ralph Siraco for one race. And he was off, calling one race per night.
By that fall, he was Siraco’s assistant at the harness meet and was the backup for the 1986 thoroughbred meet. He became the full-time harness announcer later in 1986.
It was in the winter of 1987 when longtime Philadelphia Park announcer Jack Lamar was let go. Jones became the full-time announcer at Philly Park that year. And he has been there ever since.
So it has been a 34-year run for Jones as the Parx announcer. His first “job’’ began when he was a kid with pretty bad allergies who at times “was forced to stay inside and I used to play little baseball games on the floor and I would announce them.’’
He had always wanted to be an announcer and through timing and some providence, he ended up at Garden State in 1985.
“I loved baseball, I loved football, hockey,’’ Jones said. “I never in a million years would have thought it would be horse racing.’’
His final few months of high school at The Haverford School, Jones, like his fellow seniors, was given “an independent study project. You did something outside the classroom for six weeks and then wrote a big paper about it.’’
One of his classmates was Herb Clarke’s son. Clarke, the longtime weatherman at Channel 10, got Jones a job at WCAU radio where he worked with Pete Silverman who was an executive producer for the Flyers. Silverman told Jones to stay in touch so when he finished at the University of North Carolina, Jones called and was hired as a production assistant with the Flyers.
When he was working with the Flyers, he met the great Marv Bachrad who knew everybody in sports. By then, Jones had developed an interest in horse racing and was a semi-regular at Liberty Bell. When Garden State was about to open, Bachrad got Jones an interview. So it was that association with Pete Silverman in his final high school months that led Jones to that roof and eventually to the booth.
He was a DJ at his college radio station.
“I was a terrible DJ,’’ Jones said.
But he had a wonderful voice. Still does.
That was obvious early on when he first started calling races.
Even with that, it took some time for Jones to get comfortable.
“Two or three years,’’ he said. “Nagler was a big (Tom) Durkin fan. When I got started, he wanted me to listen to Durkin tapes.’’
Still unsure of himself, Jones said he would try to imitate Durkin in his early calls before eventually developing his own signature voice.
“Over the course of time, you begin to develop your own sense of what you’re doing,’’ Jones said. “Then, you begin to get your own personality.’’
Many people have noted the similarity in the voices of Jones and legendary Flyers announcer Gene Hart.
“I don’t know how that is, but it’s just a complete coincidence,’’ Jones said.
Hart was the caller for years at Brandywine Raceway in Delaware and a great help to Jones early in his career. Jones worked with him when he was with the Flyers, but the voices just happened.
You call 70,000 races, memorizing one set of horse names, forgetting them immediately after the race to memorize a new set, the races blend together. But some races stand out.
Like calling the first two races of Smarty Jones’ incredible career, Western Playboy’s record-setting Pennsylvania Derby in 1989, Preakness winner Summer Squall in the next year’s Pa. Derby.
In the last decade, when the Pa. Derby and Cotillion became major attractions, Jones got to call some of the biggest names of the sport _ California Chrome, Songbird, Nyquist, Untapable. _ Derby winners, Preakness winners, Belmont Stakes winners, Kentucky Oaks winners, Travers winners, Breeders’ Cup winners.
“That’s what every race caller wants to have a chance to see, the real stars of the sport,’’ Jones said. “It makes you as a race caller want to up your game just a little bit more. I’m glad it happened before my career went away. That was one of the best decisions the track ever made, to move the (Pa. Derby) away from the Travers. It just grew into great stuff. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.’’
In addition to Parx and Garden State, Jones called races at the short Atlantic City meet, as a fill-in at Monmouth Park, and for auditions at Hawthorne and Golden Gate. Jones and his wife Kelly are moving to Texas to be closer to her family as well as to “have the opportunity to enjoy lake living and some great golf.’’ He said he no longer wants to call full-time, but if, say, there is a need for a caller at Sam Houston for a day or a few days, Jones said he would do that.
Meanwhile, there are his final calls at Parx and that final/ final call on Dec. 30.
“I keep thinking about it, but I just can’t get a grasp on it right now,’’ Jones said. “I guess my sense of professionalism tells me that I should just handle it as any other race, but I know emotionally, I may handle it professionally on the outside; on the inside, there will be a lot of emotion.’’