The inside track of a race announcer
“Every time you turn the mic on and you open your mouth to speak, you are one step closer to making a mistake. … But you can’t think about that. You take one race at a time.”
March 19, 2020
Ken Warkentin has called close to 225,000 horse races. A veteran in the business, the track announcer at the Meadowlands Racetracks in New Jersey still gets a rush of adrenalin at calling a race as horses thunder down the track at speeds of up to 48 kilometres per hour.
The action is swift and there is no time to think as a new drama unfolds at each race, requiring all of this Seneca graduate’s experience and skills as a broadcaster to be accurate while conveying the excitement to his listeners.
“Every time you turn the mic on and you open your mouth to speak, you are one step closer to making a mistake,” he said. “On weekends, I work 50 races in 36 hours and by Saturday’s 10th race, I’m ready to lose my mind. But you can’t think about that. You take one race at a time.”
Mr. Warkentin graduated from Seneca’s Broadcasting – Radio & Television program (now Broadcasting – Radio and Broadcasting – TV). Since moving to New Jersey 30 years ago to wield the microphone at the Meadowlands, he has called 20 editions of the $1-million Hambletonian. He will be calling the premier race’s 95th milestone, scheduled to take place this summer.
As a television commentator, the Ontario native has appeared on ESPN, SportsNet New York and Fox Sports. He has been part of the broadcasting teams for NBC Sports and CBS Sports. He is also a Level 2 hockey referee and has refereed more than 300 games. At the same time, Mr. Warkentin is an accomplished voice-over artist.
All of it, he said, goes back to Seneca.
“Looking at my Seneca certificate on the wall, I still can’t believe I was a high honours graduate,” he recalled.
“I wasn’t a very good student in high school but when I joined Seneca, I turned around. My whole academic career changed. I started to excel in almost every subject. At Seneca, I did all kinds of things. I worked at the radio station. I was captain of the radio and TV intramural team and I was a DJ as well. It was lots of fun and the social atmosphere was great. It was easy for me to learn in that environment.”
While Mr. Warkentin had aspired to follow in the footsteps of legendary Canadian sportscasters Danny Gallivan and Foster Hewitt and become a play-by-play hockey commentator, he did not let go of other opportunities that added to his skills, allowed him to network and supplemented his income.
Aside from working at pubs and restaurants as a waiter and bartender and at parties as a DJ, he occasionally helped a high school friend who was involved in harness racing, in which horses pull a two-wheel cart occupied by a driver. From there, he took a summer job at the Ontario Jockey Club and got to do some of the qualifying races as a track announcer.
“I gained my experience that way and got my name out. I’d fill in for people at other race tracks,” he said. “Then during one of my DJ stints at a wedding, I got an offer to work at a Peterborough radio station. And while I was doing radio, I was called by Flamboro Downs, a harness-racing track in Hamilton. It was more money and a chance to get back to Toronto. Besides, I enjoyed the radio work but I just enjoyed calling the races a lot more.”
Mr. Warkentin was a track announcer at Flamboro Downs for eight years, during which he continued working part time at restaurants and pubs in Toronto. When the call came from the Meadowlands Racetrack, he moved south of the border to follow his passion for the sport.
After four decades in the profession, Mr. Warkentin even has a champion horse named after him. Ken Warkentin, the trotter, has made almost $1 million in prize money and currently lives in Sweden.
“The best piece of advice I got early on in life was that one should try different things,” he said. “You should follow your dreams but once you find something you like, don’t rest on that — take classes, learn new skills, keep looking for something else, a side gig perhaps, and diversify. One should always have something in the back pocket in case things don’t come through. If you have additional skills, you will be just fine.”