I announced my first harness race in 2001. As a recent broadcasting school graduate, I was dabbling in several aspects of the business while prepping for a potential try as an announcer. After all, I had loved Saratoga Harness since I was a teenager after I was introduced to the track by my brother Andy who had been getting into some training and driving before eventually taking over a career as a full-time trainer years later. I practiced by calling qualifiers for several weeks before becoming the backup to “Bullet” Bob Meyer here at Saratoga and announcing the last race every night. After a few years of this, I was hired at Ocean Downs in Maryland as the full-time racecaller at their seasonal summer track. Following two years by the ocean, in 2006 I took over as the full-time announcer here at Saratoga, the track that I had loved since my days as a teenager.
Fast forward sixteen more years and I can honestly tell you that I still love this place as much as I ever have. My bosses, co-workers, the horsemen and the fans simply make it fun to come to work every day. But now, twenty years after calling my first race, I’m stepping back from the microphone. No, I’m not leaving. You can’t get rid of me that easily! But starting next week, I’ll be taking a step back into a part-time role as the announcer at the track. Kenny Livengood will be taking over a part-time role as well and though I will be the “primary” guy, there will be a lot more Kenny in the coming months and moving forward. Kenny has been filling in for me for several years now and has gained quite a bit of experience along the way. I know he will only continue to improve as he moves along but already does a terrific job. Many that I’ve spoken with, as far as horsemen and fans, enjoy Kenny’s race calls and although he admittedly grew up a thoroughbred guy, he has taken a liking to, and more importantly learned a better understanding of, the sport of harness racing over the course of the last few years.
Although I prefer to focus on the tremendous horses and horsemen that we have at the track, I wanted to dedicate my column this week to this topic in order to be completely transparent and forthright about the situation which is really a fairly simple one. My love for the track and my job is second only to my love for my family, specifically my wife Kelli and son Gavin. I have coached Gavin’s baseball team for the last couple of years but with the new schedule the track has adopted (one that I personally think is very good for the fans with the reinstitution of Saturday evenings among other positives), this would not allow me to be at any of my son’s games. My first priority is Gavin and being a father to him and for those of you that have children, you probably can understand my feelings on this. If I’m at work every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it would simply take me away from ever seeing any of his games, being that they take place on weekends and often involve traveling, let alone being the coach for them. I have one kid, I’m only going to have one kid and it is of the utmost importance to me to be there for and with him as much as I can throughout his childhood. With sports, and specifically baseball, occupying so much of his time, I need to be present and a part of it. I can’t look up in four or five years and say “I missed everything. I should have been there more.” At that point, it’s too late. I can’t go back. And honestly, I’m not sure my heart and soul would be in my work when I’d be in the booth knowing that his games were going on and I’m missing them. I give every ounce of myself when that headset goes on and I flip the switch to announce. I hope that it comes off that way in my work but I assure you that I have always and will always be “all in” every time my microphone is on. And in order to do that, I need to step back and assume a part-time role.
Now, I have several duties when it comes to racing other than solely announcing. I make the morning line for the races, make my selections every day to send into the newspapers and post on our website as well as write daily recaps of the day’s events (usually the featured race) and this column which I started, incredibly, back in 2004. I will be maintaining all of these duties on a full-time basis. The days/nights when I’m not announcing, I still will be performing all of those other tasks. As far as the schedule, well, I can’t give that specifically but I can say that during the prime baseball months (May-July), there will be as much if not more of Kenny on the mic then myself. I will pick things back up a bit more as the season progresses into August and into the fall although Kenny will remain front and center in that time as well. In the effort of transparency, I can tell you that Kenny will be calling 40 race cards throughout the remainder of this season and moving forward into next year, we will be on something close to 60-40 split tilted in the direction of me being on the microphone the majority of the time.
I can assure everyone that this decision has not been an easy one. This job is like my baby. When I’m not here for the races, it just feels weird to me. Whether you don’t enjoy listening to my race calls or I’m one of your favorite announcers, just know that I put maximum effort and passion into what I do and to step back and share this position isn’t easy for me. It comes with several negatives for me personally. But at the same time, I’m very excited to be able to be there for my son throughout his trials and tribulations as he follows his path through travel baseball. I love coaching and he loves that I’m there to do it. I enjoy the competition and helping to educate kids who already at this young age have a passion for the sport. But being with him on this journey for as much as I can be is really the key to this whole upcoming change. I have the full support of my family and my bosses in this big life change for which I’m extremely grateful. And I still love this job, as much now as ever, and will continue to embrace trying to be the best at what I do. I’ll still be missing a fair share of Gavin’s games as well as other activities he participates in but I need to be there as much as I can for my son and our team. I know there will be mixed opinions on the scenario that I presented to all of you in this column and I understand them all. I do. But being a parent comes first, above all else and I hope that you can understand my position. Kenny is a youngster and does great and if we didn’t’ have him ready and willing to step in and be the 1B to my 1A, if you will, then this scenario would not be able to unfold as it will. Thank you all for your support and kind words over the years. I truly appreciate each and every one of you, whether it be horseman/horsewoman, fellow employee or fan of this great track that I love. And I’m not going anywhere. I’m here, and will still be here!!…Just a little bit less often than I have been for the past two decades.
Live racing takes place every Saturday evening at Saratoga beginning at 5pm and continues on Sunday and Monday afternoons starting at Noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!