In a small room above Gulfstream Park there is a handwritten note dated January 2nd, 2017. It is stuck in the wall with a thumbtack, its metal orb holding the sacred paper in its rightful spot. The writing is hard to read, at first, written by hands that have held binoculars over some of the greatest horse races in the world. Those hands belonging to the man whose words “and down the stretch they come!” follow names rattled off in order of place and precede winners proclaimed so.
The note, signed by the one and only Dave Johnson, is addressed to Pete Aiello.
It stands witness over the announcer’s booth that Pete calls home.
It stands witness over Pete… as he calls the richest horse race in the world.
It stands witness over the three lines that bellow from the depths of Pete’s lungs as Arrogate wins the inaugural Pegasus World Cup.
As those words ring out across Gulfstream Park, and the nation, a lifetime of work washes over Pete, and he is overcome with emotion.
This moment, this battle of champions, this is the moment Pete has waited for his entire life.
“It was surreal. It sounds cliche, but it was surreal. Did I ever really imagine I would be here? No. Until I did that could I have, in my heart of hearts, looked someone in the eye, or looked myself in the eye – more to the point- and thought I belong here? I had never felt that way before. In that moment, I proved I belong; I could hang with the big dogs.”
He flicks the mic off, and his cry of joy quickly evolves into simply crying. All the moments come flooding over him: his grandparents, his pink silks, his father coming up the stairs to yell at him for being too loud, county fairs, Luke, one eyed binoculars, Hialeah Park.
Every moment preparing him for this.
A love of racing began at a very early age for Pete; if he wanted to visit his grandfather, he would have to go find him at the tracks. “It was my mother and my grandmother’s worst nightmare when I started asking to go to the track with my dad and my Grandpa.” A trip to Hialeah Park sealed the deal when his Grandmother bought him a pair of pink silks – which elicited a total state of euphoria in three year old Pete as he ran through the park in his dazzling new acquisition.
It was really his father who set Pete on a lifelong path towards being an announcer. At fourteen years old, Pete’s dad bought him a horse racing computer game that thoroughly enthralled Pete. He played it for hours until he had mastered it, and then, unwilling to give up his pastime, he took on the role of the suspiciously absent announcer.
“I would write down the names of these pixelated racers on paper” he recalls, “and I would mumble the races to myself. I had heard enough races to know what it was supposed to sound like. Primarily I just did it for my own entertainment, but I guess over time I got louder and louder.”
One day, Pete’s father came rushing upstairs, where Pete was fully engulfed in a race call, swung his bedroom door open and yelled “Hey! Shut up! I can hear you from outside!” It was that moment, Pete recalls, when someone finally validated his ability, and his mind was made up.
When Pete saw an ad for the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program there was no doubt in his mind. On the ad was Luke Kruytbosch (announcer at Turf Paradise and Churchill Downs at the time) who graduated from the U of A. Little did Pete know in that moment, the man on that ad would be an incredibly powerful guiding force in Pete’s life. The U of A program was the only post-secondary school Pete applied to – it was “racing or bust” as he puts it.
And racing it was.
His first year at U of A, Pete never expected to meet an announcer at the university’s annual symposium – where industry members come to lecture and mentor students. As luck (and a little help from the school’s secretary) would have it, the very man on the ad that prompted Pete to go to U of A agreed to have lunch with the aspiring announcer. Luke wasted no time getting right to the heart of it, telling Pete “if you can do it, I’ll be the person who supports you more than anyone in the business and make sure we get you started with a good career, but at the same time if you’re not any good, I owe it to you, myself and the school to tell it to you.”
Pete’s first real attempt at a race call at a county fair sealed the deal when Luke acknowledged that Pete “didn’t suck.” From then on, Luke was instrumental in helping Pete with some of the pivotal moments in his career:
There was his first race at Tampa Bay Downs where a steward lent his binoculars to Pete, saving him from sure disaster if he had attempted calling the race with his own one-eyed pair. It was also the same race where Pete promptly vomited following his call because, “that’s how nervous I was,” he recalls. Pete had kept the occasion secret only to have Luke call him moments before the race reminding Pete “no pressure or anything, but this is your career right here.”
