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Santa Anita's Record Race Caller

Desiree Cooper

Millie Jefferson

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Joe Hernandez, Santa Anita, 1940
(Courtesy Caballo Press of Ann Arbor and Frank Hernandez. All rights reserved.)
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This weekend is the Kentucky Derby -- more than 100,000 fans at Churchill Downs will be watching, and listening, to the race caller.

Joe Hernandez called the Kentucky Derby in 1950. He eventually went on to become the caller at the famous Santa Anita Park in Southern California. He called a record 15,587 consecutive races over 38 years at the track -- a singular achievement by one of the few Mexican-Americans in a predominantly Anglo profession.

In the process, Hernandez distanced himself from his heritage. He denied he was once married to an Hispanic woman with whom he had two children. He later claimed his second wife, who was Anglo, was the children's mother.

Author Rudy Alvarado has written a book on this complicated man --"The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez: The Voice of Santa Anita." He talks with Desiree Cooper about Hernandez' legacy:

Desiree Cooper: Rudy, what made Joe Hernandez such a special race caller?

Rudy Alvarado: If you hear him call from some of the old tape, you can hear the excitement that he brought to a race. Joe not only brought that excitement, but just listening to him you always felt as if any horse out there on that track could win that race. But he would bring such a structure to a race that by the time you listen to the first turn and down the back stretch and all the way coming back home -- by the time they cross that finish line he had just finished off completely. He captivated the audience by bringing the excitement -- the tone and the words -- everything together combined. That's what made him a great race caller.

Cooper: He also had a trademark way of opening the races.

Alvarado: He did: "There they go!"

That seems so obvious to me -- no one had ever said "There they go" before?

No, never before. Joe would tell the story that his first race at Santa Anita, he was so excited that about calling the race that he forgot that the race was about to start. He looked up and the bell sounded and there go the horses -- and he said the first thing that came to his mind, which was: "There they go!"

So Joe worked a lot of tracks on the West Coast building his reputation, and eventually he becomes the race caller at Santa Anita. What was the significance of that moment?

Well, the most significant of course is that you have a Mexican-American becoming a race caller at what is soon to become the most prestigious track on the West Coast.

And he certainly transcended stereotypes. I mean, this guy had his finger in a million businesses, he imported horses from South America, he re-created races for the radio and TV... He was like the best at everything that had to do with horses and horse racing. How did his identity then become wrapped up in race calling itself?

Well, like you're saying, most people associated Joe with being successful at anything he attempted in this business of horse racing. And it did seem that almost everything that he touched would turn to gold.

He was so beholden to being the race caller. I mean, he did not want a race to go by when he wasn't at the mic.

Right. At one point, he suffers a heart attack and still makes to the track. At another point he was thrown off a horse and broke his hip -- and again, made it to the track. You know, at the end of his career Joe had called 15,587 races in a row without ever having missed a single call. It certainly meant a great deal to him that no matter what these adversities were, he was going to be at Santa Anita to call the races.

So Rudy, tell me about Joe's last call.

Joe had been at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., that morning where he was kicked by a horse. Joe showed up to Santa Anita Park shortly thereafter. He goes to the first aid station and decides that he is not going to wait around for help -- so he goes up to the booth and he starts to call that first race of the day. As the horses are going around the back stretch, Joe fainted at the microphone. Terry Gilligan and Dan Smith, who are at the press box, hear that the speakers have gone dead. They rush down there to see what happened to Joe. And of course when they got there they saw that Joe had fainted at the microphone and Dan Smith calls for help. Terry Gilligan takes up the binoculars and goes to the window and starts calling the race and finishing it for Joe.

And what happens next?

Joe is taken to the Arcadia General Hospital. He is there for about three days and then he passes away.

Rudy, what are you thinking as you listen to Joe's last call?

So many times I came across Joe saying if I can't perform I'm not going to go up to the caller's booth. Then when people would ask him about the streak, he would say "Aw, it really doesn't mean that much to me." But its very obvious that in this particular moment that he was not going to let go of that streak without giving it a final try.

Well, Rudy the book is wonderful -- thank you for sharing the story with us.

Thank you.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Alejandro Franov
    CD: Khali (Staubgold)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Thomas Burger

    From Downey, CA, 04/24/2013

    Could you possibly tell me where I could purchase the recording of Joe making calls. Any idea how much it would cost

    By Rudolph Alvarado

    From Ann Arbor, MI, 05/09/2008

    Albert, I just wanted to let you know that Joe never denied the fact that he was a Mexican-American. As a matter of fact he often contributed his time and resources to aid various Mexican and Mexican-American charities and organizations. For example,he drove Mexican Nationals to Del Mar during the Bracero Program despite the fact that the Border Patrol gave him a hard time because he spoke English so well. He also started a school on the grounds of Santa Anita to teach Mexicans and Mexican-Americans English. He did, however, never admitted publicly that his first wife was a Mexican-American and that she bore him two children. It is this duality in Joe's character that makes him fascinating and leaves one wondering why he twisted his life's story. Even so, I wonder if your comment is true---are the days behind us when people no longer deny their heritage? I spoke to my publisher and they are willing to sponsor a forum in your community in which this question can be discussed. Of course, this is dependent on where you live, how old you are, etc. If you will e-mail me (rudolph@voiceofsantaanita.com)we can take it from there. The publisher is also willing to make a few copies of my book available free of charge for people to read before the forum in order to discuss why they felt Joe lied about certain aspects of his life. I hope that you will accept this offer. I look forward to hearing from you, and perhaps meeting you in person. Best wishes, Rudolph

    By Albert Garcia

    From Lake Havasu City, AZ, 05/03/2008

    I hope that the days when a Mexican has to deny his heritage to achieve prominence in his field are over. Your story, while fascinating, saddens me.

    Albert Garcia

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