Feature: Bespoke, The Last Race Call of John G. Dooley’s Arlington Experience

Track Announcer John G. Dooley has served 21 seasons at Arlington International Racecourse ... This feature focuses on his experiences and approach to the impending closure of a place he was devoted to for so long.  (Photo: Coady)
Track Announcer John G. Dooley has served 21 seasons at Arlington International Racecourse ... This feature focuses on his experiences and approach to the impending closure of a place he was devoted to for so long. (Photo: Coady)

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“Away … and runnnnning at Arlington” …

With that simple piece of phrasing, and by extending the emphasis in the middle of the word “running,” track announcer John G. Dooley has made his own voice heard. Literally … As he confidently peers through his binoculars, slowly and steadily, he moves ever so smoothly in a counterclockwise arc, time-and-time again, outlining the ovular shape in front of him. It’s like a strange combination of a cadence merging with Pilates that meets with the study of ornithology … tracing a distinctive individual set of equine flights in this case.

Dooley simultaneously watches, describes, and weaves a verbal story, a sort of bespoke or custom experience for us listeners. The calls involve the rich flora and fauna of the both famed and infamous Arlington International Racecourse that is located near the Route 53 Expressway and was founded shortly after World War II. From his perch, high atop the Grandstand, he has presided over that ground at this Chicago landmark for 21 seasons, and it appears unless something changes, this will be his last. Unless you were on an electronic hiatus these past few years, you know of which I am referring. Arlington is on the auction block. Even its signature race, “The Million,” has become a “formerly,” reduced as far as its prestige and purse money. Ownership of the land will change hands from Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI), the folks who hold the deed to the Kentucky Derby, and it will pass to someone else. Whoever that is, nothing short of a miracle can halt the fact that they will not be utilizing the track to race horses. Thus, the grand temple to a Chicago racing heritage is relegated to the books and the wrecking ball. In other words, history …

The media stories concerning Arlington’s current state and its ignominious closing are as thick as fleas. You can find them among turfwriters and journalists alike, who have followed this story, feasting on its sorrow and woe. Another racetrack that has Olympically fallen. One could argue there are so many of the downtrodden tales that they have obscured the memories … the drive and determination, the flashes of color, the people, and most importantly, the horses, that made it what it was and is today. Maybe instead of focusing on its death or speculating on who can save it by debating around the water cooler (i.e. Chicago Bears), we should take a page out of Dooley’s book. Channeling the Bard, Geoffrey Chaucer, he says, “All good things … even all great things, must come to an end.” You have to understand the depth of that assertion. It is pure Dooley. That is a chiseled cornerstone of his ideology. A blend of idealism and realism that comprises who he is as a person. It can help us understand what is happening at Arlington.

Speaking to him, you are immediately struck by his gratitude and overwhelming respect for what he has the privilege to preside over. Dooley knows every inch of that place, and the memories make him an archivist of both individual moments and sweeping themes of change. He is a person who understands the magnitude of what he has gotten to do all these years, but he is also able to pick up on the nuances … the subtle little flashes of interest, which allows him to offer us all wonderful tidbits … side items … to every race he calls. When we talked by phone, he was contemplative and considerate, along with being full of appreciation for his Arlington experience. I wanted to ask the burning question … how are you feeling about what is ahead? “You know, I have always been a positive thinker, and look at everything in the moment,” he admitted. Dooley went on to say, “Whatever happens, it is going to be difficult for everyone here, but life closes a door, then opens a window.”

That is not some kind of overly-simplistic Julie Andrews rip; this is vintage Dooley, and his personality is supremely affable that it immediately puts you at ease. One of his greatest attributes, and there are many, is that he fundamentally understands the march of time. He is a student of history, a traveler who visits historic sites, and the lessons that those stories can tell. Dooley loves periods like the Second World War, and has spent time reading and researching, looking at their reflective nature. There is little that is amateur-esque about him. Being inquisitive, thinking deeply about a series of thematic slices of time is something he has lived as the track announcer. Little did he know, some 2 decades ago what an impact it would have on his own life, and to those that witnessed the history of the sport.

