For Immediate Release, March 03, 2017
Steve Anderson's Article - Hodtwalker
There was an eerie silence in the Fonner Park pressbox on opening weekend.
The kind that only a regular to the "crows nest" might have picked up on?
It felt like someone had taken the snap, crackle and pop out of my Rice Krispies.
You know what I mean.
Bend over. Listen care fully. It's gone.
For the first time in over a quarter-century, Trackman Bill Hodtwalker was nowhere
to be found when live thoroughbred horse racing kicked off the 2017 campaign. At least not in his designated spot where the working media congregate.
The 56-year-old chart-caller had been relegated to the bench by one of his employers, Equibase, and became a victim in a downsizing manuever that reduced a two-man job down to a solo effort.
Danny Coughlin, Jr. was tabbed to recreate the running of all races for "The Form" during the first five weeks of the season. Hodtwalker, meanwhile, went to the wooden seats down below.
"I covered every inch of that grandstand last Saturday," recalled Hodtwalker. "People approached me all day long asking 'What are you doing down here?' It was strange."
Prior to the pre-game satellite show, no one knew which direction to turn when the folks from the remote-video truck started inquiring about what the track condition should be listed as. Vital information for simulcast viewers who aren't physically at the track.
Coughlin beckoned to the Stewards for further assistance.
The head Judge, Bob Pollock, said, "Ask Bill. That's always been his call. He's the trackman!"
Not anymore. At least not for the first 15 cards.
An hour before the Saturday opener, we started with muddy. It was upgraded to good.
In hindsight, Hodtwalker said he'd have gone with frozen, "but nobody would have wanted to hear that."
This soft-spoken oracle, who also doubles as the program coordinator for the Racing Office, might have been speaking in jest, but his poker-faced reaction certainly offered no clues.
Born and raised in nearby Chapman, Hodtwalker moved to Grand Island when he was 13, and it didn't take long to get smitten by the ponies.
"I got a high school job with The Independent newspaper as a stringer in 1977," said Hodtwalker, "and parlayed that into a sportswriting position. By the mid-eighties, Jerry Shottenkirk moved on to work for turf writer."
In 1988, Hodtwalker followed suit, getting a week's training at Atokad race track in South Sioux City, and from there went on to chart races at Canterbury Park, Churchill Downs, Keeneland and Tampa Bay Downs.
The opportunity to return to Nebraska came in the early 90's, and Hodtwalker has been following the local circuit ever since.
"Over the last ten years I've been asked to go out of state many times," reflected Hodtwalker, "but despite the shrinkage in live Nebraska racing days, which has had a major impact on my financial status, I would've never met my wife (Lori). I wouldn't have settled down and built a home (in Columbus). Instead, I'd be bouncing around the country." Our conversation stopped.
A slight smile could be detected on Mr. Hodtwalker's face and his body language spoke louder than words.
Despite the threat of facing his final year at the track, this guy looked happy and content.
No, he's not pleased with decisions he has no control over but, I think, he can live with that.
In the meantime, that three dollar program you pick up everytime you go to Fonner Park is the end result of Hodtwalker's morning job.
He assembles the pages by combining the past performance lines of all the horses -in every race- with the morning line odds, the banner sponsorships and any other significant information.
The "overnight sheet" is his responsibility.
And the good news is, it won't be long, and even my favorite breakfast food will return to normal.