This year will mark the 18th time the voice of the Meadowlands Racetrack has called North America’s greatest trotting race.
by Dave Briggs
The night before the 2016 Hambletonian, the voice of that race for much of the last 20 years was long on perspective despite being short on time. Standing beside the set of his simulcast broadcasting duties for the night between races at the Meadowlands Racetrack, Ken Warkentin said he was counting his blessings and taking nothing for granted while preparing to call North America’s greatest trotting race for the 17th time in the last 18 years.
“I was thinking about this today. For me, Hambletonian Day is almost melancholy. Sad. I’m 57 years old. You never know. Maybe this is the last one I’ll do. The way things are going in New Jersey, that’s possible… Something can happen to you. You don’t know,” said Warkentin, who is in his 26th year calling races at the Meadowlands.
Those comments, found nearly a year later in an unused interview, are particularly poignant given what we know now. Over four months ago, Sam McKee — Warkentin’s longtime race-calling partner at the Meadowlands — died at age 54 from complications of a stroke.
Warkentin, of course, was not contemplating or predicting anything of the sort. How could he? But his perspective sounds right. A person never knows what the future holds and should appreciate every opportunity to the fullest.
The Hambletonian stands at the top of Warkentin’s list of career opportunities.
“It’s like any good thing, it goes by too quickly,” he said of calling the classic, which he will do for the 18th time on Saturday (Aug. 5). “You think, ‘Is it going to happen again?’ One of your feelings is joy and satisfaction. You’re happy and you enjoy yourself and you’re excited. On the other hand you’re like, ‘Wow.’ You walk out of here and you just have to hope it happens again.”
Despite often being linked with McKee, Warkentin is a tremendous race caller in his own right that could stand alone at any track.
Bob Heyden, another broadcasting colleague at the Meadowlands, said Warkentin is the rare race caller who keeps getting better year after year.
“It’s very rare that someone works 25 years anywhere where they’re much better the second half of that 25-year run than the first half. First half was good, the middle part got better and the last five years have been his best. It’s almost impossible for that to happen,” Heyden said.
Warkentin, a Toronto native, has been calling races for a little more than 35 years, beginning in 1981 while he was still a student in Seneca College’s Radio and Television Broadcasting Program.
As a kid, Warkentin, who is deeply proud of his Canadian heritage, “wanted to be a hockey announcer, a play-by-play guy. That just didn’t work out. I’ve done a little high school hockey. I was in radio and then I fell into this” he said of calling harness races.
Warkentin’s first real gig in racing came in 1982 when he took a job calling the races at Flamboro Downs in Hamilton, ON after a one-year stint at a Top 40 radio station in Peterborough, ON. He called the races at Flamboro for eight years and came to the Meadowlands in 1991. He has been at the East Rutherford, NJ track ever since and began calling the Hambletonian in 1998, the same year McKee came to work at the Meadowlands.
Warkentin said he’s not exactly sure how he became the voice of the Hambletonian and McKee took on the Meadowlands Pace, but believes seniority played some role.
“Also, one year Sam said, ‘I’ll do the Pace, you do the Hambo,’” Warkentin said, adding that McKee called the 2009 Hambletonian won by superstar Muscle Hill.
“That year I was asked to do TV for CBS,” Warkentin said. “Some years I did both. Some years I ran down (after calling the race) to do the presentation, but we stopped that nonsense.”
At some point in recent years, Warkentin was offered the opportunity to continue calling the race or do more TV work.
“I said, ‘I’ll stay upstairs and call the race. It’s more fun’ even though it may have helped my TV career. I don’t know. There’s a lot that goes into the TV, but I do the same prep as I would if I was doing TV. I’ve got two binders full (of preparation),” Warkentin said.
Warkentin puts that immense preparation into every Hambletonian call because of the enormity of the Hambletonian.
“There’s a responsibility involved. You’re here to perform a service. I hate to make it sound boring, but I will bore you with my diligence. I’m here to be professional, to be positive, so the people don’t think, ‘Wow, he doesn’t sound too positive.’ I have fun with it. If you don’t have fun with it, you don’t sound positive and you don’t come across like you’re inviting people to participate and enjoy the day of racing,” said Warkentin, who is often his own toughest critic.
“There were some years where I think I said too much at the end of the race. ‘The first Canadian-sired winner, blah, blah, blah’ or ‘Shout it from the mountain tops, Chip Chip Hooray.’ I kind of said to myself, ‘Maybe just tone that down a bit. Just put a bow on it,’” Warkentin said before doing a trial-run of a few horses from the 2016 field and what he might say if they won the next day.
“Don’t be too cute or too crazy. You really have to get the driver’s name and the trainer’s name. If Jimmy Takter wins again, you’ve got to say, ‘It’s Jimmy Takter again’ or something, but it will come to me.”
Warkentin said he’s proud of a couple of Hambletonian calls, including, “Taktertonian. Dave Brower told me to say that. I thought, ‘Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll steal that.’ Also, ‘From the Pennsylvania Fairs to the Hambletonian winner’s circle’ (when Roger Hammer and Vivid Photo won). That was fun.”
Most of all, he just wants to do justice to the Hambletonian.
“I’m proud of my work and I’m proud that I’ve put a lot into it,” he said. “I haven’t messed up that much. I think I messed up one year and gave a quarter of 22 seconds or something. I forget what one that was, but I was so hyped up.
“There’s been years that I’ve been so jacked up, I’ve got to calm down. The binoculars are shaking. You’ve got to calm down and show some control and have fun with it, let it happen, let it come out… It’s not about me. It has nothing to do with me. Jack Stephens told me a long time ago, ‘It’s not about you.’ I’m not trying to draw attention to myself, I’m trying to do justice to what’s out there. They’re the stars. Hopefully, I do, but it’s my own way of doing it. My own signature, or like when a comic comes onstage, ‘Now, the comic stylings of…’ Those are my stylings.”