Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
New mouth of the Downs
Contois has a tough act to follow but he's been a quick study
His vocal chords and throat have taken a beating since opening day, but thanks to cauliflower, broccoli and lots of water, Kirt Contois has survived his first two months as the new voice of Assiniboia Downs.
Contois, who was being groomed for several years by the master, Downs' CEO Darren Dunn, finally got to make the job of track announcer his own May 5 when Dunn stepped away from the microphone.
Not one to be at a loss for words, Contois, admits he underestimated exactly how many words would be required.
"My respect for Darren has gone through the roof. He used to take it easy on me," said Contois. "He used to say, 'Oh you don't have to announce as much. Just say these couple of things.' Now I have sheet after sheet that I have to fit into the spots that are open.
"The thing is you are not talking softly," he added, commenting on the rasp in his throat. "You are always pushing it out there. "They send up a nice little veggie platter, and I'll tell you, the cauliflower and broccoli does take the mucus off the throat. Darren used to have hot tea all the time, but I just drink lots of water."
-- Kirt Contois
There are some hazards, however, that he just has to swallow and move on.
"I was calling a race one night and I swallowed a mosquito. I had to turn the microphone off, spit the mosquito out and get right back into it, without missing a beat. It happened to Darren once. I laughed, and said, how can that even happen? Well, you take a deep breath, and the mosquito flies in."
Prior to taking the microphone, Contois, 45, was the paddock host but his education at Assiniboia Downs U. goes back much farther than that.
"Actually, it was Darren who started me off. We used to play baseball and hockey together, and when I was 16, I had been coming out to the track for a couple of years because another friend of mine worked in the parking lot, so I would keep him company on Friday and Saturday nights. It was amazing the people who would drop off beer and bottles of whiskey, just to park close to the grandstand.
"After a couple of years, Darren told me there was a job opening up. So I got a foot and a half cut off my hair, and started as a photo runner in the press box. Darren was the photo runner to start off with, and then he became a chart caller (records the running positions of horses in a race). Since then I have been entry clerk, clocker, chart caller, I worked in the video room (and) the mutual office."
He has also worked as a jockey agent for more than 10 years, and still continues to handle one rider, Renaldo Cumberbatch.
Races don't normally go according to script, so Contois said he has to be able to adapt on the run. "When I handicap before the race, I visualize how it's going to run. Then, once the gates swing open, it may fall into place like that, but 99 out of 100 times, it doesn't. In less than five seconds, everything changes, so any script you may have had, you might as well tear up and throw away, because it's a new story."
Contois doesn't take anything for granted.
"I'm still stepping into Darren's shoes here. He called over 15,000 races and I think I'm sitting at about 200," he said.
"I will make this job my own, but right now I want to keep it as simple as I can. I'm taking baby steps. Essentially people just want to hear you call the race. Where are the horses? Who's making a move? So I just try and keep it simple."
Two minefields he continues to wade through are running off at the mouth, and pronouncing horses' names. "When I am calling races, sometimes I want to say things, that I know I can't, but they still go through my head while my mouth is talking, and I have to go another way.
"The problem with horses' names occurs mostly with two year olds, because I have never seen a lot of the names before." But it also happens with older horses, such as three-year-old gelding Zaccheus. "I had been pronouncing it Zak-ee-us, and his jockey Paul Nolan said that was correct. Then his trainer Ardell Sayler's wife said the owners want it pronounced Zak-oose, so I go with the owners."
Meanwhile, Contois is on top of the world in his environment.
"I have a blast every day, and I'm excited when I call the races," he said. "I know the horses, what they have done, what there are pointed towards and I just love seeing how they progress. It's like watching kids grow up."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2013 C5
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