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Ken Howard Calls the Melbourne Cup (1941)


In this recording from 1941, sports broadcaster Ken Howard calls the Melbourne Cup.

Curator’s notes

Before TV there was radio to paint aural pictures and in the 1940s and ’50s Ken Howard’s voice brought horseraces vividly alive with speed, clarity, detail and a memorable turn of phrase. His distinctive race calls could regularly be heard floating through the air on Saturday afternoons and on Melbourne Cup day. He described 32 Melbourne Cups, including this one from 1941, in a career that spanned almost four decades.

Good horserace callers require sharp eyesight, a memory for horses, jockeys and the colour of their silks and, most importantly, a quick brain and a way with words to clearly deliver the call as the race happens. For many Australians, Ken Howard was one of the best race callers, and one of the most recognised voices of an era.

Born in Sydney in 1913, the young Howard was a keen student of horses, breeding and records. He made his first race call in 1936 for radio station 2SM and went on to broadcast for 2KY, 3XY, 2UE and 2GB as well as working for Channel 9, hosting the first TV program on horseracing in December 1956. Because of a curious regulation in place until the 1940s, race callers were prohibited from broadcasting at the racecourses. Howard and other commentators became infamous for calling the races from racecourse vantage points such as the roof of a block of flats, the top of a chicken coop and even from a hot air balloon.

Howard’s popularity was in part due to the fact that he imbued his calls with an excitement that reflected the drama of the race, complete with a vivid turn of phrase. Some phrases synonymous with Howard included ‘lunge for the wire’ and ‘London to a brick’, which was coined during the London Blitz in the Second World War and refers to something being an ‘absolute certainty’.

Much to the joy of the punter keen to know how his fancied horse was travelling, Howard was also good on detail. He didn’t just call the frontrunners, but named the position of each horse at regular intervals during the race and where they finished. He didn’t call as many Melbourne Cups as broadcasters such as Bill Collins and Joe Brown, but Howard remains the best known.

Awarded an MBE in 1967 for his services to broadcasting, Ken Howard called his last race in 1973. He retired to the NSW north-coast town of Nambucca Heads, where he pursued fishing and gardening. He died in 1976.