Watch Clem McCarthy call the 1930 Kentucky Derby

Mar 13th 2016 07:14 pm |

One of the best moments when doing historical research comes when a source inspires this thought: “I can’t believe this exists!” I had one of these moments recently while researching the 1930 Kentucky Derby. I found an online archive at the University of South Carolina that included three reels of film footage from the day at Churchill Downs when Gallant Fox won the Derby. The reels are outtakes from the Fox Movietone News collection – a collection that has been at the university since 1979.

While the reels are well worth a look in their entirety, the clip that stopped me in my tracks was of race caller Clem McCarthy. When I first watched it I thought it was footage of him calling the 1930 Derby. After a second viewing it turned out that it was a re-enactment of him calling the race after it concluded (this will become apparent when you watch it).

Clem McCarthy is a legend in sports broadcasting and horse racing was his primary sport. He called every Kentucky Derby from 1928 to 1951 and was the first person to announce a race over a public address system at Arlington Park in Chicago in 1927. Perhaps his most famous call came in 1938 when he called Seabiscuit a “winner by four lengths” over War Admiral at Pimlico to a radio audience estimated at 40 million listeners. While many race fans will be familiar with the voice, the clip from the Fox Movietone footage offers a rare view of one of the most iconic voices from the earliest days of sports broadcasting. McCarthy “invented” the fast talking staccato delivery of race callers that has become a well-worn but accurate cliche of the era.

Evaluating McCarthy in the context of his era solidifies his significant place in racing history. Consider this: In 1930, the art of describing a sporting event and broadcasting it live to an audience was less than ten years old1. The 1930 Kentucky Derby was just the sixth time that fans could experience the race as it happened over the radio (the first broadcast came in 1925). When McCarthy was announcing the Kentucky Derby in 1930 he was among a small group of men developing a new type of on-the-spot storytelling delivered live to sports fans.

In David Halberstam’s Sports on New York Radio, he named Clem McCarthy the “founding father” of horse racing announcers. Halberstam wrote this of McCarthy:

Clem was truly thrilling. Yet he built his reputation on painting an impeccably accurate mind-picture. His voice was so distinct it was almost indescribable. On the one hand it was gravelly, but on the other hand it was mellifluous. There was almost a whiskey tenor to it. If you heard it, you would never misidentify it.”

This clip of Clem McCarthy from the 1930 Derby has its limitations — the fact that it’s a re-enactment being the most obvious — but it is significant. I would venture a guess that it’s among the earliest pieces of motion picture film showing a horse racing announcer plying his trade. As I said at the start, I can’t believe this exists. Here it is:

This footage of McCarthy wasn’t used in the final cut of the newsreel. A version of the finished newsreel can be seen on YouTube that includes reports of all three 1930 Triple Crown races narrated by…you guessed it…Clem McCarthy! The newsreel starts with the Preakness which was run before the Derby in 1930. The Preakness report includes a brief clip of Clem McCarthy in action calling the race but doesn’t include the sound of the actual race call. Here is the newsreel reporting on the 1930 Triple Crown winner:


Sources, News and Notes

The source of the McCarthy clip is Fox Movietone News found in the Movie Picture Research Collections at the University of South Carolina. Fox Movietone was among the leading producers of newsreels that started in 1928 and folded in 1963 as television news made newsreels obsolete. The University of South Carolina has made a significant collection of outtakes from their Fox collection widely available online. Their reasonable use policies made it possible to share this wonderful clip of Clem McCarthy here at Colin’s Ghost.

Watch the three full reels of outtakes from the 1930 Fox Movietone newsreel here: Reel #1 | Reel #2 | Reel #3

David Halberstam, Sports on New York Radio, 1999

It’s fitting that I posted this on the same weekend as the biggest day of racing at Tampa Bay Downs. Of all active race callers today, Richard Grunder at Tampa has the voice and cadence most reminiscent of the old classic callers like McCarthy. It’s one of the reasons Mr Grunder is one of my favorites on the current racing scene. Here is a clip of Mr Grunder calling a race via YouTube

Thanks for reading and good luck!

  1. KDKA out of Pittsburgh was the first to broadcast boxing and baseball in 1921 []

Filed in Clem McCarthy,Gallant Fox,Kentucky Derby

2 Responses to “Watch Clem McCarthy call the 1930 Kentucky Derby”

  1. Gallant Fox only beat 3 horses to win the Belmont……no competition…Check out the field in the 1968 Californian at Hollywood Park…see the best horse in the last 60 years

  2. Owen says:

    Trivia: A young Clem came to watch the Man o’ War/ Sir Barton match race and ended up selling mutual tickets at the Kenilworth track in Windsor that day that day in 1920..