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See Mike Battaglia and see horse racing in Kentucky — and winner of KTO’s Warner Jones Award

 (Photo provided)

Mike Battaglia in his Edgewood home with son Bret, holds a picture of his father, John Battaglia reading the ‘Daily Racing Form’ as he recovers from a heart attack in the hospital. (Photo provided)

By Billy Reed
Special to NKyTribune

Mike Battaglia has been a fixture on the Kentucky racing scene for so long that he’s virtually a part of the scenery at Turfway Park, Churchill Downs and Keeneland. Everybody knows Mike from one of his roles or another. He’s been a track announcer, a handicapper, a paddock TV host, and an analyst for the NBC network.

Nobody in the business is more respected by horsemen, the media, and the public because nobody loves the game or knows the game more than Mike. He takes his work seriously, too, whether he’s making the morning line for the Kentucky Derby or calling a claiming race on a cold winter night at Turfway.

When you see Mike Battaglia, you’re looking at horse racing in Kentucky. And that’s why it was fitting that the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners (KTO) honored him with the 2015 Warner L. Jones Award at a banquet Saturday night at Big Spring Country Club in Louisville.

Jones bred 1953 Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star and many other stakes winners at his Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Ky. He also was a longtime member of the Churchill Downs board of directors. The award goes to a horseman who has exemplified Jones’ dedication to the promotion of thoroughbred racing.

Mike Battaglia, who lives in Edgewood, is an apple who didn’t fall far from the tree. His dad, Johnny Battaglia, grew up in Covington at a time when there was a lot of action in the cities across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Every corner had a bar, and every bar had a bookmaker. At an early age, Johnny loved numbers and horses.

One day Johnny burst into the sports department of The Cincinnati Post and confronted the sports editor.

“The guy who makes your horse-racing picks is terrible,” Johnny said. “I’ll tell you what. You run my picks alongside his and if he picks more winners than me, you don’t have to pay me a nickel. But if I pick more winners, you have to hire me.”

And so began a career in which Johnny eventually went into racetrack management and became general manager at both Latonia (now Turfway Park) in Florence and Miles Park in Louisville.

As a kid, Mike knew he wanted to go into his dad’s business. Like Johnny, he loved numbers and horses. He graduated from Holy Cross High and tried college for a few years. But the call of the race track was too strong. In 1973, Johnny hired Mike to be oddsmaker at Latonia.

About that same time, when track announcer Chic Anderson left for a job in New England, Johnny was so desperate for a replacement that he called Mike, who had never called a race. When Mike mentioned that to his dad, Johnny said, “You don’t have anything to worry about. First, the sound system at Miles Park is so bad nobody can hear you. Second, nobody will be there. And third, I’m your boss so you don’t have to worry about getting fired.”

Mike Bataglia helps introduce the field for Spiral Stakes. (Photo by Mark Hansel)

Mike Bataglia introduces the field for the 2015 Spiral Stakes. (Photos by Mark Hansel)

Ingenuity is one of the many positive character traits that Johnny passed on to Mike. For example, there was the time at Miles when the track announcer didn’t show up and Johnny was forced to take the microphone and call the first race. At the last second, he got stage fright. Thinking quickly, he began scratching his fingernail on the mike when the horses broke from the gate and kept scratching it until the race was over. Then he said:

“Management apologizes for those technical difficulties. The order of finish was…”

And then there was the night the starting gate broke down before a race at Latonia. Right before the start of each race, Mike always said, “The horses have reached the starting gate.” This time the horses had to wait while the defective gate was taken away and a replacement wheeled into place

Which led Mike to say, “The starting gate has reached the horses.”

Early in Mike’s career, both Churchill Downs and Keeneland hired Mike to join their teams. He made the odds for the 100th Kentucky Derby in 1974 and is still doing that job today. But Mike might be proudest of the fact that he was Churchill’s track announcer from 1977 through ’96, the longest anyone has held that job in the track’s 141-year history.

His first Derby as track announcer was Affirmed’s historic win over Alydar in 1978. As Mike likes to say, “Where do you go from there?” Nevertheless, that wasn’t his favorite Derby as Churchill’s track announcer.

“I got to call (jockey Bill) Shoemaker’s last Derby win in 1986 and Pat Day’s only one on Lil E. Tee in 1992,” Battaglia said. “Both those were special. I idolized Shoemaker when I was growing up, and there’s nobody I respect more than Pat Day.”

Inevitably, the networks noticed Mike. He called the Derby six consecutive years for ABC and joined NBC’s Breeders Cup team in 1994. His benefactor at NBC was Tom Hammond, the Lexington-based announcer who had done a variety of sports for the network for more than 30 years.

As the anchor for NBC’s Triple Crown and Breeders Cup coverage, Hammond was allowed to pick the analysts with whom he wanted to work. So he got NBC to hire Battaglia, and they were joined by Donna Barton Brothers and Kenny Rice, who also are based in Kentucky. They became known in the industry as “The Kentucky Mafia.”

“Other than my dad, Tom Hammond has done the most to help me over the course of my career,” Battaglia says.

In recent years, Mike has owned some horses in partnership with Hammond, NBC pro football analyst Cris Collinsworth, and other friends.

“There’s no greater thrill,” he says, “than seeing a horse on the track carrying your silks.”

Mike’s brother Bruce also has been a handicapper for various publications, and his son Bret – another apple that didn’t fall far from the tree — now is calling races and handicapping for both Turfway and Ellis Park. Mike and his wife Chris, who have been married 41 years, also are the parents of a daughter, Danielle.

As he watches the third generation of the Battaglia family work to earn his niche in Kentucky racing, just as he and his father did, Mike sounds a bit wonder-struck. “It’s all gone by so quickly,” said Mike. “And to think, I’ve only been broke twice all those years.”

billy-reed

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby.

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