Kurt Becker’s true calling

He not only followed his legendary father, Carl Becker, into race calling and pedigree reading, Kurt Becker has also blazed a new trail of excellence.

by Murray Brown

As this writer has been known to do more than once, I messed up! I had been wanting to do an interview with my old friend and colleague, Carl Becker, arguably the combination of the best and best known race caller and reader of standardbred pedigrees. Becker made his well-earned reputation at numerous racetracks, sales and venues throughout the world, including all of North America as well as New Zealand and even Sweden. No sale or racing venue was too big or too small for Carl Becker.

This past summer, I spoke with Carl’s son Kurt and found out that his dad was terminally ill with only a few months to live. I asked myself, What to do? I decided that with only a small time remaining, Carl did not need me bothering him. I now, somewhat, regret the decision.

As a means of perhaps slightly making up for my transgression, I told myself that when that terrible time came, I would try to make partial amends by speaking with Carl’s ultra-gifted son Kurt — to speak of his dad and also to address Kurt’s own multi-faceted career.

By mutual agreement, Kurt and I spoke on the day after Carl Becker was laid to rest in his hometown of Altamont, IL.

Kurt, this is a very sad time for you and your family.

“Indeed it is. But dad lived a great life. Because of the nature of his illness, we were prepared for the end. In addition to being a great person himself, he was a wonderful husband and father and a great teacher and role model to me. He was an exceptionally talented and hard working person. He attained great success in just about everything he set his mind to do.”

Carl will always be known as one of the greatest race callers and pedigree readers in the history of harness racing. Not only did he achieve that status, but he also raised a son who followed in his footsteps and in some areas might have even surpassed him. How did your involvement in the industry evolve?

“Dad didn’t always announce the big events or read pedigrees at the major sales. He started out at the grassroots level with county fairs and at the regional sales. Even when he had reached the so-called big time, he was never adverse to returning to the areas through which he had been to get there.

“When starting out, he came to the attention of Stan Bergstein, a man to whom so many people in this business have given credit for their success in the sport. Dad felt that Stan was the greatest of all announcers, both of the race calling and of the pedigree reading variety. He tried to follow everything that Stan did in those same area

“I started at a younger age. I was about five years old when I started going to the county fairs with dad, listening to him call races. From that time forward all my efforts were concentrated on becoming as good a race caller as I could possibly become. The same was not the case with pedigree reading. I had absolutely no interest in going to sales and reading data about the families of horses that I didn’t know much, if anything about. Race calling was exciting. I had the best seat in the entire house. There was constant movement. You could even bet on the horses. Reading pedigrees at a horse sale came across to me as being boring. I had no interest in it. Eventually dad got me interested in doing that as well as calling the races. The more I did of it, the more interested, I became.”

Much as Carl did, you started calling races at the Illinois county fairs. You eventually rose through the ranks calling Grand Circuit events. How did that come about?

“I have to give Curt Greene great credit for giving me my first big break. Curt was from Illinois. He happened to be at home where he was being honored at the Macon County Fair. I was doing the race calling. Curt later told me that he thought that the race call sounded familiar — somewhat like Carl Becker. But he knew it wasn’t Carl. He liked the way I sounded. At the time he was managing the Red Mile. He asked me if I would be willing to come to Lexington and be the race announcer at the Red Mile for the Spring meet that they then had. Would I ever! I went to Lexington and I guess that I probably did all right, because after the Spring meet they asked me to come back to do the Fall Grand Circuit meet. From that time forward I went to the major Chicago tracks and succeeded legendary race caller Phil Georgeff at those tracks.”

As best as I can ascertain, you have had six jobs. All of them are at or near the top of their respective fields. Let’s talk about them individually.

“The first two were in harness racing as a race caller and then as a pedigree reader at various sales, the top two being at Lexington and then dad took me along with him to Harrisburg where I also was privileged to read pedigrees. Talk about starting at the top, not only announcing some of the most important races in the sport and then reading pedigrees at Lexington and Harrisburg. How lucky can a guy get?”

Then you went to the thoroughbreds, initially as the first and only race caller in the renowned history of Keeneland and then in addition as a pedigree reader at the various Keeneland sales. How did that come about?

