SportsRace to the Derby


The man behind the mic: Meet the voice of Churchill Downs

Posted at 3:01 PM, May 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-03 13:56:20-04

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (LEX 18) — The Kentucky Derby would not be complete without many details but one of those is one you cannot see, but rather hear: the track announcer.

Travis Stone will call his seventh Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

"There's no choice about it, the Derby comes with a tremendous amount of pressure," he said. "It's the hardest race to call in the world. Twenty horses, going a mile and a quarter, it's just, it's a lot."

Although there is pressure, Stone would not trade this job for the world.


"Getting to a place like Churchill Downs, to be the voice of the Derby--It's cliche, it is truly dreams come true type stuff," said Stone.

Stone was a track announcer at Louisiana Downs before calling races at Monmouth Park in New Jersey for a summer. Then he went to Aqueduct in New York that winter before receiving a call about taking the booth at Churchill Downs.

"And I had never been to the Derby before," admitted Stone, "It was a wild and whirlwind, year and a half or so."


But his story really starts back when he was a little boy living in New York.

"I'd always call the race. And next thing you know I was just watching races on TV and listening to the announcer and fell in love with that aspect of it and as about 10 or 11 years old decided I wanted to be a track announcer," explained Stone. "So I wrote, Tom Durkin who called many Derbies on NBC, and was the voice of New York racing, and said, 'I want to be track announcer. Can you give me some advice?' And he wrote me back. I was 12. Still have the letter. And from that day on it was, this is what I was going to do."

A simple letter turned into a mentorship that has shaped Stone's announcing style.

"I was taught by Tom Durkin that to treat races like little dramas," explained Stone. "And so I started studying how to tell stories better like, 'What makes a good story? What makes a good sentence in the story?' I mean if you think about a race like the Derby, it's a two-minute story, and there's only like 400 to 450 words that I say in that two minutes so you really have to tell quite a bit in a very little amount of time."

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Stone said he spends much time researching horses, reading books to adopt new lines, playing out race sceneries, trying words and phrases, sounds and catchphrases, "just [to] put them in my brain and hopefully when the race is going on, they pop out."

He also spends a lot of time just talking to people in the industry.

"The best place to learn about racing is with people that go to the track and you just sit around and you talk about it, and you just, 'Oh, I hadn't thought of that. Oh, I didn't think of that angle, or here's what I'm thinking.' You just, you sort of organically grow your knowledge as a group," explained Stone. "Some of the group texts I'm on with a bunch of horseplayers are some of the smartest people I know in the world. It's an intellectual exercise handicapping. And when you're handicapping, you also become a better race caller because you can forecast how the race is going to be run who's going to be where."

In the minutes leading up to the start of each race, Stone draws a sketch of the jockey's silks with markers on his notes to help him identify the horses as they run.

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He also uses binoculars, "You can see quite a bit. I can see horseshoes that come flying off if a horse loses a shoe."

Stone called himself a reporter and a voice actor, "the better you do at it and the more energy you show, the more likely people are to gravitate toward it and enjoy it."

Despite his love of horseracing and of Kentucky, on Derby Day, you will not find Stone listening to My Old Kentucky Home. He explains he does not listen, "just to avoid the emotion that comes with it. Turn off the headset and turn off the TV, and let that happen without me. It's just too intense."

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