Bugler Jay Cohen returns to work at Santa Anita Park

LA Times Sports Column by Bill Plaschke: “He plays alone to empty seats, but L.A.’s only working live musician has song of hope”

“Call to the Post” never sounded so sweet: Last week bugler Jay Cohen returned to work at the Santa Anita Park racetrack, the first AFM Local 47 member to file a live performance contract with the union amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

We spoke with Jay after his first day back to work on Friday, May 15 about his experience returning to work with the new safety procedures in place.

“As far as safety, the track has put into place very strict guidelines,” Jay said. “We all have to go through the same gate  get a temperature check and asked some health questions. We then get a wristband so track officials know that you passed. From that point a mask must be worn at all times except when you are in your office alone. I am deep in the basement in a very nice room I have been in for 30 years. I do not come into contact with anybody. When I go to play I have a stretch mask that I wear until I am ready to play. After playing I slide it back on and head directly back to my room. That really is not needed as I never get near anyone. From the track to my room there is not a person around.”

Jay will be working between three and four days per week for the next five weeks until the season ends.

I was quite impressed when I got a call from (Local 47 Live Business Representative) Diane Lauerman asking if I was returning to work when she saw on TV that Santa Anita was opening,” Jay said. “The union was concerned for my safety. They asked for a copy of the guidelines and questioned my contact with people. There are no fans and even the owners are not permitted to attend. The only time I get near a person is the carriage ride when I ride down the grandstand to start the day. I am five feet from the driver who is wearing a mask and I point the bell far away from her. After the ride I always give the horse mints which they show on TV. It is cute because when we stop the horse turns around looking for me. The other workers most of who live there are checked and checked. You can’t walk more than six feet without finding sanitizing foam.”

He continued: “I am actually honored  that they thought I was essential. Many tracks do not use a live bugler. I guess being there for 32 years, people kind of expect to see me. Racing is shown on TV and computers. On Friday, May 15 over $10 million was wagered from all across the country. This gives taxes to the state, but having live racing is so important because the revenue supports retired horses, a medical clinic for backstretch workers, and many other things. Plus they train everyday, so why not race?”

During the time of the park’s closure, Jay continued to practice every day in order to keep up his musical skills.

“My wife who is not a musician kept saying why do you keep practicing so much? I figured I would go back to work in September. I said as soon as you get out of shape, you get a call to work. Sound familiar? For me I have to practice a lot since my job is not a lot of playing. With patrons I play birthdays and many other requests all day. My typical practice is two to three hours each day, so I will admit I got a little lazy and got three days notice to come back! I really was not in bad shape. In fact I played well (Monday).”

Jay shares these words for his fellow AFM Local 47 musicians: “Keep playing. I hope and pray that you all make it through this situation that does not seem real.”

Archival video of Jay Cohen performing “Call to the Post” in June 2018, captured by Gary Lasley: