No doubt, Johnson's stretch call is defining moment of Derby run

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For more than 30 years, Dave Johnson has built a reputation as perhaps the best race caller in all of horse racing, but there's a pretty good chance that you'll only remember two things from his call of tomorrow's Kentucky Derby (Channel 2, 4: 30 p.m.).

One, of course, is the winner from the 20-horse field. The other is Johnson's dramatic "And down the stretch they come" cry, when the field rounds the final turn for home.

The call is Johnson's distinguishing mark, but is also a bit of a curse, frankly.

"I said to Jim McKay once, 'Jim, it's going to be on my obituary,' " said Johnson, who calls the program at the Meadowlands course. "Jim turned me around on this, though. He said, 'That's OK. People know you for it.' I'd hate to be remembered just for that, but there's nothing I can do about it now."

The call originated when Johnson was calling races at Santa Anita (Calif.) in the late 1970s on the course's antiquated sound system. In order to be heard over the din of the crowd of 50,000 that had gathered for the Santa Anita Derby, Johnson just boomed out the call.

"People started to say it back to me. When I parked my car in the track lot, people would yell it at me. Once I was shopping at the mall with my sister and we were riding down the escalator, and this man sees me and says, 'And down the stairs he comes,' " said Johnson, with a chuckle.

Oddly enough, Johnson didn't use the phrase in what he calls his favorite race of all time, the 1989 Derby won by Sunday Silence, because the race was so action-packed that there was no time to fit it in.

"It's a transition line that I can use to go from the back of the pack to the front, but if it [the line] doesn't happen, that means there's too much going on to fit it in," said Johnson.

As for this year's 122nd Derby, Johnson said the favorite, Unbridled's Song, who blazed to victory in the Florida Derby, already has peaked, and he looks for Editor's Note or Grindstone, each out of the D. Wayne Lukas camp, to make some noise.

Covering the run

With "Monday Night Football" director Craig Janoff at the helm, ABC will station 28 cameras around Churchill Downs, with eight micro-miniature cameras on the starting gates, and, for the first time, wireless microphones on some jockeys.

McKay, who missed the last two races of the Triple Crown last year as he recovered from heart surgery, returns to anchor this year's coverage, and will be joined by Al Michaels, Charlsie Cantey, Lesley Visser and Robin Roberts.

ESPN2 will have live early-morning, behind-the-scenes looks today and tomorrow mornings at 7 a.m., afternoon previews at 3: 30 today and noon tomorrow, a peek at pre-Derby parties at 11 tonight and a wrap-up show at 6 p.m. tomorrow.

ESPN will have the Kentucky Oaks race for 3-year-old fillies today at 5 p.m. and a 2 1/2 -hour pre-race special tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Kilborn to leave ESPN

ESPN's "SportsCenter" is about to get a whole lot less hipper and funnier with the word that Craig Kilborn is about to split.

An ESPN spokeswoman confirmed last night that Kilborn, the Dennis Miller sound-alike who worked the late-night shift, had "decided to take his career in a different direction," and will leave the network after tonight's 2 a.m. "SportsCenter."

Published reports have Kilborn going to Comedy Central in July to anchor a sort of comedic news program. Oddly enough, ESPN has just unveiled a new set of "SportsCenter" promos that feature Kilborn prominently, but network officials said Kilborn's departure did not catch them by surprise.

Postseason pucks

lTC The NHL's playoff schedule this weekend is fairly cut and dried.

ESPN will have a doubleheader tomorrow night with the second games of the Florida-Philadelphia dustup at 7 p.m., and the Chicago-Colorado series at 10 p.m.

Most of the nation, including Baltimore, will get the second game of the Rangers-Penguins series Sunday at 3 p.m. on Fox (Channel 45). However, because Pittsburgh's Civic Arena isn't equipped to handle the necessary equipment, the FoxTrax glowing puck will air in the St. Louis-Detroit game.

Pub Date: 5/03/96

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