And Down the Stretch They Come! Profile: He has modest celebrity, but even if you don't know race caller Dave Johnson's name, you'll recognize his signature line as the horses turn for home in tomorrow's Preakness

CATCHING UP WITH ...

May 17, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

Everyone thinks he does a killer imitation of Dave Johnson's signature line. The guy at your Preakness party with four Heinekens under his belt and an attractive dab of onion dip on his chin, he'll try it. But he couldn't even get a Ritz cracker to his mouth, so you know he'll screw it up.

The key is to hit the word "down" hard. And the rest needs to have a singular urgency to it, like the Joint Chiefs of Staff announcing a troop movement. Only then does it come out just right, the dramatic, haunting cry that has become one of the most famous in all of sports: "And down the stretch they come!"

"It's gotta be in my obituary," Johnson says, relaxing at a picnic table in the sunshine of Pimlico Race Course. The veteran race caller is in town to announce tomorrow's Preakness Stakes for ABC-TV, as he has for the past 17 years.

Only now he's talking about his own modest share of celebrity, what it means to be linked to a phrase that has become as instantly recognizable as NBA announcer Marv Albert's "Yessss!" and ring announcer Michael Buffer's "Let's get ready to rrrr-umble!"

"I got one of the biggest thrills five or 10 years ago," Johnson says. "I'm driving down Reisterstown Road from the airport to Pimlico and I see one of The Sun's [newspaper] boxes. And there's this big cardboard insert in the box that says: "And down the stretch they come!"

"The box was near a McDonald's. So I pulled in and bought a diet soda. And I stole the sign."

At this point in the conversation, the reporter is about to suggest that the statute of limitations for this particular offense might not have expired and that Sun management, along with the police, will have to be notified.

But Johnson is already off on another anecdote about how the line follows him everywhere, like a bad cough. This one is about the time he was in a shopping mall in Atlanta with his sister.

As the two descended to a lower level, they were eyeballed by this fellow who, if he wasn't the Unabomber, was the Unabomber's Georgia cousin.

Suddenly, amid the din from the Hickory Farm store and Thom McCan and the rest, the man could be heard shouting: "And down the stairs he comes!"

"And that's all he said," Johnson says, marveling at the memory. " But I get stuff like that from people all the time. 'And through the barns he comes!' 'And down the elevator he comes.' It never ends."

Not that he's complaining.

Johnson, 54, a handsome man with a thatch of surfer-blond hair, has been calling races for 32 years and says: "I make a living going to the racetrack and identifying animals as they go around an oval. And I love it!"

How he got his start in the business is one of the very best stories you will ever hear, "like the script for a B-movie," Johnson says.

The year is 1964. The place is Cahokia Downs, a homely little track in Illinois across the river from St. Louis. Johnson is a 23-year-old clerk in a law firm, out for a night at the track with a few bucks to burn.

At the end of the first race, word comes over the PA system that the track announcer is ill and that the rest of the races will not be called. This prompts young Dave Johnson to go to the track's general manager, a woman known as "Miss Ann," and volunteer his services.

"I knew I could do this," Johnson says now. "I have one of those memories. I mean, I got through college memorizing the 10 points of the Yalta Agreement the same way I memorized the 19 horses in the Kentucky Derby."

But Miss Ann, she's not impressed with someone who has the Yalta Agreement down cold. She needs an announcer, dammit. In short order, it is decided that the ill announcer's 17-year-old son will take over for his dad, aided by two spotters.

One is the track electrician. The other is the guy who blows the bugle before each race. And the bugler, Dave Johnson notes, is about 134 years old.

So the second race goes off. And over the sound system, the call sounds like this:

First voice: "It's Seabiscuit going to the front "

Second voice: "Nah, that's not Seabiscuit "

Third voice: "Y'know, I think it's the seven horse. Or maybe the five "

"Oh, it was a riot!" Johnson says, laughing. "It was a 'Saturday Night Live' skit long before there was a 'Saturday Night Live.'"

Anyway, at the end of the second race, Miss Ann, no fool, marches up to Dave Johnson's box. Then she whispers the fateful words that will change his life: "You're next."

So Mr. Yalta Agreement calls the third race, practically catatonic. ("I was scared out of my mind -- out of my mind!" ) His hands are shaking so violently that he can't hold the program -- they have to tape it to the window.

But he calls the race well enough, and eventually takes over as the track's announcer. He moves to Hialeah in '71, and then the New York tracks (Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga) and then Santa Anita in '77, a career in steady, if not meteoric, ascent.

Had to 'really pump it'

It was at Santa Anita that he first used the distinctive "And down the stretch they come!" and noticed the adrenalized effect it had on the crowd.

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