Race announcer David Johnson’s royal misappropriation underscores the value of sports announcers’ voices and catch phrases
The golden voices and ear-worm catch phrases of sports announcers have long been an integral part of the broadcast-sports audio universe. However, they sometimes appear in unexpected places. That was underscored in a recent court case filed in New York in which the sound of one of major-league sports’ most iconic announcers found itself talking to a different kind of royalty.
Horse-racing announcer legend Dave Johnson’s signature — and formally trademarked — line “And down the stretch they come!” was used, along with his voice uttering it, in an episode of the Netflix series The Crown. Through his attorney, Andrew Mollica, Johnson sued the streaming platform and several related entities and persons for the “intentional, and wrongful use” of his “voice and persona, without his written consent,” in the New York County Supreme Court on October 18.
Mollica told SVG that both Johnson’s voice and his trademarked exclamation — as familiar to horse-race fans as Phil Rizzuto’s “Holy Cow!” was to Yankees fans of a certain age, Dick Vitale’s “Are you serious!?” and Michael Buffer’s “Let’s get ready to rumble!” (which he also trademarked) — are an inextricable part of the announcer’s professional value.
Specifically, Mollica said, Johnson’s voice was used around the 32:36 mark in season 5’s episode 8 titled “Gunpowder,” which was released last November. In it, viewers heard Johnson’s unmistakable call of the 1995 Travers Stakes Race from Saratoga Springs, NY, as Queen Elizabeth II watches on television, disappointed that her preferred Cheltenham Gold Cup horse race will not air on the BBC, which bumped it for the race Johnson called. “Down the stretch they come!” was part of the excitement the episode conveyed.
“Dave’s iconic call of that special race was a big part of the show — phrases like ‘Down the stretch they come!’ have built entire careers,” says Mollica, citing Buffer’s wrestling catch phrase as an example and emphasizing that Johnson’s was used without permission.
Mollica says Johnson has pursued similar unauthorized appropriations of his vocal likeness and signature line in the past. These have not always employed lawsuits but whose reparations, he stresses, are all given to charity after legal expenses.
“This is not a money grab,” he says. “It’s an effort to legitimately protect Dave’s trademark. The complaint speaks for itself as does his body of work as the voice of American Racing.”
It also raised the specter of how the proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) could begin to infringe on sui generis sports-sound artifacts of the small but highly lucrative and well-known cohort of sports announcers.
“We see how valuable signature lines and voices like Dave’s are to sports, and [AI] definitely raises concerns going forward about how they may be manipulated,” he speculates. “We’re already grappling with it, and we’re adapting as we go along.”