Meet the 'voice' of horse racing in the VI- Rashidi M. Clenance
ROAD TOWN, Tortola, VI- The horses break the gate and are blazing down the track with a bunch of horses fighting for the lead as a gap opens in the middle. The track announcer suddenly comes to life and indicates that a horse from behind is making a move on the outside.
As they take the last corner it’s a tight race among three horses and suddenly they are neck to neck down the homestretch, all the while, the track announcer keeps the commentary exciting and the crowd on their feet. As the horses lunge for the finish all ears are on the voice of the announcer to hear which horse has emerged victorious. The race caller screams over the microphone that a particular horse has won by a neck, and the majority fans react with various gestures of excitement.
Horse racing in the Virgin Islands consists of distances that are usually covered in less than two minutes, however, for a track announcer that two minutes could seem a lot longer depending on how the race is run and could even appear less. Regardless, during that duration much attention is placed on the track announcer and which is why he or she must not just make an entertaining call but it must also be an accurate one.
For Rashidi M. Clenance, this is utmost in his mind whenever he is tasked with this responsibility of calling races.
Regarded today as the "voice" of Virgin Islands horse racing, Mr Clenance did not necessarily get into the role by choice and even though he struggled in the beginning he persevered and today has become a household name and respected horse racing personality in the US Virgin Islands and Virgin Islands.
In an exclusive interview with Virgin Islands News Online, Mr Clenance aka Rash, related how it all began for him some two years ago in St. Croix when popular track announcer Hank Armstrong recommended him to take over since he was about to retire. “So it was quite an honour because he is, as good as it gets, certainly the best track announcer in the Virgin Islands that I have ever heard. It was an honour.”
“I came in and found it was by far the most difficult thing I had ever done. Initially I had some good days but most of the days were bad days. I didn’t really want to continue because of my reputation on television and radio and I didn’t want to struggle for too long. So I was kind of willing to step aside myself before he had the opportunity to step aside,” Mr Clenance said of his early experiences. At the time he was also a radio host and sports reporter for the Daily News and TV2 in St. Croix.
As reluctant as he was then, Mr Clenance was once faced with a situation where he had no choice but to grab the microphone and give it a go. “One race day he (Armstrong) just didn’t show up at all, which I guess was how you teach people to swim by throwing them out in the deep sea. Again, my calls were not as clean as I would have liked but he encouraged me, he critiqued, he listened on the radio and he let me know what I should have done and what my shortcomings were.”
“Rash” noted that every day is still a learning experience as no races are the same. He recalled too that his father, who was a horseman, gave him some pointers during his early days as a track announcer. He said his father told him he needed to work on the start and the end of the race and “I guess filling in the gaps in between. So every day I continued to work at it and it is now an honour to be able to call races on all the tracks in the Virgin Islands.”
Prior to becoming a track announcer, Mr Clenance worked as a sports reporter so the extent of his involvement in horse racing was covering it for CBS TV 2.
Mr Clenance noted that he has come into his own and can safely say that he will be around calling races for some time. “Definitely, I have become pretty solid. The days of struggling I would like to say is behind me but the one thing about calling races is that you could never relax. You can’t say well I just killed this race so the next would be a piece of cake. You just can’t go into a race thinking what will be said because it could be a disaster.”
Commenting on one of the challenges he would face as a track announcer, Mr Clenance said races with a few horses could be difficult to call as there is not very much to talk about.
“Believe it or not, it is harder for me to call a small field, when you have three or four horses, because in a eight-horse race you have natural fillers- you have eight horses to talk about. In a three-horse race if they open up the gap early there is not much to say so I like the bigger fields. Also in St. Thomas and Tortola, the horses are cornering faster so we don’t really get a good flow. In St. Croix they stretch out a little bit and you could pick them up from there but here (Tortola) by the time you run them down they are on the corner again. So I personally find it challenging in Tortola and St. Thomas.”
There are also lots of fun that could come with the role of track announcing and especially for Mr Clenance is the use of figurative language. “The guys in St. Croix they sell the DVDs and you could hear some of the calls, some are pretty good like if Leggy Blonde wins a race I would say ‘leggy blonde stretches her legs’ and Bambi Bound, a horse from St Croix came from behind and won a race and I said ‘nothing runs like a deer’. Most of the time it is spontaneous. Good Evening Officer, I have had a chance to call some of her races and I would say something like ‘I salute the officer’."
Mr Clenance was one of the track announcers at the recent Triple Crown Challenge first leg at Ellis Thomas Downs. He has had the opportunity to call Triple Crown races before and said it is quite an honour since horse racing is such a big tradition here in the Virgin Islands. “It’s such a big part in every community and it is a great feeling to be a part of that.”
The experience as a track announcer travelling to the various islands for inter-island races has also been a humbling one for Mr Clenance, bearing in mind that lots are usually at stake on the races and he always has to make the right calls. “You have people’s money on the line out there so if you make a mistake people look at you like you crazy so you have to be very cognizant of that fact that people’s money is out there and they are counting on you for an accurate call. So I think it has humbled me and never allowed me to get overconfident with it. I think that has been the biggest lesson in calling horse racing in the Virgin Islands- to be humble.”
State of horse racing
Mr Clenance believes horse racing in the Virgin Islands is headed in the right direction. “I think only Boxing Day and Christmas second day in St. Croix should conflict. In order for successful race days, inter-island horseracing is the key.”
He noted that St. Croix has a horse population that could sustain itself but the excitement really comes with the inter-island activity.
The track announcer opined that there needs to be more cooperation among the horse racing stakeholders on all three islands if inter-island horse-racing was to grow.
“We could sustain the Triple Crown if we make consistent rules across the tracks and so I think we need to come to some uniformity and even though we are British Virgin Islands and US Virgin Islands, it is obvious that we need each other to exist. It is Important to have camaraderie and more cooperation from the different racing commissions on each island.”
Pari-mutuel Wagering needed in the [British} Virgin Islands
Mr Clenance is also of the opinion that Pari-mutuel Wagering is key for the success of horse racing in the Virgin Islands. He pointed out that in St. Croix they have a racino where they have gambling on the horse track everyday of the week. A racino is a combined race track and casino.
“I know the culture here is a bit different so I don’t know how welcoming you would be to racino and gambling on the track. But you would be fooling yourself to think that people here are not gambling on the horse track on the British Virgin Islands because there is no Pari-mutuel. Pari-mutuel Wagering is actually safe, you have less likelihood of problems. I think it is something that should be looked at and, again, it is common knowledge that folks are gambling at these races so you might as well legitimise it.”
The horse racing personality highlighted that the purses for St. Croix over the Christmas holidays were over a hundred thousand dollars. “If you have those kinds of purses you have the kind of encouragement needed to have new horse men or old horse men to come back into the game or for existing horsemen to stay motivated.”
In Closing Mr Rashidi M. Clenance aka Rash, regarded as the 'voice' of Virgin Islands horse racing, said he loves to call races in the [British] Virgin Islands. “The people are so warm and welcoming and it is always a pleasure to be here.”