It's not hard to get a line on Mike Battaglia. It is, however, hard to keep up with him.

Armed with binoculars, he's checking out the color of each jockey's silks. Once the race starts, the numbers now so clearly visible on the saddle blanket will be obscured in the pack of horses along the rail. He has to know who is who. The white cap in the sea of black helmets is noted.

He's checking out the horses: paying attention to fitness, spirit and nerves as the jockey and crew guide them into the gate.

He appears on the small TV monitor welcoming race fans. Yes, that's taped. But now he's live on the mike giving changes for today's races. "Ladies and gentlemen, the mutuel window is open. The polytrack, as always, is fast "¢ Go to the fourth race, scratch the five Galilea, five Gal"”aaaa"”lee"”yah. A scratch out of the fourth."
He snaps off the mike and is back to his regular voice, a little quieter, but still precise.

Battaglia is the voice of Turfway Park, announcing there for 37 years.

Oddsmaker, analyst, commentator, and on-air interviewer, the ubiquitous Battaglia has worked for NBC for 20 years and will end the spring season at Turfway by heading to Keeneland to do TV there. All the while making the odds. It seems that anywhere in Kentucky where there is a horse race, you're likely to find Battaglia and his binoculars.

On May 7, he'll be working for NBC at the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. He has been to every Derby since 1972, and has worked every one, at first for the Daily Racing Form, then 20 years as track announcer, and now as a TV commentator.

"As long as it's horses, I can do it," laughs Battaglia.

BORN TO THE JOB

One of nine kids, Battaglia was raised at the track in Florence where his dad, John, was general manager. In his early 20s, in and around two years of college studying accounting, he was doing publicity for Turfway.

His big break started in a way that happens in many family businesses: necessity. At the last minute, his dad needed an announcer at a little track he was also managing near Louisville. He drafted his oldest son, telling him, as Mike Battaglia recalls, "You do that radio show with Chick every night "¢ You've seen Chick do it "¢"

Besides, Mike Battaglia says his dad added, "Number one, nobody's at Miles Park, there's nobody. Number two, our PA system is so bad they can't hear you anyway and number three, no matter how bad you are, I'm not going to fire you." So, shrugs Battaglia, "That was my introduction in calling horse races."

It's no small detail that Chick was Chick Anderson, who went on to call the Secretariat Derby in 1973.

BIG BREAK AT CHURCHILL

The first race Mike Battaglia called at Churchill Downs was also born of necessity. "It was Derby week, like a Wednesday. I was sitting in the grandstand with my father and my brother," he recalls. The announcements suddenly stopped. Nothing.

The next voice he heard was that of CBS's Woody Bruin: "Mike Battaglia to the announcer's booth. Mike Battaglia to the announcer's booth." He finds Anderson there, on the floor of the booth surrounded by a doctor, a nurse and the president of Churchill Downs, Lynn Stone. "Hey, kid, you think you can call this next race for me," asked Stone, as Mike Battaglia recalls. He called two races that day and was hired as a backup announcer at the home of the Derby.

Just blind luck, says Battaglia, "Chick fainting like that for me." Anderson was fine and later joked that he planned it that way to get Battaglia to the mike, saying, "Your dad told me to, asked me to do it," recalls Battaglia.

In 1978, Battaglia called his first Derby. It was Affirmed vs. Alydar "” the classic rivalry capped with a 2.01 1/5 finish with Steve Cauthen aboard Affirmed as they began their road to winning the Triple Crown.

A DERBY VISION

John Battaglia was honored last month at Turfway with the $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial Stakes, which the Daily Racing Form calls the local prep race for Turfway's Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes, also a prep race (for the Kentucky Derby) and also in March.

The Battaglias were all there, 30 of them, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews as well as Mike Battaglia's mom, Nancy. "She likes to come out and bet $2. She has a good time," he says.

Except for one brother who lives in Ohio, the clan lives in Northern Kentucky. Battaglia's brother, Bruce, is the morning oddsmaker at River Downs and Battaglia's son, Bret, is the handicapper at Ellis Park and works video at Turfway.

The Spiral Stakes, which has had a number of different sponsorship names over the years, is the result of the work of John Battaglia. He wanted to have a potential Kentucky Derby horse come out of a race at Turfway. "A vision," his son calls it.

"At the time I remember sitting in a meeting with him talking about horses coming in here to prep for the Derby and thinking, "¢That's just not going to happen,'" says Mike. It has.

BACK TO THE RACES

The excitement's still there, says Battaglia. At the big races, at the Spiral, even at bad races if there is a three-horse finish. "If I didn't find it exciting, I couldn't do it 'I've just been so lucky to have a job that I would do for free."

"You have to have a little bit of nervousness to do a good job," he adds. "You have to be a little on edge. But you can't let your nerves get the better of you."

As an oddsmaker, does he take much heat when he's wrong?

"I'm human. It happens," says Battaglia, saying it's important to be honest, and that it's OK to change your mind.

"(Race fans) know I go to the (betting) window. I never bet on a horse I didn't pick." 

Dianne Gebhardt-French writes about the newsmakers of Northern Kentucky. Contact her at (513) 297-6209 or dfrench@cincymagazine.com.