Rodman: In Preakness, expect the unexpected

by | May 11, 2017 | Breaking, Features, Maryland, MD Racing, Racing, Top Stories, Triple Crown Trail

Dave Rodman. Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.

From a Maryland Jockey Club release

In nearly four decades as a track announcer, from his start at the now-shuttered bayou bullring of Jefferson Downs to his current perch atop the 147-year-old shrine that is historic Pimlico Race Course, Dave Rodman has enjoyed some of racing’s finest moments – and a few of the craziest.

Yet even with the experience of tens of thousands of races called behind him, the 58-year-old New Orleans native – known at this time of year as ‘The Voice of the Preakness’ – still enjoys the thrill that comes every third Saturday in May.

“If you don’t get nervous or a little bit of butterflies, it may be time to move on and hang it up,” said Rodman, who begins calling the races Thursday when Pimlico opens its 12-day meet. “The thing about the Preakness is, it could be a runaway like Hansel. It could be something monumental and historic like American Pharoah. It could be a blanket finish like Silver Charm, Free House, Captain Bodgit, and Touch Gold stumbling. It could be Afleet Alex going to his knees and getting up to win. You just have to kind of prepare mentally to expect anything.”

Rodman inherited his love of racing from his father, Hyman, a casual horseplayer that used to sneak his underage son into Jefferson Downs and the Fair Grounds on weekends. Initially, Rodman’s interest was piqued by the handicapping and gambling aspects of racing.

“He would give me 10 bucks and say, ‘Don’t lose it,’” Rodman said. “I would basically bet to show.”

By high school Rodman’s interests shifted to radio and he began working the overnight shift as a disc jockey on the local AM station, which he continued after graduation. His first full-time radio job came at a tiny AM station in Pascagoula, Miss., a small town best known for an alleged alien abduction near its shipyards that drew headlines in the early 1970s.

Rodman landed back in New Orleans at WTIX, the region’s major AM station at the time, and also spent some time in California working for a radio trade magazine until drifting back into local radio. When radio listenership began transitioning from AM to FM, Rodman decided it was time to get back into racing.

American Pharoah

American Pharoah, one of Dave Rodman’s most memorable calls. Photo by Laurie Asseo.

He began walking hots at Jefferson Downs and one day was approached by the track announcer, Rick Mocklin, who was leaving the job the following year to become a trainer and looking for a replacement. Having grown up listening to Mocklin’s calls, Rodman was flattered by his interest.

“He let me come up and practice on the roof with the pigeons,” Rodman said. “I remember going out on the roof and there was a bunch of two-by-eights, pigeon poop and the ledge, and me and my tape recorder. He critiqued me and they put me up in the booth one night to call the final race on the slowest night of the week. I called the wrong horse as the winner, but they gave me the job anyway.”

From 1981 to 1984 Rodman called the races at Jefferson Downs, which operated primarily in the summer, while also filling in at Evangeline Downs and Louisiana Downs. In 1985 he was hired to be the full-time announcer at Louisiana Downs, a much larger track with year-round dates.

“This is back when they would get 18,000 people on a weekend. It was a big deal,” Rodman said. “People would come from Dallas, Fort Worth, Longview. The hotels would fill up. It was a real taste of calling at a major-league track.”

When Rodman heard from late Churchill Downs announcer Luke Kruytbosch that there was an opening in Maryland to succeed Milo Perrins, he sent in a tape, interviewed over the phone and took the job without ever visiting the tracks or the area.

“They gave me the break to come up here. It was quite different from Louisiana. I saw rolling hills,” Rodman said. “Louisiana Downs was new, modern, glass structure and here Pimlico and Laurel are older and have history. It reminded me more of Fair Grounds at the time, it had a lot more charm. It was just a different atmosphere.”

Rodman’s first Preakness came in 1991, when Hansel bounced back from finishing 10th as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby with a seven-length romp in the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown. Hansel, trained by Louisiana-based Frank Brothers, went on to win the Belmont and be named champion 3-year-old male.

Three-quarters in 1:10 and one, and Hansel has taken the lead in the Preakness! Hansel disposes of Corporate Report, but Best Pal is going to come after Hansel as they turn for home. Homeward bound in the Preakness Stakes and it’s Hansel, the beaten favorite in the Kentucky Derby, looking to come back with sweet revenge! Hansel responds to the whip of Jerry Bailey and he’s widening at the eighth pole … It’s just a question of how far for Hansel … Hansel, in the Preakness!

“My first Preakness I was super nervous, obviously,” Rodman said. “I remember coming from Louisiana, Frankie Brothers was the kingpin of Louisiana Downs and here comes Hansel. Not only did he win, he blew them away. That was my first big fond memory.”

The 2005 Preakness provided Rodman a different kind of thrill when Afleet Alex clipped heels with leader Scrappy T at the top of the stretch and nearly went down before gathering himself up and going on to a 4 ¾-length victory. He, too, would go on to win the Belmont and earn a year-end sophomore championship.

