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Bill Murray film's use of famed U.S. horse racing phrase draws lawsuit

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By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK, March 20 (Reuters) - U.S. horse racing announcer Dave Johnson, who called Triple Crown races for ABC television for two decades, on Wednesday sued the makers of Bill Murray's 2014 film "St. Vincent" for using his signature phrase "and down the stretch they come" without permission.

Johnson, 77, a Manhattan resident, accused the film's distributor Weinstein Co, the producers Chernin Entertainment and Crescendo Productions and other defendants of infringing his 2012 trademark in the phrase, one of the most recognizable in American sports.

The lawsuit does not name Murray as a defendant.

Murray's character Vincent MacKenna, a grumpy retiree who drank and gambled, used the phrase "in the context of a race and in a clear attempt to imitate" Johnson, the complaint said.

Johnson said this would likely confuse the public, tarnishing his rights to a phrase "inextricably linked" with his celebrity persona, likeness and identity.

The lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court seeks unspecified damages. "St. Vincent" grossed $54.8 million worldwide, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

A lawyer for the defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"'And down the stretch they come' embodies all that is good about thoroughbred racing," Johnson's lawyer Andrew Mollica said in a phone interview. "Mr. Johnson owns that mark. If the defendants are going to put it in a major motion picture that earned $54 million, they had a duty to seek his permission."

Johnson's use of the phrase involves emphasizing the word "down" as horses turn into the homestretch of a race.

In 2015, Johnson told The New York Times he began using the phrase in the 1960s, and gave it more verve when calling races at Santa Anita Park in California to combat an ancient sound system.

The lawsuit references other trademarked signature sports phrases, including late baseball broadcaster Harry Caray's "Holy Cow!", basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale's "awesome baby" and boxing and wrestling announcer Michael Buffer's "Let's get ready to rumble!"

Johnson stopped calling the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes for ABC Television when the races moved to NBC in 2001.

Asked why Johnson did not sue over "St. Vincent" sooner, Mollica said: "Mr. Johnson did not see the movie, and I'm afraid I did not either."

"When we knew, we moved," he added.

The case is Johnson et al v Chernin Group LLC et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 18-02485.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Nick Carey and Nick Zieminski)