OLDSMAR — Like a magician rehearsing his tricks in the dark, Richard Grunder is whispering horses’ names to no one.
The day’s fourth race is still minutes away, but Grunder looks out the window of the Tampa Bay Downs announcer’s booth with binoculars raised and softly runs down a litany of calls for a race yet to be run. My Dirty Martini is leading, Sip ‘n Dip on the outside, here comes Crystal Sky. With nine races and 80 entries on the day’s schedule, Grunder takes a few minutes between bugle calls to memorize the names of the horses and the colors of the jockeys’ silks. Hello Rosie Say has moved to second, Yes It’s Free is third on the rail, two lengths back is Ellie Be Dancing.
Once upon a time, the names came much easier to his tongue but Grunder is not at all self-conscious about the extra effort it takes these days to make sure he gets it right. To Grunder, now 68, this is not so much a job but a calling that he has been following for a lifetime.
As a little boy, he would ride a train with his father from Dodge City, Kan., to Raton, N.M., for a weekend’s worth of action, then come home with a racing form in his fist and pretend to call races in the family’s living room.
Those were the first steps of a journey that took him to tracks across the Midwest and Canada before he eventually settled at Tampa Bay Downs and became the longest-tenured track announcer in the country. At least, until Sunday afternoon.
Sixty years and some 60,000 race calls later, the boy is finally saying goodbye to the sport he loves.
Turning the microphone off was his choice, if not necessarily his desire. He might have kept going until he was 70, if it wasn’t for a health scare last month that left him worried. Not so much about mortality, but about leaving the track without a replacement.
That’s just the way you look at life when you were raised on the working end of a wheelbarrow in a family that raised horses. Don’t let anyone around the track know, he’d tell his childhood friend George Ferguson during weekly phone calls, but Grunder would do this job for free.
“It’s his enthusiasm for the sport that makes him so good,” said former jockey Paula Bacon. “He just loves, loves, loves horse racing and it comes across in his calls. He gets so excited down the stretch that he makes you feel like you’re a part of the race.”
It’s not an act, and it’s not negotiable. As parimutuel wagering became omnipresent on the Internet in recent years, Grunder has taken abuse online for his excitable calls but he refuses to apologize. Instead, he just stopped reading the comments.
How do you not get excited when your first job was as an 8-year-old tasked with posting the photo-finish pictures in the clubhouse and grandstands at La Mesa Park in New Mexico in 1960? He got $3 a day for that plum assignment, then figured out he could supplement his pay by offering the photos to horse owners at 50 cents a pop.
“I’d get back to Dodge on Sunday night at 11 p.m. with 7 or 8 dollar bills in my pocket,” Grunder said with a grin. “The next day at school, I would be the big shot at lunch, buying 2-cent cartons of milk for all my friends.”
It wasn’t always so carefree and profitable, but it also never felt like work. He married Diana in 1974, had a two-day honeymoon in Denver, then left for West Virginia to be a backup announcer. For the next decade, they traipsed across the country and Canada, going wherever the circuit might take them. At one point, he said, they lived in six different apartments in a one-year span.
In the early 1980s, he lost a gig in Saskatchewan and found himself working as a racing judge at the Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track in Omaha, Neb., when announcer Terry Wallace needed to miss a few days for the birth of a grandchild. Grunder took the microphone, and caught the ear of John Hanley, a Tampa Bay Downs mainstay who was moonlighting in Nebraska as a racing steward. Hanley was impressed by Grunder’s work and tracked him down 18 months later at Arapaho Park near Denver to ask if he’d be interested in a job opening at Tampa Bay Downs.
“If I didn’t lose my job, and if Terry’s daughter isn’t having a baby, and if John Hanley wasn’t in Omaha, I’d still be bouncing from track to track. I got very, very, very lucky,” Grunder said. “In this business, it’s rare to get a circuit this long. I never dreamed I’d be here 37 years.”
He kept a gig in Minnesota and lived part-time in Florida for the first few years, but eventually settled in Oldsmar where he and Diana could raise their son, Chad.
Now that retirement is just hours away, Grunder figures he’ll take some of the fishing trips he’s always planned but never quite pulled off. He’s got a hankering to visit Las Vegas for what, remarkably, would be the first time in his life. He’ll visit his son, who is a teacher and coach in Kansas, and maybe take in some ballgames.
What he won’t be doing, he says, is hanging around the track. Oh, he might come out for opening day and maybe some of the bigger races, but it’s time to move on. He says all of this while looking out across the track, and he leaves you wondering if the thought of not being in the announcer’s booth might hurt too much to return.
“Even in grade school, horse racing was absolutely his life,” Ferguson, his childhood friend said. “This is all he ever wanted.”
The horses are coming onto the track for the sixth race and Grunder needs to get his studying in. Before I leave, I ask if the consolidation of tracks, the dwindling of on-site attendance and the rise of Internet wagering and online critics has made it easier to walk away.
“I’ve been accused of getting too excited during a race,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh he makes a s--- race in Tampa Bay sound like the freaking Kentucky Derby.’ But you know what? For the people who wager on the horse, the people that bred the horse, the person that owns the horse, the one who trains the horse, the jockey, even the jockey’s wife, it is a big deal to them.
“For the people who love this sport, it is exciting. And I’ve been blessed to enjoy it every single day.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.