Afleet Alex is coming after Scrappy T in the Preakness, and, oh! Scrappy T taking out Afleet Alex, who almost went down! Scrappy T bearing out at the three-sixteenths. Afleet Alex, boy does he have some heart! Look at him come back, a furlong to go! Down to the final furlong in the Preakness. Afleet Alex and Scrappy T. How much the best is he? Afleet Alex strolling home in the Preakness to win by three.”

“When they reach the quarter pole, you’ve got the crowd and you’re pumped up,” he said. “I remember Afleet Alex. I have my binoculars on a monopod and I remember even though they were on the monopod he almost went down and I was still shaking. For that split second I had to concentrate and not let the binoculars ruin your focus. It’s easy to become unfocused when something like that happens.”

Nine times since his arrival in Maryland, Rodman had called the Derby winner to the Preakness wire first only to see them come up a win short of the Triple Crown three weeks later in the Belmont. The first came in 1997, when Silver Charm, Free House and Captain Bodgit finished heads apart ahead of Touch Gold, who stumbled badly at the start.

“One thing I’ve always found with racing in general and in the Preakness in particular, always expect the unexpected,” Rodman said. “When Touch Gold stumbled … you can always chart out a race on paper and try to figure out who’s going to be where at a particular point, but it doesn’t always work that way.”

The 2015 Preakness will live in Rodman’s memory for both American Pharoah’s victory in what would become the first Triple Crown sweep in 37 years and the apocalyptic weather conditions that engulfed Pimlico moments before the race. Through heavy rain and winds, American Pharoah splashed home a front-running seven-length winner.

Off with the roar of the Baltimore crowd for the 140th running of the Preakness, all seem to have come away OK … Strong fractions by American Pharoah (22.90, 46.49), strolling through the slop here in Baltimore, with a two-length lead … American Pharoah, sent right to the front, is still there … And American Pharoah turns for home with the lead … Now Divining Rod, fully driven in second … Dortmund couldn’t quicken in third … They’re coming through the final furlong … And it’s American Pharoah and Victor Espinoza with a lead by six from Divining Rod … American Pharoah, a true American phenom! American Pharoah, phenomenal in the Preakness!

“American Pharoah came out and the skies opened up,” he said. “They were beginning to warm up and gallop off and when I looked in the distance, I couldn’t see a thing. For five minutes as the storm came down I thought, ‘You’re going to have to have something to say if it keeps raining this way,’ then about two minutes to post it started clearing up a little bit. That was a scary situation. You start thinking about making the ultimate faux pas.”

An annual challenge for Rodman is calling races over the party in the infield, which has evolved from the less inhibited bring-your-own-alcohol days to the InfieldFest, which features various tents, entertainment and food options including award-winning musicians on two stages.

“In the 90s especially they would do a lot of the cooking and grilling at the five-eighths pole and you’re calling a race and all of a sudden you see smoke,” he said. “From 1991 to around 2000 I always had this big fear that I was going to lose horses in the chaos of the infield. It’s a lot different on a normal day when no one’s in the infield.”

Though the Preakness is unsurpassed in its history and prestige, many other races are burned in Rodman’s memory. One came on the 1999 undercard, when a suicidal fan wandered on the track and took a swing at favorite Artax as the horses came charging down the stretch of the Maryland Breeders’ Cup Handicap. No one was hurt in the incident.

“I hope it never happens again,” Rodman said, “but I have a much better description for it the second time around.”

A race that made sports highlights around the country came on April 13, 2013 at Pimlico. Spicer Cub, a maiden trained by Mary Eppler, set the pace before suddenly bolting twice – the second time taking jockey Xavier Perez out of his irons and forcing him to go between the parked starting gate and the outer rail – before making an improbable and incredible comeback to finish second by a nose.

Spicer Cub shifted out again! Spicer Cub just went, well, outside of the starting gate that was on the outer rail! But still has a chance! Spicer Cub, do you believe in miracles? … A determined Spicer Cub on the outside. Spicer Cub and the X-Man on an adventurous ride, in a photo finish … The rider lost the irons on Spicer Cub. And that was a wild ride!

“I don’t know why the ‘do you believe in miracles’ popped up in my head,” Rodman said. “People say I was channeling Al Michaels, but I remember that morning I was listening to the 70s and 7 and the Hot Chocolate song came on where they sing, ‘I believe in miracles.’ I had that song in my head the entire day.

“The Spicer Cub race was like calling two different races, literally,” he added. “I was having to lean out and see what he’s doing while trying to keep an eye on the actual race. If I had to do that call over again, I may have described his move between the starting gate and the outer rail a little differently.”

While he continues to track today’s current track announcers, Rodman said his biggest influences come from his early days listening to Mocklin, Fair Grounds’ Tony Bentley and Dave Johnson, who called the Triple Crown races for ABC and NBC.

He remembers being at school listening on a transistor radio to ‘Galloping’ George Henderson’s stretch calls from Fair Grounds, and has also borrowed from well-respected stylistic storytellers Tom Durkin and Trevor Denman as he continues to hone his craft.

“I listen to everybody,” Rodman said. “The way I look at it is, there are a lot of great callers that are accurate and can do the job that I can do. They can be here right now. I’m just the lucky one to have this particular job.”