It is an inevitable truth that at some point in every child's early adolescence, an adult is going to ask the all-encompassing — and often overly broad — question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
For most of us, the answer changes yearly based on whim and circumstance, but for kids like Pete Aiello, the answer has always been clear.
“I wanted to call races,” said Aiello. “I had no family involvement at all in the industry other than fans. So, my perspective on the business was also strictly as a fan, and I had no idea how I was going to do it.”
Even now, almost 20 years since calling his first race and in his current job as track announcer for Gulfstream Park, Aiello barely remembers any misgivings he might have had in his quest to join the industry as a race caller. What he does remember sharply are the people, the opportunities, and the goosebump-inducing moments of kismet that led him around the country and the world before sending him back home to South Florida to live out his dream.
“It's crazy to think that you set out to do something and come right back to where you started. It's surreal,” said Aiello. “I never dreamed of working at Gulfstream. It seemed unattainable but here I am.”
Born and raised in Florida, Aiello's first exposure to racing came early through his father and paternal grandparents, who took him as a toddler on outings to local tracks like Hialeah and Gulfstream Park, where he was encouraged more than anything to have fun.
“Usually, we would go around Easter, but our family outings on my dad's side were about going to the track,” said Aiello. “My grandmother had bought me a jockey suit from the gift shop at Hialeah when I was three years old, and I ran around the place like I owned it. It was an emotional connection that I developed with that track.”
Aiello's status as casual child fan developed into something else entirely during his early teens when his father purchased him a horse racing game for his computer. Aiello spent hours in front of the monitor playing until finally, there was little left in terms of challenge they game could provide.
“I didn't want to stop playing so I had to find different ways in the game to entertain myself,” said Aiello. “One day I decided that I would write down the horse names on a sheet of paper and mumble to myself and mimic what I had heard on the calls at Hialeah or Gulfstream shows that I watched every night with my grandfather.
“The moment in my mind that shored up that I knew it was what I wanted to do was standing on the second floor of the Palm Beach Shore Club watching the  Preakness Stakes and I was a big fan of Point Given. He hadn't run well in the Derby so I was loud and obnoxious when people said that wouldn't change and I exclaimed as loud as humanly possible when I knew he had some run, 'Let's see the Point Given, the real Point Given!' no sooner had I said that that Dave Rodman call was, 'Point Given, the REAL Point Given!' I get goosebumps just thinking about it because I thought, 'Wow, the guy who calls the races just conveyed the same emotion I had as the race was being run.' I identified with that. I felt that if I could use this passion to speak to other people with the same passion for the sport, I couldn't imagine a job more in sync with my personality.”
When Aiello found an advertisement in the Daily Racing Form for Arizona University's Race Track Industry Program which prominently featured a photo of track announcer and RTIP alum Luke Kruytbosch, he knew he'd found his way into the industry. But on arriving in Tucson, Aiello remembers the staff was somewhat more pragmatic about his dreams to call races than he had hoped.
“When I did my entrance exam, they asked me what I wanted to do and I told them that I wanted to call races,” said Aiello. “To say that they were less than thrilled about that is probably an understatement. I get it. I was an 18-year-old kid trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I chose something that was A: super hard and B: something super glamorous and something I'd never done before. I'm sure they probably rolled their eyes a bit and went on. I don't mean this with any malintent, but the RTIP didn't really encourage me toward calling races. I understand why now, and I thank them for it, but I didn't really want to do anything else.
“The first year I was there, they had a mentor lunch where you could choose someone to be at the racing symposium as someone you could have lunch with. I wanted to meet an announcer and the faculty members weren't really interested in that. But the secretary (Betty Prewitt), called Turf Paradise and spoke to Dave Johnson and said, 'Hey I have a kid who wants to call races. Is there any chance you could give Luke Kruytbosch the day off so he could come down and have lunch? It would be a big favor to me.' She did that without faculty approval, truth be told.
“Luke came to symposium and had lunch with me. He brought me a saddle towel from Churchill Downs from the year before that I still have and remains one of my prized possessions. We had a very good conversation and I explained that I wanted to call races and about the computer game. He laughed and said, 'A computer game really isn't the same as doing it live.' But I told him I thought I could. By rights, I was way too arrogant for my own good.”
