10/24/2008 12:00AM

Auditions for track's new voice begin


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When it comes to racetrack topics, the man on the street usually doesn't care to get into the whats and whys of something as complex and frustrating as the account-wagering controversy that has hung over Churchill Downs and its horsemen for the last six months.

No, Joe Q. Horseplayer would rather broach a lighter subject, such as who is a good race-caller, and why he thinks so. And with Churchill hosting what amounts to auditions - which, by the way, are nowhere to be found in the unwritten handbook of Standard Racetrack Protocol - during the five-week fall meet that starts Sunday, surely the race-caller topic will be addressed ad nauseum as the meet unfolds.

Churchill will use five callers for one week each as a means to hiring a permanent announcer after the meet ends Nov. 29. They are Bobby Neuman, Travis Stone, Michael Wrona, Larry Collmus, and Mark Johnson. The new man will replace Luke Kruytbosch, who called the last 10 runnings of the Kentucky Derby as the Churchill announcer from 1999 until he died unexpectedly this summer at age 47.

"There's been a lot of interest in how we're going about this," said Churchill general manager Jim Gates.

Gates said about eight Churchill employees served on a committee that initiated the hiring process. "It became a matter of what we're looking for, not who we're looking for," he said. "A great race-caller, accurate, imaginative . . . someone who can capture the public's attention, the way Luke was able to do."

By culling the list to five, Churchill went through "a large number of very qualified applicants," said Gates. "We brought a number of them in for face-to-face interviews. After going through it all, we said, 'Are we ready to make this decision?' And we really weren't. So we said, 'Why don't we bring them back and get some informal feedback?'

"So now we're going to let these guys come in, get a feel for Churchill and the city of Louisville, and let our fans get to know them. We're going to have them all out for media interviews, on our morning handicapping show, and also have them go before various factions of our customer base to tell their personal stories."

Gates said Churchill was sensitive to the fact that the five prospects are currently employed by other tracks. "We were concerned about not putting them in an awkward position, so we notified all their employers about what we were planning to do here this fall," he said.

As a piece of Americana, the Kentucky Derby has never had an announcer with a foreign accent. Wrona is from Australia, and Johnson is from England. Gates said, "Absolutely nothing will prejudice" the auditions.

"Some people will have preconceived notions going into this process," he said, "and I'm fairly convinced that those will be changed. Let's see what people say. If someone with an accent is perceived to be a good fit or a bad fit with Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, that's what their opinion will be. But we're going to allow this process to play itself out before we come to any conclusions. It should be fun and very interesting for everyone."

This is the lineup of guest announcers (with current tracks):

* Bobby Neuman (Calder), Sunday to Nov. 2.

* Travis Stone (Louisiana Downs), Nov. 5-9.

* Michael Wrona (Golden Gate), Nov. 11-16.

* Larry Collmus (Gulfstream, Monmouth, Suffolk), Nov. 19-23.

* Mark Johnson (England), Nov. 26-29.

Meanwhile, Kruytbosch will be remembered in a brief ceremony before the races Sunday, including a replay of his first Derby call in 1999 and a rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" by bugler Steve Buttleman. Kruytbosch called at Churchill through the end of the spring meet, July 6, then was at his next port of call, Ellis Park, when stricken with an apparent heart attack at his Evansville, Ind., apartment on July 14.

Injured jock moonlights as agent

What does a jockey do when sidelined with an injury? If you're Larry Sterling Jr., you book mounts for a fellow rider until you get better.

Sterling, 39, suffered a fractured right wrist in a gate accident last month at Kentucky Downs, but instead of whiling away his days on a beach or sitting at home twiddling his thumbs, he has been working as an agent for E.T. Baird at Keeneland and now at Churchill.

"I've heard of a few jocks doing this before, R.D. Williams and Perry Compton," said Sterling. "It's actually worked out pretty well for both of us."

Sterling said he expects to have his cast off within the next two weeks and then return to riding at Churchill. In January, he will ride as usual at Oaklawn Park.

"The wrist feels pretty good, and it shouldn't take me much time to get back," he said. "I'm like a cheap filly - I can get ready in a hurry."

Baird, a longtime Chicago rider who will winter at Gulfstream Park, had a productive Keeneland meet, winning 3 races from 18 starters for mount earnings of $127,565, through Thursday. Baird, 41, has won more than 1,400 races.

* Among the handful of giveaways scheduled for the fall meet are hurricane glasses with Louisiana jockeys depicted on them. A Calvin Borel glass will be given away on Nov. 8; a Robby Albarado glass on Nov. 15; and a Kent Desormeaux glass on Nov. 22.

* After declining for years to co-sponsor the popular Scholarship Day raffles with the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association - as the other four Kentucky tracks have done - Churchill has announced that 10 college scholarships, each worth $1,000, will be raffled off between races Oct. 31.

* Churchill will card 10 races daily except for opening day and Nov. 1 (11 each) and the final three days of the meet, Nov. 27-29 (12 each). First post for the last three days will be 11:30 a.m.

* Handicapping contests will be held every Wednesday and Sunday, with the finals set for Nov. 23. The top two finishers will earn berths in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in January in Las Vegas.

* The large second-floor Champions room with a balcony overlooking the paddock is now restricted to preferred Twin Spires members. Champions had been an open-seating area since the track's massive renovation was finished in 2005.