Michael Wrona, one of the world’s preeminent race callers and the voice of Santa Anita Park, has been named track announcer for Kentucky Downs’ live racing meet.
Kentucky Downs’ 2019 meet is scheduled for Aug. 31 and Sept. 5, 7, 8 and 12 over North America’s only European-style turf course. The showcase race meet, which offers the world’s largest purses outside Japan, falls when Southern California thoroughbred racing is at Del Mar and Los Alamitos, making Wrona available.
The 52-year-old and Australian-born Wrona has earned a reputation as one of the sport’s most colorful and entertaining announcers, weaving humor into precise calls. He was named Santa Anita’s permanent announcer in 2016 following that track’s international search to replace the iconic Trevor Denman, who wanted a reduced work schedule while retaining his Del Mar post.
Wrona’s simple proclamation of “Racing!” as the horses spring from the gate is among the best-known race-call signatures in the sport.
Wrona said he was surprised but delighted to be offered the Kentucky Downs position.
“It has struck me since receiving this offer that I’m going to be entrusted with the responsibility of calling America’s two most unique and challenging turf courses,” he said. “Because Santa Anita has its famous downhill course with the right-hand turn behind the trees, and the European-style layout and undulations of Kentucky Downs makes it extremely challenging and unique. I feel quite humbled really. And with the stratospheric purse money and the nationally prominent stables, it’s apparent that Kentucky Downs has quickly carved an indelible niche in the turf-racing calendar. So it’s tremendously exciting.”
Wrona started calling races in 1983 at age 17 at Kilcoy Racecourse, near his hometown of Brisbane, Australia, and continued to call thoroughbred, harness and greyhound races around Brisbane until coming to America in 1990, serving as Hollywood Park’s announcer for the balance of the Los Angeles track’s season.
Besides Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, Wrona’s extensive resume includes serving as announcer at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, Chicago’s Arlington Park, Retama and Lone Star Park in Texas, New Orleans’ Fair Grounds, Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Los Alamitos thoroughbreds and California’s Sonoma and Fresno fair meets. He actually had a previous tour of duty in Kentucky, calling the races at Bluegrass Downs in 1993-94 when the former quarter-horse track in Paducah fleetingly conducted thoroughbred racing before turning to harness racing.
“It’s been a very interesting adventure,” Wrona said. “I’ve been in America longer than Australia now, and it just continues to throw out surprise after surprise.”
Wrona’s first time to see Kentucky Downs in person coincidentally was this past meet, when he and his wife, Kathy, attended Old Friends Day while on vacation.
“I was greatly impressed but had no idea that I might soon be offered a job,” he said. “It completely caught me by surprise. I was just excited to see the place. It’s just so unique.”
Wrona said the closest he’d come before to seeing Kentucky Downs was driving by on Interstate 65 back in 1993 when the track was called Dueling Grounds and he was working at Bluegrass Downs.
“I just got out of the car, walked around and had a little look,” he said. “I was obviously aware of the quantum leap it’s taken in recent years. My only previous visit to Lexington had been 25 years ago, and I said to my wife, ‘Why don’t we just take a little trip out to Kentucky?’ We flew into Nashville and rented a car for 10 days. Most of the time we spent was in Lexington, but Kathy has a nephew in Knoxville so we sort of triangulated. We centered it around being able to take in one of the Kentucky Downs race dates. I had no idea I might be hired to call the races there anytime soon, so it’s quite amazing.”
Wrona’s natural reflex as an announcer was to watch the races while processing what it would take to call them.
“It’s with some trepidation that I’ll step up to the mic for Race 1 on Day 1, because it is a rather low elevation from which the announcer works,” he said with one of his frequent laughs. “You also have what I would call a false stretch, where they’re basically coming head-on at you for the first half of the stretch before they bend again. So it’s potentially something that could take a while to get used to, but how can you take a while to get used to something when you’ve only got five days per year?
“I’m going to have to just try to size everything up and throw myself into it head-first. I would love to walk that course before I start working there. I think that would be very enlightening.”