by Neil Milbert
In the late 1960s, Mary Lou Wright hired Carl Becker to call the harness races at the Edgar County Fair in Paris, Ill.
When the fair’s regular race caller left his post, serendipity intervened and young Becker was brought to Wright’s attention.
“Somehow I got in touch with Carl,” she said.
Wright remains in charge of harness racing at the Edgar County Fair and, as has become the custom over a span of six decades, when she holds her racing program in July, Becker will call the races.
“That was my first paying job,” said the 80-year-old Becker, who had worked for free when he made his announcing debuts in Illinois at the Bond County Fair in Greenville and in Iowa at the Jackson County Fair in Maquoketa. This was after spending several years teaching agriculture and science following his graduation from the University of Illinois.
Today he is one of America’s most distinguished race-callers, and in recognition of his body of work will be inducted into the Communicators Hall of Fame at the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y., on July 1.
“It’s indeed an honor when you look at the people who have been included,” Becker said. “It’s overwhelming to think one might belong with that group.”
Take it from retired Hall of Fame driver John Campbell: Becker belongs.
“I’ve known Carl for a long time (from racing) at Springfield and Du Quoin and on the Grand Circuit,” Campbell said. “Definitely, he’s worthy; that’s for sure.”
“I remember when Carl started,” said Ed Teefey, a member of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association’s board of directors and past president of the Illinois Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association. “It was back in my late teens and my father was racing a few horses. As an announcer, Carl immediately stood out as a talent above the rest.”
After he worked at the Edgar County Fair for the first time, “it all fell into place,” said Becker. He started announcing at other county fairs and his work soon caught the attention of Hube Elliott, an auctioneer from Decatur who was co-owner of the Midwest Speed Sale and superintendent of speed at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. Elliott hired him to read pedigrees at the fair and back up Stan Bergstein in the announcer’s booth.
Becker became a protégé of the late Bergstein, the only member of both the Living Hall of Fame and the Communicators Hall of Fame. In the early 1970s, he succeeded Bergstein at Springfield and before long he was announcing on the Grand Circuit, going from Springfield to Indianapolis to the Du Quoin State Fair to Red Mile in a span of six weeks, “and that’s the way it went for maybe 30 years.”
During that time, Becker called some of North American harness racing’s most monumental events.
For him, the most memorable were Burgomeister’s emotion-drenched victory in the Du Quoin State Fair’s last Hambletonian in 1980; Niatross’ thenworld record 1:49.1 time trial at Red Mile later that year; and Jaguar Spur and Laag’s world-record 1:51.2 deadheat performance at Red Mile in 1987.
In Becker’s opinion, “Bill Haughton pulled off maybe the most emotional win in harness history in the 1980 Hambletonian.”
“Bill’s son, Peter, had been killed in a ( January) car accident and Burgomeister was Peter’s horse,” he said. “There was tremendous anticipation, not only to see if Bill could win the Hambletonian, but if he could do it with Peter’s horse.”
Making the final even more dramatic, Burgomeister had won the second heat and Final Score, who was trained by Bill and driven by another son, Tom, won the first.
“The thing that was the most amazing was the outpouring of love and affection from the crowd after Burgomeister won (the final),” Becker said. “They lived the moment with the Haughton family. A lot of tears were shed.
“The second most memorable (call) was the Niatross time trial (in which the pacer broke the previous record by 24⁄5 seconds). There was such an outpouring of emotion, not only seeing him pace that mile, but being part of it. (Driver) Clint Galbraith kept him out there on the track so people could touch him.
“Jaguar Spur and Laag’s dead-heat (in the Tattersalls Pace) was probably one of the greatest finishes ever. Both of them gave it all they had from the three-quarter mark on.”
Becker not only called the final Hambletonian at Du Quoin, but also called the first Breeders Crown races in 1984 at Red Mile, and he had the distinction of calling the now-defunct World Trotting Derby, which replaced the Hambletonian at Du Quoin, from the race’s inauguration in 1981 through 2004.