“As you know, Keeneland did not have a race caller in the first 60 years of its racing existence. I suppose it was mostly tradition. I have also heard that at the beginning it might have been based mostly on economics. Can you believe, Keeneland, the huge behemoth that is has evolved into, possibly strapped for cash? I doubt that was the case, but maybe.

“It was and still is a shrine for thoroughbred horse racing. I might add it was a tradition that served them well. They were offering the true experience of racing horses. A blaring announcer during those years did not fit into that mold.

“But this was a new era. Simulcasting came along and became a big revenue producer. How could you possibly send your signal without someone calling the races? People would be reluctant to take that signal.

“It was 1997. The good folks running Keeneland decided that they needed to have someone calling the races. But they felt that they needed someone who was unique to Keeneland, someone who they could identify as being their own. They didn’t want someone who had called races at other thoroughbred tracks and might be identified with those venues. I happened to be the plain lucky, right guy at the right time. When I first began calling at Keeneland I had to adhere to strict rules. The races were to be called their way, not mine. The board was very sensitive to what the announcer’s duties were. I was to introduce the field, call the race and introduce the winner in the winner’s circle. That’s all. No editorializing. No emotion. Just call the race. That was and still is fine with me. I’m incredibly proud of the fact that with the exception of one weekend where I was ill, that no one other than me has called a race at Keeneland. On that particular weekend, I’m eternally indebted to Mike Battaglia for subbing for me on short notice.

“Here’s an interesting story. When I was first hired I was also working for NASCAR. Ray Paulick, who was then the managing editor of the Blood Horse magazine wrote a story about Keeneland’s new race caller. ‘It’s bad enough ending the tradition,’ he wrote, ‘but it’s even worse hiring someone who is calling motorsports events for stands full of beer guzzling grease monkeys.’ Since then, Ray and I have become close friends. We both chuckle when thinking about that column.

“The pedigree reading at Keeneland just kind of evolved from the race calling and the fact that the folks there knew that I was doing it successfully with the standardbreds. I had developed a knowledge of thoroughbred pedigrees through my race calling, so I felt little trepidation in taking that job on.

“One of the first yearlings who’s pedigree I was privileged to have read was a colt being auctioned by the late Cris Caldwell. The colt was expected to bring a whole lot of money, but I don’t think anybody expected him to bring as much as he did. He brought $8 million.

“Just as with the major standardbred sales, the pedigree readers operate in teams. At Keeneland we are a team of three — John Henderson, Scott Hazelton and myself.”

I have heard you sometimes described as the voice of NASCAR. How did you become involved there?

“Calling me the voice of NASCR is the hugest of exaggerations. I have been an announcer on the Motor Racing Network, a subsidiary of NASCAR since 1994. My association with MRN, as opposed to horse racing, is not remotely related to my parents. They never really had any interest in automobile racing. My interest developed mostly through my interest in sports in general and sports broadcasting in particular. The first NASCAR event that I was exposed to was the Daytona 500 — once again starting at the top. It grabbed me. I loved it. I was 16 and seeking to garner more information on this new found sport. I was switching radio stations hoping to get NASCR updates and came upon MRN. During the course of the broadcast they gave their address. On a whim, I wrote to them. I said that I wanted to work for them as an announcer. I gave them my background in calling horse races. I was contacted by John McMullen who told me that anybody who could call horse races or hockey games could adapt himself to car racing. He hired me. I have been with them ever since.

“Here’s something remarkable about my career in car racing. If a NASCAR vehicle were placed in front of my home, I would still be stranded. I have no idea of how to drive a vehicle that has a clutch.

“Another job is as an announcer at the Barrett Jackson collector car auctions. Announcing at Barrett Jackson is not all that much different than doing so at a horse sale. In both, my main job is to hit on the most salient points and then leave the rest up to the auctioneer, the bid spotters and most importantly the customers. I’m of the strong belief that when selling, whether it be horses or automobiles that too much can sometimes yield too little. A good motto especially when announcing the sale of horses might be, ‘Don’t say too much and don’t take too long in saying it.’ Having said that, I would say that, generally speaking, the flow at a horse sale is usually quicker than that at one where cars are being sold. The auctioneers and spotters at the car sale will often take longer and be more aggressive than those at a horse sale. Why? I really don’t know. But I would suspect that the old culprit, tradition or the mantra ‘It has always been done that way’ is probably the main reason.”

