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He raises the call

Denman inserts a commentator's flair into racetrack announcing

March 03, 2007|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

It is his voice that catches your attention.

The accent is at once sharp and fluid, a remnant of his youth in South Africa. And as famed thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert puts it, "His calls give me goose bumps."

Trevor Denman, the voice of Santa Anita, has been calling horse races for as long as he can remember.

"When they go to a gate, I go back to being a 12-year-old," he says with a laugh. "That never changes."

For 84-year-old Carmen Miceli of Studio City, a racetrack regular, comparisons are futile.

"Trevor Denman is a legend," he said. "The best race caller in the country."

Legendary voices are not new to Los Angeles. Among the Hall of Famers: Vin Scully, who is beginning his 58th season with the Dodgers; the late Chick Hearn, who had a consecutive-games streak of 3,338 with the Lakers, and the Kings' Bob Miller, regarded as this country's best hockey announcer.

Sometimes overlooked is Denman, who is working the winter meeting at Santa Anita, a job he has had since 1983. And today he will be calling the famed Santa Anita Handicap.

As Denman steps into his close-fitting booth in the upper tier of the grandstand where the view is, indeed, grand, it is clear that he is at home in his workplace.

The inside track of grass, so green it must be spring, the outside track of dirt dappled with hoof prints. And, in the background, the blue-green San Gabriels invite stares.

"I never get tired of that view," said Denman, 54, who takes in this postcard-worthy scene through a wall of glass. "It's as if those are synthetic mountains.

"And then you have Del Mar. Different view, but the beauty is the same."

Yes, he is the voice of Del Mar too, every summer -- a job he has had since Hall of Famer Harry Henson retired in 1984.

Then, every September, Denman heads east to Pomona to call the thoroughbred races at the Los Angeles County Fair.

As he stepped to his window perch overlooking Santa Anita, stand-mounted binoculars at the ready, a relaxed and smiling Denman began answering a question, then suddenly stopped.

"Excuse me for one second," he said, turning to the microphone.

"The horses are approaching the starting gate," he said, alerting the sea of people below him, a human ebb and flow controlled by the track schedule.

He turned back to finish answering the question, then stopped again.

"Excuse me for one more second," Denman, said, leaning in to the binoculars and delivering his trademark call: "And away they go."

It is as if he has been doing this all his life -- and, for all practical purposes, he has.

As a youngster in South Africa, Denman dreamed of being a jockey. At 14, he stood 4 feet 9 and weighed less than 70 pounds. He grew, though, and so he did the next-best thing.

Living in an apartment that overlooked the Durban Turf Club, Denman practiced calling races into a tape recorder. When the track had an opening for an assistant announcer, he got the job. He was 18.

He came to the U.S. in 1981 to explore job opportunities and was hired two years later to announce the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita.

Did Denman envision such a long stay at Santa Anita?

"Growing up in South Africa, you're always looking at the big daddies, which would be England and the United States," he said. "When I came out here, I certainly hoped it would go places."

It has, thanks to his ability to speed-paint a race in words that give it life in unexpected ways.

"He revolutionized race calling in this country," says veteran handicapper Jeff Siegel. "Before he came here from South Africa, race callers simply gave you the horse and the margin that horse was in front or behind, as if they were reading off a race chart. Trevor told you how the race was developing."

Horseman Gary Dimkich of Arcadia agrees.

"You can see a horse race with your eyes closed," he said. "He is that good."

Jimmy O'Hara, longtime maitre d' at the Turf Club at Santa Anita, can still hear the Denman call that won him over.

"I remember ... when he came here for Oak Tree. A horse was in tight on the rail, and Trevor said, he was 'scraping the paint off the fence.'

"Before Trevor, announcers would tell you what you just saw, 15 seconds later. Trevor tells you what you're going to see, 10 seconds early. When he says a horse is 'moving like a winner,' you can close your eyes and go cash your ticket."

Gifted with what he calls a phenomenal memory, Denman spends about an hour going over the daily race card until its details are as familiar as his own name.

There are some who say he has lost his enthusiasm, a criticism he rejects.

"A major factor is the break I get by not working the Hollywood Park meet," he said. "I honestly believe if I still worked year round -- that means Hollywood Park -- I would have lost it by now. I may have gotten a little jaded working 50, 52 weeks a year. But with the type of schedule I have, I'm continuously recharging my battery and never get bored."

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