By Dick Jerardi
The track was nearly enveloped in darkness late in the afternoon of Dec. 30. There were two lights still shining atop the Parx grandstand after the last race of the day.
There were the lights from the announcer’s booth as Keith Jones bid his farewell. On the floor above, Lew Zagnit, after nearly 40 years at Parx and 45 years in the business, was finishing up his work for the day.
But the fans never heard Zagnit. They just saw his work in the charts and the past performances. He called the horses as they hit the poles, separating them by heads and lengths, never permitted to skip a horse. That 10th race on Dec. 30 was his last race too, even if, as was his custom, he did it with no fanfare.
Zagnit got his start at “Daily Racing Form’’ in the late 1970s, learning the trade from Mike Mercer at what was then called Keystone. He estimates he’s called charts at 30 tracks and “about 10 of them are closed.’’
There was Centennial in Colorado, Bowie in Maryland, Commodore Downs (Erie, Pa.) and Garden State Park. There was River Downs (now Belterra Park) in Cincinnati, Latonia (now Turfway) in Kentucky.
Back then, there were not many year-round circuits so chart callers would follow the horses.
Zagnit was told he would be working the 1981 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and “then you would be on your way home’’ to Pennsylvania.
“I packed enough clothes for a week,’’ Zagnit.
While he was at the Derby, he was asked to go to Centennial. He was there for six months.
On the way home, he stopped at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and “worked a meet there.’’
“Probably about 11 months later, with my week’s worth of clothes, I came back,’’ Zagnit said.
It was that kind of life until he settled in to be the regular chartcaller at Parx in the mid-1980s. He was there until he decided to retire.
There were times when Parx and Garden State were running simultaneously so he was calling charts seven days a week.
Lew and his brother Bruce got into chart calling through their cousin, Herb Goldstein, a DRF columnist back in the day. Bruce still calls charts at Penn National.
Bruce worked as a groom for the great Don Levine at old Garden State, but Lew had no horse racing background.
“My first day at work was my first day at a race track,’’ Lew said.
Zagnit estimates he called 80,000 race charts.
He had a call taker for most of his tenure, somebody who would listen to Zagnit calls the horses and then write down on a sheet where the horses were at different points of call. Lew would always write the footnotes that would accompany the charts. And those charts, of course, became the basis for the past performances the next time the horses in a race would run.
“Mike Mercer was a great teacher and a great chart caller,’’ Zagnit said of the man who became the longtime publicity director at Keystone/Philadelphia Park.
Like announcers, chart callers have to memorize a group of names for 8 or 9 or 10 races per day, immediately forget them and repeat the process all day.
“To this day, if you introduce yourself, within three minutes, I would forget your name,’’ Zagnit said.
He remembers calling a 15-horse field going 5 furlongs at RiverDowns. His brother was the call taker.
“I got every horse,’’ he said.
And he had to get every horse.
“It wasn’t like if we got stuck, we could stop at the sixth horse,’’ Zagnit said. “We’ve got to keep on going.’’
He called the great All Along winning the
1983 Washington D.C. International at Laurel. He called Spend A Buck at Garden State in April 1985 before the colt won the Derby and returned to win the Jersey Derby and a $2 million bonus. He called Smarty Jones’s first two races at Parx in 2003.
“I did the best job I could every day,’’ Zagnit said.
And he did it very well. He was dedicated, accurate, and consistent. If you saw a Lew Zagnit chart or read his footnotes, you did not need to see a replay. He painted a picture of exactly what happened.
He won’t be at the track, but he will still be working at his Animal Rescue. Lew and his wife Karen have adopted out more than 300 dogs. He has been a volunteer for Trenton Animal Shelter.
“I will keep myself busy,’’ Lew Zagnit promised.