The voice that emanates from the elastic smile is one that generations of Thoroughbred racing fans in the Bluegrass have never known the sport to exist without.
It is straightforward in its delivery, yet rises to a genuine, excitable level when noticing a competitive battle playing out. It doesn’t offer much in the way of gratuitous adjectives, choosing instead to focus on the accuracy of what is actually happening. With its steadfast, distinctive cadence, it has been a soundtrack both lifers of the sport and casual fans have come to recognize as a familiar friend.
For four decades, Mike Battaglia has done his best to do verbal justice to whatever materialized before him in the announcer’s booth — be it some of the greatest races the sport has ever seen or $5,000 claimers going to post. Though his resume is that of the ultimate multi-hyphenate — analyst, handicapper, odds maker — it is his 44-year stint as a track announcer on the Kentucky circuit that has been his most defining role.
It has also been Battaglia’s most grueling of jobs, one that taxed his mental focus now at the age of 66 and took him away from his wife and grandkids for months of weekends at a time. There was no doubt in his mind this was the ideal time him to step down from the position he has held at Turfway Park since 1973.
He just needed an exit strategy that would let him walk away in fitting fashion without taking him away from the track that has been a part of his life since his teen years.
“I didn’t want to retire, I didn’t want to stop,” Battaglia said. “I’ve been associated with Turfway for so long and I had talked to (track general manager) Chip (Bach) about this and he said ‘What if you stay on as associate vice president and you could help me do some stuff, you could work with people, do seminars?’. And I said you know, I think I would like to do that.
“So I said ‘How about if I call my dad’s race and call it quits after that?’ So we worked out a deal. And the plan right now is I’m going to come back every year and call dad’s race. I’ll call one race a year. And I’m ready (to walk away). I’ve been doing it for 44 years. The nightly grind of calling the races like that, I was just flat tired of doing it.”
Saturday’s running of the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway Park signaled the end of an era in Kentucky racing. After calling the race named for his late father and former track general manager, Mike Battaglia officially handed over the tiny announcer’s booth to Jimmy McNerney, bright of spirit and absent of any regrets over this storied portion of his career.
Make no mistake, Battaglia is not anywhere close to being done with the Thoroughbred industry. In addition to his new role as associate vice president with Turfway, he will maintain his duties as the linemaker for both Churchill Downs — where he served as the track announcer from 1977 to 1996 — and Keeneland as well as his analyst duties and post-race interviews with the latter.
That he now has the chance to reflect on 40-plus years of articulating card after card is something even he gets a chuckle out of when thinking of how it all started. This wasn’t a case of chasing a lifelong ambition.
It was about being in the right place in a pinch and having dad’s word that even if he botched the opportunity, there would be another coming along in about 20 minutes.
“I think it was 1972 I called my first race and by 1978 I was calling Affirmed and Alydar in the Kentucky Derby. You figure that one out,” Battaglia said. “That made no sense whatsoever. It was unbelievable.”
The accidental announcer
Battaglia jokes that he made habit out of following the legendary announcer Chic Anderson around from one job to the next. And three weeks before the now defunct Miles Park in Louisville was set to start its meet, Anderson asked the young Battaglia, who was working publicity at Turfway — then known as Latonia — if he could find the track a new announcer so he could take a position elsewhere.
When the search turned up empty, Miles Park manager John Battaglia told his son to take the mic himself, infamously explaining “Nobody comes to Miles Park — that’s No.1.
“No. 2, the sound system is so bad the people can’t hear you and No. 3, if you screw up, I’m not going to fire you.”
My dad told me, don’t gloat when you win and don’t cry when you lose. There is another race coming up in 20 minutes.
The younger Battaglia got through his first call and with that, something clicked. He not only didn’t have the wheels come flying off, but he was actually enjoying himself and getting better with every breath.
“I kind of realized that I could do it, right away,” Battaglia said. “After I called one race at Miles Park, my father called me up and said ‘Listen, just keep doing that. That was fine, just keep doing that.’ So I was happy and I liked it. I was excited about the racing and to be doing that and…I got hooked on it pretty quickly.
“There was never a plan to be an announcer but once I started, I really liked it and I’ve always liked it.”
Battaglia’s jovial face and optimistic nature are as much of his signature as his no-frills style of calls. When he was replaced by Churchill Downs in 1997, he was taken aback but used the opportunity to do more work on the television side — including 23 years covering the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup as part of the NBC Sports broadcast.
Dwelling on the negative never has been his thing. If he flubbed a call, he owned it and moved on. And while he can’t pin down just one favorite race call of his, he doesn’t pine for do-overs either.
“I hated to be wrong, I hate to make a mistake but of course I made plenty of mistakes,” Battaglia said. “Anyone that does live anything announcing is going to make a mistake, you just have to learn how to deal with those. That’s part of living is making mistakes. Do I want to do it again? Maybe not because that makes you a better person, learning from your mistakes. If you did everything right all the time, that’s impossible.
“My dad told me, don’t gloat when you win and don’t cry when you lose. There is another race coming up in 20 minutes.”
For all the titles he has and continues to hold, the one that most encompasses what Battaglia represents is that of ambassador. For every fan who feels the need to holler that they could have made a better call or landed on a better pick, there are scores more who gleefully want to pick his brain and commiserate as if they were old comrades.
He had about 50 actual friends contact him wanting to come out for his swansong night, with likes of Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron making it a point to be on the grounds to ensure the sendoff was appropriate.
After calling Cooper’s Keeper home to take the first race on Saturday’s card, Battaglia sat back in his chair, spun around in the booth and grinned ‘I’ve still got it’.
His final call in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes proved just that, picking up every horse and hitting on all the drama as the gelding Surgical Strike sent the charismatic announcer out on a note he wouldn’t change one moment of.
“If you think of Mike, you think of Mike’s smile, you think of his enthusiasm and all the work he has done. For generations of racing fans, he has been basically the voice of Kentucky racing or one of the singular figures of Kentucky racing,” said John Asher, vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs. “He has had an impact that I think goes beyond track presidents and leaders of alphabet organizations.
“Whether you are a person who makes a living every day in the sport or a person that has cashed the occasional bet over the years, Mike covered that entire spectrum and he’s done so with great enthusiasm and spirit and dignity. And I could not be happier for him.”