How did Dooley come to Arlington? His well-documented rise saw him study race calling under who he calls the “Master of NYRA,” Tom Durkin. After graduating from St. John’s in the late 1980s, a prior trip to Saratoga with his family had hooked him as a teen. His father, John C. (Dooley is John G.), would take him regularly to Belmont Park early just so they could be first in line to enter. Working in racing in New York was the culmination of a dream come true. His announcing continued apace. While Durkin was out of town traveling to announce the Arc at Longchamp in France for NBC, and his backup was indisposed, Dooley stepped into the spotlight. He called his first major race with Go For Wand’s victory in the 1990 running of the Beldame Stakes. “There is nothing more exhilarating that getting to call a G1 race,” he mused. “It is just the best feeling,” admitted Dooley. He went on to say that, “I think if you prepare and prepare and prepare, the results are so worth it.” By the late 1990s he was ready to move on, and captain his own ship, first at Thistledown outside Cleveland, Ohio. Then he had the opportunity to work once again with Steve Sexton and Corey Johnson, who were down in Texas at Lone Star Park. Becoming the track announcer there gained Dooley even more acclaim. His star was on the rise, so to speak.

He wasn’t long for Texas because the folks in Illinois were looking for a new voice to boom over their loudspeakers and across the simulcast airwaves. It was the new century, specifically May, and promoter and executive Frank Gabriel tapped Dooley on the shoulder and wanted him to come to the land of Chicago racing. “Initially, the job was to call races at all 3 tracks, Arlington, Sportsman’s Park, and Hawthorne, but that changed quickly, and Arlington became my chief focus,” he said. Almost immediately Dooley understood the magnitude of the plum position he had just inherited. This was the site where the 1st P.A. system was installed, as the legendary voice of Clem McCarthy took the newly-minted waves. In more recent times, the booth’s legacy had included the likes of Michael Wrona and Kurt Becker, and of course, was made world famous by the sonorous, entrancing thick descriptions, of one Mr. Phil Georgeff. The long-serving track guide coined wonderful phrases like “Here they come spinning out of the turn …” that became watch words for any of his calls. Dooley noted those nuances (still employs some to this day), and his respect for the past was, and still is, what has been dubbed, “The Final Turn,” as something to honor. “I had the opportunity to meet and talk with past announcers, and their legacy has become mine,” showing reverence.

That respect and admiration, something that stems from his love of the historical past, was evident when it came to his calls of Arlington’s most famous contest, what many just call “The Million.” Back in 1981, as horse racing entered a new era of simulcasting, Joe Joyce and a host of worthy lieutenants unveiled an audacious plan … put on a $1 Million race for the first time in history. They attracted the signature North American turf horse of the period in John Henry and his jockey Willie Shoemaker, who was the premier rider of the period. That kind of credibility, plus what turned out to be a victory by just “a nose” over The Bart in a photo, created a massive amount of transferable buzz. Dooley vividly remembers that race, and how much excitement built over the course of the 1980s. Despite a fire that famously burned the old iconic Grandstand to the ground in late July of 1985, and a shutdown over contract disputes that left the track dark for 2 years in 1998 and 1999, the masses were ready to return.

With Dooley’s hiring and “The Million” back on, it was an exciting time around the racetrack. “I was really nervous at the beginning,” the caller said, “I thought to myself, anyone who says that announcing Claiming races are just the same as Grade 1s are kidding themselves … it is a huge deal.” In that inaugural year, Bobby Frankel saddled Chester House, and with Jerry Bailey serving as pilot, guided them to victory. It would be Frankel’s 1st of 2 wins in the race. Talking with Dooley, makes you realize how special this track truly is to him. When I asked him how many races he has announced over his 20 plus years at Arlington, he said, “You know, I have no idea … no clue … to me that is not important,” he said as a matter of fact. More vintage Dooley, a person who is focused on the quality of the content, not quantity of the calls.

Once the Chicago landmark was purchased by CDI just as Dooley arrived, a couple of years later he made another transition. Double-duty found him becoming the track announcer at one of their other venues, the Fair Grounds down in New Orleans, Louisiana. Even though he has occupied a pair of residences for over a decade and a half, “The Windy City” will always feel like home. “I am going to miss this place, its people, the memories, and the runners who became legends,” lamented Dooley. When it comes to that last category, the “Voice of Arlington” makes no bones about who was at the top of his bank—The Pizza Man. Trainer Roger Brueggemann, who sadly passed away back in December of last year at the age of 75, saddled over 1200 winners over the course of his Illinois-based racing career. The Pizza Man was a true fan favorite, running in grass events from Del Mar to Keeneland. Out of English Channel, he won back-to-back Grade III Stars and Stripes in 2014 and 2015 on the Arlington Turf, so going into that try in “The Million” the Chicago faithful were hopeful that Brueggemann’s ace would be ready to roll late.

