The incredible story behind Clem McCarthy’s first Kentucky Derby broadcast

May 6th 2016 01:16 pm |

Clem McCarthy became the most popular voice of horse racing broadcasts in the first half of the 20th century. His gravelly, machine gun delivery endures to this day as a stereotype for racing announcers.

McCarthy grew up with horses. His father was a horse dealer and auctioneer near Rochester, New York. His dream of becoming a jockey ended when he grew too tall for the job. He started as a track reporter in San Diego and eventually made his way to New York City where he continued to work as a writer. He became the first to announce a running description of a race on-track over the Arlington Park public address system in 1927 and would do the same for Maryland racetracks a year later. His work as an on-track announcer led to his career broadcasting races over the radio and eventually TV.

The first live radio broadcasts of the Kentucky Derby came in 1925 when local Louisville station WHAS carried the race. WGN broadcast the race over their station in Chicago that same year. Two years later, according to Clem McCarthy’s account, the powerful Hearst News Organization took over the broadcast and expanded it beyond the Louisville and Chicago audiences.

In 1949, Clem McCarthy sat down with Daily Racing Form’s Evan Shipman at Sardi’s – a well-known Manhattan restaurant among the literary and entertainment crowd. McCarthy, en route to Kentucky to broadcast his 15th Derby, told Shipman he only had thirty-two minutes before he had to leave for the airport. Shipman reserved the bulk of his article transcribing McCarthy’s story about how he came to announce his first edition of the famous race. This is the tale Clem McCarthy (in his clipped English) told Shipman:

“During the twenties, I was a big bettor. Had my first good season after two or three bad ones in 1927. Then, the next spring at Jamaica, things began to go wrong. Decided on a change of air—a trip to Louisville for the Derby. Damon Runyon1, Phocian Howard,2 Bill Corum3 and I — all in the same car.

We got to Cincinnati. I take a stroll on the platform. Buy all the papers. Now Quin Ryan4 began broadcasting the Derby for the Chicago Tribune5 in Bubbling Over’s year [1926] —or maybe it was Flying Ebony’s year [1925].6 All local stations at that time, mind you. No hook-ups. Only reached Kentucky, Southern Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. So-o-o-o, what do I see but this year – 1928 – Quin Ryan and the Chicago Tribune are out. Hearst is going to broadcast the race, and when we go over the papers back in the club car, we see that Hearst has picked an ‘all star cast’ for the big afternoon. Cover the race from every angle —society, politics, business —

“They had a lot of names listed, you see, but we’d never heard of a single one of them around the track. It looked to us as if the Hearst organization had forgotten about the HORSES. Damon Runyon says, ‘A perfect spot for you, Clem. I’ll fix it with the office as soon as we get to Louisville.’7

“‘But hold on a minute,’ I said to the boys. ‘Where’s your horseman? Who’s going to describe the RACE?’

“But it turns out Hearst has a man after all. Had broadcast fights, baseball and football games. That’s why we didn’t recognize the name. He hadn’t ever seen a race in his life, except at a county fair.

“Day of the race is dark and gloomy, drizzle of rain. All the colors look alike. Our broadcaster comes up to the press box with a little pair of 4-power binoculars. Starts on the first race. This is an all-afternoon program on the air. Can’t see a thing, but he’s game, knows all the tricks of the trade, ad-libs on anything until he’s certain, but as far as that first race is concerned, he’s not giving them anything more than the finish, and he’s waiting for the numbers to be posted at that.

“Now I have a good thing in the second race, a first time starter, the Three D’s Stock Farm’s Vermajo at 4 to 1. The stable wins by six lengths, and I’m standing in line cashing a big ticket when who comes running up to find me but Damon Runyon with the broadcasting people. Been looking all over for me, panting from the push through the crowd.

“‘Clem, can you take over, right away?’ Damon says, and before I get a word out of my mouth, Phocian Howard, standing there beside me just to see I get that ticket cashed, pipes up with, ‘Why, of course. Certainly. Clem will be glad to fill in. Courtesy of The New York Press’ — you see, I was writing a little column for the Press then—$25 a week, when Phocian was in funds.

“No time to haggle. Up I go to the press box. Take over for the third race, and— I’m on the air! It was a head and head finish with Rodrigo getting the call over Grand King, but I was never in any trouble. Had been on the horns the previous summer at Arlington Park, and the field was right in my lap from the break. After that, the Derby itself was easy. Misstep set the pace, but when Reigh Count was ready, he came on to romp.”

