“I thought I was the next Cardinals baseball broadcaster; I had no doubt in my mind that’s what I was going to be,” Becker said with a laugh as he recalled his start. “Things took a little turn. It worked out the best for all of us, including the Cardinals fans probably.”
Becker, who has spent more than five decades calling horse races, will be honored at the Dan Patch Awards banquet in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 25, with his official enshrinement in the Communicators Hall of Fame coming July 1 at the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y.
“It’s a tremendous honor when you think about the people that are in the Hall and the ones that are going in,” Becker said. “It’s something I didn’t expect and I really appreciate it.”
Also elected to the Communicators Hall of Fame was writer Dave Briggs. Elected to the Hall of Fame were Jules Siegel and Margareta Wallenius-Kleberg, two of the sport’s most successful breeders and owners.
Becker’s introduction to harness racing came at the Effingham County Fair in Altamont.
“I would watch the horse races and I loved them,” Becker said. “When I got to high school, my buddies and I would pick a number and play for a penny or a nickel. I couldn’t get away from it. I liked the excitement of it. I had a favorite horse named Trigger Colleen. When he raced at Altamont I was on edge the night before and couldn’t wait to see what happened the next day. It just kind of grew from there.”
His path to the racetrack announcer’s booth was gradual, but his career picked up steam quickly once he headed that direction. Becker graduated from the University of Illinois, where he majored in agricultural education and minored in animal science, and spent five years as a teacher. He was 27 when he began calling races regularly at the fairs and soon found himself on some of the sport’s biggest stages.
“The announcing part, I thought I could do that,” Becker said. “It all just fell into place. I just thoroughly enjoy watching horses race. We would have some very competitive races at the county fairs.
“I did the Illinois State Fair, and that was a dream come true. Back then, the Grand Circuit went from Springfield to Indianapolis to Du Quoin, and The Red Mile was a few weeks later. I did the Illinois State Fair, and I did Indiana, and Du Quoin and The Red Mile. It was a six-week period and it was exciting. I saw all the great drivers, all the great horses. It just was a real trip.”
Two of Becker’s many memorable days occurred in 1980. The first was Billy Haughton winning the final Hambletonian Stakes at Du Quoin with Burgomeister, a horse owned by his late son Peter, who had died in a car accident earlier that year. The second was Niatross’ 1:49.1 world record time trial at The Red Mile, which marked the first time a horse broke the 1:50 barrier.
“I was very blessed,” Becker said. “Two of the greatest moments in harness racing I was fortunate to be part of. The Haughton win with Burgomeister, there were a lot of tears flowing. It was a very emotional time.
“The Niatross time trial, to this day I haven’t seen anything like it. The emotion was unbelievable. When he hit the wire the crowd erupted. People were rushing onto the track wanting to touch the horse. (Trainer/driver) Clint Galbraith was so generous and so good; he spent a lot extra time on the track making sure people did get to touch Niatross.”
Other top races for Becker included Workaholic’s win in the first Breeders Crown in 1984, the world-record 1:51.2 dead heat between Jaguar Spur and Laag in 1987, and Trim The Tree’s world-record 1:53.3 mile in the rain in 1982. All three were at The Red Mile.
Becker’s career in harness racing has also involved owning and breeding horses as well as serving as a pedigree reader for numerous auctions. The 80-year-old remains active as a pedigree reader and still calls races at the fairs.
“I do seven or eight fairs a year now,” Becker said. “I do as many as they ask me to do. It’s fun. My son Kurt does a few fairs when he’s home. Between us we do most of the fairs in the area.”
Becker’s enthusiasm for harness racing has been a key to his success.
“You have to be excited about what you’re doing,” Becker said. “If you’re not excited, it’s hard to call races. For two minutes, you have to put something into it. I believe it’s always come naturally because I’ve always felt that way. I’ve always been excited.”