In the final (final) furlong


A long time ago at a race track not so far away there was an announcer named Mike Battaglia.

He announced the races and Churchill Downs and what was then Latonia. The rest of a young racing fan’s auditory world consisted of a man named Robert W. Jeffers, who announced the race at Ellis Park, and — that’s nearly it, since the race track in Lexington believed then that such an announcer was in anathema to the turf, offending the way racing was meant to be. Marconi and Edison would not of been welcome in those days at Keeneland Race Course.

But times and voices and styles change.

After an announcing career that spans most of my lifetime, Battaglia now is hanging up the microphone Saturday night at what is now Turfway Park. When these sounds of your childhood change, it encourages nostalgia. So forgive this.

When the current Kentucky Derby Museum opened in 1985, I remember getting Howard Cosell’s autograph. The only other celebrity there that I remember was Battaglia, by then the longtime voice of Churchill Downs. And, yes, I’m virtually certain (absent finding the piece of notebook paper) that I got his autograph too.

Mike Battaglia’s announcing was old school, in a good way. An announcer called it like he saw it without a lot of frills and flair that are now an expected part of modern race calling in lots of places. For years he didn’t even include fractional times in the race call. This isn’t a slam against modernity, but is an acknowledgment that, sometimes, simpler is better.

Anyone who spent this much time listening to Battaglia, who succeeded Chic Anderson at Churchill Downs and called his first Kentucky Derby in 1978, knows what a Battaglia call sounds like. “They’re at the post. And they’re off. For the lead … in the final furlong.”

“For the lead” and “in the final furlong” may have been drawn out a bit with a rhythm unique to Battaglia that almost added extra sing-song syllables. But none of that was showy. It wasn’t much different than Mike would sound if you were talking to Mike.

Until Churchill decided to change directions in 1997, he nearly was the sole voice of racing for me — other than Jeffers at Ellis, the occasional trip to River Downs and Dave Johnson doing the Triple Crown on ABC. Where Johnson’s “and down the stretch they come” often seemed forced, Battaglia’s calls were comfortable, if predictable, and solid.

Besides hoping his final call is followed by much happiness, here’s hoping he doesn’t change for the swan song. The John Battaglia Memorial Stakes should be punctuated with “they’re at the post. And they’re off. For the lead …” and “in the final furlong.”

As it was in the beginning, is now and forever shall be.


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