All quiet at Keeneland

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Kurt Becker likes his spring routine. He’s honed it for more than two decades as Keeneland’s track announcer – its only announcer, sans a short stretch early in his tenure – and like everyone across the country saw it thrown off kilter in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Keeneland didn’t celebrate Opening Day Thursday, the spring meet called off last month due to safety and health concerns over the global crisis. No tailgate parties broke out in the parking lots, no Bloody Marys or steaming Styrofoam bowls of burgoo were consumed, no bread pudding savored, no horses in the paddock, sundresses or seersucker suits, no call to the post and no warm welcome from the man on the mic high in the grandstand.

Becker found himself at home in Altamont, Illinois, on what would have been a picture-perfect Opening Day if the annual rite and tradition of the bluegrass weren’t scrapped. He cut the grass Wednesday, instead of driving the 300 miles or so east to Lexington like he usually does, and Thursday found a bit more mental stimulation.

“Thankfully I have had employers whom I work for that have contacted me to provide video or audio content for social media from my home,” Becker said. “It’s fun to have something to focus your mind and your energy on. Keeneland has contacted me. G.D. Hieronymus, he has asked me to sit down and record some brief video reflecting on some of the memorable races I’ve called at Keeneland. He and his team will finish the production aspect and those will be up and running soon on Keeneland’s social media sites.

“Horse Racing Radio Network has contacted me, they sent some recording equipment to help provide content as we move deeper into the month. And the folks at NASCAR and the Motor Racing Network, they’re having me sit down today and record a couple of pieces similar to what Keeneland is doing. They’re looking for memorable races, exciting finishes, unexpected things that have happened, give us five minutes on this, three minutes on that. I’m so glad because it’s fun that while none of us wanted this circumstance I think that at least it’s giving me the chance to sit back while I work on these pieces I’m being reminded of how fortunate I’ve been to work in these industries.”

Becker said he typically spends the last few days before trekking over to Kentucky running errands, going to the post office and arranging for someone to look in on his 17-year-old calico cat Dum-Dum, Monday, before working up a checklist of clothing items and “tools of the trade I might need,” Tuesday.

“As silly as it sounds if I don’t write down, ‘Pack your bincoulars,’ I’ll forget them at home,” Becker said.

By Tuesday afternoon Becker would be deep into research on horses, owners, trainers and jockeys competing on the Opening Day card, watching replays, checking pronunciations and making any final necessary notes.

“Then Wednesday I would have left home around 10 a.m. Central Time, made my way to Lexington, gotten settled into the hotel then made the grocery run. My hotel room is a suite with a full kitchen, so I’ll get food and provisions for the three-week period stocked away.

“Then for Opening Day I’ll be in the booth by 10 a.m. I like to do that. I arrive early. Post time is around 1 p.m. and I want to be in the booth no later than 10:30. The reason for that is I get so nervous and so uptight on racedays. When I arrive early it reduces the risk of me being sidetracked by conversations. Even if somebody wants to spend five minutes talking about baseball or something I’m thinking ‘I don’t have time for this, I need to think about my job today.’ That’s why I like to arrive early.”

With 20 minutes to post for the opener Becker will flip the switch and say the words Keeneland fans come to expect, succinct and fitting to the place.

“Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon and welcome to Keeneland Race Course.”

Keeneland canceled the spring meeting in mid-March, after initial recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautioned against holding large events, including sporting events, of 50 or more for at least eight weeks.

The recommendations have since been revised, throwing racing schedules off worldwide, forcing the postponement of the Kentucky Derby and canceling significant racing events, including what would have been this weekend’s Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland, Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park.

Becker reacted like most hearing the news, disappointed and concerned.

“Quite frankly it was a selfish one,” Becker said. “The April meet at Keeneland is for me a staple of what I do to make a living. Then the next thing that went through my mind was what a great thing a profession is because it engages your mind, it keeps you thinking, gives you reason to get out of the house and channel your energy.

“Then the more I reflected on it, I thought about myself but then about all the people out there that are afflicted with coronavirus, all the healthcare workers that are so diligently working around the clock, all of the scientists who are working on this and it finally dawned on me that it was the right call. I would not have said this in the first 24 hours after it was announced … I was disappointed, but the more I thought about it I came to realize that especially in the broader context of what I’ve seen happening with it across the country I commend our management team with making the right decision. There’s no doubt about it.”

In addition to his projects at home for Keeneland, NASCAR and HRRN, where he works during the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup as an analyst, Becker plans to continue work on another task close to his heart.

Altamont, a town with a population of about 2,400 that sits along Interstate 70 and the old national road U.S. Highway 40, will celebrate its 150-year anniversary in 2021.

Becker, a voracious researcher and history buff known for occasionally putting in long hours at the Keeneland Library when he’s in town for race meets or announcing duties at the sales, is pitching in to help with next year’s sesquicentennial celebration.

“I’ve been going through books I have at home, old newspapers I have at home and decided I might as well do some research on town history to try and help the mayor and city council get ready for next year’s celebration,” Becker said. “That’s been fun. My dad Carl is 82 years old, and he grew up here. Thankfully I can pick up the phone and call my dad when I come across something to ask him. I’ve been enjoying that.”

Becker did some of that work Thursday, before being reminded that at about 3 p.m. ET he’d be about halfway through the Opening Day card and maybe two hours until the featured $100,000 Palisades Turf Sprint for 3-year-olds.

“That’s true, and funny you mention this because by the time we get to this point in the day I always say one of the biggest challenges to calling races at Keeneland is the fact that the grandstand faces West,” Becker said. “The sun at the start of the day is up toward the far turn then it works its way down the backstretch as we go deeper into the day and normally about this time that booth is washed out, full of sunshine and you’re trying to deal with the glare. The sun is reflecting off the jockey silks, everything. I never thought I would say this but I wish I were standing there having to deal with it. It can get sweltering inside that booth, too, but there’s no place I’d rather be.”



So what about that short stretch when Becker didn’t call the races? Here’s what the man with a NASCAR background hired to be the track’s first announcer in 1997 said:
“I think this is the first time I’ve had anyone ask that question. In 1999 I had the flu in March and could not get well. I ended up dehydrated and hospitalized here in Illinois. I remember using the land line next to my hospital bed, calling Bill Greely, who was the president of Keeneland at the time and telling him I would not be able to make it for opening weekend.

“Mike Battaglia stepped in and called the races. If you go back and pull up the footage, the 1999 Ashland won by Silverbulletday, you will hear Mike Battaglia’s call.

“Mike was great about it all. When I was hired at Keeneland there was frankly an awkward aspect. I was from Illinois, not a Kentucky native and Mike had called races for years in Kentucky. Keeneland had plans to put him on camera as a simulcast host. From our conversations maybe he would have preferred to be the track announcer, the first track announcer at Keeneland. But then when I was sick and they asked Mike to fill in, he agreed and I’ve never forgotten that. That says so much about what kind of person Mike is.

“When I got back, I went to him and told him how much I appreciated how he handled it, his demeanor and his attitude about it all. He told me straight he was disappointed that he wasn’t picked to be the announcer but that ‘I’ve never had a problem with you personally.’ I was 28 years old at the time, trying to get established and for someone like Mike Battaglia to say that meant a great deal.”