In 1962, a young man named Jim Moran ventured from his home in Springfield, Mass., to central New York at the suggestion of his uncle Bud Hebert. Hebert, the Vernon Downs racecaller, would see his nephew assume the Clerk of Course position for that first season there. Moran then took on the role of assistant race secretary the subsequent season, and in 1964 would become the full-time announcer.
Fifty years and 73,000 races later, Jim Moran will call his last race this Friday (April 11), as Vernon Downs opens for the 2014 season.
In a half-century atop the Vernon Downs grandstand, Moran has seen some of the greatest horses, trainers, and drivers in the history of American harness racing through his binoculars. "We got to see Bret Hanover, who was probably my all-time favorite horse,” Moran reminisced. "I didn't get to call Bret Hanover as a two-year-old, but the following year (1965) I did get to call his race. We drew 14,000 people, which was the biggest racing crowd ever at Vernon. He won the race, continued his winning ways, and came back as a four-year-old. He also had a world record time trial at Vernon.”
Fourteen years later, another young pacer graced the Vernon backstretch, and eventually proved himself as one of the few worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Bret Hanover. His name was Niatross. Moran continued about seeing Niatross develop as a two-year-old: "Then Niatross came along, and Clint Galbraith developed him on the Vernon backstretch. I crossed the paddock one night, saw Clint after Niatross had won a couple baby races, and said ‘That's kind of a nice colt you've got there,' and he said ‘Jim, he's gonna be something special.' Sure enough, he became Horse of the Year two times.”
Moran has seen many developments in harness racing through his time documenting the sport, namely in terms of safety and speed. "By taking out the hub rail and putting the plastic wheel discs on the race bikes, the sport became a lot safer, and in turn, faster through improvement of the breed and equipment,” Moran explained. "In my first season at Vernon Downs there were only four 2:00 miles. Last year, 1,100 of the races were 2:00 miles, including two of the fastest miles ever here.”
In addition to calling a "Who's Who” of harness racing athletes, both human and equine, Moran has been feted for his efforts as a harness racing publicist and historian on numerous occasions. He received the North America Harness Publicists Association's Golden Pen Award in 1990, was elected to the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, and was inducted into the Communicators' Corner of the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2009.
While Moran looks forward to more time with his wife of 49 years Suzanne, their three children, and three grandchildren, he has every plan on capping his career at Vernon on a very high note. "There are things I'm going to miss about the sport, I'm sure, and as far as calling the last race goes, I hope I can still do the job like I used to. I've told people in recent years that I may not be as good as I once was, but I can be good once as I ever was, and hopefully I'll be as good once on Opening Night.--By James Witherite/Vernon Downs