FARMINGTON – Sports require a number of things.
In addition to athletes, there needs to be officials to provide a sense of order and a field of play on which to conduct the games.
There also needs to be a voice. Someone to keep the athletes, the officials and the field of play in the spotlight.
Longtime racetrack announcer Eric Alwan has been one of the leading voices of horse racing in New Mexico for nearly 30 years, including the past 15 at SunRay Park and Casino.
The job of being a track announcer is equal parts storyteller, prognosticator and the deliverer of sometimes bad news to bettors and horsemen who might be on the wrong horse at the wrong time.
“There are innumerable things that can happen within the body of a race, and you have to be fast enough to adapt to those things and still go on with the rest of the race,” Alwan said. “You only get good at handling those things with experience.”
Alwan started his journey as a racecaller in 1989 at Bluegrass Downs in Paducah, Kentucky. Admittedly, it was a trial by fire.
“I had no clue of the magnitude of the things you needed to know to call a race,” Alwan said. “I was young, and it was the first job in racing I could get after college.”
Alwan, now 58, called his first race in New Mexico in 1994 at Sunland Park and later at Ruidoso Downs, home of the All American Futurity, the richest quarter horse race in the world.
In 1999, Alwan called his first All American Futurity before taking over the role as full time track announcer at Ruidoso in 2001 and 2002. In the years between his first call and being thrust onto the national spotlight with the All American, Alwan learned one of the most important lessons of being a premier track announcer.
“Memorization of everything is the first thing you have to really learn,” Alwan said.
Memorization includes such things as studying the horses and jockeys as they come onto the track. There’s a skill in learning the colors of the saddle cloths draped over each horse, the different silks worn by jockeys, the running styles of each horse.
All of these happen sometimes eight, nine or 10 or more times a day, and every race has its own story to be told.
“Once the memorization challenge gets a little easier, you can be more descriptive and add more texture or drama to your call,” Alwan said.
The job is unique. There’s not exactly a school for track announcers, and no matter how great a memory you might have or polished you might sound on the microphone, the competition for these jobs are stiff, and the opportunities aren’t easy to land.
According to the Daily Racing Form, there are more than 300 racetracks across America. Some announcers, like Alwan, serve as announcer at more than one track in a specific region.
“It’s like a fabric that has to be woven. These jobs don’t grow on trees,” Alwan said. “You are constantly under the spotlight, and you only get good after you’ve done this for a long time.”
Not only do horsemen rely on accurate calls of the races for the equine athletes under their care on the track, but more discerning eyes, particularly fans and bettors, watch and listen to every call of every race, leaving little to no room for error.
“Accuracy is obviously very important,” Alwan said. “Speaking clearly, being able to enunciate and describe things as they happen is something that comes with the job.”
Alwan, who graduated from Rice University in 1987, was brought up in the business of horse racing thanks to his father Richard, who served as director of marketing at both Sunland Park and Ruidoso Downs.
Alwan learned how detailed the business of horse racing was working in the press boxes at those tracks as a teenager, keeping up with track statistics and supplying that information to newspapers and local television stations.
“With very young eyes, I saw some of the greatest quarter horses of my generation, and that excitement was what fascinated me,” Alwan said. “People would come to the tracks in droves, and that captivated me.”
In addition to calling quarter horse racing, which requires precision, accuracy and all within the span of sometimes between 17 to 20 seconds a race, Alwan has flourished in calling thoroughbred races, which requires an entirely different set of skills.
“You don’t have a break like in a baseball game or a football game where there’s time between plays,” Alwan said. “And throw in the possibility of something extraordinary during a race and it’s an entirely different kind of call.”
Alwan now serves as track announcer at SunRay Park as well as Albuquerque Downs. In addition to calling the races on a daily basis at Sunland Park near El Paso, Alwan also serves as the racetrack’s director of marketing.
“You have to adapt and reinvent yourself,” Alwan said. “I was captivated by it. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”