There's only about a month left. Fourteen racing dates to be exact to hear that full-bodied flavor of a voice, the voice of Woodbine, Dan Loiselle, before he retires after 48 years of working for the Ontario Jockey Club/Woodbine Entertainment Group.
Fourteen dates before he puts away that time-worn thesaurus and his miraculous binoculars and that bulging binder of race call phrases. Fourteen dates left to hear such memorable expressions as, “He's closing in on the leaders like a hungry dog on a pork chop,” — or if a horse was weaving down the home lane – “running down the stretch like a broken shopping cart.” And who can forget his red-letter cry: “Picture time!” when the finish was just too close to call.
There have been only two race callers for Woodbine since the track was built in 1956. First, there was Daryl Wells, and it seemed hard to imagine that anybody could replace his nasal tones, calling all the major races at Canada's premier track. He did it for 30 years. Then Loiselle took over, humbly, on July 23, 1986, the same day that British royals Fergie and Andrew were married. “I lasted longer than them,” Loiselle loves to say.
He started, hoping that all would go well. It has.
So much so that there has rarely been a time when a jockey did not salute Loiselle from the post parade. It's been going on for almost 30 years, quietly, jocks looking up 90 feet above the finish line – where Loiselle is a ghostly figure behind a glass – and tipping their hands in homage.
Ray Sabourin was the first. He'd been riding with some success in New York and New Jersey, and he returned to Canada about the time that Loiselle took his position in the Thoroughbred booth. Known as “Rocket Ray” for his ability to get a horse away from the gate with remarkable speed, Sabourin usually did well at the Greenwood spring or fall meets, when at times he was leading rider. Greenwood, a downtown oval (now defunct) right beside streetcar tracks, had a much smaller configuration than Woodbine. The announcer's booth was much closer to the track at Greenwood.
“At Greenwood, you could really hear the announcer,” Sabourin said (at Woodbine trackside, Loiselle's voice is much more muffled). “You could hear him call the race. He'd say whatever horse you were on, and he'd call my name. You could hear it: 'He's six in front.' Not a lot of racetracks can you hear the announcer calling your name.”
The first week after Sabourin returned to Canada, he was riding a horse called Diamond Is Forever at Greenwood. Sabourin was beaten by a snout. Loiselle, perhaps a nervous newbie at the time, actually called Sabourin as the winner of the race. (“Sometimes I bet on the wrong horses, too,” Loiselle said.) “I'm not sure if that was his first Thoroughbred race call or one of them,” Sabourin said.
The jockey appreciated the announcing miscue. “After that we had a chuckle about it,” Sabourin said. “We just started waving after that. It took on a thing of its own.”
“He'd wave to me in the first race on post parade,” Loiselle said. “Sometimes I would forget. And sometimes he would forget. I can remember, when he'd forget, I'd look down and go like that [spreading arms in mock query] like, 'You blew it!'
“Sometimes in his first race of the day, he'd have a horse that was a little fractious and he couldn't wave. So if either of us blew it on the first ride of the day, whether it was Ray or me, then the next ride, one of us would go: 'Like, come on.'
“That was our tradition.”
In retrospect, Loiselle often worried if the spectators wondered if the salute was a betting tip-off. Not so. But he's not above needling folks who come to visit his booth. He would tell them with a straight face that if the jockey on the number five horse waves, it means he's really in love with the horse – knowing full well that the jock would wave, regardless. When his visitors see the salute, they begin to search their pockets for some extra cash.
Sabourin retired from riding about five years ago. A short time after he left (he's now in the renovation business), young rider Tyler Pizarro also started to salute Loiselle. “Pizarro and I never talked about it, and Tyler just started waving every day, just the first ride,” Loiselle said. “ Whether he did it because he knew Ray was gone and he was going to pick up the slack, or whether he knew Ray did that, I don't know,” Loiselle said.
In reality, Pizarro said he had no idea Sabourin had been doing the same thing for years before him. “That's funny,” Pizarro said. “I just kind of did it out of my own good will, I guess. I always try to do it. I just love doing it. It's just something I do. It just became a habit.”
So why did Pizarro start? “I did it mostly because I like Dan a lot,” he said. “He's been really good to me. I notice that he announces my name a lot in races. It's almost like an appreciation to him. It's like a respect thing. I respect him a lot. He's been in this game a long time. He's well known in the industry. And he's a good guy to have in your corner.”
Pizarro had just returned this season after a year away from riding to heal body and mind. In his first race back, he gave tribute to Loiselle. He hadn't forgotten. And then he finished second on 17-1 shot Silent Auction.
