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Book Review

cover The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez: The Voice of Santa Anita
By Rudolph Valier Alvarado
Caballo Press of Ann Arbor, September 2009, 280 pages hardcover and paperback

Calling a horse race to a live audience at the track or on television is a specialized skill that few have mastered. The announcer must quickly and accurately give the position of each horse in the race, spot late moves by closers, see which horses are running well and which ones are tiring, and at the end be able to call close finishes. The race call is part of the atmosphere of horse racing, an aspect of the game that is not used in most other spectator sports. Of this very select group, arguably one man stands alone as the greatest in American racing.

Joe Hernandez was hired on as the very first track announcer at Santa Anita. He called the very first race at the historic Arcadia oval on Christmas Day, 1934, and every race thereafter until his streak ended on January 27, 1972, a total of 15,587 races. He called many of the greats to have raced beneath the San Gabriel Mountains, including Seabiscuit and Citation. However, Hernandez was also a man of mystery, frequently making up stories about his past, including where he came from. Award-winning Michigan-based biographer Rudolph Alvarado, inspired by hearing Hernandez's calls of Seabiscuit's races, set out to research the life and times of this Mexican-American, who despite his ethnic background became the pride and joy of Santa Anita and American racing in general.

The book begins with a brief account of Hernandez's death, a part of the story which is explored in greater detail in the final chapters of the book. He was kicked by a horse at Hollywood Park during training hours, but stubbornly insisted on going to Santa Anita to call the afternoon's races. His race-calling streak ended when he collapsed in the booth midway through a race that day and died six days later.

Alvarado starts off the biography explaining the difficulties in researching Hernandez's past. With help from Joe's son Father Frank Hernandez, a Jesuit priest, they interviewed numerous people and searched public records throughout the southwest. Frank did not know where his father was born, and Alvarado made good on his promise to get the answer for him: Metcalf, Arizona. Hernandez dropped out of high school when he found work as a sports writer with the San Diego Tribune then the Los Angeles Examiner. He soon started calling races at Caliente, then Tanforan, Bay Meadows, and finally Santa Anita for its grand opening, with a stopover in Chicago where he used the race charts to recreate racecalls for radio. He quickly became the premier race caller on the west coast, from Longacres to Del Mar. His skill at the job in California was also noticed elsewhere, as Hernandez also had stints calling races at Pimlico in Baltimore and was invited to call one running of the Kentucky Derby. Clearly, Hernandez's favorite horse was Seabiscuit, and his greatest thrill was calling the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap when the Charles Howard colorbearer finally won the $100,000 race. But even great callers make mistakes. On two occasions he called the wrong race, having had the wrong program page open. But like greats in any line of work will do, Hernandez just picked himself up and carried on. Joe Hernandez is to racing what Joe DiMaggio and Cal Ripken Jr. are to baseball.

Hernandez was not only a race caller and a news reporter. His company imported horses from South America to race under his own colors or for other owners, most notable of these being Cougar II. Hernandez's legacy in this business lives on today in the many South American-breds seen in the entries and in the winner's circle of American stakes races. He was a jockey agent for John Longden during the Hall of Fame rider's early days, and later on he helped the many Mexicans who found employment on the backstretch of Santa Anita, conducting English language lessons at the paddock fountain after training hours ended to give something back to the racing community.

Many books have been written about horse racing's superstars: the horses, jockeys, trainers, breeders, and owners. But "the voice" that you hear while cheering on those superstars also has to have natural talent that is improved over time. Joe Hernandez was a pioneer in the art of race calling, brought into the game when the idea of an announcer, let alone a Mexican-American on the microphone, was unheard of. He opened doors for Hispanics in horse racing, and started a tradition that you hear every day when the bell sounds, the gate opens, and a voice booms over the speakers, "There they go!"

The book includes 45 black and white photos, footnotes, a reader's guide, and an appendix. But best of all, a CD of 17 of Hernandez's most famous race calls is included and the text has side bars prompting the reader to listen to a particular race that coincides with the story. Fans can listen to Seabiscuit winning the Big Cap, Silky Sullivan coming out of the clouds, as well as the call that ended the streak, days before his passing.

Clearly, this is an excellent work written by a racing fan for his fellow racing fans, allowing them to look back at the great Joe Hernandez and some of the great horses and people he encountered during his four decades of service in California. Rudolph Alvarado's work pays tribute to Joe Hernandez and educates the fan about his contributions to American racing.

The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez has a cover price of $34.47 and can be ordered or direct from the author.

Rating:     5/5

The Voice of Santa Anita official website

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