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Thirty Years Later, Trevor Denman's Still Finding More

By HANK WESCH

Trevor Denman said it feels more like 10. But the fact is, it has been 30 years since the native of South Africa set foot in America and began calling races. First at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting in the fall of 1983, then at Del Mar the following summer.

Del Mar made a big first impression on Denman. But he’s not sure if he made a big initial impression on the fans.

 “I’d never seen Del Mar until I set foot on the grounds, a day or two ahead of opening day,” Denman said. “And it was just overwhelming. Charming and quaint are the words that come to mind. It had a feeling unique in the world back then, and it still has that feel to it today.

“The old grandstand in those days wasn’t that impressive, but the whole atmosphere was just remarkable,” Denman said. “One of a kind. You will never get another atmosphere like you get at Del Mar.”

Denman’s career didn’t exactly get, in one of his familiar phrases - off to a perfect start.

“I don’t remember much about that first day except that they had a really old sound system and I don’t think they had the sound up loud enough,” Denman said. “I don’t know if anybody even heard me that day. Maybe Day Two was better, but Day One wasn’t that smooth.”

They were the first of 30-seasons worth of racing at Del Mar. He has never missed a day. And there have been some great ones.

“The very first Pacific Classic (August 10, 1991) was a huge day,” Denman recalled. “It was a tremendous field and Best Pal winning it as a 3-year-old was really something.”

He called three straight victories by Zenyatta in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes from 2008-2010.

“Zenyatta was unbelievable,” Denman said. “I think if everyone was honest, 90 percent would say they thought she got beat (in 2009) when she won by a nose. How she got up, I don’t know.”

And 44,181 on-track were listening to him when he described the upset by Dare and Go of Cigar on August 10, 1996 in the Pacific Classic.

“Cigar is kind of a bittersweet memory,” Denman said. “If he hadn’t been beaten, it would be one of the most memorable races, but the fact that he lost kind of put a damper on it. The crowd noise that day was, without a doubt, the loudest I’ve ever heard. It was almost like the entire grandstand was rooting for Cigar and he had a chance to win it. At the top of the lane he looked like he would win it and the crowd went absolutely crazy.

 “Then when (Dare and Go) crossed under the wire and they realized, that’s not Cigar, it was just silence.”

Denman traces his roots and interest in racing back to age 5 years, in 1957 in South Africa. He wanted to be a jockey, but didn’t get accepted to the national jockeys’ academy when he was 14. So he turned to calling races, which he started at age 18, and worked at the profession in South Africa for 13 years, until 1983.

That year, Denman came to America to call a few races at an international jockeys festival of racing in San Francisco. On a stopover at Santa Anita he was invited to call some races and impressed Santa Anita executive Alan Balch.

“When I got back to South Africa, I received a call from Alan Balch saying, ‘If you’re looking for a job, contact us first.’ There was serendipity in there.”

Leaving his homeland was not the difficult thing one might expect.

“There were troubles in the country, I had been doing a three-track circuit for 13 years, I was 30 years old and I looked at it as a challenge,” Denman said. “I really looked forward to coming over and I have no regrets whatsoever.”

It didn’t take long for Southern Californians to acclimate to and embrace Denman’s calling style – with its “And away they go,” start, observations on the run and descriptively catchy catch phrases such as “Moving like a winner.”

“Some of them are my very own, some of them have been taken from Australian or English announcers,” Denman said. “The one ‘You can ring up the register,’ came from a taxi driver in New York. We were talking horse racing and he said ‘I bet this horse and he was like four clear at the eighth pole, I was ready to ring up the register.

 “I thought, aha, that sounds very good. So I stole one from a taxi driver. I imagine he doesn’t know. But he might.”

Denman’s schedule for the last several years has him calling the Santa Anita winter/spring meeting from late December to mid-April and then repairing to his farm in Kellogg, Minnesota, before returning to work the Del Mar meeting in July.

“I own 110 acres of a 500 acre farm,” Denman said. ” The other acreage is owned and worked by another farmer. We named it Yasnaya Polyana, after Leo Tolstoy’s (similarly named) farm in Russia. Obviously, we love Tolstoy.

“We have a magnificent time. I take care of 40 little calves. We have all kinds of animals around – coyotes, fox, deer, opossum, raccoons, woodchucks and hundreds of birds. It’s very remote, only one other farm nearby. The house isn’t visible but the top of the silo is.”

The idyllic schedule figures to change next year. With the demise of Hollywood Park, Denman’s major employers, Santa Anita and Del Mar, will have the lion’s share of the racing dates. Which could mean a marathon for Denman.

“From 1990 to 1995 I did do the whole circuit – Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Pomona,” Denman recalled.” So I have done it before. Right now, I am very much committed to 2014 and I’ll take it as it comes and see what happens. I don’t think anybody knows how 2014 is going to go. It’s going to be an experimental year.”

How long will he continue being the voice of Thoroughbred racing in Southern California?

“You know as much as I do,” Denman said. “My wife and I go over it every now and again. I’ve always said that the key to my doing it is a schedule where I have time off to be always fresh. As long I enjoy doing it, and I have the enthusiasm to do it, I’ll keep doing it.”