Even during those glory days, Becker remained a fixture as an announcer on the Illinois county fair circuit and he still does “about seven or eight” stints on the circuit every summer.
“You couldn’t ask for a better announcer,” Wright said. “The people just love him. The thing I like best about his announcing is he’s very good at explaining to people in the grandstand what the situation is (beyond the race itself ). If we have a horse in a race who is related to one of the top horses in Illinois, he will bring that up.”
At some of the fairs, Becker is joined by his son, Kurt, who has the distinction of being the only race-caller in the history of the prestigious Thoroughbred track Keeneland and also does NASCAR races on the Motor Racing Network.
Becker also excels as a pedigree reader and as a Standardbred breeder.
Among the leading auction houses he was worked for are Tattersalls, Standardbred Horse Sales Co., and Kentucky Standardbred/Lexington Selected. He was on the stand for the inaugural Standardbred auction at the Meadowlands in 1978 and was the announcer when Laugh A Day sold for a then record $625,000 at Tattersalls in 1983, and he takes pride in having worked “every Ohio breeders’ sale ever held.” He and his family founded the Hoosier Classic sale in the late 1990s and later sold it to the current owners.
Joining with several partners in 1980, Becker established Fair Meadow Farm outside Altamont, Ill., where he graduated from high school after being born six miles away in St. Elmo, and now is sole owner of the farm that is a perennial among the leading breeders in Illinois in both progeny earnings and races won.
“Carl can announce with the best of them; he runs a very good breeding operation; and he is a very good pedigree reader, which takes a different type of talent,” said Phil Langley, former president of the USTA and director of racing at the defunct Chicago circuit tracks, Sportsman’s Park, Maywood Park, and Balmoral Park. “He certainly has been an advocate of county fair racing—not that he has ignored the upstate tracks, but his main focus has been the fairs. At meetings of the Department of Agriculture, he always put up a good fight for downstate people.”
Last fall at Hawthorne Race Course’s Night of Champions program showcasing Illinois-breds, Becker had the honor of being the breeder of Illinimight and Cruzen Cassi, 1-2 finishers in the Kadabra championship race for 2-year-old male trotters.
The most accomplished horse bred by Becker is St Elmo Hero, a son of Western Hero and an unproven broodmare, Crystal Crickett. When Becker discovered that the mare and foal were going to be sent to a slaughterhouse by the man who acquired them, he went to court, suing the owner for unpaid stud fees and board bills. The judge decided, as reimbursement for the money owed, Becker would be awarded ownership of Crystal Crickett and St Elmo Hero.
Becker then decided to race St Elmo Hero in partnership with his son, Jon. Making his racing debut as a 4-year-old in 2010 in a $7,000 claiming race at Balmoral, St Elmo Hero won that $1,800 pace, living up to trainer Shawn Nessa’s high hopes. But he was claimed out of the race by John Barnard.
The victory in his first career outing was the start of a 25-race undefeated streak for St Elmo Hero, whose first loss didn’t come until the following year in a photo finish with Art Professor in a $45,000 Open Pace at Woodbine in April 2011.
Teefey, who makes his living as a bank president and attorney in Mount Sterling, Ill., has owned mares and stallions in partnership with Becker for years. They have also had many joint ventures as breeders. Currently, they share ownership of the stallion Major Bombay. In addition, they are coowners of the Illini Classic Sale. Teefey also credits Becker for “opening the doors” for him to become a pedigree reader on the national scene and a fill-in announcer at the fairs.
“It’s amazing how much Carl loves the sport,” Teefey said. “He always has had that passion, even during these very difficult times in Illinois.
“I’ve been in the business world all my life, working as a small-town bank president and attorney. I’ve always felt Carl could have been a success at about anything he wanted to pursue. He has a University of Illinois education and he’s very intelligent. The sport is fortunate to have somebody as bright as Carl who has chosen to make it his livelihood.”
Neil Milbert is a freelance writer living in Illinois. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.