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Bugler Jay Cohen's joyful notes at Santa Anita have been muted

Jay Cohen, Santa Anita's bugler, was recently diagnosed with Bell's Palsy and has had to take a leave of absence from his job at the track.

Jay Cohen picks up the trumpet, pulls it to his lips, and prepares to play the most famous 34 notes in sports.

“I don’t want to do this, but I will,’’ he says softly.

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He slowly begins playing “Call to the Post,’’ the tune he has blasted before nearly every race at Santa Anita Park for the last 31 years.

He has played it more than 93,000 times on various tracks, and countless occasions elsewhere by request of horse-racing fans who have come to view Cohen’s presence and his seven-second song as the start of something big.

He has played it at weddings, funerals, birthdays, lavish parties, private dinners, on Beverly Hills rooftops, in Las Vegas clubs, and even over the phone if you’re in the middle of a conversation and he gets the urge.

Cohen has played the song so much that, at age 62, it has become his perpetual call to life, the joyful noise that sends him striding happily through his days in a coachman’s costume and playful smile.

Only this time, on this chilly February night in a tiny cluttered room in the back of his Glendora home, the song stumbles out of the starting gate. He can’t finish it. He gets halfway through and his lips weaken and the notes fade and the trumpet is pulled from his mouth amid a burst of spittle and frustration.

“Damn it,’’ barks the happiest man in horse racing. ‘’C’mon!’’

In a season of celebrated injuries to Southland sports figures — LeBron James’ groin, Todd Gurley’s knee — Jay Cohen is battling through perhaps the cruelest trauma of all.

After being stricken with a face-paralyzing condition known as Bell’s palsy, the legendary bugler can no longer properly blow his own horn.

He was stricken six weeks ago. He has since regained the feeling in his right cheek and jaw, but his lips are still shaky, and his lips are his life.

Doctors say recovery could take as long as six months. Fellow trumpeters who have had the same condition tell him he eventually will be fine. He doesn’t know what to believe.

“I’ve never had to come back from my face being paralyzed, so I don’t know what happens now,’’ he says. “Yeah, I’m scared.’’

He blows into that trumpet every day in hopes of finding himself. Some days it feels stronger. Other days, it doesn’t. He says he’s at 33% of full strength. He keeps playing and listening and praying.

He has stayed away from Santa Anita. He has kept to the shadows. He retires to that little room every day and fights for those 34 notes.

“This is not happening,’’ he says. “I’m not going to go out like this.’’

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For all of its breathtaking joy, a racetrack is also a place of heartbreak. Its seats are filled with the slumped mourners of failure. Its floors are littered with the tickets of losers.

“If you win 20% of the time, you’re a hero, so there’s a lot of losing,’’ says longtime horse owner Howard Siegel. ‘’That’s where Jay Cohen comes in.’’

Cohen, who works at both Santa Anita and Los Alamitos, is this town’s only sure racing bet.

You can be sure he’ll blast “Call To The Post’’ exactly 12 minutes before every race. You can be sure he will then walk up into the stands and roam the track playing little bursts of songs and telling corny jokes and even doing magic.

“Jay comes over to us after a loss and the next thing you know, we’re all laughing, it puts everything into perspective,’’ says Siegel.

Siegel is so enamored with Cohen that he actually named a horse after him. Don’t laugh, but “Jay Makes Us Laugh’’ is a 5-year-old gelding who has won seven of 19 starts.

“Jay is part of the fabric of the track,’’ said Siegel. ‘’He’s like the Vin Scully of Santa Anita.’’

Jay Cohen said he plays "Happy Birthday" to more than 1,000 people a year.
Jay Cohen said he plays "Happy Birthday" to more than 1,000 people a year. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

If you’ve ever gone to a local track — the late Hollywood Park included — you’ve surely seen Cohen looking regal amid the dirt with his tan hat, red coat, riding pants and paddock boots. If you haven’t noticed him playing his 32-inch herald trumpet down below, then you’ve seen him approaching your seat or table and you know what’s coming next.

His official title is ‘’hornblower’’ but, in reality, he is the track’s goofy, gregarious ambassador.

”People don’t come to the track to listen to me,’’ he says. “However, everybody who comes to the track hears me.’’

It’s your birthday? He plays more than 1,000 “Happy Birthday’’ songs every year. He keeps count.

He once followed a man into the bathroom and played it while he was at the sink. He once played eight straight years for a 12-year-old girl who is now 20, and her family gave him the photos to prove it.

He can play the first few notes of almost anything else, everything from the theme from “The Godfather’’ to the beginning refrains of 80 national anthems.

Maybe you don’t want music, you want some racetrack magic? He has that too.

He can put a cell phone in a balloon. Don’t ask. He carries around a fake tongue. Again, don’t ask.

“Sorry about my voice, but I’m a little hoarse’’ he’ll say while wielding a finger puppet of a horse, and, yeah, it’s exactly like it sounds.

You don’t want to laugh but you can’t stop laughing, and don’t even think about asking him about the oldest trick in the book, because Jay Cohen is the oldest trick in the book.

“I can’t tell you how many times people have told me they would give me 20 bucks if I could pull a rabbit out of my hat,’’ he says. “And of course, I always keep a rubber rabbit in my hat.’’

The real magic is in the connection he makes with customers that carries off the track, into the most intimate parts of their lives, the bugler evolving into a sort of musical best friend.

He has played countless weddings where he actually blares, “Call to the Post’’ before the bride marches in. He has played many funerals, always free of charge.

“There are times you realize, you’re doing more than just playing the trumpet,’’ he says. “I wonder, how did I get so lucky to get to have a job where I can come to work and make people happy, what did I do to deserve this?’’

Jay Cohen holds onto the hope he'll return to work in the near future.
Jay Cohen holds onto the hope he'll return to work in the near future. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

He says he first got lucky when he auditioned for the bugler position 31 years ago after leaving his music teaching job in New Jersey and moving West.

“I’m sure I got the job because the uniform fit,’’ he says. “I was the same size as the guy I replaced.’’

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That luck ran out on this New Year’s Eve when a gradual weakening in his face made it impossible for him to properly play. It was diagnosed as Bell’s palsy, a form of temporary facial paralysis believed to be caused by a viral infection. The prognosis for recovery is considered good, but there are those whose symptoms never fully disappear, and Cohen has been having dreams.

“I’m trying to get to the track before the race, and all these people are holding me back, then when I get there, I forgot my trumpet,’’ he says.

So he stays home and blows and waits and blows some more. Meanwhile, the track’s winter meeting churns on without him, sorely missing his laughs, strangely vacant of his songs.

“He’s such a gifted guy, so amazing with people, it’s been a big void without him,’’ says trainer Doug O’Neill. “We’re excited to get him back here real soon.’’

Cohen is hoping he will indeed be back soon, but also knows there’s a chance he won’t ever return at full strength, and his voice thickens with that possibility.

“I’ve thought several times, what happens if this doesn’t come back, and I don’t want to think about it. I’ll sit and cry in front of you,’’ he says. “This is all I know.’’

Jay Cohen puts down the trumpet in that tiny cluttered room, rubs his eyes, wipes his lips, and walks out. He leaves the door open. He will try again tomorrow.

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