John Imbriale never really thought about getting this chance in his career.
And the Long Beach resident certainly never thought these would be the circumstances in his first year as NYRA’s full-time race caller.
“It’s been an experience, even in the short term,” Imbriale said before Saturday’s 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes that marked his Triple Crown debut. “You come in, they change the order, they change the distance, there are no fans. Well, I’ve pretty much jinxed it for this year.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, not Imbriale’s promotion from NYRA’s backup race caller to Larry Collmus’ successor in January, is responsible for the different Belmont Stakes and horse racing schedule overall.
This Belmont Stakes, originally set for June 6, was run at 11/8 miles, instead of 11/2 miles and marked the first leg of the Triple Crown, not the last. No fans or owners were in the giant Belmont Park grandstand.
“Once you get into calling, you’re doing the race,” said Imbriale, who graduated St. John’s in 1977, first worked for NYRA in 1979 and became the organization’s backup race caller — then to Tom Durkin — at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga in 1990.
“If there’s 10 people there, you don’t need anything to get pumped up for a day like Saturday,” Imbriale said. “There’s no need for any extra incentive to be up for a day like Belmont Stakes day.”
Imbriale admitted his brothers and uncles had more of an interest in horse racing than he did growing up in Commack. But he was at Belmont to see Seattle Slew complete his Triple Crown in 1977.
It was Affirmed’s Triple Crown the following year that hooked him. He also was at Belmont to witness Affirmed win there and the champion’s epic battles with Alydar, plus the story of Affirmed’s 18-year-old jockey, Steve Cauthen, cemented his love for the sport.
In 1979, Imbriale won a Daily News contest that allowed him to call a race for NYRA. He first got a job with NYRA on Nov. 5, 1979 before later working for the now defunct Sports Phone.
Imbriale also was serving as NYRA’s director of television production before succeeding Collmus, who called Saturday’s race for NBC.
So, Imbriale answered, “Yes and no,” when asked whether his current assignment was his dream job.
“I always loved the mix that I had in what I did,” Imbriale said. “I was involved in a lot of different departments and then I was involved in TV. I’d call a lot in the winter when Tom would be away and the same with Larry. I never thought there’d be the [full-time] opportunity. I didn’t want to go out of town or leave NYRA. I don’t even know if this was in the back of my mind. Then, the opportunity came up and you just never know what will be presented to you. I was thrilled to get the opportunity.”