August 21, 2013 | Lynne Snierson
As T.D. Thornton and Mark Johnson were traversing the back roads of New England while on their way to Fryeburg, Maine five years ago, Johnson got a phone call from Churchill Downs that would ultimately alter his life. But Thornton knew it would never change his friend and fellow track announcer.
“There we were, in the car on our way to the Fryeburg Fair to go to a harness race on the same day that he was notified that he was one of the (five) finalists for the announcer’s job at Churchill Downs. His phone was ringing off the hook with people congratulating him, but what was almost as exciting for him was that he was going to see a new racetrack way out of the way in Maine,” Thornton, the Suffolk Downs announcer, recalled. “He shares the same infectious enthusiasm for calling racing at even the smallest nook and cranny track as he does for the big tracks.”
Johnson, a native of Great Britain, won the competition and became Churchill’s new announcer in 2009. He brought his trademark style and that unbridled passion to Suffolk last week and Thornton graciously handed him the microphone and binoculars to call a few races over several days. Even before Johnson was the on-track voice of the Kentucky Derby, he was a regular in the booth at the East Boston oval.
“I’ve been coming here for 12 or 15 years. Suffolk was the second track in North America I ever called, with Calder (in Miami) the first. “(British racing journalists) Mary and Chris Pitt said you really ought to come over to Boston, you’ll love the place. Boston was always a place I wanted to visit because of the history. They introduced me to Larry (Collmus, who preceded Thornton in the booth and is now NBC’s voice of the Triple Crown) and T.D. was here as well so I got to know them and call races here.”
Suffolk has not been the energetic Johnson’s only point of call, literally and figuratively, since Churchill’s spring meet ended six weeks ago. Suffolk is the 20th track he has called, including 18 in mainland Britain and one on the little island of Jersey in the Channel Islands. After he and his significant other, Rachel, vacationed in Boston, he was headed back to call again at Jersey before returning for Churchill’s inaugural Homecoming Meet in September and then jetting to Paris for the prestigious Arc de Triomphe on October 6. After that, he will call the Eastern European equivalent of the Grand National when the horses go over the jumps in the Czech Republic.
“I don’t know where I get my energy, but I never get tired of it. It’s what I love and what I live for. I adore announcing,” said Johnson, who has called 59 of the 60 professional tracks in Britain and works in his native land when Churchill isn’t racing live. “I’m never really happier than when I’m with a field of horses about to spring from the gate and with a pair of binoculars and a microphone. I would hope nobody could ever fault me for my enthusiasm.”
His legion of intercontinental fans, many of whom cast ballots for him in the Churchill competition decided by popular vote, certainly would not. No matter the venue, the value, or the importance of the race, the quality of the call remains the same.
“Calling a race at Suffolk can be very different from calling the Kentucky Derby on one hand but on the other, it’s exactly the same,” he explained. “It’s the same for a jockey, the starter, or anyone else. When the nerves start to get to you, remember it is simply another horse race.”
Nevertheless, each track and every race can present particular challenges. At Suffolk, it’s the landscape.
“There are s few trees in the middle so you get a little blind by the six furlong point, more in the turn than when they go in the chute,” said Johnson, who knew by age 3 that this was his life’s calling. “It’s a really lovely, lovely track to call and they’ve got a really lovely booth that would put most booths in Great Britain to shame. Suffolk is a charming track and what you see on the feed doesn’t do it justice. And you do get the sense it’s a proper, old school racetrack. You get the feel there is history here.”
Johnson, who considers 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame his favorite horse and 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird’s victory his favorite- as well as career-making- call, has met members of the British royal family.
“We know that Her Majesty (Queen Elizabeth II) watches racing quite regularly on the two race channels that we have. I was lucky enough to be introduced to the Queen Mother (Elizabeth) a couple of times when she was alive at Sandown Park. She was a wonderful lady,” he said. “In fact, I called the Queen Mother’s last ever winner before she died (in March 2002). The horse’s name was First Love. He started his career running in Her Majesty’s colors on the flat and then went on to run in the Queen Mum’s colors over jumps. I’m quite proud of calling her last winner.
“You watch a film like The King’s Speech and you see what she went through. And on several occasions she held the royal family together through the second World War, through an abdication (of King Edward VIII) so she therefore became the queen, effectively, and then through the rise of the Third Reich, and later on through all of the controversy with what went on with Princess Diana. Let us also not forget that she was the best ambassador for horse racing that Britain has probably ever had. It was great to meet her.”
Unlike in America, in Britain there is a small and finite number of professional race callers who are individually assigned to the most important events. Johnson was elated to learn recently he has been selected as the announcer for the prestigious Grade 1 King George at Kempton Race Course during the Christmas season and the steeplechase event will be another gold star on his impressive and growing resume.
Yet he has no desire to call more tracks and big races across North America.
“At the moment, although I would never say no, I am in the most enviable position that any professional, not just a track announcer, or anyone in any walk of life, can have,” he said. “I am in that pleasant position where I have my cake and I can eat it. I have no idea how long this ride will last. Now I’m calling really big races in Britain. I do things like the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National. I’ve done 12 St. Ledgers, which is the final leg of the Triple Crown. Now the Homecoming Meet at Churchill automatically draws me out of the St. Ledger, but that was bound to clash. But really, I absolutely adore my top class jump racing.”
He and Rachel, who is American and employed by Churchill Downs, could not be happier with the way everything is coming together.
“I’m just very lucky. I absolutely adore it here and Rachel absolutely adores Britain, so we’re both very happy and we enjoy a wonderful lifestyle at the moment,” he said.