12/05/2008 1:00AM

Style will decide race for Churchill's caller


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Mike Battaglia said years ago that nobody comes to the racetrack to listen to the announcer. Battaglia, who has called races and handled various other television and handicapping duties for more than 30 years at racetracks in Kentucky and beyond, flatly stated: "They come to bet on the races."

How true. Nonetheless, a good announcer certainly enhances the race-going experience, and perhaps that's a major reason that auditions for the open race-caller's job at the recently ended fall meet at Churchill Downs generated tremendous interest. Five men were invited to try out for the job left open by the death of Luke Kruytbosch, with each working a week apiece at the five-week meet.

Predictably, opinions about who should be hired as the permanent caller were all over the board. On any given day during the meet, fans and horsemen were not shy about letting this reporter know what they thought. Their comments ranged from "He's the best caller in America" to "I can't stand him" to pretty much everything in between.

The bottom line is that preference for an announcer is strictly a matter of personal taste, in much the same way you approach religion, politics, food, wine, etc. Let's put it this way: You know what you prefer, and no amount of persuasion or argument is going to change your mind.

That said, no matter what Churchill does - and officials maintain they intend to make an announcement within the next week or two, after a committee decides which man will be hired - there will be loud cheering and jeering from every corner. Indeed, the popular saying "You can't please all of the people all of the time" might have been coined with hiring race-callers in mind.

In that regard, for anyone wanting to put in their proverbial two cents at the last minute, the track has posted a survey on its website, churchilldowns.com. In the Racing & Handicapping section, click on Guest Announcers to find the survey, along with sample sound bites from all five callers at the meet.

As an attempt to assess how each announcer fared during his tryout - with an odds line on the chances of landing the job - here follows a rundown of the candidates, listed in order of when they called. Every man brought his "A" game, with accuracy rarely a problem, meaning the more subjective areas of style and delivery might well decide who gets the job.P

Bobby Neuman (3-1)

By calling first, from Oct. 26 to Nov. 2, Bobby Neuman might have been at a slight disadvantage with the Churchill committee if only because now, in early December, his calls came the longest ago.

Whatever the case, Neuman, 39, sounds pretty much the same week to week, year to year, perhaps stemming from the fact that he calls eight months of the year at Churchill-owned Calder. His style is to the point, sprinkled with a fair amount of ad-libbing and imaginative description, and he seems to take care not to overwhelm his listeners, which seems a reasonable way to go and ultimately leaves most people saying, "Hey, this guy's pretty good."

Travis Stone (8-1)

As a 24-year-old on his way up the announcing ladder, Travis Stone might be victimized by this train of thought: He'll be around for a long, long time, so why not come back to him in later years, after one of the older, more seasoned candidates has had his run?

Stone, in from Louisiana Downs to call here Nov. 5-9, loosely bases his calls after Tom Durkin, and also has been influenced by Dave Johnson - and a young man could do much worse than to follow those icons. The result is a pleasant listen, with the appropriate ebb and flow in his calls and a demeanor to make you wonder why you weren't so professionally mature at 24.

Michael Wrona (2-1)

Most everyone would rather be lucky than good, and darned if Michael Wrona wasn't extremely lucky that on his first day of auditioning, Nov. 11, Julien Leparoux rode seven winners, tying a track record for most wins by a jockey. Nothing quite fires up Wrona, 42, like events of major consequence, as they allow his wit and charm to be magnified to an even greater degree.

Wrona, the regular caller at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco, clearly has attained a lofty stature in the unofficial pecking order of American announcers. Still, the overriding issue as to his potential hiring remains this: While his loquacious style and Australian accent may play to raves in more esoteric places, how will they fit in Kentucky, with the most important aspect being how they might alter the perception of the Kentucky Derby as a slice of Americana?

Larry Collmus (9-5)

Steady, solid, soothing, and rarely intrusive, it's exceedingly difficult to find fault in what Larry Collmus, 42, brings to the announcing table. With more than two decades of in-the-booth experience, Collmus has current job listings that show him to be a valued commodity: He calls at Gulfstream Park and Monmouth Park, and when available, he calls at Suffolk Downs, too.

During his Churchill tryout, from Nov. 19-23, he demonstrated the reason for such high demand. His tone, descriptions, and excitement levels invariably are germane to whatever the situation commands, giving off the impression that calling races must be pretty easy - and that speaks for itself.

Mark Johnson (7-2)

Although a crammed roster of events was partly responsible for the cacophony of sound that enveloped Churchill during closing week (Nov. 23-26), it can't be denied that Mark Johnson contributed substantially. Indeed, it did not take long for Johnson, 42, to create the impression that perhaps silence is forbidden at the British tracks where he regularly works, as he talked ad nauseam before, during, and after his Churchill races.

No doubt Johnson is a terrific caller - although one "He'll have to be Pegasus!" call surely evoked cringes - and his genuine enthusiasm for the game is the kind that's badly needed in America. Still, if Churchill is willing to go out on a limb for someone with a different sound, it would seem that Wrona is "first on line" in that respect.