I’ve always believed that a race-caller makes a good race great. When it happens, the spine starts to tingle and your arm is covered in goosebumps.
In a great call ‘a champion becomes legend’ and a thoroughbred warrior is anointed ‘the fighting tiger’.
Horses ‘rocket down the outside’, ‘jump out of ground’ and ‘come back off the canvass’. It’s ‘London to a brick-on’ or ‘gone for all money’; ‘flat as a biscuit’ (thanks Terry Bailey!) or ‘flying home’.
These are the phrases that make racing special.
And here are my top five race calls. These are the five calls, from five different callers, in five great races that have stuck with me. Each of them is special for their own reasons.
5. “The original rags to riches story”, 2007 Hollywood Gold Cup, Vic Stauffer
I don’t think you’ll have to tell an American they have some of the worst race-callers in the world – they would’ve figured it out years ago.
I have a soft-spot for the comedic calls of Tom Durkin. He is famous for his descriptions of races involving the horse named “Arrrrr”.
Yet it is the emotional call of Vic Stauffer in the 2007 Hollywood Cup that gets an American commentator into the top five.
Stauffer’s call encapsulated the drama of racing and the fighting qualities you often find in a great, tough gelding.
Lava Man came from the humblest of beginnings, starting off at the lowest level of Californian racing: claiming races on the Fair Circuit.
He eventually rose to the top of American racing – becoming the first horse to win Grade 1 races on three different surfaces – turf, dirt and cushion.
Lava Man is one of America’s greatest handicappers. And his third win in the Hollywood Gold Cup when he broke the track record, in the closest of finishes, is one of racing’s great moments in the ‘00s.
Like most great handicappers Lava Man didn’t always win but when he did, it was special.
4. “Frankel in majestic form”, 2012 Queen Anne Stakes, Simon Holt
Frankel’s victory in the 2012 Queen Anne Stakes is rated by Timeform as the greatest performance by a thoroughbred in history.
And I can still remember live blogging the race for The Roar late on a June night last year. My jaw was on the floor, just as everyone else’s was. This was the illustration of perfection.
So it was no easy task for Holt to maintain composure and punch out a fantastic description of the epitome of the thoroughbred.
Yet he did.
And the upshot of Holt’s great call is whenever Frankel’s great win is replayed, we can be treated to a description almost as good as the athletic display of the great stallion that afternoon.
3. Lonhro’s Melbourne farewell, 2004 Australian Cup, Greg Miles
This was an enormous performance and a fantastic victory by Lonhro in his Victorian swansong. But there’s no doubt, Miles’ call makes this race legendary.
Over 20,000 people travelled to Flemington on a Monday afternoon to farewell “the Black Flash”. And, as so often was the case, Lonhro was expected to grab the cash against a field littered with stars – on this day Mummify, Elvstroem and Makybe Diva.
Darren Beadman, arguably the greatest Australian jockey since George Moore, was once again given the assignment aboard Lonhro. But it was one of his poorer rides.
Yet without the bad judgement of “the Dazzler” on this day, we would’ve been robbed of a great race.
The 2004 Australian Cup is what wanting to win is all about!
2. The ‘Mare of the World’ versus the ‘Horse of Hong Kong’, 2000 Hong Kong Mile, David Raphael
Every now and again, two great horses clash on the international stage and the race lives up to the billing. This is exactly what happened in the 2000 Hong Kong Mile.
It was Sunline, the all-conquering New Zealand mare, against Hong Kong’s champion miler, Fairy King Prawn.
And David Raphael took the race to a new level. He gave Sunline a nickname that still sticks posthumously, and kept his composure in describing a thrilling closing passage.
My spine tingles when I listen to this description. Raphael’s nasal voice, a roaring Sha Tin crowd and a classic finish combine to create a great race.
1. The race of the century, 1986 Cox Plate, Bill Collins
You know it’s a great race when the race-caller is almost as tired as the horses at the finish. And you know it’s a great call when Greg Miles and Bruce McAvaney are taken aback by it.
Miles and McAvaney called the 1986 Cox Plate in commentary boxes adjacent to that of Bill Collins. And when speaking immediately after the race, they both agreed they’d done a good job of a great race. But when they heard the description of Collins, they were awestruck.
This is possibly the best piece of commentary – in any sport – by an Australian in the 20th century.
It was the race of the century.