Imbriale Grateful For ‘Extra Special’ Opportunity To Call First Wood Memorial

Six decades working around Aqueduct Racetrack will give anyone a profusion of memories and knowledge of the sport. But when the call to post sounds for the 97th running of the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial presented by Resorts World Casino on Saturday, it will mark something different for long-time New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) employee John Imbriale.

From the time he started working at NYRA in November 1979, Imbriale has handled multiple responsibilities, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, and as a familiar voice as the backup announcer.

His perseverance led to his appointment as the circuit’s full-time race-caller and announcer in January 2020, and another milestone will be reached as Imbriale will call his first Wood Memorial; a 1 1/8-mile prep race for the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby offering 100-40-20-10 qualifying points to the “Run for the Roses” to the top-four finishers.

Imbriale worked as NYRA’s Director of Television Production before replacing Larry Collmus as the full-time announcer last January. Just two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down racing, with the Wood Memorial not being contested for the first time since the race’s inaugural running in 1925.

When racing in New York resumed in June, Imbriale got to check off a litany of career firsts: calling his first Belmont Stakes, and American Classic overall, with Tiz the Law’s victory in the Belmont Stakes, as well as the New York-bred’s victory in the first Travers he called during the Saratoga Race Course summer meet.

After being on the mic for the signature races at Belmont Park and Saratoga, the 66-year-old Imbriale will finally get to call the most well-known race at the track he considers home, and fittingly the Ozone Park-based track will offer up another special moment for a graduate of the Queens-based St. John’s University.

“It does make it extra special because I’ve called more races at Aqueduct than any place else,” Imbriale said. “It just has to do with age and being around forever; I called a lot of races when we ran on the [now defunct] inner track. Now, moving to the Wood Memorial, it’s good to add that to the resume and I just hope everything turns out OK.”

The chance to call a Wood Memorial was a long-time coming from a man who paid a lot of dues from the time he won a 1979 New York Daily News contest which gave him the opportunity to call a race and work with the NYRA press office. In 1990, Imbriale became Tom Durkin’s backup and has since been part of NYRA’s race-calling team at all three tracks.

Imbriale’s patience paid off with the opportunity to narrate some historic moments, with the reality of 2020 leading to some unique circumstances, such as his first Belmont Stakes assignment being a 1 1/8 one-turn mile instead of the traditional 1 1/2-mile test. The Belmont also served as the first leg of the Triple Crown series instead of its customary closing race on the trail.

Imbriale has been present for many seminal racing moments, but his knowledge extends even further to his time as a fan, reaching back to the 1973 Wood when Secretariat was outkicked by Angle Light and Sham before going on to craft arguably the most dominant Triple Crown run in the sport’s history.

“I never thought I’d call an American Classic, let alone around one turn, two turns or three turns,” Imbriale said with a laugh. “But I always got a kick of looking at the video of the 1973 Wood when Secretariat lost. I think seeing that race and knowing how he turned out, it makes you think that anything is possible. You can’t go by one race. A lot of us go back to our roots and I love going through the old videos when I worked in TV production.”

That unpredictability has Imbriale excited for this year’s edition of the Wood, which has seen 11 of its winners go on to the capture the Kentucky Derby [with Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 being the last do so].

“The Wood has a tremendous history,” Imbriale said. “The Derby has opened up a little this year, so maybe there’s more excitement and possibilities from horses who come from anywhere to use it as a springboard to good things. When they’ve only run a few times, you don’t know which way it’ll go.

“I think what you root for in a big race like that is either you get a stretch run like in the Gotham [when Weyburn edged Crowded Trade by a nose on March 6], which doesn’t happen too often, or you hope that someone steps up. They’re so lightly raced, you don’t know who is going to take that next step. To me, the unknown and the anticipation for the Wood makes it so fun.”

The nine-furlong Wood will provide a two-turn test for Triple Crown trail-hopefuls in what is a traditional harbinger for seeing if a 3-year-old can compete at the highest level of his division. Imbriale said two-turns can also be beneficial for the ones calling the action.

“Announcers like two-turn races because it starts right in front of you,” he said. “With the Belmont last year going a mile and an eighth, you’re on an angle a little bit and you don’t want to miss anything with the break. Here, there’s no excuse; the break is right in front. It allows things to play out when it’s a mile and an eighth. If you get a horse who is off slow, there’s time to recover. You see who is getting position into the first turn after the break and then they settle on the backstretch. Then, you see who makes the move out of the [far] turn, and we have a few closers in the potential field. It looks like a pretty good mix of 3-year-olds that we’ll have.”

The Kentucky Derby aspect makes the stakes higher with greater attention paid to what is said on the microphone, and the fact those races will have the endings replayed often in the lead-up to the “Run for the Roses” at Churchill Downs. Imbriale said the same fundamentals as with any race come in to play, but announcers tend to be mindful that certain races will naturally get the adrenaline flowing.

“You try to make sure your basic stuff is covered, making sure you pick up a horse if he makes a move, just the stuff you do in a normal race,” he said. “But in the back of your mind, you know that the horse who wins the Wood is going to be talked about going into the Derby, and you know your call is going to get played more often than in other races. You try to take care of basic business but with your excitement level, it’s just natural that it’s going to be higher.”

Imbriale will realize one of his career’s biggest dreams in calling the Wood, marking another milestone in a journey that featured working with Harvey Pack on the popular “Inside Racing” program. He also will add his name to a prestigious list of race callers who have called Wood Memorials, with the list of legendary announcers including Collmus, Tom Durkin, Marshall Cassidy, Chic Anderson, Dave Johnson and Fred Caposella.

“It popped into my mind every now and then, but first Marshall Cassidy was here, then Tom Durkin, then Larry Collmus, so my opportunity came late,” Imbriale said. “I had the privilege to watch all of them work and learn from them. Once you get to a certain age, the thought that you are going to get a chance to do this really diminishes. But, it worked out.

“I knew I was the backup announcer and I always thought I was really lucky to be calling as many races as I was primarily here at Aqueduct and a little at Belmont and just a little Saratoga,” he continued. “But it was still calling races in New York, and to me, New York is still the place to be when it comes to year-round racing.”

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