Friday, April 2, 2021
OLDSMAR - For the past 37 years, announcer Richard Grunder’s enthusiasm for horse racing has left an enduring impact on countless visitors to Tampa Bay Downs.
“There is no one on the planet who is more passionate about horse racing. Period,” said Pete Aiello, the announcer for Gulfstream Park. “Nobody eats, sleeps and breathes horse racing more than he does.”
Jockey Scott Stevens, the recipient of the 2019 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award and Grunder’s long-time friend, suggests fans listen to Grunder with their eyes closed to better appreciate his descriptive style of race-calling.
“It’s like he is painting a picture. He’ll tell you a horse is 3 lengths behind and full of run, or a horse is boxed in with nowhere to go,” Stevens said from his home in Phoenix. “You can visualize how the race is setting up just listening to his call, and I think that is what makes a great announcer. And he brings a lot of excitement to every race, whether it’s a cheap claiming race or a graded stakes.”
Sadly, for two generations of Oldsmar oval fans and simulcast bettors who have grown accustomed to Grunder’s trademark stretch call “. … in the clear and strictly the one to catch,” the 68-year-old Dodge City, Kan., product is hanging up his binoculars after the May 2 card at Tampa Bay Downs.
Citing health concerns, Grunder has chosen to retire from announcing after a lifetime spent in the sport. He is believed to have called in the vicinity of 37,000 races at Tampa Bay Downs and is currently the longest-tenured announcer at any racetrack in the country.
“My goal a few years back was to try to go until I was 70, but I’ve got a medical situation I need to stay on top of and some related stress issues that led me to realize it’s time,” Grunder said. “I was in the hospital a few weeks ago on a Wednesday and barely got out in time to call the first race, and I don’t get up those stairs to the press box as fast as I used to.
“I am going to miss the camaraderie and the people, especially the three stewards who work next door to my booth. It’s been a great environment to work in. But I have no regrets at all. My father (the late Dean Grunder, a railroad worker and owner-trainer in Nebraska and New Mexico) told me once I would be a really rich man if I was able to go to a job I liked every day.
“By that account, I’m a millionaire many times over.”
Grunder will remain active in the sport, working as a jockey’s agent at Canterbury Park in Minnesota this spring and summer for Alonso Quinonez and Israel Hernandez. He plans to travel extensively with his wife of 48 years, Diana, visit other racetracks and spend more time with son Chad and his wife Erica, who live in El Dorado, Kan.
“I love to fish, and we’re 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee. I’ve never been a bass fisherman, but that’s something I plan to get into,” Grunder said. “And I’m looking forward to returning to Oaklawn Park. I haven’t been there since I worked rubbing horses for (trainer) Red Payne in 1974.”
Grunder has contacted his close friends, Tampa Bay Downs trainers Bernell Rhone and David Van Winkle, about returning to a favorite summer haunt in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, Canada, where they rent a cabin without electricity, fish for walleye and escape from civilization. Their trip last year was cancelled because of COVID-19.
“We try not to talk horses, but once in a while it comes back to that,” Rhone said. “We’ll rib each other, but we’ve got each other’s back. I’ve been at Richard and Diana’s house for Thanksgiving, and they’ve come over to eat with my family. I know if I ever need help, he’ll be there for me, just like I will be for him.”
Grunder’s departure will leave a void that will be difficult to fill. He has documented most of the major moments in the history of the track, which had a reputation as a sleepy backwater until current owner Stella F. Thayer gained control at the start of the 1986-1987 meeting and instituted a series of gradual, fan-friendly changes, starting with the introduction of Sunday racing that season and hitting a high note with the debut of the acclaimed turf course on May 2, 1998.
“Tampa Bay Downs has been incredibly fortunate that Richard has spent most of his career with us – an amazing 37 years,” Thayer said. “His voice and his style embody his enthusiasm and love for Thoroughbred racing.
“We will never forget his contributions. Fortunately, his voice will live on through his calls of Tampa’s signature races. We are grateful for his many wonderful years at Tampa Bay Downs and wish him the best.”
The thrilling 2007 edition of the Tampa Bay Derby, in which Street Sense and Calvin Borel edged Any Given Saturday and John Velazquez by a nose, stands foremost among Grunder’s Oldsmar memories. “When they hit the wire together, I said ‘Too close to call, it might have been Street Sense.’ Then I said to myself, ‘Whoa,’ because it was like this,” he recalled, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “Fortunately, I got it right.”
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Other unforgettable races included the dramatic come-from-behind victory by the Woody Stephens-trained Cefis in the 1988 Tampa Bay Derby and Tepin’s victory in the 2016 Hillsborough Stakes, in which she gobbled up an 18-length deficit on the backstretch to defeat pace-setter Isabella Sings in the Grade II turf event.
“Tepin was so far back, I was worried for a moment she might have broken down,” Grunder said. “(Julien) Leparoux rode her with so much confidence. At the quarter pole she still looked hopelessly beaten, and she came on so fast he turned down his stick before they hit the wire. She was a special, special horse.”
Grunder lived to help fans enjoy the sport as much as he does. He was the emcee for the track’s “Morning Glory Club,” which invited race-goers to enjoy coffee and donuts on winter Saturday mornings and listen to Grunder interview jockeys, trainers and track officials. His guests over the years included Carl Nafzger, Ken McPeek, Kent Desormeaux, Jacinto Vasquez, Edgar Prado, Ramon Dominguez and Michael Trombetta, as well as handicappers and authors Steve Crist and Bernie Dickman.
