The art of calling a race: commentators share their secrets

How the vocal virtuosos of the racetrack riff, pun and hype their way through two minutes of sheer excitement 

In horseracing, it all starts with a name. A horse on a Saratoga track called ‘Arrrr’ was a good opportunity for Tom Durkin to try out his best pirate impression – but the well-known US commentator was less amused with the mischievously named ‘shesellsseashells’, whose pronunciation nearly slipped him up earlier in his career. Forget ‘Yakahickamickadola’; the intelligible moniker flummoxed him entirely, and Durkin decided to simply make up different versions of the name each time he had to call the horse.

But it’s not all clever word play. The art of calling a race home is a delicate one, requiring just the right pitch, an awareness of cadence and momentum, as well as a encyclopaedic memory and the ability to distinguish a pink silk from chartreuse, on a jockey atop a horse galloping at 50km/hour.

There is no typical training to hone these skills; nor is there a typical career trajectory. For Terry Spargo, the voice of Emirates Racing Authority in the Gulf for the last fifteen years, it was a childhood shaped by the crackly calls of Ken Howard, Bert Bryant and Vince Curry over a radio in Australia that kickstarted his passion.

“I got the idea in my head pretty early that this is what I wanted to do, but had no idea how to go about it. I went and did a radio course and for a while was a disc jockey in Australia for a country radio station. Eventually I got a break in Brisbane calling alongside Vince Curry, which was sort of a childhood dream realised.”

Bizarrely, I’m quite happy to line up and ride over fences – yet putting that headset on remains the most nervewracking thing I’ve ever done

Hayley Jane Moore

His style, he says, was at first mere parrotry until he started to settle into his own rhythm. “In my day, it was Ken Howard that all the new guys wanted to imitate…until we realised there could only be only one Ken Howard. But you get to the point when you are sufficiently competent enough with the colours and various other things and from there can develop your own style.”

For Hayley Jane Moore, it was a contest to find the first female commentator in the UK that gave her the confidence to break into a heavily male-dominated environment. Born into a racing family, she was riding – and giving comments over the phone on horses’ form – when she decided that she wanted to expand this commentary into a seat in the box.

“There are no female race commentators in Britain, which I find quite unusual, so when I heard about a competition to find Britain’s first, I thought I’d give it a go.”

The then 23-year-old Moore faced a particularly gruelling test for the final, calling four races at Ascot in front of a 20,000-strong crowd.

“Bizarrely, I’m quite happy to line up and ride over fences yet when it came to sitting down and sticking a headset on, it was the most nervewracking thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

After winning the competition, Moore faced another test to make it onto the professional race commentators’ roster, which she didn’t pass.

“I did some training and got put in front of a panel of judges, but my calls weren’t good enough to go out and be put on the roster – which was a shame, but it’s something that I think I needed more time to work on.”

“One of my biggest problems was speaking from right down in my diaphragm. My voice is actually relatively quite deep, but in comparison to the men, I found it really hard to build momentum towards the end of a race without getting too high-pitched.”

Hayley Jane Moore
Hayley Jane Moore won the 2011 contest 'Filly Factor', put on to find the UK's first female racing commentator

Currently Moore is concentrating on her riding, but is hopeful that age and experience will help her return in later years.  

Spargo, meanwhile, is a permanent fixture in the box – and when I talked to him, was in a whirlwind of preparation for the upcoming Dubai World Cup. To memorise the runners, he says that the simplest method is practice, practice, practice.  

“Each commentator has a different methodology of learning but it mostly boils down to the same thing; you stare at the jockey’s colour and either out loud or in your mind repeat [the name] over and over until you have it in your head. The hardest thing is when the new batch of two-year-olds start, and suddenly you have all these new names to get used to. Or, when my pronunciation of a horse with a very Arabic name causes everyone more amusement than information.” 

Though it is the style nowadays for commentators to concentrate on the front three runners, Spargo prefers to call every horse, harking back to the days of radio.

“When I first started, the radio was the main forum of racing coverage. Because people obviously couldn’t see their horse, it was vital to call every one,” he says.

Dubai World Cup took place on 28 March: http://www.dubairacingclub.com/visit/racing-season/dubai-world-cup