Melbourne Cup Race Caller Matt Hill Ready for his “Grand Final”
The Melbourne Cup isn’t just the grand final for the world’s best stayers. 2019 Melbourne Cup Race caller Matt Hill’s year culminates with the Flemington classic – and despite having called it twice it still gets him nervous.
A young child sits on the floor at home in Melbourne’s western suburbs.
Assembled in front of him are some pencils, carefully pieced together to form a makeshift racetrack.
Toy horses are pushed around by hand, a young Matt Hill calling his own race with names he’s either heard on radio or seen first-hand at the track the previous Saturday.
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The horses are pushed past a picture frame – playing the role of a winning post – and the schoolboy also has his ruler nearby, his own special semaphore board.
For Hill, now 38 and preparing to call his third year as the Melbourne Cup race caller, the voice of spring racing, it’s been a long ride – and one not without the odd blocked run, and even close shave with death.
The seed for his love of racing was sewn long ago – and now he’s living out his childhood dream.
“I had my option, I’d either go to the football with grandma, who was a Bulldogs tragic, or go to the races with grandad,” Hill recalls.
“That was the decision every week.
“I was always in love with both of them (footy and racing), really. But the racing bug got me and I wanted to be a race caller.”
As a teenager Hill would collect racebooks. With his 15th birthday approaching, Hill’s mother rang Flemington to see if she could get her hands on some for the impending milestone.
When an offer came to sit alongside legendary caller Greg Miles during a weekend meeting, the teenager couldn’t believe his luck.
“I got to meet my hero on my 15th birthday,” Hill said.
“I sat on a stool next to him for three races and to this day he thinks I was bored out of my mind.
“He thought ‘how bored is this kid?’ I was just absolutely rapt. I walked away just wanting to do that.”
Weekend after weekend was spent at racetracks, be it Flemington on Saturday or the Moonee Valley trots later that night, honing his craft.
Hill would watch the race, calling and recording it himself before going home to listen to his work.
“I would have that many tapes, actual cassette tapes at home,” he said.
“I would have done hundreds or thousands of race calls I reckon, and just tried to get it right.”
While the odd job calling barrier trials or a greyhound meet popped up from time to time, it wasn’t until finishing Year 12 where Hill caught what would be his big break.
“I got offered a casual job at RSN as basically a racecaller assistant and calling greyhounds,” he said.
“I did that and then I got offered a scholarship in Sydney and I got that with Sky Channel. I went up as the apprentice and I was there for 16 years.”
After being one of the main voices in Sydney racing for six years, Hill decided to “come home”.
He spent time at the ABC, calling football on Saturday nights in 2015 and reading the sport.
But it was the sudden retirement of his idol, Miles, in 2017 that would see him take the mantle of the voice of Melbourne racing. Plans of a potential move into general broadcasting were abandoned, the then 36-year-old realising the rare opportunity in front of him.
And he admits Miles’ shoes were daunting to try to fill.
“The most nervous I ever was was the first day I called for him,” Hill said.
“In fact I called a couple of races with him before he finished and I was petrified. I thought ‘They’re going to compare me’. I was so happy (when it) was over because I thought ‘this is the day where they’re going to crucify me.”
That harsh feedback never came. Hill’s transition to become arguably the country’s No.1 race caller – and the voice for Racing.Com’s TV coverage – has appeared seamless.
Now, he’s preparing for Australia’s biggest race – his third Melbourne Cup and the pressure will be on in his very own “grand final”.
“I think it’s just the scope of the race,” he said.
“It’s the fact that a lot of people are listening. It’s the Melbourne Cup – it changes jockeys’ lives, it changes trainers’ lives, it is the race that everyone is watching.
“The fact there is 24, yes that makes it harder but we live for that. Race callers live for the big fields. It’s more the gravitas of the race and you put a bit of pressure on yourself too.
“You think ‘well this is my grand final as well I should be doing it well, you know?’
“You don’t want to be walking away after 12 months of race calling going ‘Well the one race I screwed up was the Melbourne Cup’.
“The hard part about Melbourne Cup Day is managing it and the other races. You call the Cup and it’s your grand final but then 40 minutes later there’s another field of 20.”
WE ASKED MATT HILL ABOUT …
HIS TWO CUP CALLS SO FAR
“The first one (2017) I felt I was concentrating a lot on just getting it right, just not mucking it up so it was probably a very boring call in many respects because it was just line and length.