The connection with Kruytbosch proved pivotal to Aiello's career. In January of 2005, he arranged for Aiello to make his first race call at Rillito Park — a $900 maiden race running half a mile. The day of the call, Turf Paradise cancelled its card due to weather, so Kruytbosch made the trip down to listen to his protégé.
“Had I known he was there, I probably wouldn't have been in the building because I couldn't have handled that kind of pressure,” said Aiello. “But I came down the stairs and he was standing at the bottom of the staircase after my call. I said, 'How was I?' It was the longest 10 seconds of my life, but he said, 'Well, you don't suck.' That was code for the next step in the process. He got me the next job on the Arizona county fair circuit. I got paid in experience, but I called races at three different county fairs.”
Aiello's first broadly-heard call came at Tampa Bay Downs through his connections to Margot Flynn and track announcer Richard Grunder. Grunder, who was known for his near-perfect attendance, stepped aside for one race to allow Aiello the chance to practice on the big stage.
“Richard took a liking to me, and I think that time, there was something to the effect that Richard hadn't missed a call in at least a decade,” said Aiello. “He broke that streak to let me call the race that day and that was the most nervous I had ever been. My only binoculars I owned were ones that I'd taken to Calder and dropped down the stairs about seven or eight times. You could only see out of one eye. Richard left the booth when I was ready to make the call and I just stood there nervous. About three minutes until the race a steward stuck his head in the room and asked if I was OK. He saw my binoculars and said, 'Those look a little beat up.' I told him I could only see out of one eye. He said, 'What? Take mine.' If that hadn't happened, I probably wouldn't be here either.”
While calling would remain Aiello's goal through the end of his tenure with the RTIP, he gradually came to understand the initial reticence of the staff to encourage his siloed thinking. He credits the program's insistence on pushing him beyond the boundaries of his comfort zone, while still helping him build a support structure for his dreams, with his ability to find his way to calling despite the logistical hurdles.
“The goal from the RTIP's perspective was to say, 'Listen, you want to do a niche job in a niche industry, and we would be doing a disservice to you if we just continued to feed this idea,'” said Aiello. “'You need to have a broad skill set and you need to be in a position where you're more than a one-trick pony. Be pliable and malleable to whatever opportunities come along.' They never said I couldn't call races, but they wanted my blinkers off so that I could see everything around me.
“In 2006 I did an internship at Finger Lakes, and I wanted to get a demo reel there without offending anyone in the position. That plan backfired because Ross Morton was at the end of his career, and he saw me as the heir to the throne, which didn't work out. The following summer, they asked where I wanted to intern and I remember saying, 'I want to do something and go somewhere no one has gone yet.' My professor sent me to the furthest north parimutuel facility in North America, to Alberta, where I was assistant racing secretary. I also became the identifier, paddock judge, and drivers' room custodian. After I graduated in '07 I was hired to work as assistant racing secretary at Prairie Meadows. I was there for eight weeks when the job to be the announcer at River Downs came open. Luke called me at that point and lectured me on following my dreams, I took it so that became my first full-time gig calling races.
“In an indirect way the RTIP helped facility my work now at Gulfstream. Growing up in south Florida, my goal was to work at Hialeah. When they reopened, I applied to be the announcer, but they'd already hired one. As it turned out, the general manager had read my emotionally written cover letter so he took it to the marketing director and said, 'This kid can write. Why don't we hire him at the back-up announcer and then he can help as a marketing assistant?' I ended up running the place. I was director of parimutuel operations by my second or third year there. Because I had the skill set from RTIP, when I was thrown into the deep end of the pool, I wasn't naïve or green to any of that. Then, were it not for the fact that I was helping run Hialeah, I wouldn't have been able to take over the summer dates at Gulfstream Park. If I hadn't been able to do that, I wouldn't be working there now. It's amazing how it all really came together through the RTIP.”
With the luxury of experience and time, Aiello continues to look back on his career trajectory, thankful the RTIP introduced him to like-minded professionals who became both colleagues and friends. While he ultimately achieved his dream, for students and fans looking to make the call about the future of their own careers, Aiello recommends keeping your eyes and your options open.
“The one thing I'd say to anyone young and wanting to work in the industry if that if you get an opportunity to do something or try something, do it,” said Aiello. “If you end up realizing you don't like it, there is value in that. You can get tunnel vision on what you want, but there are so many jobs that can expand your interests. I would never had had any working opportunities without the RTIP. There is an intangible value there that you can't monetize.”