There was his first real break into the world of announcing, when Luke was instrumental in helping Pete become the announcer at River Downs. Not so gently reminding an apprehensive Pete that opportunities like River Downs don’t come along that often in his profession.
Just two months later Luke would pass away. “It was like his last good deed on earth,” Pete reminisces of his friend and mentor. River Downs set the ball in motion for his eventual ascent to the announcer’s booth at Gulfstream Park.
Shortly thereafter, Hialeah Park re-opened – Pete’s childhood track. He sent his resume, dead set on announcing, but was hired to write press releases instead; Pete was just ecstatic to be back “home.” As opening day approached and the regular announcer was still committed to another track, Pete’s dream became a reality.
“They might as well have asked me if I could call the Kentucky Derby. In college my dream was never to call the Kentucky Derby; it was never to call the Pegasus World Cup; it was never to call the Breeder’s Cup. It was always to call races at Hialeah – that was dream territory for me.”
In 2014, the seemingly unattainable became attainable when Larry Collmus asked Pete if he would pick up some days at Gulfstream Park to cover Larry, who held the position of announcer at the time. The odd day here and there at Gulfstream led to the announcer’s job at Oaklawn Park and eventually back to the full time position at Gulfstream, just in time for the Champions Meet featuring the first Pegasus World Cup.
Pete knew Pegasus would be coming to Gulfstream, but only figured he would announce for the on track crowd – which, obviously, turned out not to be the case. At first Pete wasn’t excited about being the voice heard around the nation on NBC’s broadcast of the race, but terrified instead: “You want to be in the game but you don’t want to be THE game,” he thought.
In the weeks preceding the race, Pete called on his friends and mentors in the business for advice on preparing for the biggest race call of his career – but none of it felt quite right. Pete had never been one to script a call, always relying on his love and passion for the sport to guide his way. Yet, all the advice he was receiving included scripting every possible scenario of the call. “In my head I kept thinking ‘this is not how I do things, if I do this I’m going to mess up,'” says Pete.
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Then one piece of advice changed everything: “Obviously you’re getting the opportunity to call Pegasus because of the work you’ve done up to now” Dave Rodman told Pete, “so do it your way! That’s how you got here. So do it your way.”
Finally, Pete realized, all those years of struggling to break into a business where competition is high and opportunities limited, were leading him right to this. This moment. Pete just had to do what Pete knew how to do, what he had been doing since he was thirteen years old in his bedroom:
Pete just had to call the races.
“It was such a significant moment. It wasn’t only California Chrome’s last race; it wasn’t only Arrogate and California Chrome’s rematch. It was the biggest race in the world… and it was the very first one. I wanted to come up with something where I could encapsulate all the story lines into one call.” Struggling all week long before the race to find just just the right call, it was finally in the middle of a Don Henley concert, once Pete stopped thinking about Pegasus, that it just came: three. simple. lines….
Twelve horses break from the gates beneath Pete Aiello’s announcer’s booth Jan 28th. On the wall is the handwritten note from Dave Johnson standing witness over Pete in this moment; this moment that is a testament to years of struggle, of loss and, now, success.
Twelve names roll of Pete’s tongue, his lips marking each syllable as they pound through the clubhouse turn. The horses enter the backstretch and suddenly Pete’s world is encased in a shroud of silence, his voice the only sound piercing the veil.
“I didn’t hear my heart pumping; I didn’t feel my legs shaking. It was just it.”
Down the stretch they come, with Arrogate prevailing, and three lines bellow from the depths of Pete’s lungs. Three lines which will forever be the soundtrack to the inaugural Pegasus World Cup. Three lines that convey the love of horses and of racing, that has brought Pete from a three year old boy at Hialeah Park in pink racing silks to the top of Gulfstream Park for the richest race in the world:
What a race…
What a sport…
What a horse!