Guest announcers step up for Ken Middleton at WMP

by Melissa Keith

When a race caller is a major part of a racetrack’s identity, finding others to fill in for him isn’t easy. When that race caller is Woodbine Mohawk Park’s Ken Middleton, out for an indefinite timespan, the matter is even trickier. The mainstay of Canada’s top harness track is a familiar and popular aspect of what makes Mohawk so successful.

When Middleton was badly hurt in a June 29 training accident, he was transported to Hamilton [ON] General Hospital and diagnosed with damage to multiple vertebrae in his neck and back. He underwent surgery on July 2 and was able to return home. He was due to have surgical staples removed this week. As he returns to health with well wishes from across the industry, the timeline for his return to the WMP mic remains undetermined.

Mark McKelvie is the senior manager of communications for Woodbine Entertainment. He told HRU the news about Middleton’s accident came at a sadly ironic moment.

“Ken had actually been off for a scheduled vacation for the week leading up to his accident,” McKelvie said. “Chad [Rozema, former analyst/back-up race caller at Woodbine Mohawk Park; current racing manager at Grand River Raceway] and I had actually been filling in. It was pretty startling news. Rob Platts is our director of broadcasting; I told him I was good for the next several days.”

As Middleton’s prognosis became clearer, McKelvie said he learned that it would be many days and nights before the regular announcer was able to come back.

“We knew it wasn’t good, but we were waiting for a little more news,” McKelvie said. “We got that within a few days. I feel terrible for him right now. Most people don’t realize how much time he spends between his own horses and the races going later into the night.”

McKelvie is a young-yet-experienced announcer. His expanded role at Woodbine prevented him from being able to fill the position on an ongoing basis during Middleton’s recovery.

“My role now involves the standardbreds and the thoroughbreds, spending time between both tracks [WMP and Woodbine Racetrack],” McKelvie said. “Sometimes you have to step up and help the team. I said I’d step up for the time being.”

With the King’s Plate coming up at Woodbine Racetrack on Aug. 20, he would soon require backup.

The Guelph, ON resident called baby races/qualifiers at Mohawk; made the drive to Woodbine; then returned to call evening cards at the Campbellville, ON track on a couple of occasions. He described it as a good experience, albeit under unfortunate circumstances.

“It was busy, but I think I kind of thrive on being busy,” McKelvie said. “I enjoy the chaos at times in the busy part of the racing season. I can say I’m pretty prepared for that.”

McKelvie praised his coworkers for going the extra mile when he was busy with added announcing duties.

“The entire team at Woodbine has been really supportive,” he said. “Our communications team, Chris Lomon and Grace Martin, are fantastic and on the ball about everything. Jamie Dykstra, my boss, was really supportive.”

Announcers were still needed to cover the longer range of Middleton’s recovery, as both McKelvie and Rozema were busy in management roles at their respective tracks.

What about Woodbine Racetrack’s thoroughbred caller Robert Geller?

“I did harness race trials [qualifiers] for years at Kilmore, a strong harness track a bit over an hour outside of Melbourne in Victoria,” Geller said. “It was home to some of the best harness trainers and horses in the state. I did not get to call the actual harness races for Kilmore because I had not become part of the racing radio network then which covered it.”

An already-busy schedule keeps him at Woodbine, but Geller said he could assist at Mohawk, under the circumstances.

“I offered to be available should they be in a bind,” Geller said. “My boss appreciates the offer though it seems for now at least, they have a roster worked out.”

McKelvie said that he and Rob Platts “were in constant communication for the first few weeks” of Middleton’s extended absence.

“Between [Platts] and myself, we brainstormed some announcers who we thought were capable of filling in,” McKelvie said. “You’re looking for people in Ontario who are smooth and accurate.”

They decided on Rideau Carleton Raceway’s John MacMillan, who called the action at Mohawk this Monday and Tuesday (July 17 and 18).

MacMillan said he got a text from Platts, and agreed, despite the distance involved.

“It’s three hours from where I live, in Kingston… three hours east of Mohawk,” MacMillan said, adding with a laugh, “[There was just one condition] as long as there aren’t too many stake races and mostly overnights.”

