The first day on a new job always is a little tense, but for Robin Burns, it was positively excruciating.
Burns became the announcer at Laurel Race Course this fall under what should have been can't-miss circumstances. He already was established as one of the best harness race callers in the country. Now he was moving into the thoroughbred game and taking over from Dick Woolley. He couldn't be anything but a big improvement.
But after opening day at Laurel, some racegoers found themselves feeling almost nostalgic for Woolley. Burns called horses taking the lead who weren't anywhere near the lead. In one race, he called the odds-on favorite by three names.
This wasn't merely a case of opening-day jitters. Even after two or three weeks, Burns was having problems. The fans knew it, and so did the chagrined announcer. "I make more mistakes here in a day than I make in a month at a harness track," he conceded.
In view of all these early difficulties, patrons at Laurel may have trouble believing that it is the same Robin Burns who is behind the microphone now. His calls of races are clear, accurate and frequently exciting. His voice is confident and authoritative. For the first time within the memory of most of us, Maryland has a first-rate race caller.
This is what Burns has aspired to be ever since he graduated from the University of Miami. He started by calling imaginary races in barrooms where the appreciative customers would buy him beers.
When he decided he needed to be making an honest living, he sent a tape of some calls to Buffalo Raceway, near his home in Niagara Falls, N.Y. He got a job as a second-string announcer there, and before long, he was working at some of the biggest standardbred tracks in the country, including Hollywood Park and the Meadowlands. He came to this area in 1983, when Frank DeFrancis hired him as the announcer at Freestate Raceway.
His style was distinctive, flashy, sometimes a little hokey. ("So-and-So Hanover is stoking the coal!") Burns had justifiable confidence in his ability, and he was not intimidated when DeFrancis proposed that he call thoroughbred races at Laurel.
But he quickly learned how different the new game was.
"I was struggling," Burns said. "Thoroughbred races are a lot faster, and the distances are shorter. Instead of eight or nine horses, you can have 12 in a field, and it's very difficult to go through a whole field and give every horse a call. The worst thing, though, was the announcer's booth; I was looking straight across the track, and I couldn't see the horses clearly."
Over the past two months, Burns clearly has mastered the technical side of calling the faster-moving thoroughbred sport. Laurel helped by building him a new booth on the roof so he could see the races better. But he has the potential to be much more than a solid, proficient race caller. He could combine accuracy with drama and flair the way Tom Durkin, who works at Hialeah and the Meadowlands and is the nation's standout race caller, does.
Harness and thoroughbred racing have developed very different styles and traditions in announcing. The harness game, with its country-fair roots, always has had folksier and jazzier race calls. Thoroughbred calls commonly are cut-and-dried -- and boring. Burns consciously has tried to play the straight man at Laurel, but every once in a while, his liveliness betrays his harness racing background: "Grundoon is looking for opposition, but nobody's coming so far. It's Grundoon!"
If he continues to improve the technical accuracy of his calls and injects them with a little of the pizazz of which he is capable, Burns could be one of the best announcers in the thoroughbred business. That would be the most dramatic form reversal of the whole Laurel season.