Racing People 4: Mark Johnson (Part 2)

In this second part of our look at the work of a racecourse commentator, writes Ian Sutherland, Mark Johnson explains his approach to calling the race itself, and looks back on some of the races he’s particularly enjoyed covering.

[Part 1 can be found here]

IS: I wondered how much you use binoculars when you’re commentating.

MJ: In America, because the uniform oval layout of the racecourses you are never that far away from the action, which means I can use binoculars for about 80% of each race. I’ll watch the break on the screen, and the finish with the naked eye. I’ve a pair of 10×42 Leica bins that I leave across there.

I have to use the monitor much more in Britain, perhaps for just half the race at tight courses like Stratford and Plumpton, but 75-80% of the time places like Exeter and Pontefract. Here I’ve a pair of 8×36 Nikon, which are light enough not to need support to keep them steady, and give me around 25 lengths of vision.

 IS: Richie Benaud, the great Australian cricketer turned commentator said that the art of commentating was to “Put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up”. Is that good advice for racing commentary?

MJ: You could hardly get two more contrasting sports. In cricket you’ve around five seconds of action a minute. In racing, a five furlong sprint would be over in that time. But the goal of adding to what people can see is exactly right. There’s a two second time restriction on how long you can stay silent during a race, so I’d soon know about it if we did a Richie!

Another race, and I’m watching again. Mark stands tall as the runners set off, but as the business end of the race approaches, he crouches lower, moving from monitor to the windows, screen to binoculars and back. The excitement he clearly feels is audible, and only as the horses pull up does he stand upright again as his voice relaxes.

 I ask about the different challenges of commentating on a three horse race and a twenty horse race.

 MJ: More homework! Know their inside leg measurements. That’s it really. I often get asked about commentating, and I’ll ask you the same question I put to people who want to have a go. Would you rather try a race with three runners or eight?

IS: I’d go for the eight runner race, because there’s more to describe as it unfolds, and you’re more likely to have incidents or changes in the running order. If you have a couple of fallers in a three horse race there isn’t a deal to describe.

MJ: That’s right, but most people say they’d do the three runner race because you only need to remember three horses. You won’t get them muddled up.

The challenge is to be original and not too repetitive, but there’s a very, very thin line between talking down to racing professionals and people who watch racing all the time, and the people who go racing once a year and probably don’t know which end a horse eats with.

IS: Does that mean you do things slightly differently if you’re at the course than when you’re on television? 

MJ: I never really come across that, because if I’m doing Channel 4, then I’m also racecourse. I’ll try and give a bit more context if I’m doing Channel 4. I might throw in little snippets that I might usually use when they are going down to post. For example, if there’s a trainer’s birthday, or here at Doncaster, if there’s anything by a St Leger winner, I’d point that out. I’d make a note of those things beforehand.. We’ve got Cyrien Star in the next race, and he’s by Bollin Eric the winner of the 2002 Leger. You are put in a position where you have to juggle a bit, because there’s a difficult line to walk when at the same time you are commentating for people in betting shops, people sitting at home on the sofa watching, and people sat on a computer betting, and people who’ve paid money to put bums on seats at a racecourse.. But my number one priority always has been and always will be the people who have actually paid good money to come into a racecourse, who are prepared to get cold, and take the time to travel and put up with everything that surrounds having to go out of their comfort zone to go to a race meeting. They are the number one people I commentate for.   That’s the way I’ve always looked at it because that’s how I grew up. I enjoyed watching racing on television, but when mum and dad were taking me to a Bank Holiday meeting or a Saturday at Market Rasen, I know that for the three weeks before I was like a kid waiting for Christmas. That’s the buzz and I still have that sort of buzz now. So that’s the people I mostly do it for.

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It’s how you are going to get first timers more interested in racing, not by them watching Channel 4. If they come once to a racetrack and feel that excitement, they will most likely come back.

IS: What would you say were the three most important things you have to get right in a commentary.

MJ: Accuracy, accuracy and accuracy.

IS: You’ve got to call the right winner.

MJ: Yes, you’ve got call the right winner, you’ve got to be clear and I think you’ve got to be entertaining. This is where you get on to the old chestnut of some commentators work for some people, but not for others. I personally believe that it is a performance, I believe that you are there like the conductor of an orchestra. When you’ve got a crowd who are up for it, you’ve got racing that’s exciting, the best thing I can do is to make ’em dance, to encourage them that this is the time they should be dancing, this is when they should be shouting. You can’t take away, and you shouldn’t forget that the most important thing is the horses, the guys who are riding and putting their lives on the line every time they go out. That is the bottom line, and they are the real stars.

I differ from some in my profession. I do believe that we are there to entertain. I think we are there to pinpoint things and to draw peoples’ attention to things they may not be aware of in the context of a sporting event.

