Around The World With Robert Geller by Kirby C. Grimes
Around The World With Robert Geller by Kirby C. Grimes: “Away and racing” – these words have delighted racing fans all across the globe for the past three decades. Born in England, reared in Australia, and currently residing in New Mexico, Robert Geller is truly a man of the world. From humble beginnings on the “picnic track” circuit in Victoria to Hong Kong and the United States, he has seen his career gradually progress to now being at the pinnacle of his profession. To astute racing fans, he is considered to be all and end all of race calling.
Born into a middle-class family, Geller and his family immigrated to Australia when he was a toddler. Horse racing is deeply ingrained into the culture in Australia, and he grew up around racing. His parents would religiously attend races every Saturday in the Melbourne area, and, of course, young Robert would tag along. In going to the races at the metropolitan tracks Moonee Valley, Flemington, Sandown, and Caulfield, he was exposed to world class racing at an early age and fell in love with the sport.
“I would be fascinated by the races…in many ways I was always there,” Geller relayed.
As a small child, he would use his vivid imagination and create mock races in his bedroom using buttons and toy cars and dice. He would draw up fields and push the cars around for hours upon end, exploring the mysterious wonders of racing. Being fascinated by race calling, he naturally began, as he grew older, making mock race calls as well.
“I was totally obsessed as a child with everything to do with racing,” Geller explained.
By the age of 20, his interest in race calling had reached the point where he began to go to racetracks near his home in Melbourne and practice race calls. He would be allowed a vantage point to take his binoculars and practice his calls into a tape recorder. He continued this for some time, but at first it was more of a hobby than an aspiration or a career.
In his early 20s, he began to work for a small-time bookmaker as a penciler, writing down bets. While this was his first job in racing, he was destined for loftier positions. While working for this bookmaker, he stumbled upon an opportunity that would launch him into his race calling career and eventually see him as the voice of Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Canada.
He would often work for his employer on the “picnic track” circuit in Victoria. Such tracks hold race fixtures typically on holidays and are similar to county fair racing in the United States. The day that would change his life came at the Alexandra Race Club. The race caller on that day did not show up, and the track asked anyone who thought they could call a race to come forward. Naturally, he answered the call along with another gentleman. The track management decided that the two should share the program.
When his turn came around, his bookmaker wouldn’t relieve him of his duties in time to study the program and prepare to call the race. He finally managed to get away just in time to take the announcer’s rostrum and call the race. Since he didn’t have time to properly prepare, he was highly displeased with his race call, but fortunately the track allowed him to call another race. This time, his urging paid off, and he was released from his bookmaking duties to have time to study the race field and learn the colors of the horses. With the added preparation, he performed much better, and he began to think of possibly making a career out of it.
“It was really different, and it was good. I knew right then I could kind of do it,” Geller said.
His career began to gradually take off with the occasional race date or harness trials. ANZAC Day at Seymour Races saw his first appointment as named race caller. After applying to several tracks, he was chosen to be the course commentator at Wangaratta Turf Club, which included about twelve race days a year. He continued to pick up race dates at small tracks along the Mornington Peninsula as well.
“I was doing all this…the bits and pieces, to make myself think I could actually become an announcer full-time,” Geller said.
After being named the announcer at Wangaratta, he picked up the Northeast Victoria circuit, comprising Benalla, Wodonga, and Tatura as well as Wangaratta. He would call the races there on weekends while working full-time as a speech pathologist. Though highly successful in this career ,he had a burning desire to make race calling his life. He applied for a job at the Racing Radio Network, which was and still is the way most announcers gain employment. Unfortunately, he was not hired, although the network did give him work on a freelance basis. Seeing his prospects in Australia as limited, he began to look abroad and was hired in 1989 as the course commentator for the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club.
“I felt there wasn’t going to be much movement in Australia and having just missed out on a prime job there…I knew it was going to be pretty tough to get a start,” Geller explained.
Giving up his career as a speech pathologist, he moved to Hong Kong for his first full-time job in racing. In those days, the Jockey Club had been through turmoil over a series of gambling scandals. A new regime headed by a retired British general had been installed to restore the image of the track.
Geller would spend the next six and a half years in Hong Kong calling races at both Sha Tin and Happy Valley. The racing was being opened up internationally, and the Jockey Club was garnering record handles. In Hong Kong he began to develop his announcing style and established a firm foundation for his career.
To Geller, preparation is very important to calling a race successfully. He starts out by handicapping each race as soon as the past performances are available, just like any racing fan would. By doing so, he develops the basic components to form the rich tapestries that are his race calls.
“It’s like my back story, my back knowledge of what I have going on in my mind. It means you are prepared like a fan and how you perceive the race might be,” Geller said.
Once he arrives at the track on a race day, he clears his mind and is present in the moment and aware of what is required of him to fulfill his duties. Like all announcers, he must memorize the colors of each horse and put them together with the back story he has developed. He frames each race as story while not formulating anything, instead relying on instinct to give each race a proper and fitting race call.
“Every race is a story; every time a story is being told, you want to find the punchline, and you want to find what the fan is thinking,” Geller said.
He prides himself on his accuracy and seeks to pick up pivotal movements in a race just as they start to develop. He relies heavily on his instinct and has learned over the years to trust himself with this. By virtue of this, he is able to authentically portray what happens in each race and add commentary and context to his calls. Race calling is an evolutionary cycle, and his calls have progressed from his time in Hong Kong to the present day.
He enjoyed his time in Hong Kong immensely, but he found himself wanting to live a western lifestyle again. Having traveled to the United States on occasion, he considered moving his microphone there or possibly returning to Australia. In 1995, the Jockey Club sent him to Vancouver to represent them at the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club Plate at Hastings Park. There he learned of the impending opening of Emerald Downs and immediately felt that it was the opportunity he was looking for.
“I had a strong feeling about it, and I thought, “That’s nice, I love Seattle,” and I thought, “That’s interesting,” Geller explained.
He reached out to track management, and soon a team of investors in the track visited him in Hong Kong. Further discussion with Ron Crockett, the track president, yielded an offer to move to Washington and be the announcer at Emerald Downs. Upon the announcement that he was leaving Hong Kong in early 1996, those around him expressed their shock and belief that he was making a mistake. Geller, though, knew in his heart that he was making the right decision.
“It was like being handed the keys to a completely brand new car,” Geller beamed. “It felt like an opportunity that wasn’t going to come every day.”
He would go on to call 18 and a half memorable seasons at Emerald Downs. In 2000, he added Sunland Park in New Mexico, and for the next fifteen years this constituted his annual circuit. Always striving to be a better race caller, he found himself wanting a new challenge. After many failed applications for other announcing jobs, he applied for the vacant job at Woodbine Racetrack, a place he had visited in 1993 as a fan. As the months went by without any contact from Woodbine, he gave up hope and accepted that Emerald Downs and Sunland Park would make up the balance of his career. Fortunately for all involved, Woodbine was interested, and much to his surprise, he was delightfully named the announcer there, taking up the position in June 2015. He has continued to call at Sunland Park as well, the home of the Sunland Derby.
From Australia and Canada to Hong Kong and America, he has delighted fans for three decades with his rich and vibrant race calls. He never makes his race calls over the top, nor does he conform to the formulaic race calls that are commonly used today. In a way, his race calls harken back to the glory years of racing and a time when race callers were much more well-known. Always thinking of the fans, he has risen to be known the world over as one of the best race callers worldwide.