Horse racing’s Triple Crown concludes with the running of the Belmont Stakes, this Saturday in New York.
Race day is marked with great pageantry: women in couture, jockeys in colorful silks and that old familiar horn flourish known as “First Call.”
Most racetracks play a recorded version of the tune just prior to post time. At Harrah’s Philadelphia Racetrack (which despite the name is in Chester, Pa.), it’s performed live by someone who boasts a love of music and racing.
At six minutes until post time, race caller James Witherite puckers up to his pocket trumpet, but isn’t happy with his performance.
“Not good, I cracked the high e-flat. Ech,” he said just before announcing that the trotters are coming out on the track for the sixth race on this day.
Witherite says there are only 80 race callers in the country and he’s the only one who performs “First Call” live before every race.
Witherite does this four days a week from March through December. He calls harness races, where the horses pull drivers in little two-wheeled, one-seater carts known as sulkies. Witherite’s called more than 12,000 races but only recently began playing “First Call.”
“I started it on Sundays last year, and I was just thinking, you know, there are days when this is the only opportunity when I get to pick up a horn,” he said.
Witherite’s a jazz musician and composer who plays trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone and piano. He says a day calling races is a nice counterbalance to what he does on stage.
“They keep me from getting stale and sour on each other,” he said. “Too much of any one thing is not good for the mind. And having the two coexist really helps me to keep them both in moderation.”
During the race itself, Witherite uses another instrument. High above the grandstand through a huge glass window, he watches everything through binoculars. He holds a microphone that feeds into the track’s public address system and broadcasts to Horse Race TV out in L.A.
At three years old, Witherite learned to read music at the bench of his grandmother’s Wurlitzer console organ. And as a young man, his grandfather took him to the racetrack. He loved the mathematics of it, the probability.
“In my college days, everybody else was out partying and drinking, and I was at the racetrack with a group of 70 something old men, arguing about horses. It was an education,” he said.
Witherite calls races and performs “First Call” live on his pocket trumpet as many as 14 times a day. His race calling comes off as effortless. As for playing First Call?—Every once in a while he fires off the perfect one, a crowd pleaser.