MacMillan was actually fresh from announcing a Rideau card with Ontario Sires Stakes Gold and Grassroots divisions for 3-year-old filly trotters on Sunday evening (July 16).

“I had called races at Rideau the night before, got home at 2 a.m., slept for four hours, got up and trained my own eight horses and then drove to Mohawk on four hours’ sleep to call at a new track for the first time,” MacMillan said of his WMP debut. “I hadn’t called at a seven-eighths mile track since Montreal about 22 years ago.

“It absolutely felt different because the program has a bunch of horses you’ve never seen before. It’s not like I rotate from track to track; I’m always at the same one. The production is very detailed at Mohawk. But from the horsemen to the track management, they made me feel like I was part of the home team right away.”

MacMillan said he particularly enjoyed getting to call two winners on Tuesday night (July 18).

“It was fun to call Paul [MacDonell] winning with One Last Wish, because Paul’s a veteran of the circuit,” MacMillan said, noting the 3-year-old pacing filly’s lifetime-best victory in the second leg of divisional OSS Gold competition. One Last Wish (p, 3, 1:50.1s; $132,556) is a daughter of Bettors Delight–Arts Diva, owned by Brian Legge, Toronto, ON and Dr. David Legge, Ajax, ON and trained by Ken Sucee.

The following race, Muscle Hill—Shared Past stallion Shadrack Hanover (6, 1:52.1s; $206,571) beat conditioned trotters in 1:53.1 for driver Louis-Phillipe Roy, owner Triple S Equine of Newton, ON, and trainer Thomas Riley. The latter is a friend of the WMP fill-in announcer.

“It’s a lot of fun to call one of your friend’s horses winning,” said MacMillan.

Like Middleton, MacMillan would know that feeling from both sides of the announcer’s booth.

“Kenny and I have in common that we both train horses,” MacMillan said. “I think I was there the night that Kenny auditioned for his Flamboro Downs job. I was very enthusiastic when Kenny got his training license and started winning big races, especially with Bob Loblaw [p, 3, 1:50.3s; $202,744].”

Middleton famously called the Oct. 16, 2021 OSS Gold Super Final for 2-year-old male pacers when his homebred Sunshine Beach—Lady Marina gelding went from seventh to first down the long Mohawk stretch for driver Sylvain Filion.

“A lot can happen in the last 70 yards,” said MacMillan. “The one big thing I’d like to make note of is how skilled those [Mohawk] drivers are. As an announcer, you have to be ready. When you get eight or 10 of those drivers in a race, they see an opportunity and seize on it and they’re gone.”

He will be back into the WMP rotation as Middleton recovers at home in Cambridge, ON. MacMillan said the experience was a good one, and he even received encouragement from a Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famer who will soon be taking the mic there.

“Frank [Salive] actually texted me before and after, to give me some words of advice and encouragement,” MacMillan said. “He texted me after the first night and said he was proud of me.”

Mark McKelvie confirmed that Frank Salive and MacMillan, as well as Greg Blanchard and Shannon “Sugar” Doyle of The Raceway at Western Fair, will be filling in for Middleton on a rotating basis.

“You’ll hear them at different times throughout the month of August,” McKelvie said. “I think it’s fair to say having Frank [Salive] back will offer a bit of nostalgia. As a Hall of Famer, it’s always good to hear him on the mic.”

Salive was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2022 for his work calling races at Ontario Jockey Club/Woodbine Entertainment Group harness tracks for 14 years, as well as at Pompano Park, Western Fair Raceway, Clinton Raceway, and Fort Erie Racetrack.

McKelvie said he didn’t know when Middleton would be back.

“I know it will be a long recovery for him,” McKelvie said. “Woodbine sent a gift basket and a card signed by people at both racetracks, and he’s had lots of visitors.”

He said multiple O’Brien Award-winning trainer Richard Moreau is training Middleton’s horses in the meantime.

Like MacMillan, McKelvie said it was a mixed blessing to recently call so many races on Canadian harness racing’s biggest stage.

“It’s funny,” McKelvie said. “A lot of people have mentioned to me, ‘What an opportunity!’ But it has that awkward feeling… I’ve known Ken since I was a kid. I really look forward to when he’s back in the booth, that’s for sure.”