Photo: Nick Costa
Having attended the races at Fort Erie for over 50 years, and being an owner for 15 of them, I've not only watched the horses compete against each other from just about every vantage point the track offers a person to gain access to, but I've been privileged to have the means to visit places the average fan doesn't normally see: Stables Area--Race Office--Morning Workouts. Throughout the last half century, I've covered plenty of area that spans beautiful Fort Erie racetrack. However, there was one location that I had never even been close to in terms of proximity, that is until last Sunday: The Announcers Booth. It's the domain on race days for track announcer Mike Dimoff.
With the help of a mutual friend, I made contact with Mike, but not before traversing grating, several steps and narrow staircases on one of the hottest days of the 2014 summer, before finally arriving at the apex of my favorite track. Upon entering his cubicle, the two of us exchanged pleasantries and I was quick to inform Mike that although I have been coming to Fort Erie racetrack since 1963, and having heard countless number of race calls while down below, this is the first time I've ever been up here. He was in between races. so I kindly asked him if I could stay and hear a call live. He had no issues with my request and even went as far as to allow me to film him calling the next race, which happened to be the 7th. He had to prepare, so I let him do his thing while I admired the view, all the while giggling inside and pinching myself to make sure I was really there. After the completion of the days races, we sat down and talked.
NC: In what city were you born?
MD: Toronto, Ontario
NC: Where do you currently reside?
MD: Scottsdale, Arizona
NC: Discuss your background.
MD: I got a degree in journalism out of Edmonton, Alberta. I also got a degree in nursing. So, I was involved in two things, but I was already calling races at Northlands Park in Edmonton before I went into the journalism broadcasting. The track ran on the weekends and at night, so I could go to school during the day. I thought I'd go to get a degree in nursing, my wife's a nurse. The reason I got into that (nursing) was on a dare, because I was already doing the broadcasting before that and had already finished school with that. So, that's my background, and I've been calling races for close to 30 years.
NC: Besides Fort Erie, where you have been the announcer since 2011, and Northlands Park that you just mentioned, what other tracks have you called?
MD: I've called at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, I worked at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans for 5 years, and I did a brief stint at Bay Meadows in San Francisco.
NC: Among your duties as track announcer is informing the racing fans of scratches, rider changes, overweights and equipment changes, but how do you prepare for a race?
MD: I think the toughest thing about calling a horse race is actually erasing your memory for the next race and move on. I prepare by memorizing the horses, I also do a color illustration of the jockeys silks. Sometimes make notes of horses with white socks, or front bandages or blinkers. But I primarily do memorization. The color illustration is only there in case I forget in a split second, I can glance down at my program and it instantly reminds me. Sometimes you get three chestnut color horses whose riders are all wearing yellow silks, then you look at jockeys caps, or markings on the horse.to help you get through.
NC: You co-host the Fort Erie handicapping show prior to the races and I'm really impressed on how your able to explain things very simply so the people can understand. It appears you have a genuine interest in educating the fans. Is that your style or is it something that is conducive to Fort Erie.
MD: Probably a combination of both. Sometimes I can speak over the causal race fans head, You know, the person that comes once a month or once every other month, that kind of thing. But yes, for the most part I like to explain things. And the fan that watches the show every race day will really know when I like a horse or when I really like a race, because I spend a little extra time on it. I study, I watch things, I pay attention. I'm pretty good at writing things down so I can remember what to look for the next time a particular horse might run, especially if I saw some problems in a race. But I also like to challenge people. It keeps me interested. I write a column in each days program with picks and I like to challenge people to look little bit between the lines. For the fans that are at the track every day, it kinds of challenges them to look a little deeper. Which I think I do.
NC: Yes, I'll agree, you do. Listening to you and reading your column regularly, I can sense how you come across to the public. You really want to educate them.
MD: Yes, and I like to be right (laughing). I think we all do. The fun thing for me is, if I have a bad day, I'm going to try that much harder the next race day. You know, if I can get 4 winners on an eight race program, it's doing pretty good.
NC: Compared to a regular race day, is there any adjustment you have to make to your race calling on a big day such as the Prince Of Wales day, or opening day?
MD: Yes, there is. You know, you never want to make mistakes and fortunately, I feel like I have done a pretty good job avoiding any big ones. You really have to be on the ball on a day like the Prince Of Wales. And as much as I like days like that, I kind of like the days that are just an average Sunday, because it just kind of lets me be loose about things and really enjoy it. The big days I enjoy, but I'm not as loose. You really want to be accurate. I don't think about making mistakes, I think about making sure I'm as accurate as I can be.
NC: You stated you were born in Toronto, How long did you live there?
MD: I was there until I was 9 years old.
NC: In addition to Toronto, you have also lived and worked in Edmonton and New Orleans. Those are 3 big cities. How do you account for cool and calm style?
