Story by Janice Carter Levitch
Photo by Ed Brown
Think of the days you’ve spent at Churchill Downs. You make your wager, the horses are at the starting gate and off they go. You can watch the race on one of the countless monitors around you, but there’s nothing like watching a live race and feeling the momentum that builds as the horses make their way around the track. That momentum has brought many of us up out of our chairs as the horses near the finish line and we cheer for our pick, hoping to earn that winning ticket.
Sometimes what you remember most about those moments in time is the announcer’s voice, narrating the entire experience as it unfolds before your eyes. Travis Stone, the track announcer at Churchill Downs, is the voice you hear during those memorable races.
Stone grew up in Schroon Lake, New York. Spending summers at Saratoga Race Course, he always admired the work of legendary announcers. He discovered an interest in the sport of horse racing at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York. That is where he spent three years writing for the Saratoga Special and the Keeneland Special at their respective meets. During that time he also graduated from the Missouri Auction School.
Upon graduating from State University of New York at Oneonta in 2006 with a degree in communication arts, Stone began his first job as a track announcer at Harrah’s Louisiana Downs and continued in that position until 2013. In 2014, he moved on to Monmouth Park in New Jersey, where he replaced Larry Collmus, who left Monmouth after 20 years to call at Churchill Downs.
Though he was only 22 years old when he began working at Harrah’s, his first live race call happened at Suffolk Downs when he was just 18. Since then, he’s also announced at Calder Race Course, Golden Gate Fields, Evangeline Downs and Sam Houston Race Park. Stone has been featured on television through the TVG and HRTV networks and in various trade publications including The Daily Racing Form, The Shreveport Times, The Albany Times Union, Horse Racing Nation and The Thoroughbred Times, just to name a few. He was a simulcast host and analyst with Caton Bredar and Alyssa Ali in 2010 at Gulfstream Park with Gulfstream Park’s TV department. In the summer of 2016, he had the privilege of serving as the morning line maker at Saratoga Race Course.
He has learned that handicapping makes him a better race-caller. He said recently, “The big edge is seeing so many horse races and watching so many replays,” he said. “One of my big keys to handicapping philosophy is doing film work. Being a race caller not only helps since I’ve seen so many, but I can identify the horses better in my film work and it goes faster.”
When Stone described the process he’s developed for calling a race, he emphasized the spontaneity and moment-to-moment action of it all.
“There is no script to follow along with; the horses and the race create their own story,” he said.
He said his objective is “to tell the story as it unfolds. I want to capture the facts and weave those together with the appropriate framework.”
He appreciates that some of the moments of the job are fleeting.
“The cool thing is that within 30 minutes there’s a whole new race, a whole new story,” he said. Stone views calling a race much like narrating. “I dove deep into race calling and researched storytelling. That was pivotal for me, that ‘aha’ moment.”
As with any good story, you must have certain components. “The horses are the characters; their dialogue is running the race in whatever style they have as those characters. There’s the sequence of the race, what horse bolts out of the starting gate first, who finishes last and so on. Then, you have the arc of the story – the exposition – and that’s me explaining what’s happening as I see it through my binoculars” he said. Stone is perched high on the sixth floor of Churchill Downs in a not-so-accessible announcer’s booth. The vantage point is nothing less than perfect. He uses this view to its full potential to see that each story reaches a climax. “The last element of the storytelling is the resolution when it’s over,” he says.
In addition to his narrative studies, Stone also excels at announcing because of his training as an auctioneer.
“Attending auctioneer school definitely helped me learn the auction chant and a special cadence,” he said. “Learning the cadence of speech was so helpful, and applying that to calling a race was an easy connection.” The Missouri Auction School is the number one auction training program in America, and was touted as the “Harvard of auctioneering” by Newsweek Magazine. To find his vocal pitch when calling, Stone has an entertaining explanation: “Think cowboy hat and buckle,” he said with a smile. “I start saying ‘bing, bong, bing, bong,’ to warm up the vocal cords and hear how it sounds, with the ‘bing’ at high pitch and ‘bong’ at a lower pitch. That’s where you begin – at the lower pitch.”
Even though Stone prepares extensively, that doesn’t stop the occasional vocal disaster.
“There was one race when at the far turn, my voice went out,” he recalled. “So I turned the microphone off to cough, hoping it would help. It didn’t work, and I had to turn the mic back on to apologize after the silence.” He likes to stretch himself in regards to his storytelling approach with each race. He said, “Storytelling books help to assist my imagination.” He collects notes and pages from books to reference and add to his own library of wordage to draw from during each race, creating his own style and giving each race unique character.
With three Kentucky Derby races in his repertoire of race calling, he said, “I try not to reference Kentucky Derby too much when I’m actually calling the Derby race; I try to mix it up.” Always searching for that variation of what to say when the horses make the final turn and continue to the finish line, he often says, “They turn for home” or “around the final turn.” When American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby in 2015, Stone announced that there was a record crowd in attendance and he said, “The crowd went absolutely wild over that announcement.”
With several prestigious opportunities along the way, he has already made a name for himself at the young age of 34. Down to earth and friendly, he makes his way through the halls, corridors and paddock area of Churchill Downs; he stops to catch up with the folks in the media office, who spend long hours at the track reporting back to national and international publications, mostly during that first Saturday in May.
Stone walks on through the grandness of the track as if it’s his home; truly he is right at home, especially when he’s in the announcer’s booth. Resting in his domain are dozens of colorful markers on the podium he uses for the race program prior to calling each race. “I check the jockey silks and make sure I know the colors for each horse and mark the racing program with the appropriate color,” he said. “So at a glance, while calling the race, I can relate that color quickly as I follow the horses around the track with my binoculars.”
The other device he uses is a neck-collar clipboard. It hooks around his neck and has a little platform resembling a clipboard to rest his program on. During the race, it’s right below his chin and marked colorfully for quick reference, so he remains accurate and “on the money” when calling the race.
Travis Stone is an eloquent announcer with a gift for knowing how to call a race. The training he has received along the way certainly has prepared him. But nothing can prepare him for the moment when the race begins. He has to remain calm and keep his composure, all the while building that story. That’s the true gift: being able to tell the story with genuine excitement that stirs the crowd with enthusiasm. The next time you’re at Churchill Downs for a day or night of racing, listen for the magic that happens when he turns on the microphone to say, “They make the final turn for home.”