Below is embedded a video of that 2015 Arlington Million race...

Dooley fondly recalls the post position draw at the now defunct ESPN Zone off Ohio in Downtown Chicago. “I was with Alyssa Ali and someone asked me what would be my call if The Pizza Man won,” he said, “I told them … I’ve got nothing … I have no idea.” You have to understand, moments where something of great magnitude might or might not happen, deserve inspiration. Leaving it up to that instantaneous flash can sometimes spark inspiration according to Dooley. As he puts it so succinctly, “You can’t script a Grade 1 moment.” He didn’t … As The Pizza Man ranged up alongside the leaders before the top of the stretch in the 2015 edition of “The Million,” Dooley felt that something big was coming. “I knew in the back of my mind that if Florent Geroux could get him clear, all of Chicago was going to erupt … and that is precisely what I ended up saying as he crossed the wire.” It was another signature Arlington instant, “rocking the foundations,” and will be indelibly cemented in the minds of those that watched it … immortalized on YouTube for all to see.

There is nothing more gratifying, yet humbling when it all comes to an end … it is a complicated mix of emotions. Dooley accepts that, and understands the ramifications of what he calls “claims to history.” It will in no way be easy to watch Arlington slip away. It built an international reputation among horsepeople, bettors, and the general public. Dooley witnessed a Breeders’ Cup in 2002, hosted an all-star track announcer event with many of the greats, and served as a cornerstone at the track for over 2 decades as the best trainers and jockeys came into town in August for “The Million.” As an international racing fan himself, Dooley lapped up every minute of it. European trainers Aidan O’Brien and Dermot Weld, Frankie Dettori, the late Pat Smullen, all came; as has Frankel’s greatest protégé Chad Brown, who has notched a record 4 wins in the big one, the last in 2019 with Bricks and Mortar. Dooley also welcomed a bevy of sports icons, including broadcasting crews helmed by Brent Musburger and Chris Fowler, but most of all, from his vantage point he was able to peer out through those binoculars over one of the most beautiful courses in North America.

That beauty was made rich and full because of the presence of the Thoroughbreds, and from those people who sought to make Arlington a mecca of racing. Dooley knows that he is one cog in that storied history. He will continue to bring professionalism, and that bespoke style in the booth that was just what the track needed over the past 21 seasons. The “Arlington Million” was summarily cancelled in 2020 because of COVID-19. The 2021 version, which will be run next Saturday, is renamed “Mr. D Stakes” with a lesser purse of $600,000. Despite this news, Dooley’s approach to his vocation remains focused and resolute. “I wish I had some insider knowledge about the sale,” he said, “I don’t know what will happen, but I am trying to remain hopeful … it is all I can do right now.”

When I asked Dooley about what he would remember most about the course before the impending Closing Day, which is slated for September 25, he took me through a series of memorable markers—a tour ensued. It was like being miniaturized, and situated on the ledge of his binoculars. He said his opening, “Away … and runnnnning at Arlington,” was something he began doing at the start of Race 1, Day 1 of every card. As the field passes the Grandstand, Dooley noted the placidness of the Terrace Café. A spot that he would have loved to have enjoyed if he wasn’t occupied in such an elevated space. Once the pack takes to the backstretch, he noted the presence of the “Petite Woods,” or “Little Woods.” Like those at Longchamp outside Paris, they make race calling a little challenging. However, they are part of the landscape, and that means they could be forever lost. The “3 furlongs to-go,” as Dooley recalls, morphs as they turn for home. It is the point where Georgeff’s “spinning” feels the full effect, and will be remembered as the domain of where The Pizza Man began to ignite the crowd. When the wire approaches, that is where all the adrenaline releases a torrent of emotion in the announcer’s booth. At rest … at last …

The end of Arlington Park in 2021 is going to be an emotional deluge of tears of regret and cheerful storied memories. It all depends on how you choose to look at it. Dooley said it best when we were talking about what has transpired and what is to come. “You know, John Henry may have won that first “Million” by a nose, but the chasm to save this place was just too great,” Dooley confessed. He went on to say, “That is why you have to enjoy each day, and to be ready as time changes … because it will.” To make it yours … a bespoke moment … that was always the goal, not knowing how many races you have called doesn’t make much of a difference. What does? For John G. Dooley, his Arlington Park experiences will all be there, right alongside, when the last call arrives.

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