The Meadows' announcer Roger Huston called the 150,000 race of his Communicators Corner career Thursday afternoon, reaching the milestone in the ninth race.
According to Huston family lore, when Roger was no more than a tyke, he gave early indications of the career he would choose.
"I don’t ever remember saying, ‘I want to be an announcer,’” Huston recalls, “but my parents told me I rode a tricycle around the house and mimicked other announcers I heard at county fairs.”
"The Voice,” as he is known, fulfilled the prophecy nonetheless. Today, in the ninth event on the card, The Meadows veteran reached a number thought to be unsurpassed by any race caller, in any breed.
Although Huston began calling races as a teenager under the tutelage of his uncle Don Huston, longtime announcer at Lebanon Raceway, race calling wasn’t actually his preferred occupation initially. At Wilmington College near his native Xenia, Ohio, he majored in education and minored in biology. Following graduation, he was four hours short of his teaching certificate when opportunity knocked.
“My idea was to teach school nine months a year and announce races in the summers,” he said. “Then I got the chance to fill in at the Red Mile in Lexington for a week one summer, another week the next summer. Meanwhile, I worked as a disc jockey for WHBM in Xenia doing news, sports and announcing.”
It wasn’t until 1967 that Pompano Park offered him his first full-time announcing job. He worked at Pompano until 1975, came to The Meadows in 1976 and has been an institution here ever since. His unique style, which blends accuracy and excitement, if not downright passion, has made him known throughout harness racing. He has pioneered such lines as “Look at the timer!” to call attention to exceptionally fast races.
“Roger has the same impact on racing that Howard Cosell had on football and boxing,” said John Marshall, vice president for racing for The Meadows. “He authenticates the event. When our fans hear his calls, they know they’re participating in something important.”
It’s a style that reflects multiple influences.
“Uncle Don’s style influenced me a bit,” Huston said. “Also, I grew up in the hometown of Charlie Hinkle, the late former Meadows announcer. His style influenced me. But I tell young announcers, ‘Be yourself. If you’re comfortable with something, do it. Don’t try to mimic anybody else.’”
Huston reached the 150,000 mark by calling races just about wherever and whenever asked. He calls fair races throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, works regularly at Tioga Downs in western New York and since 1967 has been the voice of the Little Brown Jug, the premier pacing event conducted each year at Delaware, Ohio. He’s also had stints calling Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse races at such venues as Pompano, Calder and Latonia (now Turfway Park).
“Thoroughbred announcing is a little tougher,” he said, “if only because the jockeys change colors every race. The actual calling of the races is very similar, although the terminology might be a little different.”
Because he’s an easy touch for charitable and civic organizations in need of an announcer, he’s called some unusual events — baby races for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh featuring infants in crawling contests; pig races at state fairs and the infamous “Undie 500,” where men and woman clad only in their skivvies raced on a speedway. Perhaps the most bizarre was a 1998 event when Huston called a “race” between Pittsburgh’s two famous inclines, the Monongahela and the Duquesne.
“I did that one from a helicopter 2,000 feet above the Point,” he said.
While those stunts were noteworthy, Huston cites two harness races as among his most memorable. One was the 1984 Breeders Crown staged at The Meadows when the locally campaigned Dragon’s Lair upset the heavily favored Nihilator.
“I was one of the biggest supporters or promoters of Dragon’s Lair,” he said. “I was telling people he would beat Nihilator. Of course, 99 percent of those people thought I was crazy. Maybe it was because of the hype I’d helped build, but when he won in the fashion he did, it made it a memorable call for me.”
The other was Falcon Seelster’s record-setting mile at Delaware when, during his call, Huston spontaneously urged fans: “If you’ve never been on your feet, you better get up now.”
“Harness people have a reputation for watching calmly, sitting on their hands, so I just threw that line in,” he said. “I didn’t have plans to say it, but a year never goes by that someone doesn’t remind me of it.”
Huston has been honored many times for his service to harness racing and the community. He’s a member of the Communicators Corner of the Harness Hall of Fame, sits on a number of prestigious boards and serves as the sport’s unofficial “Toastmaster General” at many year-end banquets.
At 66, he says he’s begun to look at the timer himself.
“I know I’ll have to slow down,” he said. “I can’t continue the pace I’ve set over the years. But I’ll keep on announcing as long as I can meet the standards I have for myself.” (The Meadows)