By Ray Paulick
Since Churchill Downs founder Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark borrowed the concept for the Kentucky Derby from Epsom Downs in Great Britain, where the Epsom Derby was first run in 1780, doesn’t it make perfect sense for an Englishman to call America’s famous “Darby”?
That’s what apparently is going to happen beginning with this year’s 135th running of the Kentucky Derby, the Paulick Report was told by several sources. Mark Johnson of England is expected to be named the new announcer for Churchill Down at a press conference at the Louisville, Ky., track on Thursday morning at 10 a.m. Johnson would become only the sixth “voice of the Kentucky Derby,” filling the void left following the untimely death of the popular Luke Kruytbosch last July.
Johnson was one of five guest announcers who took turns at the microphone during the Churchill Downs fall meeting in an on-the-job audition. The others were Larry Collmus, Bobby Neuman, Travis Stone, and Michael Wrona. Though he fared poorly in a Paulick Report Daily Poll (Wrona got the highest percentage of votes, 47%, followed by Collmus, with 28%), Johnson got a very favorable response in a detailed survey of the five announcers on the Churchill Downs website, sources said.
A 42-year-old native of Skegness, Lincolnshire, in the east of England, Johnson got an early start in his career, calling imaginary races of the wooden horses he would put on his family’s dining room table at the age of three (according to an article in Globeform). A few years later, he’d watch the Saturday races on television with the sound turned down, making up his own call of the races. “I probably commentated on my first Grand National when I was six,” Johnson told Globeform. “It became an obsession, and I am like the boy who wanted to be an astronaut and went to the moon. This is what I always wanted to do.”
Johnson got his first break calling point-to-point races at a small race meeting in 1987, but three years later moved up to Aintree, home of the Grand National, one of the best-known steeplechase races in the world. A few years later, he had the chance to call the Grand National itself, a race that requires two announcers.
He went on to work at several other tracks – including Sandown, Kempton Park, Cheltenham, Goodwood and Stratford — and moonlighted on television for At the Races, which showed American races in the evening hours. Johnson called the Epsom Derby on five occasions (including this call of Galileo’s 2001 Derby victory), the St. Leger and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, among other big races.
Johnson caused a ruckus back home with some comments about the Epsom Derby that were viewed as derogatory, made during an interview with Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal last November when he was auditioning at Churchill Downs. His comment that “a lot of people don’t care” about the Epsom Derby didn’t go over very well in England.
If Johnson is, indeed, given the nod to call the Run for the Roses, he’ll find out on the first Saturday in May that people in this country do care about the Kentucky Derby. He promised Rees in that interview he’ll even be sure to pronounce “Derby” the way we say it here in America.