In recent weeks, Loiselle's phone has been ringing off the hook with well-wishers saying goodbye. Trainers have been making a pilgrimage to his booth on the sixth floor. And other jockeys have begun to wave, too. On opening day, Emma-Jayne Wilson's first ride of the day was on Serious Talk, the second longest shot on the board at 10-1 in the Woodstock Stakes. “She was on post parade and I thought I saw her looking up at me,” Loiselle said. So he waved. Wilson waved back. Wilson won the race.
Perhaps, he thought, Wilson was just saying hello after not having seen him for four months over the winter.
Wilson said later that Wilson usually has her game face on during post parade. “But I've known Danny for so many years,” she said. “And I felt a little nostalgic. It was my first race that I rode, and Danny said my name and I thought: 'There are only going to be a couple more months of this and he's going to be down the road.'”
She says she usually gives him a wave during the first race of the season, but this had more significance.
“I think about it now and I'm happy for Danny and the decisions he's made for his life,” she said. “But I'm disappointed that he's going to be leaving. Frankly this place has always been of significance to me, and I think everybody can appreciate the voice that has been longstanding, and it kind of holds its own.” She says she's a little concerned about who Loiselle's replacement will be. It hasn't been announced yet.
As for Loiselle, he spent 19 years working for the Standardbred division, doing every job imaginable. He had a starter's licence. He was assistant racing secretary. He backed up various announcers. Since regular announcer Earl Lennox often was the color person on broadcasts of major races at Greenwood and Mohawk Raceways, Loiselle found himself in the announcing booth for the most important harness races: the North America Cup, the Maple Leaf Trot, the Canadian Pacing Derby. Breeders Crowns. He also worked as a steward – or judge as it's called on the harness side. He's been a placing judge, a patrol judge.
He tottered into Greenwood at age 10 behind his father Yves, who worked as a photo-finish man (mother Norma worked the press elevator for years, entertaining the occupants with her wit as she took them up and down). Loiselle would go to a room up a set of stairs above harness announcer Paul Hanover (great name for a Standardbred race caller), haul up a suitcase-sized reel-to-reel tape recorder and a microphone and call the races, just because. Then he'd run down after each race and ask Hanover: “What am I doing right? What am I doing wrong? What should I change? What do you like?”
It was just something he always wanted to do. “I've been really blessed,” he said. And now for 29 years, he's been calling Thoroughbreds. He's called 28 Queen's Plates and five (of seven) Canadian Triple Crown winners. He feels honored to have called Wise Dan in two editions of the Ricoh Woodbine Mile. (“Johnny Velazquez gives the green light to Wise Dan and his response is instantaneous. Wise Dan. Here he is, the titan of the turf, the sensational Wise Dan!”)
His replacement will be only the third race announcer in Woodbine's history. But Loiselle has left his mark. “I listen to him make a race call and he's probably as good as anybody,” Sabourin said. “You can take all your Trevor Denmans or anybody. He's as good as they get.”
Tom Durkin has referred to Loiselle's voice as “the velvet fog.” “He's got a great, unique voice,” said the longtime New York Racing Association caller who retired last year. “And more important, it's pleasant to hear. And he's very accurate. If they had a Golden Globe award for an announcer, he'd probably get it.”
Immediately after Loiselle's retirement was announced last fall, it is said 80 to 90 people applied for the job. Some wouldn't know a mane from a tail. And you cannot call races the way they should be called unless you've seen a lot of races, to know how a race flows. The search has been difficult and very important.
“You know the body language of horses,” Loiselle said. “You know the body language of jockeys. You see a jockey sitting there at the quarter pole, sitting like this, and you how he's got some horse.”
It may not be enough to be a broadcaster, with voice experience. Once, during a media day, Loiselle's friend, Rod Black, a top sports broadcaster from the TSN network, tried it out. “He said it was probably the toughest thing he'd ever done in his life,” Loiselle said.
It wasn't easy for Loiselle to make his decision. He said sometimes he feels waves of regret, but the waves are gentler now. “I'm feeling comfortable with the decision,” he said. “It's going to be nice to get in the car and travel and not have to say that I have to be back on Friday.
“The biggest thing I'll miss is the camaraderie around here, but that doesn't have to end. I won't be here 133 days, but I'll be here maybe six or seven or eight. I've made a lot of friends.”
On May 31, his wife, Wendy, is also retiring from her post as senior manager of corporate social responsibility for WEG. She's worked for the corporation for 37 years. Between the two of them, they've put in 85 years at Canada's top racetrack.
As for Pizarro, he's returned to the racing wars, just in time to pick up his tradition of paying homage to an irreplaceable race caller.
What will he do when Loiselle is gone? Will the tradition die?
“I don't know,” Pizarro said. “It's going to be very sad.
“It's going to be hard to fill his shoes. I don't know if anybody can.”
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