Santa Anita would lose its voice without Denman

March 04, 2008 5:13 AM
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Santa Anita wouldn’t be Santa Anita without Trevor Denman. He is as much a tradition as the statue of Seabiscuit in the walking ring. Fans worldwide identify with his distinct voice, which still has traces of an accent from his native South Africa, even though Denman has made his home in the United States for more than a quarter of a century.

Denman and Santa Anita go hand in hand, like NBA players and tattoos, politics and spinning, and movies and violence. Only Denman’s fit is much more palatable, even today, 24 years after calling his first race at Santa Anita. Not that he doesn’t miss a beat on occasion. He’s only human. But his body of work speaks volumes.

Although Denman strives for perfection, his is a daunting and imperfect craft. Describing a dozen thoroughbreds whirling neck and neck at 40 miles an hour, with accuracy and aplomb while the world watches and listens, is no easy feat. Only the insentient need apply.

Devotion and diversity keep him going. Facing the same assignment year in and year out can grow tedious, but Denman has found a panacea.

"I’m so fortunate with my schedule," Denman said. "That’s the key. I can honestly say, if I called races 11 months a year, you’re only human; you could do it, but I think they key to announcing is keeping your enthusiasm. You wouldn’t necessarily become bored, but you’d become a little jaded.

"I think that’s just human nature, doing it 11 months of the year, especially if you worked at the same track for a long time. I’m just so lucky that I break it up all the time. This meet is my longest spell and it’s not even four months. So that’s the ace in my pack, that I continually get refreshed. It’s like a battery. If the battery runs down, you charge it, you come back strong, whereas if you’re going all year long, the battery grows weak and sputters."

When he’s finished calling races at Oak Tree, Santa Anita, Del Mar and Fairplex Park, Denman escapes to his 115-acre farm in the hinterlands of Minnesota where he and his wife, Robin, disassociate themselves from the rest of the planet by holing up in a hermit-like existence. They do so 70 miles southeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul, on the Mississippi River, in a town called Wabasha, where the 1993 movie starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, "Grumpy Old Men," was filmed.

"It’s a small little town," Denman said. "Nobody would even know where it is except for the movie. We don’t have TV, we don’t have radio, and I don’t get involved in horse racing. I couldn’t tell you what happened at Hollywood Park. I don’t have a clue. I don’t see any races until I get back to Del Mar, and I try to stay as far away as I can from the mainstream news.

"What’s the point in going to a remote farm if you’re going to stay mainstream? You’re defeating the whole object. Actually, I’m on 500 acres in Minnesota, but I don’t own it all. The farmer who was there originally sold the rest of the farm for crop land, and then he had this 115 at the back, 85 acres of which is woods, so it’s no good for farming. So I bought that. But I’m on 500 acres even though I don’t own it. You never see another human being, so I might as well own it. I just don’t have the title deed."

No matter the passion that fuels one’s calling, describing a horse race with critics ready to pounce at the slightest blunder has to be one of the world’s most challenging mental assignments. I couldn’t call a three-horse race with accuracy and verve. But Denman can and does, which enhances immeasurably at day at Santa Anita.

Fans the world over will have an opportunity to exult in Denman’s prose when the Oak Tree Racing Association hosts the Breeders’ Cup Thoroughbred Championships at Santa Anita in October this year, and again in 2009.

Denman will be in his familiar perch high above the finish line.

"It’s great to have homefield advantage," said Denman, who called the Breeders’ Cup races for ESPN from Churchill Downs in 2006 and in the inclement gloom of Monmouth Park last year.

"I’ll be able to wake up in the morning and come to the races knowing it’s the Breeders’ Cup and still know the horses, because they’re so famous. So it’s a big advantage to be at Santa Anita. It’s my home track. This is second nature to me, so I’m very lucky that the next two Breeders’ Cups are here, not that you’re scared of going away from home, but if you’re given a choice of doing it at Santa Anita or somewhere else, you’d be a fool not to say Santa Anita."

As for his future, Denman has no intention of uttering his signature sign off phrase of "Good night to you all" any time soon.

"As long as I have enthusiasm and as long as management wants me, I’ll be calling races," he said when asked if he had thoughts of retirement. "The day I wake up and say, ”˜This is becoming a bind,’ is the day I’d have to start thinking of retiring. But right now, with the schedule I have, why wouldn’t I keep doing it?"

The homestretch

Colonel John, impeccably presented by trainer Eoin Harty for the Sham Stakes, got the jump on previously undefeated El Gato Malo and won by a half-length under Garrett Gomez, who, along with his agent, Ron Anderson, is in the process of sifting through potential Kentucky Derby mounts. Gomez rides Majestic Warrior for Bill Mott in Sunday’s Louisiana Derby.

Colonel John and El Gato Malo (the bad cat), meanwhile, are scheduled for a rematch in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5. Gomez, the Eclipse Award winner last year as outstanding jockey and the nation’s leader in purse earnings in 2006 and 2007 under the guidance of Las Vegas native Anderson, is on top in money won again in 2008.

"We want to win as many races and as much money as we can," Gomez said. "We’ll just keep moving forward and try to top what we did last year. So far, so good."

”¡ Except for pure greed, is there any reason the price of gas in LA went up 50 cents in two weeks?