MD: It's funny, those cities couldn't be any different. Now I live in Scottsdale, Arizona. It's a perfect little square around North America if you really look at it geographically. I think I am a pretty calm guy. People always ask me, are you excited about going to Fort Erie? And when I'm here in Fort Erie and ready to go back home, they ask, are you excited to go back home to Scottsdale? Really, not much excites me. I really try to live in the moment, and that's something I try to do everyday when I get up, because there were many years where I didn't. What I mean by that is, I enjoy each day, I don't get excited to go home, I don't get excited to come here, I'm always excited wherever I am.
It's kind of helped me, because five years ago I lived for the future. I was always living ahead of myself ,wondering what was going to be next. I think that's how time just get past you. I think that's where the phrase "Life's Pretty Short" came from.
NC: Reflect back and share your best known race call.
MD: I don't know about best known, I called a Grade1 race at the Fairgrounds that was named the Spectacular Bid Stakes, actually it may have been a Grade 2 race. It was a really exciting race on the turf. That one for me stands out. I've called a lot of fun Canadian Derbies and I've called some fun Prince OF Wales. There is a horse race that I can think of that happened here at Fort Erie. The horse was named NAUGHTS NOT KNOTS. I really didn't think about it, and sometimes I don't even know where things come from. The horse had run a Fort Erie a few times before winning his first race. It never crossed my mind, for some reason he was running down the stretch and was in front by 2 lengths and I knew he was going to win, and it just came to me. And I just said, NAUGHTS NOT KNOTS just ran his KNOTS off to win his first race. There was a big crowd that day, my window was open, and I just heard the entire crowd out on the apron burst into laughter. For me, that would be one of the most memorable ones.
NC: Any ideas on how the Fort Erie can increase the fan base?
MD: Unfortunately, Fort Erie has been the victim of the Canadian government and what's gone on. A few years back, the government decided the sport needs to be sustainable without the help of slots machines, but Fort Erie has done that. They actually have a model that many tracks look to. Problem is, the people that have the horses, there was so much uncertainty. Even up until this year, racing dates weren't announced until April. So, it's tough for trainers to make plans, owners to buy horses, and you can go back to the breeding. When these cuts were announced a few years ago, breeders stopped their production by 50% or more. That's going to have a trickle down effect over the next five years. You're going to see less horses, less people buying horses because maybe they don't trust. It's the uncertainty. But I believe once there's some certainty again, people will start spending the money and coming back.
NC: I'm going to mention some of my personal favorite race callers. Gentlemen that I listened to growing up and present day. Give a brief description that best describes each of them.
NC: Daryl Wells, Sr
MD: An iconic voice, and one that strikes a nerve with my childhood.
NC: Tom Durkin
MD: One of the all-time greatest and a friend.
NC: Trevor Denman
MD: Another guy that has made his mark. Can't question his ability
NC: Dan Loiselle
MD: Pays attention to detail. Is exciting when he needs to be. Great race caller. His voice is memorable as well. Good friend.
NC: Larry Collmus
MD: Here's a funny story. In the late 80's or early 90's, Larry and I did a competition at San Francisco, and I was not an American citizen at the time, but I've since received my U.S. citizenship. I beat him in the competition and beat him out for the job, but because I was Canadian, I couldn't get the working papers. Since then, he's gone on to call for NBC sports at the most prestigious track in North America. He's a good guy who deserves all the success he's had.
NC: Mike revealed to me that Vic Stauffer is his favorite, so I asked him to elaborate.
MD: Hollywood Park closed, but Vic could get work probably anywhere he chose. It just a question of whether he wants to leave California. He could be up for any job he wanted, he's that good.
NC: When your not calling races at Fort Erie, what do you do and what do you enjoy for fun?
MD: I have a wife that I love to death and two kids that I adore as well. I enjoy walking my dog, I love the parks and water here in Fort Erie. I love that it's a small town atmosphere, because I think I've enjoyed summers being in a smaller community. It's really laid back, but I'm still a city person. So, I don't know if I could live in a small community for 12 months a year, but I sure do enjoy it in the summer. My greatest passion is watching my son play hockey. He just turned 15 and was drafted in to the W.H.L. He's playing for the U.S. National Development program. He's talented and fun to watch. You don't have to be his dad to appreciate watching him. He's one of these kids that scores. He's good at it, he practices it, and he's just got a natural talent I guess, because he can just score. Give him some space and you better watch out. Watching him develop has been a lot of fun. There's quite a bit going on right now. He was drafted into the WHL, he may go far with the US National Development, I have no idea. There's going to be a lot of doors that are opening, whether it's college hockey, or WHL. Who knows where it's all going to lead, but it's fun to watch.
I would like to thank Mike for granting me the time for this interview. I must state emphatically that his pleasant demeanor came through just as it does over the loudspeaker at Fort Erie.