First there was Gene Schmidt in 1940. Then the great Chic Anderson. Mike Battaglia came next for a nearly 20-year stint at the top of Churchill Downs. Kurt Becker took the helm for two years before the affable and talented Luke Kruytbosch made it his own for nearly a decade. In 2009, Mark Johnson became the sixth track announcer in Churchill Downs history, the native of Lincolnshire, England stepped into a big role, announcing his first Kentucky Derby.
Easy game. Then the race came.
“I prayed for two things, give me a dry track and don’t give me a deep closer,” Johnson said, Wednesday morning from Churchill Downs. “I was 0-for-2 with that. Just beyond the three-quarters-of-a-mile peg, there were 18 horses, then an ambulance, then Mine That Bird.”
Turning for home, the field fanned out, the speed began to stop, there was one horse running.
“I hesitated, I allowed myself two words, ‘bursting through,’ ” Johnson explained. “In those two words – it’s basically if you’re in the zone, whatever that means if you’re a sportsman or whatever you do, when you’re in the zone, it’s a bit like being in a car wreck, time stops or slows down to an infinitesimal amount, so basically something that lasts two seconds can, to you, seem like three or four minutes. As he came down the lane, I thought, ‘I think that’s Mine That Bird. I know it is.’ “
Tick. Tick. Tick.
“I had the Tom and Jerry moment, the angel on one side, the devil on the other,” Johnson said. ” ‘You know that’s Calvin.’ ‘You know it’s not’. ‘Yes it is, say it’s Mine That Bird.’ ‘If you do, you’re on the next plane back to England.’ It really was a case, ‘do you I listen to the devil or the angel, do I go with my gut instinct or do I wait?’ “
He didn’t wait, picking up Mine That Bird and escorting him to the wire. Job done.
Johnson will announce his fifth Derby Saturday. He’s been preparing for months, studying, analyzing, memorizing. At least it takes the pressure off the rest of the week.
“The time you can relax is the time when I’m calling the other races earlier in the week, then I can relax into what I love doing the most, and that’s calling the races,” Johnson said. “Your mind is still focused on those two minutes. It actually makes the Oaks really easy. I know roughly the field, but to be honest, Friday’s card is absolutely stellar, but have I given it more than a cursory look, no, because everything is geared to those two minutes.”
Johnson’s been studying and analyzing for months. He still prays for the same things; dry track, not a deep closer. He’s learned a lot since his first experience with Mine That Bird.
“I’m less fixated now on past performances and I’m (fixated) more on run styles, likely trips and physical prowess and demeanor, i.e., ‘will they be able to hold their own in the scrum that is the Derby, and can they handle themselves in the 90 minutes beforehand?’ ” Johnson said. “There are about 14 horses who have an identical run style in this race and they all want to start making a move at about 3 ½ furlongs out.”
For the fan, that’s the fun part. For Johnson…
“It’s the worst view of the track for the announcer,” he said. “It could be a bunch sprint, like the end of a Tour de France stage when there’s about 120 riders across the track.”
And that makes for a lot of angels and devils.
– Listen to Mark Johnson’s call of his first Derby.