GRAND ISLAND – It all started before the start of the 2004 meeting at Fonner Park in February. Fonner CEO Hugh Miner and his right-hand man Bruce Swihart called local businessman Steve Anderson for a meeting.
Anderson thought he could have said something about Fonner that Miner and Swihart didn’t like and that he was going to have a conference, but that wasn’t what they had in mind.
They told Anderson they were looking for a new track announcer, and he fit the bill. Anderson had a background in televised sports and he had a knowledge of horse racing.
Anderson didn’t have to think twice.
“I think I agreed before I even left their office that day because I was sure I would never have the opportunity to be approached again,” Anderson said.
For the next 19 seasons, Anderson, now 69, was the voice of Fonner racing. He had never missed a day until April 3.
It was then that the cancer he had been fighting for a year sidelined him.
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For now, Gary Schaaf, who has called races at Columbus’ Ag Park since 2004, will make the calls to Fonner. Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak, a former announcer himself, teamed up with Shaaf and Bubby Haar to replace Anderson on the first Sunday he missed.
A year ago, Anderson had no idea he would be faced with something like this. However, 2021 has been a difficult year. He had back pain and wasn’t feeling his best at the 2021 meet. Additionally, part of the roof of Skate Island, which he managed for his father, who owns it, had collapsed. This created a lot of stress in his life.
Towards the end of the 2021 program, his feet swelled up and he could barely put his shoes on. He told his wife, Kathy, that he would go to the doctor as soon as the Fonner meeting was over.
Three days after Kentucky Derby Day — which was the last day of live racing competition at Fonner — he went to the doctor.
“They were looking for blood clots and eventually they found my insides were full of cancer,” Anderson said. “And, right away, I’m going into chemo and you know I’ve been sick for a long, long time.”
There’s no doubt that 2021 has been tough for Anderson and his family. There were times when doctors thought he wouldn’t make it until 2022.
But he did, and when he did, Kotulak wanted him to be the Fonner announcer again.
So, for the first half of this racing season, fans could hear Anderson’s familiar voice.
Anderson says none of his calls are original, but he took things he heard from other announcers and molded them into his own style.
And this style creates excitement.
Anderson has been passionate about horse racing for many years. His grandfather, Garnett Phifer, got him interested in the sport when he was in college. Phifer, who had a farm near Red Cloud, at one time had about 100 horse races in Nebraska and other states.
In 1990, Anderson took the plunge into ownership. He and his longtime friend Max Mader bought a filly named Kati Shack from trainer David C. Anderson.
In July 1990, Kati Shack broke her young daughter in Ak-Sar-Ben with legendary announcer Terry Wallace calling the race.
Steve Anderson still remembers the thrill of going to the winner’s circle that day.
“You know, it’s one of those things that you had to be there to experience, and that’s why I encourage anyone who has the opportunity and can afford it to get into the game,” he said.
Kati Shack didn’t have much success after that, and Steve Anderson eventually decided he’d rather spend his money at the betting window than own a horse.
It was part of the relationship between Steve Anderson and David Anderson, who are not related.
“I’ve known Steve Anderson for a long time,” David said. “He’s a very, very, very dear friend. He meant a lot to the Nebraska races. He did a great job calling the races and interviewing people, and he loves the handicap.”
Fonner Park assistant racing secretary Wayne Anderson – also unrelated to Steve or David – also has a long-standing friendship with Steve. Wayne was on the show Steve did on KRGI Radio during racing season.
“We had a lot of good times together,” Wayne said. “He was so dedicated to it. He would feel bad if he ever mispronounced something or missed a spot here or there. This stuff happens.
“He’s just a friendly face to have around the fullback and the racing community. I know everyone here wishes him the best.
And Steve knows it. He was temporarily speechless when asked what the answer had been.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “All day, every day. it seems like there are still so many avenues to get in touch with me.
With texts, emails, phone calls and Facebook, even friends he hadn’t spoken to in many years were stalking him to wish him the best.
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Kotulak wrote a short story for the Paulick Report about Steve’s situation. This encouraged Steve to talk about his illness.
“It was time for me to just acknowledge what was going on with me because there were, in the scheme of things, only a handful of people who knew what was going on,” he said. declared. “And the fact that I wasn’t going to call a run probably for the rest of this competition, and maybe forever.
“I’m pretty sure I called my last run.”
If he called his last run, Fonner fans will miss signature calls like, “It’s a ding-dong battle up front!” or “He picks them up and lays them down!” on the stretch or “…on the Bill Daly!” when a horse has a lead in the back stretch and attempts to go wire to wire.
Those calls and Steve’s excitement will not be forgotten.
“It (the excitement) came from his light shoes to his voice,” race marshal Bob Pollock said.
“His voice was so good for Fonner Park. Even when I went to other tracks, I got compliments on our announcer. He did a great job at Fonner Park, and he’s a great friend for sure.
Photos: Racing at Fonner Park 10 years ago