As we prepare for race season in Delaware, meet Tony Bentley, Michael Finney and Erik Gudmundson, the three personalities who call the races.
Born in St. Louis in 1951, Tony Bentley moved to New Orleans in 1974 to take a job as the announcer at its newly opened fairgrounds. He stayed for more than a quarter century, retiring in 2001. Much of his life and career has centered around New Orleans, his primary home. He’s also worked behind the microphone at Delaware Park, Canterbury Downs and a number of other racetracks. Today, he’s the voice of National Steeplechase Association events and spends much of his year traveling the jump circuit.
For steeplechase fans in the Brandywine Valley, Bentley is a resonant and familiar voice. This year, he’ll call the action at Winterthur and Radnor Hunt, where he’s been part of the action for three decades. He’s also announced numerous times at Willowdale.
Off the racecourse, Bentley remains in the limelight. He debuted as a local theater actor in New Orleans in the 1970s, soon branching out into voice-overs and commercials. He hired an agent who booked auditions for him when film companies came to Louisiana to take advantage of tax breaks. Bentley landed his first gig in front of a camera in 2004, playing a doctor in a Lifetime movie. From there, he landed small parts in major Hollywood productions, including Oscar-winning films The Big Short and Dallas Buyers Club.
Bentley’s energy is legendary. In 1980, he ran the Boston Marathon. He’s waited tables at the iconic Galatoire’s on Bourbon Street, and his cooking prowess has also been noted. Now 70, he shows no signs of slowing down. “It’s all an amazing experience,” he says. “I feel incredibly lucky to do what I’m doing.”
Michael Finney holds the singular distinction of riding in and announcing the same steeplechase race. In 2007, he rode Hot It Up at My Lady’s Manor in Maryland, but lost his mount early on. “I was probably the worst amateur rider who ever lived, and I was even worse that day,” recalls Finney. “I dropped Hottie into the fence, and he clobbered it. The emergency people brought me over to the stands, and I called the whole second half of the race.”
Finney no longer rides competitively, but he does enjoy fox hunting. He’s also garnered considerable success announcing. He’s the regular race caller at several events, including My Lady’s Manor. This May, he returns to the stands at Willowdale, where he’ll keep fans apprised of the racing action.
Finney grew up in the horse business and has fond memories of sales at Fasig-Tipton Company, North America’s oldest thoroughbred auction operation. He discovered polo in college, living in Argentina for several years as he soaked up the vibrant horse culture. His first wife, an accomplished horsewoman, encouraged him to ride in races.
Finney met Willowdale founder Dixon Stroud while playing polo in Gilbertsville, N.Y. He got his start announcing polo, ultimately branching out into other equestrian sports. “I’m truly an aficionado of timber racing,” Finney says.
Finney bases his style on Cawood Ledford, the legendary play-by-play announcer for the University of Kentucky basketball team. Ledford called several Kentucky Derbys and won three Eclipse Awards for outstanding coverage of thoroughbred racing. “Cawood made the game sound like it was happening in front of you, even though he was on the radio,” says Finney.
Ten years ago, Erik Gudmundson took a drive through the bucolic countryside of Chester County, a place he’d long appreciated for its history and natural beauty. To get a better feel for the land, he planned a more personal visit, parking his car and paying for a trail ride. He quickly learned there’s no better view of the Brandywine Valley than from the back of a horse. “I found riding horses is much more than simply sitting on a moving couch,” he says. “I was hooked.”
This year, Gudmundson is helping to bring the pageantry and passion of equestrian sports to fans at Willowdale, providing post-race interviews and color commentary. It’s his first year as part of the announcing team. “I try to bridge the gap between seasoned professionals and first-timers, so everyone can enjoy their day at the races,” he says.
Gudmundson is at home behind a microphone. His resume includes stints as an FM radio announcer and a DJ. He’s also done voiceover work for television. His current leadership post for a managed IT services provider requires immense attention to precision and detail— characteristics that help when prepping for Willowdale. At the height of the pandemic, he combined his dedication for work and his love of horses, taking evening and early-morning video calls while riding Patrick, his 14-year-old Canadian sport horse.
That zeal extends to his commitment to the community. Gudmundson has served as the chair of the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce and is active on the boards of the Chester County Community Foundation and the Chester County Workforce Development Board. “In an area that’s under so much pressure from development, positive community relations are important as land becomes scarcer and more people with no exposure to equestrian sports come to the area,” says Gudmundson. “The passion people feel toward the horses and the respect riders, trainers and owners hold for the landowners and traditions of the sport are exciting and essential to the sport and the community.”