Preaching the gospel of racing came naturally to Grunder, who got his first job at a racetrack 60 years ago at the now-defunct La Mesa Park in Raton, N.M., as a photo-finish runner – the guy who would post the developed photographs of a tight finish under glass for spectators to observe.
“People would be shouting ‘Here comes photo boy,’ and I felt like I was King Tut. I got paid $3 a day, and sometimes people would ask what they did with the old photos after the next race. I said ‘They like to file them, but they’re for sale for 50 cents,’ and that became one of my side gigs,” he said, laughing.
More valuable, though, was the chance to hang around racing officials and the track announcer, absorbing their insights into all the behind-the-scenes workings at a racetrack. “I’d go home at night and run around our living room re-creating races out of the monthly chart books. I couldn’t get enough,” he said.
From his first announcing job in 1973 at age 20 at recently-shuttered Marquis Downs in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to the present, Grunder has worked at numerous racetracks (see timeline below story). He is quick to credit Diana for her patience and understanding in enabling him to pursue his dream.
“She is the trooper of all troopers. I was rubbing horses at Oaklawn Park when we got married, and we had a two-day honeymoon in Denver before I went to West Virginia to work at Waterford Park (now Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort) while she worked at a soda fountain back home in Dodge City.
“We did a lot of moving in those days. We figured it out and one time we lived in six different apartments in 12 months,” he said.
His years as a jockeys’ agent helped him develop a keen appreciation for the skills and courage of the athletes on horseback. “I’ve gotten aggravated with them just like everybody does,” Grunder said. “But they are unbelievable athletes who have to prove it every day. Football and basketball players sign multi-million dollar contracts, but when it comes to getting paid, jockeys are only as good as what they did last week.”
Stevens, who is recuperating from injuries suffered on Feb. 24 in an accident at Turf Paradise, says jockeys appreciate the depth of knowledge Grunder brings to his calls. “He knows every part of that backside, from the racing office to the trainers to the exercise riders. That kind of understanding is a big thing to bringing new fans in,” Stevens said.
The stories of Grunder’s generosity are many. In 2010 at Canterbury, he organized fund-raising efforts to assist Stevens and two other jockeys injured in a multi-horse spill. On New Year’s Eve in 2005, he turned the microphone over for one race to an aspiring young announcer whose previous experience consisted of calling races on the Arizona county fair circuit.
“I think about him giving me that shot all the time,” said Aiello. “You make so many connections in this business, but only time will tell how many people Richard has touched over the course of his career.”
Grunder’s voice became so recognizable that when Sega Corporation was looking for someone to perform voiceovers for its Derby Owners Club horse racing simulation arcade game in 2010, it hired him to travel to Tokyo for a week to assist in the production.
“It was a lot of fun and an amazing experience. After a couple of days, I thought to myself ‘I’m not in Kansas anymore,’ ” he said. “They needed me to voice about 150 phrases, and they must have had me do ‘And they’re off’ about 35 or 40 times.
“A few years later, I was driving to Canterbury after Tampa’s season had ended, and I saw a bunch of people playing the game at a truck stop in Des Moines. I told a woman sitting there, ‘Hey, that’s me. I’m the announcer.’ She looked at me like I was from outer space and said ‘Get out of here. I’m playing this game.’ ”
Moving forward, the good news for Grunder is that racing always needs new fans looking in from the outside. It is a major adjustment, but one he is confident he can handle with the cherished support of his family, racetrack friends and the thousands of fans who have welcomed him into their homes.
“He has been such a good ambassador for racing, promoting Tampa Bay Downs and encouraging people to come to the races. Now he wants to slow down and spend more time with his family,” Rhone said.
“I think he will be a little bit lost next year, but he’ll be fine because he is so upbeat and great with people. Richard can talk to older folks, little kids and people who know nothing about racing, and find something in common.”
Regardless of where his path is next directed, Richard Grunder – his voice, his kindness, his encyclopedic knowledge of horse racing – will be remembered for a long time.
RICHARD GRUNDER’S JOBS IN HORSE RACING THROUGH THE YEARS
Aug. 4, 1973—Called his first race at Marquis Downs in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
1974—Racing office, backup race-caller, Waterford Park, W.V.
1974—Announcer, Marquis Downs and Regina Exhibition Park (Sept.-Oct.)
1974-77—Placing judge, backup race-caller, Delta Downs, La.
1975—Announcer, Assiniboia Downs, Winnipeg, Manitoba
1976—79—Announcer, Marquis Downs and Regina Exhibition Park (May-Oct.)
1977-84—Announcer, assistant racing secretary, Portland Meadows, Ore.
1980-82—Announcer, Assiniboia Downs (summer)
1983—Racing office, backup race-caller, Ak-Sar-Ben, Neb.
1984—Announcer, Arapahoe Park, Colo.
1984—present—Announcer, Tampa Bay Downs
1990—Announcer, Canterbury Park, Minn.
1993—Announcer, Prairie Meadows, Iowa
1996-97—Announcer, Ag Park, Nebraska State Fair, Atokad Park, Neb.