Called home: Wallace did it with class
With Father Time as omnipresent as Santa Claus, December is sobering enough without the Grim Reaper interfering.
The 12th month has been especially unsettling at Oaklawn Park with three major track figures passing in December within the last year. First came longtime track President Charles J. Cella and Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg. It has been only a few weeks since Larry Snyder, an Oaklawn fixture for years as a jockey or steward, joined their ranks, all after long illnesses.
Terry Wallace, whose good cheer spread from the press box for 37 years, through rain or shine, in sickness and in health, is the latest to go. And though a successor was found in the announcer’s booth, the voice of Oaklawn Park is irreplaceable in his adopted Hot Springs.
I don’t know how many people attend races in, say, California to hear Trevor Denman. Nor can I say how much Wallace directly impacted Oaklawn’s growth into the national racing center that it has become.
I can say with certainty that for the 28 years together they charmed the state’s listeners, one calling Oaklawn races and the other broadcasting Razorback football and basketball games, Wallace and the late Paul Eells ranked as the most recognizable voices in Arkansas. It would be hard to say who completed that trifecta.
Through no fault of his, Wallace never quite achieved the national audience of, say, Denman, Dave Johnson or his Oaklawn predecessor, the late Chic Anderson. But Wallace was in the right place at the right time when Oaklawn underwent a growth spurt in the 1970s that continues in full swing. And when some of Oaklawn’s major races, including the Arkansas Derby and Oaklawn Handicap, came to be televised, others learned what we took for granted, that Wallace could call races with the best of them.
For every Smarty Jones or Demons Begone he described with enthusiasm, Wallace displayed the same professional touch to a full field of Arkansas-bred horses on a foggy February afternoon. If the race had purse money and people bet on the outcome, whether it be in the daily double or the Racing Festival of the South, Wallace called it at Oaklawn for
Not until recent years did we truly appreciate that Wallace did it so well and for so long. Like the best horses ever to race at Oaklawn, the track announcer exhibited Hemingway-like virtues of staying power and grace under pressure. Not all of his calls were flawless, but never to my knowledge did he “phone in” a race or give less than best effort.
And, to think, all those years he never called in sick. Calling
20,191 consecutive Oaklawn heats at one stretch, Wallace became the Cal Ripken of horse racing. It came as a surprise when Oaklawn granted him a race off early in the 2011 season, letting him mill with the crowd. Luckily, it did not take a fatal illness, as with Lou Gehrig, to get him out of the lineup.
Before his health declined, Wallace made a successful transition as an ex-announcer. We at The Sentinel-Record were proud that for six years he faithfully authored the newspaper’s Morning Line during the Oaklawn season and also for the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races. Friends from the day I began covering Oaklawn in
1980, Wallace the handicapper warmed my heart whenever he called me, as sports editor, “my boss.”
Frank Mirahmadi, Pete Aiello and Vic Stauffer, the current holder, have followed Wallace in the Oaklawn booth. All gave voice to Wallace’s legendary status at the track with Mirahmadi saying he merely wanted to uphold the honor TW brought to the job. I never asked Terry to rate any of his successors, confident that he could appreciate the sound of other voices calling a sport he loved.
I am especially proud of the word I had with Terry one afternoon outside the press-box elevator after a day at the races. He was then both calling races and becoming increasingly active in civic affairs.
Referring to his work with the American Cancer Society in particular, I said, “You may be remembered longer for that, and touch more people, than anything you do here.”
They needed a racecaller in horseplayer’s heaven. They are getting one of the best. I just hope they have Oaklawnanywhere.com if he wants to make a bet. And that he’ll publish his picks. Good night from Oaklawn!