Each year during Belmont Stakes week, former race announcer Dave Johnson throws a party for his friends somewhere in the bar of a high-end restaurant in Manhattan. It just so happens the friends of Dave Johnson are essentially horse racing's illuminati: turf writers, trainers, Vegas big fish, Jockey Club stalwarts. Johnson knows them all.
Johnson positions himself near the entrance to the bar and greets every guest who walks in with booming, sincere excitement which is normally reserved for old friends you haven't seen in years. It's easy to figure out where he is in the room at any given time because it's where the crowd is densest, with partygoers smiling and leaning closer, eager to tell him how critical his work feels to each of them.
At one point, Tom Durkin strides in, shakes Johnson's hand and tells him, ‘I had the dream again.' The two announcers, both veterans of the New York racing scene and national television, compare similar recurring nightmares they have each had for years. The dream starts the same: there are a few minutes left to post, and they're not in the announcer's booth. They try to get to the booth, watching the time tick down, and can't find the right staircase or elevator or door. The tracks and impediments are different for each, but Durkin and Johnson agree – no matter how long it's been since they hung up the mic, there's still that nagging feeling that it's about to be show time.
Johnson has spent most of his career on the verge of “show time,” which makes sense because theater and performance are in his blood. Johnson's mother was a Vaudeville performer, so it was perhaps only logical that when the regular caller at Cahokia Downs in St. Louis became ill during a night card, Johnson saw an opportunity, not stage fright.
“I was in the stands and went up to the general manager and said, ‘I could do that. Would you like me to call the races for the rest of the evening?'” Johnson recalled. “I was in school at the time at Southern Illinois University and I could have memorized the ten points of the Yalta Agreement with no problem. If I could do that, why couldn't I remember the ten horses in the third race at Cahokia Downs? It was more fun and interesting at night in Cahokia Downs than it was in the classroom.”
Race calling is about the only job combining some degree of theater with racing, and after he graduated (with a degree in American history), Johnson says he lucked into full-time announcing roles – from Cahokia to Hialeah Park, New York, Santa Anita, and the Meadowlands, and even on to calling the Triple Crown for ABC. As in the careers of actors and musicians, Johnson said his run as narrator of some of racing's biggest moments came down to good luck and good connections.
“I was always at the right place at the right time. That's the key to my life – being lucky, having wonderful friends, but being in the right place at the right time, and to be available at the right time,” he said. “I just happened to be available when Fred Capossela retired from New York. I just happened to be at the right time to get the job at Hialeah after Fairmount and Cahokia.
“Everybody dies, but not everybody lives. I really have lived. I'm so happy for it. And I'm not quitting!”
Johnson is retired from his role as an announcer but since 2005 has hosted a radio program on Sirius XM alongside Bill Finley and Ed Pappas. The three-hour show called ‘Down The Stretch' is available Saturdays 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Channel 93.
He has also kept an interest in show business, which has been the other constant in Johnson's life. He has appeared (sometimes, though not always, playing an announcer) in movies, television shows, commercial voiceovers and on the stage. Johnson shares an agent with Howard Stern. Behind the curtain, he also made a name for himself.
“The biggest bets that I've made (and I gamble on horses, by the way) were in Broadway shows, and they both became great winners,” he said. “In 1983, I invested in a show called Noises Off, which ran for quite a while, sold movie rights and made me quite a bit of money. In 2000, I was one of the original investors in The Producers, which is actually still running.”
Johnson combined his interests in a long-running segment on the Dave Letterman Show. For 12 years, Letterman had Johnson on the program the night before the Kentucky Derby to call the stretch run of the race as he guessed it would set up.
“He loved the game, and he loved the expression, ‘And down the stretch they come,' which I've trademarked,” said Johnson of his famous racecall crescendo. “I've never made a nickel from it. I donate all the money to racetrack charities that I get from it. I'm very protective of it, and I did it really out of self defense. There's still a couple of announcers that use it … damn it.”
That was the only time Johnson said he made an effort to script race calls in any way. Had he been in Larry Collmus's shoes, he would not have spent Friday night brainstorming exclamations for the Belmont wire in the event of a Justify Triple Crown. Johnson said his calls were off the cuff, and he didn't have to do a lot of studying to find the plotlines lurking in each race. Being at the same track day in and day out (six days a week for much of his career) taught him, as if by osmosis, which horse belonged to which connections.
“That's what an announcer does. He looks through his binoculars and says what he sees and what he feels. The big races of course, you feel more because more people are watching,” he said. “Every race is a story. It's a once-in-a-lifetime story. It won't happen that way again. It has a beginning, a middle, and the finale.”
Johnson, 77, still takes on dramatic roles or voiceover work now and then but struggles with balance problems which limit his mobility. He lives in Manhattan and while he said he's had a few minor health episodes over the years, he's grateful to be healthy for his age and as mentally sharp as ever.
Johnson hears now and then from people who tell him how much his calls meant to them over the years. For those of us watching at home, Johnson provided the oral history of some of the sport's greatest performances – by turning in some spectacular ones himself. He takes those accolades as praise of the highest order.
“Long after I'm gone, somebody will look on the Internet or tap a button on a machine, and out will come my call of whatever race you heard, and that's humbling. I get a chill right now thinking about it,” he said. “That lives longer than I do. And you can't erase it. It's there. It's a once-in-a-lifetime performance.”
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