By Brian DiDonato
Churchill Downs track announcer Travis Stone, 34, called his first GI Kentucky Derby in 2015, and will now call his first Breeders’ Cup Friday and Saturday. He took some time out of his busy week to share some memories and insights with Brian DiDonato.
TDN: How did you first get interested in racing?
TS: I grew-up in Schroon Lake, NY, which is about an hour north of Saratoga. My family would go to the races often. My Dad, though, would save his vacation time so for two full weeks every meet, and whenever else he was off, he and I would go. I was hooked early.
TDN: When did you know you wanted to be a race caller?
TS: When I as young I would “race” my toys while pretending to call the race. I raced everything, from cars to marbles, and would even pretend to be a jockey on my bike. As I got older and the marbles turned to video games, I realized I loved the announcing and became obsessed with it. In 1996, I wrote a letter to Tom Durkin asking what I needed to do to become an announcer. I followed his advice, worked hard at it, got a little lucky and here we are.
TDN: What was it like calling your first Kentucky Derby?
TS: I had never been to the Kentucky Derby before, so the combination of going for the first time and calling it was both nerve-wracking and exciting. They were going to the gate and it was one of those moments where you realize, “Wow… this is really going to happen.” Thankfully, the race was fairly uneventful, so I was able to survive. I became emotional when I called my parents afterward. The only way I would describe it is: I hope everyone, at some point in their lives, can experience a similar rush in whatever they do or aspire to do. It’s a mix of anxiety, fear, thrill, excitement and everything in between. It’s just awesome.
TDN: What do you do to prepare for a big weekend like this?
TS: It’s a combination of preparation and lifestyle change. I’ve been thinking about these races for a while. I’ve worked on memorizing the silks, studying the horses, envisioning various scenarios and outcomes. What happens if Newspaperofrecord wins by 10 lengths? What if Abel Tasman and Monomoy Girl turn for home together? In addition to the preparation, it’s about getting enough sleep and reducing any alcohol consumption. I’m usually good for two out of three!
TDN: It looks like we might have a wet track for at least Friday’s card. Does that impact your job at all?
TS: Churchill Downs can dry out pretty quickly, so hopefully it stops raining early enough for it to do so. Otherwise, it’ll make for some muddy silks, which is never fun!
TDN: Would you say there’s more pressure calling a world-famous race like the Derby or an entire Breeders’ Cup?
TS: The Derby is stressful in that it’s the biggest race in the world with 20 horses. Keeping track of that many horses in two minutes is daunting. The race itself is so action-packed that there’s not a lot of time to think. You have to be ready. There are no do-overs. The Breeders’ Cup features a lot of horses in a lot of races, but the pressure of getting just one two-minute shot like in the Derby isn’t quite there. But, ask me again on Saturday!
TDN: What’s the call that you’re most proud of?
TS: This year’s Kentucky Derby was just brutal… rain, fog, mist, mud. There were several horses with the same silks, some changing silks from their prior start. It was a lot. I’ve never told him, but I owe Bob Baffert a big thank you for using a blue shadow roll on Justify. When they turned for home, I used it to verify it was indeed him and not Audible or Noble Indy, who wore the same silks.
TDN: Do you have a favorite Breeders’ Cup moment?
TS: In 2001, at Belmont Park I watched the Breeders’ Cup alongside a racing fan visiting from Europe. He was all-in on Sakhee and I was rooting for Tiznow. The place went nuts. It was such an amazing horse race that after the wire we couldn’t help but high-five each other. I’ll never forget that.
TDN: What Breeders’ Cup race are you most excited about calling?
TS: If I had to pick one race it would be the Distaff. This year’s cinch for 3-year-old filly champion Monomoy Girl takes on last year’s champion Abel Tasman. The campaign for Monomoy Girl has been outstanding, but Abel Tasman, when on her game, is really good. I hope they turn for home side-by-side–what a race that would be.