Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
Voice of experience
Track announcer Contois has quite the sports — and injuries — resumé
No more bloody noses in the press box.
Or knees to the face. Or slapshots to the head.
Life’s a little calmer these days for Assiniboia Downs track announcer Kirt Contois, now that he’s in his second full year as the Voice of the Downs. But it wasn’t always that way for the former star athlete.
The 46-year-old St. James product played hockey, baseball and a number of other sports at a high level while he was growing up, breaking things and always giving his best.
"I played for the St. James Canucks," said Contois. "I couldn’t stand up but I always gave it 110 per cent. I got in a lot of fights and blocked a lot of shots."
Including one with his head.
"It was a playoff game," said Contois. "The guy was in the slot and the net was wide open, so I dived in front of it. Split my ear in half. Blood everywhere. They wanted me to leave the game, but I wanted to keep playing. I stayed on the bench, but they wouldn’t let me back on."
Contois also played ball for Team Manitoba. Not the kind where you throw the ball underhand 10-feet high and hope it makes it to the plate. He played hardball, where they throw a rock at you at 90 m.p.h. and banish the less courageous to slo-pitch forever. Contois was a pitcher. He scared batters, threw a number of no-hitters and generally stomped the terra among his age group in Winnipeg baseball.
An all-round athlete, Contois also had his nose broken in high school while playing rugby.
"They had 10 players, we had six," said Contois. "And the teacher was on our team. I got kneed in the face and broke my nose. I remember someone telling me that if you got a broken nose you had to force it back into place or the doctors would stick steel pegs alongside it and later re-break it. I went into the washroom and decided to see how brave I was. It worked."
With pro sports not quite an option, Contois chopped off most of his hair and went to work at the track. His first job as a photo-runner kept the endorphins flowing as he ran the photo finish black-and-whites up and down "thousands of stairs a day" to prove to the fans that, yes, that horse actually did win.
While working as photo-runner during the races, Contois took a job timing the morning workouts, and from there it was a steady progression upwards, from working the racing screens for Mendelson Films to beavering as entry clerk in the race office, to handicapping races on TV and later doing the same as the paddock host.
He also became a jockey agent. And when then track announcer and now Downs CEO Darren Dunn was ready to hang up the microphone after calling over 15,000 races, Contois got his shot at calling a race.
"It was hard as hell," said Contois of his first few races. "There’s so much to remember, and having to tell a story as it happens. There’s no practice round. You’re live as soon as the gate opens and you never know what’s going to happen.
"No matter what, you have to be able to keep talking while the race is on. You do your best to memorize the horses before the race and you have to trust your knowledge. Then you take a deep breath to calm yourself down. I think I learned how to do that from baseball."
The toughest thing he’s had to do since becoming the Voice of the Downs? Calling last year’s running of the Debutante Stakes, in which his jockey, Renaldo Cumberbatch, came flying home aboard Jodi Radul’s 28-1 Katie Shimmers to win in the final jump. Like any sports commentator, homer or not, you have to stay composed. No cheering allowed.
"I have to be fair to everyone at all times," said Contois. "No matter who is winning, I have to promote them all equally."
Contois is basically living the dream now and loving it. His 24-year-old son Kyle, also a former star hockey player, is now out on his own, and Kirt himself has settled in with his long-time girlfriend Dawn and her two boys Austin, 6), and Landon, 8.
He gets up at 5:40 a.m. to work as a jockey agent in the mornings for Cumberbatch, plays fastball, golfs and calls the races. No more blood sport.
"I think he had about 80 fights when he was young," said a longtime friend of Contois who wished to remain anonymous. "He won about 75 and lost five."
"I learned from those ones," said Contois.
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