The second one (2018) was about the same, but the second one was tricky because the winner came from a long long long way back and there were a lot of runs made in the straight … If I’d known at the 400 when Cross Counter was running 20th that he was going to win I would have said his name at some point.
You can’t spit them all out but overall with the Cups I’ve been happy. It’s not a race to muck around with I find, it’s a race that you get it done.”
WHETHER HE GETS NERVOUS:
“Yes. The night before a big meeting, it’s just being up and about with a bit of expectation. And maybe half an hour before a Melbourne Cup. I think half an hour before the Melbourne Cup’s really hard because there’s a lot going on.
They bring the Cup in, they sing the national anthem, the radio station’s playing the big voice-overs about Australia’s history in the Melbourne Cup and the world is listening. But then I think the bit of relief is you go back to race caller mode.
The horses are at the gate and you’re doing what you’re there to do and as soon you spit a name out you’re back in vogue and you’ve got to concentrate.
I still think it’s a concentration game, race calling, and the Cup, the concentration that goes into it … you could be hitting me over the back of the head with something and I have no idea you were there.”
DOES HE EVER PANIC?
“Oh yeah. Years ago at Newcastle I had a massive mental blank. In most races you’ll have a moment where you feel like you’re having a mental blank but it only goes for a split second … and that’s where your ‘and then next on the fence is’ comes in.
There’s definitely moments every day where you think ‘I don’t know that is running fifth. Who is it?!’ and you have to work it out.”
“I’m terrible at it. I’m tortured by perfectionism, I hate it.
Any word out of place I’ll stew over it like you wouldn’t believe. No race is a disaster.
I don’t walk away and think ‘well I completely screwed that up’ but I know what I’ve done wrong and probably half the time people don’t even know I’ve done something wrong. But I’m really tuned into it and I really do get myself wound up about it. It’s a bad thing but it’s a good thing because your standards are high.”
HIS FAVOURITE HORSE(S):
“At the moment, Sunlight. I love her, I think she’s fantastic.
“Over the years I was really taken by Better Loosen Up and the Japan Cup. I reckon that race, I can remember it now, we were huddled around the TV at grandma’s house watching this horse win in Japan. I’ve never watched a race in Japan – no-one had. For me that had such an impact, I just thought he was so brave and what a great horse he was.”
FAVOURITE NAMES TO CALL?
“I probably have least favourite names to call. And funnily enough it wouldn’t be names that you’d generally look at and think ‘Gee that’s hard’.
For instance, Constantinople. Now that’s not an easy name to say in a race call.
There are actually people who I’ve heard in the media struggling just to say it on air, let alone in a call. That would be an extra stress on Melbourne Cup Day, just thinking ‘say it properly’.”
HIS BEST CALL?
“For a raw call the Newmarket in March there was 22 up the straight I think. It wasn’t a flashy call I was, I was just spitting names out really but it was technically, I think, quite good.
Everyone thinks you’ve got to come out with the great line at the end, and in the big moments you do, but I could call a Ballarat maiden and maybe think that was better than the Cox Plate.”
ABOUT HAVING A BET:
“Absolutely. Love to have a bet.
I’ll have a little quaddie with a guy who works with me in the box … I like that involvement because I’m not really that tuned into it. We might have seven horses in a leg and I won’t know what we’ve got anyway.
If you said to me ‘every race call for the rest of your life you won’t have a bet’ it wouldn’t bother me because to get the racing right and call right is much more important to me than having a punt. But on a day off, absolutely. (I) love the dogs and I love the trots and the gallops.
For me if I was excited in a race call it’d be more so because I believe in the story or the actual moment or race itself, it wouldn’t be because I backed a winner.”
ON NEARLY DYING AT THE BEIJING OLYMPICS:
“I was nearly gone. I was there with (Sydney station) 2GB with Ray Hadley. We’d been there a week. We’d done some rowing and Opening Ceremony, stuff like that, and I felt horrendous.
In the end, I got sent to a Chinese hospital. Ray had rung (Aussie Olympic boss) John Coates and the team doctors.
They said ‘he’s clearly deteriorating, we’ve got to get him to a place where there’s an infectious disease (unit)’.
There was a lot going around, they thought I had SARS or something.
I was put in an induced coma and they ended up air-evaccing me to Hong Kong.
I was in a coma, was in intensive care for quite a while, it would have been two or three weeks.
I got a thing called melioidosis … It was just a one in a million (chance I got it). It was just horrendous, a disaster really. But the thing was as we discovered since, 90 per cent of people that get acute melioidosis, they die. I was lucky I was healthy enough to fight it.”