01/15/2009 1:00AM

Churchill Downs goes with British announcer


Churchill Downs officials announced Thursday morning at a media conference that Mark Johnson, a 42-year-old native of Skegness, England, has been hired as the sixth race-caller in the history of the Louisville, Ky., track.

Johnson was selected over four other men who tried out for the position during the 2008 fall meet. The selection process had been ongoing since shortly after the meet ended in late November and was undertaken by a committee of track officials.

As was the case with his predecessors at Churchill, Johnson will call the Kentucky Derby for ontrack fans only. While Johnson will be heard by 150,000 or so Churchill patrons as the public-address announcer for the 135th Derby on May 2, millions more television viewers will hear the voice of Tom Durkin, who calls the Derby for NBC Sports.

Johnson said in a lengthy Churchill release that getting the Churchill job is "a dream come true. It is the pinnacle of my career. I have been very lucky in my career."

Churchill Downs Inc. vice president Tom Aronson called Johnson "a unique talent with an infectious personality, and his passion and knowledge of the sport of horse racing is unmatched."

Aronson said more than 2,000 fans responded to an online survey regarding the selection of an announcer, and that Johnson was "the top choice" among those respondents and among others involved in the decision-making process.

Johnson has been calling races in England since 1987 and in more recent years also has served as a television simulcast host. He has called such major races as the Epsom Derby, the Grand National, and the English St. Leger while working at a wide variety of tracks in his homeland, including this week at Kempton.

Johnson employs a prototypical British announcing style. During his week of calling at Churchill, he was glib, witty, enthusiastic, confident, and quite chatty, filling otherwise empty air time before and after races with commentary. His calls were punctuated with sayings commonly used in his homeland but mostly foreign to American racegoers.

Aronson said any concerns about the fact Johnson is British "never really manifested itself in any of the responses we were looking at."

Johnson succeeds Luke Kruytbosch, who died suddenly last July at age 47. Gene Schmidt was the first announcer in track history, serving from 1940-1960. He was followed by Chic Anderson (1961-77), Mike Battaglia (1978-96), Kurt Becker (1997-98), and Kruytbosch (1999-2008).

Johnson was the last of five men who auditioned for the job by calling races for one week apiece at the five-week fall meet, which ran Oct. 26 to Nov. 29. The other callers were Bobby Neuman, Travis Stone, Michael Wrona, and Larry Collmus.

Johnson is engaged to be married Jan. 28 on the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. He said he will travel by air to the United States on April 16 to begin preparation for the Churchill spring meet, which begins April 25.