In calling horse races, what has been your greatest thrill both in harness and thoroughbred racing?

“Regarding harness racing there are probably two. One was when dad insisted that I call the 1988 World Trotting Derby at DuQuoin when Armbro Goal defeated Supergill. Can you imagine, I was 19 years old calling the most prestigious race in my home state of Illinois. The second was Artsplace’s stunning win in the 1990 Breeders Crown at Pompano Park.

“As far as the thoroughbreds are concerned, it has to be American Pharoah’s win in the $5 million dollar Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. What a thrill, calling the last race of the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years and memorializing his becoming the only horse to hit a Grand Slam in American Classics races.”

In terms of being a race caller, you have often been compared to your dad. For a time, to this scribe it was difficult to distinguish between the two of you.

“Early on in my career I did my utmost to follow and pattern myself after dad. As time went on, I came to the realization that he was the one and only Carl Becker. As much as it was important to forge my own identity, I felt it was even more so that I preserve the things that made him as special as he was. You asked me if I’d ever used his famous phrase, ‘They’re coming from everywhere.’’ Even though I’ve been tempted, I’ve never used it entirely because it was a small part of what made him the great race caller that he was. I feel that phrase belonged to him and him alone.”

In your dual roles as a race caller and as a pedigree reader have you ever hit a wall, made what you feel was an insurmountable error?

“As far as reading pedigrees are concerned, the biggest problem you’ve got to look out for is the danger involved in possibly turning more than one catalog page at a time. For this very reason, I have made it a point to look over the stand and make sure that the hip number on the flank of the horse corresponds to that of what is in the sales catalog. It sounds simple. It should never happen, but it has. But it is fixable. It’s nowhere near as damaging as calling the wrong horse in a race. Thankfully, to my knowledge I’ve never done that.

“One error that comes to mind is when a friend of mine from NASCAR, Eli Gold, probably best known as the voice of the Bama Tide, was my guest at Keeneland. In the feature race that day, I completely lost track of a filly by the name of Runway Model. She made a huge move and won the race. It wasn’t until the very end that my brain came back and I was able to identify her by her jockey wearing the orange Claiborne colors. Two years later, that filly sold at Keeneland. Before the sale, I went to her stall to apologize for my miscall. I read her pedigree. She brought $725,000. I also read the pedigree for her first foal a colt named McKenzie who brought a million dollars.”

Aside from your dad, let’s talk a little about some of the track callers that you’ve known.

Stan Bergstein — He was the ‘daddy’ of all of us. He taught my dad and numerous others, either directly or by watching the races that he called. The videos of his Hambletonian and Little Brown Jug calls to this day are among the very best that I’ve ever seen.

Roger Huston — I’m truly amazed by Roger. His ability and boundless enthusiasm for the sport are unmatched by anybody I’ve ever known. He’s still going strong at the age of 80.

Tom Durkin — Maybe the best ever. Certainly the best when you consider his influence in both sports. I think it was in 1979 when Del Insko told dad about this guy Tom Durkin who he said was destined to become a great announcer.

Sam McKee — Maybe the best horseman among us. When something was happening with a horse, whether it was about to get steppy, make a break, or make a move, it seemed that Sam was quicker to notice it even before the horse itself. His early passing was one of the greatest losses this industry has suffered.

“Speaking of race callers, I always remember a funny quote from one of the old greats. I think it was Fred Capossela. Fred was talking retirement because his vision wasn’t quite as good as it had been. Good vision and a quick mind are absolutes when it comes to being a good race caller. Fred said, ‘When my vision goes, I’ll retire from calling races, but I hope to then become a race steward.’”

Is there anything else you might want to touch on?

“Maybe only a bit of advice from my dad. He left me a great example to follow. He was a protege of Stan Bergstein. I respect him as a great father and as one of the greatest of all practitioners of his craft. In the same manner as dad followed Stan, I hope that I’ve followed him, both as a good professional and as a decent human being.”

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