After offering thoughts last week on the stars and top moments of Churchill Downsâ€™ just-completed 38 days of Spring Meet racing, I quickly realized that I had run out of allotted words before delivering all appropriate praise.
But the enjoyable racing session is still fresh in mind and weâ€™ll take another shot at offering thoughts on an individual, a team and an event that contributed to the smiles generated during Churchill Downsâ€™ 141st Spring Meet.
Weâ€™ll begin with announcer Travis Stone, a new member of the trackâ€™s team.
When the Spring Meet began with a rainy Opening Night on April 26, the 30-year-old Stone embarked on his new job behind the microphone at Churchill Downs.Â The native of Schroon Lake, N.Y. was eight years into an announcing career that had included stops at Louisiana Downs and New Jerseyâ€™s Monmouth Park, where he spent one year as the successor to the talented Larry Collmus, who left the Monmouth job to become the voice of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
But Collmus was lured from his post at Churchill Downs after only one year by his dream job.Â He was hired as successor to race-calling legend Tom Durkin at the tracks of the New York Racing Association.
Churchill Downsâ€™ search for Collmusâ€™s successor ended with the selection of Stone, who had been a finalist for the job when Mark Johnson was ultimately hired in 2009 as the successor to the late Luke Kruytbosch.
When he called the meetâ€™s first race, Stone became just the eighth announcer in track history.Â And he had less than a week to prepare to announce two of racingâ€™s most important events: the $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks on Friday, May 1, and the $2 million guaranteed Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on Saturday, May 2.
There is no spotlight in racing, and few in the world of sports, brighter or more intense than the one shone on the Kentucky Derby.Â But Travis Stone, though still a relative youngster, was ready for his moment at center stage.
Those who listened closely during Stoneâ€™s high-profile first week on the job heard a talented and distinctive voice that became stronger and more confident as the Derby and Oaks neared.
In a bid for transparency, I must admit to being part of the Churchill Downs team that selected Travis Stone for his new job after Collmus departed on excellent terms.
Let me continue the spirit of transparency by revealing that, while I believed Churchill Downs had hired a wonderful and growing talent, a few days of close listening revealed that I had underestimated Stoneâ€™s exceptional ability.Â His passion for both the game and his craft is obvious each time he raises his binoculars and dons a headset to tell the story of a race, whether that event is the 141st running of the Americanâ€™s greatest race or the fifth race on any Thursday.
Given my friendship with Travis and my position at Churchill Downs, take that opinion as you wish.Â But after watching, listening and marveling at his work over 38 racing days,Â I firmly believe that Travis Stone is not only a terrific announcer, he is Americaâ€™s next truly great race caller.
If youâ€™d like to smile, take a look via YouTube at a GoPro camera recording of Stoneâ€™s first Kentucky Derby call, search â€œKentucky Derby 2015 with Travis Stone.â€
Spring Meet praise is also due for a new event and a veteran team.
Twilight Thursdays made their debut during the week after Kentucky Derby 141 and displayed much promise through the Spring Meet.Â There were eight races with a 5 p.m. (Eastern) first post, along with $1 beers, food trucks and live music from bands and individuals featuring regional favorites that included rising country rocker J.D. Shelburne.
Weather was generally good, crowds were up and the overall vibe was positive during the Thursday racing sessions. Supportive comments on the new event were offered by groups that ranged from veteran horsemen to those who live for a shot at $1 beers.
The fan response to the first Twilight Thursday was very promising and something to build upon when live racing returns for its 11-day September Meet.
A special salute also goes to the Racing Secretary Ben Huffmanâ€™s team in the racing office, which worked tirelessly to build competitive and attractive fields for Spring Meet races.Â Relentless work by the group headed by a trio of veteran racing secretaries in Huffman, Dan Bork and Allison De Luca helped raise the springâ€™s average field size of 7.79 horses, a 6.9% increase from the 2014 Spring Meet average of 7.29.
The racing teamâ€™s work resulted in high quality competition in the meetâ€™s top races.Â Spring stakes and allowance competitors that have subsequently earned Grade I stakes victories include Honor Code, Tepin, Curalina, Slumber, Include Betty and Undrafted, the runner-up in the Grade III Twin Spires Turf Sprint for trainer Wesley Ward who traveled to Britain to take the Group I Diamond Jubilee at famed Royal Ascot. Â American Pharoah completed his Triple Crown with Grade I wins in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes following his Kentucky Derby triumph, while Noble Bird bounced back from a narrow loss in Churchillâ€™s Grade II Alysheba to hold off Grade I winner Lea to win the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap. VT