Mark Johnson, one of the most popular and acclaimed horse racing commentators in Britain, will bring his talents to America in 2009 as the new track announcer for Churchill Downs. The announcement was formally made by track officials during at news conference at the historic Louisville, Ky. racetrack Jan. 15.
“In our eyes, Mark Johnson is the complete package when it comes to a track announcer,” said Churchill Downs President Steve Sexton. “He is a unique, polished and passionate talent with an absolutely infectious personality. His race calls and pre- and post-race commentary are supremely accurate, descriptive and colorful, and his knowledge of the sport of horse racing and its historical perspective is vast. It all makes for a wonderful and unique entertainment mix and we’re thrilled to showcase his talents to an American and worldwide audience in 2009.”
Johnson becomes only the sixth track announcer in Churchill Downs history and “Voice of the Kentucky Derby” – America’s premier race which has been run every year without interruption since 1875. The 42-year-old native of Skegness, Lincolnshire, England replaces the late Luke Kruytbosch, who unexpectedly passed away July 14, 2008 from an apparent heart attack at age 47.
Johnson’s selection as announcer at Churchill Downs reinforces the historic link that connects England and British racing with the Kentucky track and America’s greatest race.
England’s classic races provided inspiration to Meriwether Lewis Clark, who founded the track and the Kentucky Derby in 1875 after a trip to that country during which he witnessed the Epsom Derby, the British classic for 3-year-old Thoroughbreds that was first run in 1780 and served as a model for the Kentucky Derby. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II became the first British monarch to witness the American classic when she attended the Kentucky Derby in 2007, and Princess Margaret, the queen’s sister, was on hand to help Churchill Downs celebrate the 100th renewal of the Kentucky Derby in 1974.
When he provides on-track call and commentary for this year’s 135th running of the Kentucky Derby, Johnson will become the first announcer to have called the action in both the Kentucky Derby and the Epsom Derby.
“Never in a million years did I ever think I would be in this position,” said Johnson, who addressed those in attendance via videotape due to prior race commentating commitments in England this week. “It is a dream come true. As an announcer/commentator for four days at Churchill Downs this fall, it was one of the greatest experiences I could ever imagine. It was more than I could have hoped for. Then to be asked and given the honor of being the announcer at Churchill Downs has left me more in shock than anything else. I am so delighted.”
Johnson, one of Britain’s senior racecourse commentators and one of the main “presenters” of American racing programs for the television network Racing UK, began calling races in 1986 and has called such classics as the Epsom Derby (1998-2002) at Epsom and St. Leger Stakes (1995-2005) at Doncaster, as well as Aintree’s legendary Grand National (2004-05) and most every Cheltenham Gold Cup for jumpers since 1996.
The decision-making to hire Johnson was headed by a committee of Churchill Downs executives and department heads, which also sought input from other Churchill Downs staff, officials and board members.
Johnson was part of a select group of five talented guest announcers who each spent one week behind the binoculars and microphone at Churchill Downs during the 2008 Fall Meet. The others were Larry Collmus, Bobby Neuman, Travis Stone and Michael Wrona.
During and after the Fall Meet, opinions from customers were gathered through online surveying, emails and in-person discussions, which played an important role with the selection committee.
“Mark Johnson was the top choice of the committee, the other Churchill interests, and, most importantly, our fans,” said Tom Aronson, Churchill Downs Inc. vice president and member of the selection committee. “We had in excess of 2,000 responses from customers and their input was a very important factor in our final decision. We were very impressed with all of the candidates, but when we looked at what you might call the ‘demographics’ of our surveying, Mark Johnson was an across-the-board winner among more casual fans, regular players in our Twin Spires Club, and people who live in and around Louisville, Kentucky.
“Most notably, he polled considerably higher than anyone else in the ultimate opinion we asked of our customers after a series of qualitative questions: If you had to choose just one, who would it be? The answer was clearly Mark Johnson.
Johnson joins an elite group of track announcers at Churchill Downs. Gene Schmidt was the first as he called races under the Twin Spires from 1940-60, and was succeeded by legendary announcer Chic Anderson through 1977. Kentucky native Mike Battaglia called the Kentucky Derby and all of the track’s races from 1978-96. Kurt Becker then handled the announcing duties for two years, and his departure opened the door for Kruytbosch’s arrival in 1999.
“A major, major ambition of mine has been to call a meet in America,” Johnson said. “I never thought that the assignment I would be given would be Churchill Downs, which just happens to have America’s greatest horse race, the Kentucky Derby. Talk about icing on the cake, the Derby is like a glacier sitting on top of the cake.”
Johnson will continue to call races on two continents with assignments in England between Churchill Downs’ two annual race meetings: the 52-date Spring Meet, which runs April 25 through July 5 and the 21-date Fall Meet, scheduled Nov. 1-28.
An upcoming assignment includes a race call for the inaugural $150,000 Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton Park Racecourse on March 18. The winner of the 1 1/8-mile clockwise race over Polytrack will earn a guaranteed spot in the starting gate for Kentucky Derby 135 and a $100,000 bonus should the winner start in the May 2 race. Later this summer, Johnson is also scheduled to call the Cheltenham Festival.
The Mark Johnson File
Born: Feb. 7, 1966 (42 years old)
Parents: Derek and Joy Johnson (only child)
Birthplace/Hometown: Skegness, Lincolnshire, England
Current Residence: East Twickenham, London, England
Relationship: Engaged to marry longtime girlfriend Katherine Heptonstall on Jan. 28, 2009 on a beach in Turks and Caicos
College Degree: BA Hons in Television, Film & Theatre Studies King Alfred’s College in Winchester, Hants, England
Post Graduate Diploma: Radio Journalism London College of Printing in Elephant & Castle, London, England
Career Milestones: First live race commentary: March 15, 1986 at Tweseldown, England
First “Classic” commentary: 1995 St. Leger Stakes
First Epsom Derby: 1998 (1998-2002)
First Cheltenham Festival: 1996 (most years to present day)
First Grand National: 2004 (2004-05)
First live race call in America: Oct. 11, 2001 at Calder Race Course
All-Star Announcer Appearances: 2005 (Belmont) and ’07 (Monmouth)
First full card announcing in America: Aug. 3, 2007 at Calder Race Course
First graded stakes race call in America: Nov. 27, 2008 at Churchill Downs
Favorite Announcers: Peter O’Sullivan, Raleigh Gilbert, Tom Durkin and Dave Johnson
Favorite Horses: Red Rum, High Chaparral, Sindar, Pleasantly Perfect and Corinthian
Favorite Movies: “I’m a massive film fan, particularly old westerns and swashbucklers. Errol Flynn is a particular favorite actor.”
Favorite Musical Acts: “The Police and Sting.”
Favorite Books: “The Gun and The Sharpe novels based on the Napoleonic Wars.”
Favorite Meal: “I have very cosmopolitan tastes for food, but a good meal has to be accompanied by a great red wine!”
Hobbies/Interests: “Golf and travel.”
Hooked on Horse Racing: “I got hooked on horse racing when going jump racing with my mother and father as a very young child and watching racing on Saturday afternoons on TV, especially the Grand National. Grand National Day for me as a youngster was like Christmas Day, my birthday and any other special day rolled into one.”
Interesting Fact: “I was an assistant trainer when briefly based in Newmarket. I also sword fenced to high standard and I am a qualified fencing coach.”