McCarthy had a great memory…compare his descriptions to the race charts for Derby Day, 1928

Of course, McCarthy went on to announce every Kentucky Derby from his first in 1928 up until 1951 (in spite of what you might read in most sources that claim his last call in 1950). Here are recordings of his final three calls at the microphone from 1949 to 1951:

McCarthy’s life took a tragic turn not long after he broadcast his final Derby. In 1954, his wife Vina died and the expenses related to her illness, according to his obituary, “drained [McCarthy’s] savings.” Towards the end of his life, he received financial support from his friends in the newspaper and broadcasting business. In announcing his death on June 5th 1962, the New York Times wrote:

Mr. McCarthy retained little in his last years but the memory of the reputation he had earned for delivering exciting machine-gun accounts of horse races. The gravel-voiced McCarthy described every Kentucky Derby from 1928 to 1950 [actually, 1951 see above] as well as a number of big prizefights and other sports events. Yet he spent most of his last five years a forgotten, penniless invalid. Countless Americans knew what he had been in the Thirties and Forties without being aware what happened to him.”

A sad end to a legendary figure in horse racing and sports broadcasting.

News & Notes

Clem McCarthy told his story to Evan Shipmen in Daily Racing Form, “McCarthy has Derby Anniversary,” 4 May 1949

Details of McCarthy’s life from his obituary in New York Times, “Clem McCarthy is dead at 79; Racing announcer since 1928,” 5 June 1962

In researching the people mentioned by Clem McCarthy in his Derby story, I found this fascinating article about Quin Ryan from the Chicago Tribune, 1972

Audio clips from Check out all of their Kentucky Derby archive

I recently published a few articles for CBS Local about this year’s Kentucky Derby:

Our friends at Hello Race Fans have a bunch of excellent Kentucky Derby content that’s worth a look

Enjoy Derby Day!!! Thanks for Reading and Good Luck!

  1. Damon Runyon requires no introduction but for context, he had his start as a baseball columnist for Hearst newspapers. In 1927, when he traveled to Kentucky with Clem McCarthy he had firmly established himself as an elite newspaperman but was still a few years away from writing Guys and Dolls the work he is best known. []
  2. Phocian Howard was the publisher of The New York Press, a racing publication he founded in 1924, and a turf writer for three decades. Just six years after his trip to Kentucky with Clem McCarthy, he died of a heart attack while covering the summer meeting at Saratoga. According to his obituary, he was sharing a house with Damon Runyon during the meeting. []
  3. Bill Corum was a New York sports writer. In 1927, he was a in his second year as a columnist for the New York Evening Journal. He remained in that position for 32 years. He would go on to work with Clem McCarthy on Kentucky Derby broadcasts in the 1930s and 1940s. Corum is credited with coining the phrase “Run for the Roses” in 1925. He succeeded Matt Winn as the president of Churchill Downs in 1949. []
  4. Quin Ryan broadcast many significant events over WGN out of Chicago. In addition to being the first to announce the Kentucky Derby live over the air in 1925 he was at the microphone for the first regular season baseball game and the first live broadcast of the Indy 500. He also announced both Dempsey-Tunney fights and reported the Scopes Monkey Trial for radio []
  5. Officially, he broadcast it for radio station WGN which was owned by the Chicago Tribune. The call letters were an acronym for “World’s Greatest Newspaper” []
  6. Quin Ryan announced the first Kentucky Derby in 1925 []
  7. Damon Runyon worked for the Hearst organization as a columnist so that’s why he felt he could use his influence to get McCarthy the job of calling the races on such short notice. []

Filed in Clem McCarthy,Kentucky Derby

2 Responses to “The incredible story behind Clem McCarthy’s first Kentucky Derby broadcast”

  1. Mary Ellen Polson says:

    Great article that really captures the flavor of 1920s racing. I love that Clem was at the window cashing a bet when he was hustled into the race caller’s booth. Keep delving into old issues of the DRF, Kevin — I’m working my way through all the early ones for a book on Sam Hildreth, the Hall of Fame trainer. After a while all these racing characters become real people to you.

  2. Dale Wyatt says:

    According to old Turf and Sport Digests, McCarthy also called the races at Fairgrounds Race Track during the time ER Bradley owned it.