I’m a great fan of sport, and I did commentate on other sports for a while. I did some cricket and a bit of Formula One for a couple of years. Martin Brundle would never let a race go by without talking about tyre changes, but in racing nobody tells you that they’ve tried a different kind of bit on this horse or that a horse is normally held up, but this time he’s running up with the pace. Wow, that’s interesting. I think a lot of people look at it only from a betting angle, that we’ll inform people because if you’re a punter you want to know. They think that is the only thing that matters. It isn’t.

When I first started going racing, my mum and dad might have had a pound or two in each race, but they didn’t go to try and win money, they went because they loved going racing.

It’s a fact that horse racing isn’t only about betting. Over the course of a Grand Prix weekend around 300k will go to Silverstone, but only about 1 percent will bet on who’ll win or get on pole position. I think we have to be really alert to remembering that racing isn’t only about betting. We shouldn’t angle everything we are saying to the punter. That’s not to say that betting isn’t important, but we can too easily get drawn into thinking that it’s the only thing that matters. I wouldn’t want to alienate people sat at a computer pushing buttons, but at the same time, there’s a much wider audience than that.

And let’s remember that if you’re a regular punter, you’ll know more about the horses than we do, so let’s just entertain you while you’re doing your stuff.

IS: I once heard you describe your job as the human toilet. What did you mean by that? 

MJ: It’s quite simple really. Before each race I have to fill the cistern, my brain, with every piece of information I can get in there, and immediately afterwards I have to flush it out ready for the next race. I sometimes can’t remember the winner of the race I’ve just done until everything is over for the day.

 IS: Well, there’s an image I won’t forget. Have you done commentary at all the UK racecourses?

MJ: I’ve been to all the UK racecourses and commentated at them all with the exception of one.

IS: And that is?

MJ: It’s Cartmel.

IS: Well, you don’t get many opportunities there.

MJ: No you don’t. I have been there once, about 25 years ago with my mother and father. We were going to do one of those things you never should, and take a flyer before the last race, but we were still in the placepot. In those days you had to cash your ticket at the racecourse so we had to stay just in case we won. Luckily we did.

I’ve also called a dozen or so point to point, I’ve done 10 tracks in the USA, Jersey and Guernsey in the Channel Islands, and Garrison Savannah in Barbados. And I was delighted to have my first visit to Qatar between Christmas and New Year just past.

IS: A lot of tracks have their own idiosyncracies. What’s the most difficult place to call?

MJ: Evening meetings at Windsor are character building. If the sun is setting, as it often is, it’s straight behind the start of the five/six furlong races, and probably four or five races on the card will be sprints. It’s not the greatest box there either. It’s just a case of silhouettes coming at you.

And an Autumn meeting at Newmarket on the Rowley Mile can be tricky, because the sun sets behind the July course. The Cesarewitch can be really difficult, because at just about the time that’s run, the sun is just getting low and you are trying to keep tabs on 30 or so horses.

IS: I saw a clip of you in America where you were talking about a Kentucky Derby you had covered as your favourite race. What about in England?

MJ: I’ve been lucky enough to commentate on 11 St Legers here. I was thrilled in 2002 when Bollin Eric won. To call a Yorkshire trained winner of the Yorkshire cssic was tremendous. It was before the stands were rebuilt, and Doncaster had a cantilever stand where you were in a gantry that dangled from the roof. The whole place was rocking, the monitor was moving, you couldn’t use your bins for the whole of the home straight, and the crowd were going mental when he won.

I was also very lucky to call the Epsom Derby for the five years from 1998 to 2002. One wasn’t very good, one winner wasn’t that good, but I had three legends in Galileo, Sinndar and High Chaparral. The other two were Oath and High Rise, who was my first. But to get those three in a five year stretch was a tremendous privilege. As well I’ve done one King George at Ascot, and that was Galileo.

At my first Cheltenham Festival in 1998 I had AP McCoy on Unsinkable Boxer in the Unicoin Handicap Hurdle over 3m 2f. . He jumped off last of 24 runners and stayed there for a circuit before he started picking them off. I knew he was going to win at the top of the hill, but that was nothing compared to the trainer. They asked Martin Pipe after when he knew the horse would win, and he said “Oh, about last October”. I remember just throwing in every cliche “Oh it’s a knock out blow for punters” and so on, but I still recall that as one of the great McCoy rides. A bit of an embarrassing commentary, though, looking back on it now.

But for me, as good as flat racing is, my first love in Britain is jump racing. It’s different in America where you’ve always got the theatre of the oval: straight miles here don’t really do it for me.

IS: In one sentence, how would you sum up your career?

 MJ: I’ve often said that if I was a little kid who wants to be an astronaut, for me, getting to do the Epsom Derby was like that kid getting to the moon, and calling a Kentucky Derby was like him getting to Mars. I don’t know where we go next, but we keep flying.


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