This is how Kurt Becker calls a race at Keeneland: In the broadcast booth, with a piece of paper with identifying details about the horses and jockeys in one hand and a set of binoculars in the other.
For the finish line, he might turn to a nearby monitor for a more accurate view.
If that sounds archaic in a world in which you can mount a camera to a horse or jockey or drone, it is.
“It’s one of the things I love about horse racing,” Becker said. “I often compare horse racing to baseball. It is a sport that hasn’t undergone as many changes.”
But the system works for Becker, who was contacted by Keeneland for the track announcer’s job while he was working for Motor Racing Network. Although Becker grew up in Altamont, Ill., he had accompanied his father to Lexington when the senior Becker would call events at The Red Mile.
Becker, 48, still lives in Altamont but makes the 300-mile drive to Lexington the day before the meet begins.
Then it’s time to get serious.
“I will pace the floor, I will think of everything that can go wrong all day long,” he said. “Pressure or not, there’s no better place in the world to call horse races than Keeneland.”
And then, he pretends the crowd is not there below him: “I throw a switch in my mind, and for the duration of the race, there’s no one else on that track but me, those horses and those jockeys.”
Tom Leach, the voice of the Wildcats, said that Becker’s challenge isn’t just one game, but a set of daily races that involves numerous horses, trainers and jockeys. For that, “He was very focused and that was the main mission. ... I know he’s very good at it.”
Bill Thomason, Keeneland Association president and CEO, said that Becker is “the preeminent race caller in North America. ... He has elevated the art of race-calling to its highest level, and no one in his profession is as knowledgeable or dedicated.”
Becker is still working for Motor Racing Network, and for two years he called races at Churchill Downs as well.
When he’s not calling races, he collects antique glassware as a hobby, “everything from compotes to fruit bowls to pitchers that were manufactured in the late 1800s to the early 1900s.”
He competes in summer fairs on the agricultural fair circuit, “really like something straight out of ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ It’s relaxing, there’s not a lot of pressure and you meet a lot of great folks.”
The thing that makes track announcing tough is that you’re all alone — no backup announcer or crew to point out any errors, or make a rescue if a horse and jockey are so covered by muck that their identifying marks can’t be seen.
That happened to Becker once, during the 2004 Darley Alcibiades Stakes, when Becker was being visited in the booth by both Alabama Crimson Tide announcer Eli Gold and University of Kentucky radio announcer Leach.
He was already nervous because of his colleagues being nearby, but in the final furlong he was thrown by a 17-1 shot named Runway Model, who came down the track coated in mud. So was her jockey. Becker stalled to try to figure out who was making time to the finish, and finally saw a No. 8 on the jockey’s sleeve.
Runway Model “never got a call until her nose hit the wire,” Becker recalled in 2011.
Being an announcer of honor, Becker visited Runway Model when she was retired and sold at the Keeneland November sale.
“Look, old girl,” he said to the horse, “you had a horrible race call on the biggest day of your career. I want to apologize.”