03/09/2016 1:00PM

Battaglia ready to step away from microphone

Barbara D. Livingston
Mike Battaglia, the regular announcer at Turfway Park since 1973, will call his final race Saturday night.

FLORENCE, Ky. – Time is a huge factor in the sport of racing, whether in calculating speed figures, establishing track records, or various other quantitative realms.

Of course, time also takes its toll on horses and people. In particular, the ranks of North American race-callers have been incurring the wrath of Father Time, as iconic callers Tom Durkin, Trevor Denman, Terry Wallace, Dan Loiselle, and now Mike Battaglia all have resigned at major tracks in recent years. Battaglia will call his final race this weekend at Turfway Park, where he has been the regular caller since 1973.

“It was time,” Battaglia said in a recent interview.

At 66, Battaglia can look back on a multifaceted career that has given him deep gratification and precious few disappointments.

“My only big regret is that my dad wasn’t around to see everything I did,” he said.

It was his father, John Battaglia, who gave him his start as a rookie caller at the long-defunct Miles Park in Louisville, Ky., in the early 1970s. The Battaglia family – Mike is the oldest of nine grown children – has deep roots in the northern Kentucky area that surrounds Turfway, which was still known as Latonia when John Battaglia died suddenly in February 1981 while serving as the track’s general manager.

The final race call for Mike Battaglia will come with the sixth race Saturday night: the $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial, which honors his late father. Much of the family will be there, including Mike’s wife, Chris, and his two adult children and two granddaughters.

“I’m not going to say I was burnt out because I’m not,” he said. “But I was tired of the grind, especially with the night racing. This will be a nice way to go out, calling the race named for my dad.”

Battaglia said many years ago with great profundity that “nobody comes to the track to hear the announcer,” a philosophy that helped mold a calling style sometimes criticized for relying too heavily on scripted lines such as “down along the rail,” “well bunched,” and “gaining ground.”

But in the clutch, he invariably came through with calls that described frantic action with deadly accuracy – a prime example is his call of the 1982 Kentucky Derby for Churchill Downs and ABC-TV in which he didn’t skip a beat – and he was steadfastly unapologetic when asked why he didn’t use the fancier lexicons adopted by other announcers.

“I never talked about other announcers – good, bad, or indifferent,” he said, adding that he essentially modeled himself after Chic Anderson, who preceded him at Churchill and other tracks and used a simplistic (by modern standards) calling style. “My main focus was that I didn’t want to detract from the racing.”

Battaglia will continue to work in other capacities in racing, including as the longtime in-house television host at Keeneland, the morning-line maker at Keeneland and Churchill, and in a newly created role at Turfway in which he will help implement more horseplayer-friendly track policies. Jimmy McNerney, who has called much of the racing action this winter, will become the full-time Turfway caller.

Battaglia said he will consider returning to the Turfway booth every March to call the Battaglia Memorial as a recurring novelty, but otherwise, his calling days are over – and he can hardly believe it went so fast. As the Churchill caller from 1978-96, his first of 19 straight Derby calls came when Affirmed outran Alydar on May 6, 1978.

“I was 28 years old calling the Kentucky Derby, and nobody that young has ever done that,” he said. “And then I get Affirmed-Alydar. I guess I wish I’d been older so I could appreciate it more. It’s just all gone by so quick.”

While several of his Derby calls were carried live by ABC, he eventually did the majority of his television work as a trackside commentator and handicapper for NBC alongside his close friend, Tom Hammond, and other beloved colleagues such as Bob Neumeier and Donna Brothers. To untold thousands of racing fans in America and beyond, the friendly voice of Mike Battaglia is instantly recognizable.

“It’s been an honor, absolutely,” he said. “I got to call Ferdinand giving Bill Shoemaker his last Derby win. I called Lil E. Tee giving Pat Day his only Derby win. There were so many unbelievable thrills. But probably the best part was the opportunity I’ve had to meet so many great and truly wonderful people through my associations with the Kentucky tracks and NBC. I feel extremely fortunate.”