Keith Jones estimates he has called around 70,000 races. His first was June 24, 1985, at Garden State Park. His last (as a full-time announcer) will be Wednesday at Parx Racing. There will be 10 races to call on the last day of racing at Parx in 2020, the last race of the day scheduled for 4:28 p.m., darkness beginning to shroud the track as the field of eight with their 391 lifetime starts is on the far turn, heading for the stretch, Jones’ 34-year career as the track’s announcer 30 seconds from its conclusion.
It was 1987 when Jones, the Haverford School and University of North Carolina graduate who grew up hard by the seventh fairway of the Merion Golf Club (and, yes, he used to play a few holes late on many days), became the regular announcer at what was then called Philadelphia Park. His voice is so synonymous with the track that it will be jarring when racing resumes in 2021 and there is a new voice calling the races.
I have known Keith since we met at the first “new” Garden State meet in 1985. It was right after I started at the Daily News so I have had a front-row seat for his entire announcing career. For the last 20 years, we would meet up every Tuesday morning at Parx to tape Let’s Go Racing, the show brilliantly produced by Bruce Casella that appears every Saturday at 10 a.m. on PHL17.
Jones was a wonderful host for the show, always prepared with insights, his love for the game and reverence for its history obvious. The only thing I know about his regular job is that I couldn’t do it and have no idea how anybody does it.
Think about it. Memorize a group of horses’ names, match those names to the silks the jockeys are wearing, sort them out while they are in motion, be accurate while keeping in mind thousands of dollars have been bet on the outcome, anticipate without coming to a conclusion and, in the final seconds before the finish line, be ready to call the winner and as many horses that come next as you dare.
And then forget everything that just happened, including all those horse names. Memorize a new group of names 20 minutes later and repeat 10 times a day.
It is a rare skill. The great announcers make it seem easy.
Keith always wanted to be an announcer. He just thought it would be baseball, football or hockey. Then, he ended up at Garden State working on the matrix board, a then state-of-the-art video system that appeared on a giant board in the infield. His coworkers knew he wanted to be an announcer so they prodded him to go out on the roof and call a few races a night into a tape recorder. So, he did.
Word got to the park’s PR director, Steve Nagler. He liked what he heard on the tapes; told Keith to practice some more. Then, he let him call a race. Then, he let him call one race per night. Then, he became the backup announcer.
Two years later, he was the full-time announcer at Parx. And he has been there ever since, the voice as smooth as it was at the start, the calls as clear and accurate as ever.
Keith and his wife, Kelly, are moving to Texas to be closer to her family as well as to “have the opportunity to enjoy lake living and some great golf.”
He does not want to call full-time anymore, but, if there are fill-in opportunities, he will consider that.
Whatever is next, he will get to look back at a career that began on a roof in New Jersey at a track that no longer exists and will conclude in a Bensalem booth overlooking a track he has called home for those 34 years.
Back in November 2003, Keith called the first two races of Smarty Jones’ career, so he knew before just about anybody that the best horse ever stabled at the track was good enough to beat anybody’s horse on anybody’s track.
In recent years, after management moved the Pennsylvania Derby to late September, Keith has lived every track announcer’s dream, getting to call races with Kentucky Derby winners like California Chrome and Nyquist in them.
Mostly, he has called races just like the last one he will call, fillies and mares running in a $5,000 claiming race for horses that have not won two races in six months.
Keith will no doubt be ready with his signature “hello” catchphrase if a long shot wins. Whatever the result, this will be a goodbye for the kid who dreamed of being an announcer, the man who lived that dream right into a career.