Author: Duane Fonseca
SOUTH AFRICAN race caller Alistair Cohen knew he had huge shoes to fill after his appointment as English commentator for the 2021/22 Emirates Racing Season. But if anything, the 31yo believes he is cut out for the job and is willing to ensconce himself in a challenge he knows can help him scale great heights in international race calling.
Cohen was drafted into the much coveted role as a replacement for Craig Evans, the Australian who held the job for four years and after replacing compatriot Terry Spargo, who turned race calling into an art form during his 17 years in the office. “I am really impressed and humbled to be out here, this is an unbelievable opportunity,” Cohen told Al Adiyat.
“It’s a season long contract and at the end of it I head back to South Africa, but I intend to make the most of it and leave an impression and hope to be back.” Cohen called a few races at Scotland’s Musselburgh Racecourse in 2019, but that was nothing major making this his first big stint in international waters. Many would agree that with the massive ‘international’ half of the season, culminating with the Dubai World Cup card, would be the ideal place for someone to carve themselves a niche globally.
Cohen hopefully can do that. “So far I’ve basically called races in South Africa and Mauritius,” he said. “Scotland was my only overseas experience beyond that and now Dubai so it’s great and I’m really looking forward to spreading my wings.” Cohen has his father David to thank for getting him into racing. He did not come from a family with deep roots in the sport, but David being an avid racegoer helped tremendously as Alistair found himself at racetracks in his native Durban with the regularity of a metronome.
“I grew up over the road from Greyville Racecourse in Durban which is where they hold the Durban July which is Africa’s most famous race and my dad has always been an avid racegoer and likes to have a bet from time to time. So, I used to go to the races with him and absolutely loved it,” Cohen said. Going to the races and simply enjoying the action was one thing, but Cohen took an absolute fascination for the man in the sky.
He wanted him to be the voice blaring out of the loudspeakers. He wanted to wax eloquent…. make poetry himself. “I used to stare up at the sky and think I wanted to be the guy talking over the loudspeaker when I was older,” he added. “When I was 12 there was a commentator competition at the now defunct Clairwood Racecourse.
I entered that not because I was very good, but because I had age on my side. I was young and told to practice commentating and everything just developed from there.” For a long time, a tape recorder became Cohen’s best friend, helping him hone skills that would see him ‘hit the front’ of the queue for the vacant UAE job.
“I spent seven years practicing commentating, speaking into a tape recorder and then when I was 19 at the end of 2010 I was told there was a job opportunity in Johannesburg so I moved there and 11 years later I’m here in the UAE,” Cohen said. “I was told there was a vacancy here regarding the English commentating in July, was interviewed and a month later I was told I was at the head of the queue.
It was a great opportunity and one that I couldn’t turn down and I’m really enjoying my time in the UAE at the moment.” Cohen knows what it is to live life to the fullest after successfully battling cancer four years ago. He overcame adversity and is one of the most recognisable voices in South Africa, having called some of the nation’s biggest races, including the SA Triple Crown and Wilgerbosdrift Triple Tiara series.
Asked for the biggest races he’s been involved with, Cohen added: “All the Grade One races in Johannesburg. “I did a few in Cape Town a few seasons ago. I did the Summer Cup which is Johannesburg’s biggest race. They put it into the big three with the Durban July and the Cape Town Met. The Queen’s Plate is also getting into the big three status now.
But calling a few Summer Cups and being able to call a few Triple Crown and Triple Tiaras. The likes of Summer Pudding and Abashiri winning the Triple Tiara and Triple Crown respectively was a great highlight for me. I think every race I do is a privilege because it’s a new story to tell; a new picture to paint for racegoers around the world.”
A man of words, Cohen says he prefers to steer away from the cliches and tries to keep things fresh even as he gathers data through his binoculars, processes it in his brain and delivers spiel into the microphone. Although, he does admit difficulty in completely avoiding ‘traffic’ and cruising along the ‘scenic route’. “I don’t like to believe I have any iconic lines, I like to keep things fresh and do things differently.
Basically, telling the truth about what’s going on in front of me,” he said. “Phareses like ‘scenic route’, ‘hits the front’, a lot of commentators like to use those, but there are all sorts I throw in from time to time. What I tend to do is not prepare my commentary. “Learning colours is very important, but to preempt what’s going to happen in racing is a very dangerous thing.
So, a lot of times when I say something it comes off the cuff.” Arabic names, particularly within the Purebred Arabian side of things, can feel a bit intimidating, but the resourceful Cohen has found a way to navigate therein. “Arabic names were always going to be a challenge and there’s a whole lot of tricky ones that come to mind at the moment.
Thankfully, we have a translator and a lot of Arabic speaking people in the office and they help me with the names. What they mean, I don’t know, but, hopefully, I’m not getting them too wrong.” Alistair might not have had roots in racing, but he does have a seed to plant, which could benefit the next generation of Cohens.
“I’m dating a trainer back in South Africa, Candice Dawson and she is having a lot of success. She had her first Grade One winner recently and she’s only had her licence for a couple of years,” Cohen explains. “As far as family, my mum only enjoys racing because of me and my father is an avid racegoer, but never generated an income from the game.” Finding his calling in the sport, Cohen surely does.