The Chart Caller's Art

By Dara Miles

When the 3-year-olds left the gate at Belmont Park June 10, it was the first Belmont Stakes in decades without Jack Kelly in the press box. Kelly, a long-time chart caller for Belmont, died last September. Stepping into his considerable shoes will be Danny Kulchisky, who worked with and trained under Kelly for years on the New York circuit.

Race charts are packed with information for bettors and handicappers. Much of it comes from the chart caller's own observations, compiled, culled, and verified on a tight deadline. In the brief interlude between contests, the chart caller and his call takerEquibase employeesrun a race of their own, marshalling data and getting it out. It's a job that would rattle most nerves, but Kulchisky handles it with unflinching poise.

On a recent Thursday at Belmont, the main part of the press box was quiet, with only a couple of turf writers lurking at the long desk overlooking the track. Even the mutuel clerk at the press box betting window, with no tickets to cash, looked bored. But just steps away behind a glass partition, Kulchisky and his call taker, Brian Affrunti, hustled to finish the chart for the race that had just run. The task completed, Kulchisky emerged, only to take up the binoculars to prepare for the next race.

"A chart caller needs to have good attention to detail and a good memory," said Affrunti, who has been taking the calls for three years. The job starts with memorization before the race begins. At the window, Kulchisky peered through the lenses at the runners loading into the gates, noted their numbers and silks, and called out their post positions to Affrunti.

In seconds, the horses were off. Binoculars back up, Kulchisky waited for the field to approach the first call point at the quarter-mile pole. "Okay, it's gonna be nine in front," he said to Affrunti.

"Nine by two, five by two, now six by one, now seven half," Kulchisky announced, using standard chart caller shorthand. "One by one, three by one, eight by two, one by one...and the ten." Affrunti jotted the call on a pad and waited for the next one. He didn't have to wait long. In about 90 seconds, the pair tracked the relative running positions of nine horses at four successive points around the oval.

"That's all I do," Kulchisky said to a reporter as he headed to an adjoining room with a video monitor and computer terminals. "Well, it's half of what I do." The calls made during the course of the race create the chart's running lines, but it takes a second look at the race to write the comments. While Affrunti keyed in the numbers at one keyboard, Kulchisky, the wordsmith, watched the just-recorded video in order to draft the footnote.

"We really, really concentrate on comments," said Chuck Scaravilli, who trains and supervises the company's chart callers and call takers. "The handicapper may want to know how wide the horse had to race and whether he got into any trouble. We're the ones who can help with that because we watch every horse in every race." A good comments section, according to Scaravilli, will describe how the horses performed at the start, the middle, and the finish line.

"The comments section of the chart is the hardest to write," he said. "And it's the most difficult to train. You can train somebody to memorize and explain where the horse is, but describing how the horse ran is a heck of a lot more involved."

Kulchisky took notes as he toggled the video replay between the head-on view and the panor sidewaysshot. He checked to see how the horses broke and watched carefully as they raced through the turn. The descriptions he jotted down"ducked in," "checked," "pressed" were drawn from typical track lingo, a native language to Kulchisky, who has spend much of his life working in various roles at the track. Less experienced chart callers-in-training have an Equibase glossary to consult.

"We give them a whole list of comments that are suggestions, and they build on those," said Scaravilli. That lends a bit of uniformity to the charts, but with scores of chart callers all over the country, any particular track's footnotes are, at bottom, the distinct work of an individual.

"It just depends on the chart caller," Scaravilli said. "They all have their own specific style. Some are more wordy than others." But "wordy" might not be a bad thing when there is knowledge to be gained.

Kulchisky, for his part, will concede that he's one of the wordier ones, and the proof is in the footnote he has just uploaded on this Thursday afternoon at Belmont. Consider, for example, his description of the third-place finish:

Sex Appeal sat well-reserved from the two path for nearly three-quarters, waited briefly as the field neared the quarter pole, tipped out two additional paths in upper stretch, and rallied mildly to take the show.

One horse's race in a nutshell. Now, multiply by seven. That's the chart caller's art.

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