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Bringing a different sound to a dream race

LOUISVILLE — Mark Johnson called his first horse race at age 3, turning a chessboard into his own version of a day at the track.

"I just got rid of all the pieces off the chess board apart from the four knights, and I laid all the pawns around the outside of the board," Johnson said with a laugh. "I basically started going 'And the horse here ... And the horse there ...' and sort of doing a little commentary of it."

Four decades later, the chessboard has turned into Churchill Downs, where the top 3-year-olds will all be bidding for racing immortality.

Johnson will make his Derby debut Saturday as the new track announcer at racing's old Kentucky home, 40 years and an ocean removed from the chessboard in Skagness, the English seaside town where he grew up and fell in love with the sport.

Calling the Derby is a job that he calls "a dream beyond my dreams," but his is a voice that might take some getting used to for the 150,000 fans under the twin spires.

Johnson is the track's first foreign-born announcer, and even though he won the job in a weeklong tryout at Churchill's fall meet, he knows his English accent will come as a surprise to some.

"I'm sure it'll be a bit of a different thing for them," he said.

Then again, things could be worse. He remembers watching the races on British television as a kid practically offended at how stuffy the announcers were.

"You're there to help the game flow and help the enjoyment of the game," he said. "Certainly it is a piece of theater, and I'm there to entertain as well. But first and foremost the entertainment comes from the horses and the really brave guys and girls who ride the horses. If I can add to that, then I'm doing my job."

Johnson isn't the first foreigner to call a Triple Crown race. South African Trevor Denman called his first Triple Crown event at the 1989 Preakness. Denman spent 15-20 hours with an elocutionist to take some of the edge out of his accent

Johnson's accent didn't seem to be a problem during his tryout, when he beat out four other callers to replace Luke Kruytbosch, who died last summer.

"In our eyes, Mark Johnson is the complete package when it comes to track announcer," Churchill Downs President Steve Sexton said when Johnson was hired in January. "He is a unique, polished and passionate talent with an absolutely infectious personality."

While calling a claiming race on a chilly Wednesday during his tryout, Johnson watched a filly pull away from the field and had a little fun with the call.

"And they're strung out like Monday washing behind the leader," he said as they came to the wire.

It was a throwaway line in a relatively boring race, but one that seemed to resonate with the railbirds. He had four people approach him earlier this week and tell him how much they enjoyed it.

Johnson's goals for the Derby are simple: try to mention each of the 20 horses by the first turn, don't get cute when they make the turn for home and avoid using a canned line when the race hits the wire.

To Johnson, the race isn't much different from a Shakespearean play. He's simply the emcee.

"A great play has a fantastic beginning, an intriguing middle and a tremendous climax," he said. "It's just about the same as the Derby, isn't it?"