Phil Georgeff, who fell in love with the racetrack as a little boy and became an exuberant, golden-voiced announcer known for his catchphrase “Here they come, spinning out of the turn,” died Monday at 85 in Alabama.
For many generations of horse fans, the excitement began when the native West Sider proclaimed, “And they’re off!”
In a 35-year career, he announced an estimated 95,000 races at all of Chicago’s major tracks, including Arlington Park, Sportsman’s Park, Balmoral Park, Hawthorne, Washington Park and Maywood Park. In 1981, he did the first Arlington Million. In 1988, he made the Guinness Book of Records for calling more races than any other announcer.
“He was the voice of Chicago racing,” said Howard Sudberry, a spokesman for Arlington. “He was one of the greats.”
Doctors found a mass on Mr. Georgeff’s liver and pancreas on Saturday at Thomas Hospital in Fairhope, Ala., where he moved in retirement 24 years ago. He died two days later, said his wife of 63 years, Roberta.
Though his health had been failing for a while, his son Scot said, “He watched the Cubs win the World Series. He had to see that.”
Mr. Georgeff — a Jehovah’s Witness who didn’t gamble — called races with flair, excitement and accuracy but never relied on computers or spotters.
“He did everything by memory,” his son said. “He used binoculars, and that was it. It was the program and memorizing the horses. It would take him about two minutes to memorize the colors, and he was able to go.”
Young Phil grew up at 4628 W. Monroe and attended Austin High School. When he was around 10, his parents took him to the track.
“He was fascinated by that,” his wife said. “He wanted to become a jockey.”
But he grew to be too big.
“He said, ‘If I can’t ride ’em, I’ll write about ’em,’ ’’ his wife said.
Mr. Georgeff studied at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and started working in the publicity department at Arlington.
The department had no sound system, so he honed his skills by calling races for co-workers, his wife said. Later in the 1950s, when the northwest suburban track was looking for an announcer, he tried out and was hired.
At the first Arlington Million in 1981, Mr. Georgeff witnessed one of the sport’s most thrilling races, which saw the thoroughbred John Henry, ridden by famed jockey Willie Shoemaker, tearing toward the finish line alongside The Bart. The finish was so close that race officials initially thought The Bart won.
But Mr. Georgeff wasn’t sure. A check of the photo finish showed he was right: John Henry was victor by a horse hair. The rivalry is immortalized in a sculpture at Arlington.
In 1982, an Arlington executive who found his delivery over-the-top dumped Mr. Georgeff. But he was given a hero’s welcome the following year when the track’s new ownership rehired him. They flew him by helicopter to the track, where he alighted near the winner’s circle. People “were cheering like crazy,” his son said.
Of all the horses in the Sport of Kings, Mr. Georgeff’s all-time favorite was Citation, the legendary 1948 Triple Crown winner. He wrote a 2003 book about the champion, “Citation, In a Class by Himself.”
He also produced horse-racing novels, including “Thoroughbred, in a Class by Himself” and “The Man Who Loved Mario Lanza.”
Another of his novels paid homage to Citation’s great jockey: “The Man Who Loved Eddie Arcaro.”
He met many VIPs during his career, among them Mickey Rooney, the star of horsey movies including “The Black Stallion” and “National Velvet,” who was a frequent guest in his announcing booth.
Mr. Georgeff used to get stopped by fans on airplanes and even at Universal Studios once they heard him speak. They instantly recognized him from his famous voice.
During return visits to Chicago, he’d make pilgrimages to Portillo’s and favorite pizza places, his son said.
He did not want a funeral service, his wife and son said.