A Special Moment for a Signature Voice

Battaglia’s call of a victory by Surgical Strike in the John Battaglia Memorial, a race named after his father, was his last as track announcer at Turfway Park. Photo by Coady Photography

Battaglia’s call of a victory by Surgical Strike in the John Battaglia Memorial, a race named after his father, was his last as track announcer at Turfway Park. Photo by Coady Photography

A large chunk of Thoroughbred racing fans in Kentucky have no clear recollection of the sport without the voice of Mike Battaglia as part of its soundtrack.

Whether he was describing the action at Churchill Downs, Turfway Park/Latonia or Louisville’s old Miles Park; providing analysis and interviews as part of NBC Sports Kentucky Derby/Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup television broadcast teams; or offering on-track analysis and interviews at Keeneland, Battaglia’s voice has been part of the experience.

Battaglia’s voice and presence are permanently located deep in the consciousness of those who love racing. I’ve been a visible part of the Churchill Downs staff for 19 years now, and aside from the fact that we are male, we work in racing and our heads are topped by increasingly gray hair, there is no real reason to confuse.

Veteran Kentucky race caller Mike Battaglia. Photo by Reed Palmer, Churchill Downs

Veteran Kentucky race caller Mike Battaglia. Photo by Reed Palmer,
Churchill Downs

But to this day, one or two people who visit Churchill Downs will hail me with a “Hey, Mike!” and insist that they love either the Battaglia TV racing picks or race calls, the most recent of which occurred on a regular basis (except for a brief run as fill-in announcer in 2014) beneath the Twin Spires years ago.

That, my friends, is market presence. And it is also a clear indicator of Kentucky racing’s high regard for Mike Battaglia, who moved into the next phase of his long and ever-changing career last Saturday at Turfway Park when he called a race as an official track announcer for the final time.

Mike’s last race was the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park, a Kentucky Derby prep race named after his father, a longtime racing secretary at that and other Kentucky tracks who gave his son his first full-time race calling job. Battaglia always calls it “Dad’s race,” and it was a very good spot for the son to make his curtain call as a race caller.

Let the record show that the winner of the 2016 renewal of “Dad’s race” was Surgical Strike, who rallied from next-to-last in a field of a dozen 3-year-olds. Trainer Ben Colebrook’s winner will run next in Turfway’s $500,000 Spiral Stakes (Grade III) three weeks down the road. If things go well in that one for Surgical Strike, the winner of “Dad’s race” could give Mike a reason to cheer at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Battaglia has spent most first Saturdays in May during his 66 years on our planet working at Churchill Downs. As a young announcer, he called his first Kentucky Derby – both as an on-track announcer and the national television race caller for ABC Sports – in 1978, a race in which eventual Triple Crown winner Affirmed defeated longtime rival Alydar.

That’s a pretty good place to start. He was only the third announcer in Churchill Downs history, following Gene Schmidt and icon Chic Anderson, and from that afternoon, he was the “voice of the Kentucky Derby” for each running through 1996. After that, Battaglia remained a racing analyst at Churchill Downs, established that role at Keeneland as the Lexington track belatedly entered the electronic age, and became part of the NBC Sports’ Thoroughbred racing telecast team. VT