Derby, Or Darby?

by Ed Meyer

posted on April 24, 2009 in Kentucky Derby | No Comments >>

Mark Johnson called his first horse race at age 3, turning a chessboard into his own version of a day at the track.”I just got rid of all the pieces off the chessboard apart from the four knights and I laid all the pawns around the outside of the board,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I basically started going ‘And the horse here … And the horse there …’ and sort of doing a little commentary of it.”

Four decades later, the chessboard has turned into Churchill Downs and the four knights have become the 20 top 3-year-olds in the world, all bidding for a slice of horse racing immortality.

Johnson will make his debut as the race caller in the Kentucky Derby on May 2nd as the new track announcer, 40 years and an ocean removed from the chessboard in Skagness, the English seaside town where he grew up and first fell in love with the sport and its pageantry.

Calling the Derby is a job that he calls “a dream beyond my dreams,” one that may take some getting used to for the 150,000 fans that will cram under the twin spires on the first Saturday in May.

Johnson is the racecourse’s first foreign-born announcer, and even though he won the job following a week-long tryout at Churchill’s autumn races, he knows his English accent will come as a surprise to some.

“I’m sure it’ll be a bit of a different thing for them,” he said.

Then again, things could be worse. He remembers watching the races on British television as a kid, and was practically offended at how stuffy the announcers were.

“They were all very posh,” Johnson said.

He is decidedly not. Johnson carries a couple of dozen marker pens in a bag with him, color-coding the program using a method that helps him have immediate recall of a horse’s name, bio and other tidbits.

Sounds typical. A lot of announcers use a similar process.

None of them, however, carry the markers in a bag honoring Cartman, the foul-mouthed elementary schooler on the popular cartoon “South Park.”

The bag was a gift from his wife, and a sign that he knows not to take his work too seriously.

“You’re there to help the game flow and help the enjoyment of the game,” he said. “Certainly it is a piece of theater and I’m there to entertain as well. But first and foremost the entertainment comes from the horses and the really brave guys and girls who ride the horses. If I can add to that, then I’m doing my job.”

Johnson isn’t the first foreigner to call a U.S. Triple Crown race. South African Trevor Denman called his first Triple Crown event at the 1989 Preakness Stakes, while serving as the announcer at Pimlico Racecourse, a gig it took him six years to land after coming to the states.

The transition to calling American races, Denman admits, took a while. He spent 15-20 hours with an elocutionist to take some of the edge out of his accent.

Denman, now the announcer at several California tracks, doesn’t think Johnson’s adjustment will take as long but does expect a little blowback.

“I would be surprised if there’s not some people who won’t give it a very good reception because it’s so different and they’re used to hearing an American voice,” Denman said. “The vast majority of people do not like change. I’m sure he’ll be well-received, but it will be more that people don’t like the change than don’t like him.”

It didn’t seem to be a problem during Johnson’s tryout, when he beat out four other callers to replace Luke Kruytbosch, who died last summer.

“In our eyes, Mark Johnson is the complete package when it comes to track announcer,” Churchill Downs president Steve Sexton said when Johnson was hired in January. “He is a unique, polished and passionate talent with an absolutely infectious personality.”

Johnson doesn’t have a signature phrase, no “and down the stretch they come.” Those lines are great, they’re just not him.

Besides, the race isn’t much different from a Shakespearean play. He’s simply the emcee.

“A great play has a fantastic beginning, an intriguing middle and a tremendous climax,” he said. “It’s just about the same as the Derby, isn’t it?”