12/01/2008 12:00AM

Rarely a lull in the British-accented action


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Mark Johnson has a job in England as a simulcast host that requires him to fill airtime, which helps partly to explain why Churchill Downs was inundated with sound during the last four days of the fall meet.

Somewhere in there, among a Churchill marketing employee rattling off the names of dozens of winners in the raffle of rights to buy Kentucky Derby tickets, the obligatory between-races television handicapping, and public service-type announcements by Johnson about such things as taking the kids to see Santa Claus somewhere on the racetrack grounds, there were the lengthy pre- and postrace commentaries by Johnson - and oh yes, his calls of the races themselves. Indeed, the commodity in shortest supply during closing week was just a few consecutive minutes of silence.

Of course, none of that has anything to do with whether or not Johnson is an excellent race-caller - he is. And if it is the intention of Churchill to replace the late Luke Kruytbosch with a man who not only calls a bang-up race, but someone eager and willing to entertain the paying customers with between-races filler, they saved the best for last during the five-week audition process that ended Saturday with the closing of the 26-day meet.

Johnson, 42, brought a markedly different style than what his four predecessors took into the booth. Forgetting for a moment his British accent - which is not all that different from what Michael Wrona, from Australia, brought to Churchill during the third week of tryouts - Johnson was unafraid to use what he calls "English-isms," sayings or colloquialisms that are used frequently in British racing but probably seem quirky to the majority of American listeners.

The "market leader" was the favorite. A horse away poorly was "slow to go from the grid." Payoffs were "dividends." And an odds-on horse was not "1 to 2," but "2 to 1, on."

No doubt that Johnson enjoyed himself immensely during his four days, Wednesday through Saturday. A good-humored man with a long and proud background in racing in his homeland, Johnson seemed extremely eager to please, whether or not it meant sometimes overstepping the boundaries to which Churchill fans and horsemen are accustomed. For the most part, his race calls were informative, entertaining, and thoroughly upbeat.

"He may talk a lot, but overall I thought he was the best," said veteran trainer Phil Thomas Jr.

As a final step in Churchill's selection process, the track has posted a survey on its website, churchilldowns.com. In the Racing & Handicapping section, click on Guest Announcers to find the survey, with sample sound bites from all five callers at the meet.

The men who preceded Johnson in the process were Bobby Neuman (Oct. 26-Nov. 2), Travis Stone (Nov. 5-9), Wrona (Nov. 11-16), and Larry Collmus (Nov. 19-23).