Calling the Crowns

Woodbine Mohawk Park’s Ken Middleton, Jr. on calling harness racing’s “Stanley Cup.”

by Melissa Keith

Ken Middleton, Jr.’s views from the Woodbine Mohawk Park announcer’s booth are second to none. With the 2022 Breeders Crown finals set for the Campbellville, ON track on Friday and Saturday (Oct. 28-29), the veteran race caller was feeling only calm anticipation after last Saturday night’s eliminations, which determined fields for the 3-year-old colt and filly trot, 3-year-old colt pace and open mare pace finals.

“I’ll be honest, there’s no pressure anymore,” he said. “The first year I had the opportunity to call a Breeders Crown event was likely a different story, simply because I’d never done it before and the enormity of the event was unlike any other event I ever had the privilege of calling.”

Behind the mic for Woodbine Entertainment harness races since 2006, Middleton called his initial Breeders Crown events at Woodbine Racetrack that year, when the finals for 2- and 3-year-old trotters and pacers came to Canada. Earlier, he conducted Crown night winner’s circle interviews in 2003, 2004 and 2005 at Woodbine and Mohawk, which were broadcast across Canada on The Score.

He said the divisional championships haven’t lost their luster.

“I, like everyone who loves the sport, still get excited for the Breeders Crown whether it’s in Campbellville, New Jersey or Indiana. It’s our Stanley Cup.”

Mohawk was one of eight tracks to play host to a division of the inaugural Breeders Crown. October 7, 1984, Conifer and trainer/driver George Sholty set a new track and Canadian record of 2:01.2s in the $539,825 (Cdn) 2-year-old filly trot. Since then, five Canadian tracks have been home to at least one Breeders Crown event: Northlands Park, Blue Bonnets, Greenwood Raceway, Woodbine Racetrack, and Mohawk.

The importance of the Breeders Crown means that Middleton spends more time getting ready.

“There’s extra preparation for this event simply because there are so many new horses coming to town and you want to be familiar with their accomplishments in other jurisdictions and possibly any records the horses or horsepeople could be sitting on.”

There’s no change to his usual announcing style, however.

“I just try to call exactly what I see and be creative in doing it. I try to paint a picture, inject energy into each call, be accurate, and be prepared with record information in order to incorporate it into the race call, if it applies.”

The Cambridge, ON resident has a few favorite calls in Crown finals.

“My most memorable Breeders Crown call was San Pail’s triumph in the 2011 open trot at Woodbine Racetrack,” he said. “It was a brilliant drive by Randy Waples to win with the Rod Hughes trainee over the European tandem of Rapide Lebel and Commander Crowe. As for a favorite Crown call by another announcer at another track, I’d have to say Tom Durkin’s call of Bays Fella’s 60-1 upset over heavily-favored Topnotcher at Pompano Park in the 1990 open pace is one that sticks out. Two of my favorite drivers growing up, Hall of Famers Paul MacDonell and Doug Brown, finished 1-2.”

Middleton said that there’s one pacing superstar who stands out among the many in Campbellville this coming weekend.

“I think we’re all paying attention to what Bulldog Hanover [p, 4, 1:45.4m; $1,951,675] can do next. He’s been the poster boy for the sport in 2022, and being on his home turf will certainly bring a lot of local people off their couches to catch him in his Canadian swan song.”

History’s fastest pacer qualified at Woodbine Mohawk Park Friday (Oct. 21), wiring three overmatched rivals by 29 open lengths in a 1:51.2s tightener.

“His prep in that qualifier looked rock solid,” said Middleton. “He just kind of dawdled along to the [:56.4] half and then [driver Dexter] Dunn blew some of the carbon out of his engine in the [:26.4] last quarter. He looks ‘all systems go’, as one would expect…As for retirement, I thought I heard [trainer] Jack Darling indicate they were going back to New Jersey for the TVG at The Meadowlands. I guess we’ll find out after the Breeders Crown.”

On the trotting side, Atlanta’s retirement is coming up after her 2022 Breeders Crown open mare trot. Middleton called her 1:50.2s victory in the 2019 Armbro Flight final at Mohawk – still Canada’s fastest-ever mile by a trotter of any age/sex.

“I remember it had rained a bit earlier that evening and it seemed to bring a lot of life to the track,” he said. “The half in that race flashed up in :54.1 and caught me off guard how fast they were going up front and Atlanta [6, 1:49.0m; $3,440,719] hadn’t even moved at that point. So right at that point, it set off an alarm that we were likely going to see some type of record. It’s cool to be a part of those moments for special horses that were as talented as Atlanta was throughout her career.”

Middleton hasn’t yet encountered the enviable “problem” of having to call one of his own horses in a Breeders Crown race, although he got a sense of the thrill when homebred trainee Bob Loblaw upset at 37-1 in his Ontario Sires Stakes Gold Super Final last October at Mohawk.

“It is very difficult to call races when one of my own horses is racing, but I do my damnedest to keep it bottled up on the inside,” he said. “Staying focused isn’t an issue, because at the end of the day I still have to do my job and call the race the way I normally would. It just becomes more emotional and complicated on the inside. I like to think I do an admirable job at tempering my emotions.”

Woodbine Mohawk Park will be the scene of much emotion next weekend, as on-track spectators enjoy some of the best views in the sport.

“The thing that makes Mohawk such a great host track for the Breeders Crown is the intimacy offered by the venue to our guests,” said Middleton. “Fans can get basically right to the edge of the track, in front of the grandstand, and the grandstand itself offers so many great sightlines to watch the parade of stars. The paddock area’s proximity to the grandstand also allows fans to get a feel for what goes on in the preparation of the horses throughout the night, as well. And the location of the track offers a great, fall backdrop with the leaves changing color. It’s a perfect setting for these autumn championships.”