When George “Woody” Woodbridge was 8 years old he tagged along with his father to his Dad’s good friend, who had Standardbreds. A young Woody, “volunteered” to clean stalls, over time Woody graduated to jogging a couple and even jogged horses in a sleigh in the Michigan UP winters. In 1959 Woody traveled to the UP State Fair and met Bob Searle who asked George to work for him when school got out. Woody’s parents agreed and he spent the next 3 summers working at the Plymouth, Wisconsin stable who raced at all the Wisconsin and UP fairs. Woody worked for Searle a few summers at Raceway Park and Louisville, it was then that he decided that he did not want to pursue horse racing as a career, but he still kept his passion for the sport.
After high school graduation Woody enrolled at Northern Michigan where he majored in Business Education. Upon graduation he took a job at Pulaski High School where he stayed for 38 years, sixteen of those years in the classroom and the next twenty two as school counselor earning his Masters Degree.
In 1969 a horse Woody owned was in an accident during a race at the Weyauwega fairgrounds and died. This experience almost ended Woody’s love of harness racing, but with the help of some good friends who encouraged him to keep going he got over his plans to quit the horses. He bought a couple of horses at the Elgin Speed Sale and trained at a 1/3 mile track down the road from where he was living for the next seven years. After he bought his own place, he made the 40 mile round trip to Elwood Magee’s farm in Shawano until his own track was built.
On a sunny summer day in the early 1970’s the scheduled track announcer at the Richland County Fair could not make it to the track. Woody was handed the microphone and fell in love with another aspect of this great sport. When George was a kid he spent a lot of time at the tracks and always admired the different styles of the announcers he heard, especially Jack Calvert and Jerry Cleary. He would bring home all the race programs and practice calling races in his basement with his stopwatch. His mother used to joke about her kid racing horses in the basement and George thought it would be neat to announce a race someday. That day came and over 1,000 races later he is still thrilling the crowds.
Throughout his announcing career, Woody has continued to train a few horses, and hands over the driving duties to someone else on race day. George says that one of the hardest parts of announcing is trying to keep neutral when one of his horses was racing. The judges tease him that his voice gets a little higher when he horses are doing well in the race. Another hard part of announcing is keeping the crowd interested. George has a knack for getting the background stories on the horses and drivers and relaying them to the crowd. George spends time before each race meet talking to the trainers and owners in the barn area, getting those tidbits of information that the crowds love. The more the crowd knows about the horses and drivers the more invested they are in the races.
Announcing at the fairs is a hobby, but George went pro at the once popular North Coast Raceway, a former pari-mutuel track in Escanaba, Michigan. The biggest race he ever called was a 9 horse field of 3 year old filly trotters going for a purse of $110,000. Woody usually calls the races by driver’s colors, but that can be very challenging when all the drivers in a race are wearing the same colors!
Woody has announced at fairs in Minnesota, Michigan and 18 different county fair tracks in Wisconsin, many that now are just a memory. His favorite track that still tugs at his heartstrings is Norway, Michigan, close to where Woody grew up. As a fellow horseman said “We are blessed to have such a talent, Woody has this amazing ability to make the entire crowd feel as if they are sitting in the sulky.”
And down the stretch they come! Who do you like?
George “Woody Woodbridge, welcome to your rightful place in the Wisconsin Harness Racing Hall of Fame.
Nominated by Kevin Magee