When Trevor Denman became Santa Anita's track announcer, racing fans here didn't know quite what to make of him. It was strange to hear a South African accent coming over the public-address system. It was stranger yet to hear an announcer say that the front-runner was about to tire and that the horse in fifth place looked like the winner.
But now that Californians have gotten used to Denman, and Denman has become familiar with California racing, there is a growing consensus about his skills and his style. Denman is the best American race-caller -- ever.
On the best day of their lives, even legendary announcers such as Clem McCarthy and Fred Cappossella never called a race the way Denman does every day at Santa Anita. As a journalist once wrote about Secretariat, "His only point of reference is himself."
All American race-callers work within the same traditional framework: they methodically call the whole field from first place to last, do it again and then concentrate on the leaders when the horses are racing through the stretch. Their style, mannerisms and degree of pizazz may vary, but never the basic method.
Denman says, "I try to let the race itself tell me how to call it." He describes all the crucial action so well that a fan clearly can envision what is happening even if he is not watching the race. How many fans outside of California ever have heard a call like this:
"Here comes Jell making a big move on the rail -- but she's getting shut off! Jell just couldn't get through. It's Pet Bird and the longshot Prospector's Queen heads apart for the lead . . . But here comes Jell again -- she's going to try to go though again. It's Pet Bird and Prospector's Queen, but Jell is squeezing through on the rail! Adrian Alvarez has ridden a great race on Jell to win it!"
In a matter of a few seconds, Denman not only called who was running where, but focused on the key action that would determine the outcome of the race. And while all this was happening, he also remembered that Prospector's Queen was an implausible longshot and that Alvarez was riding the winner (just as he knew which of the other horses were favorites and longshots, and who was riding each of them.)
Denman always takes special care to let the public know what is happening to a short-priced favorite, as he did when a 3-to-5 shot named Dancer Fabuleux ran here in mid-January:
"They go the three-furlong pole and there goes Tamil to the lead with Devon Diva, but Danseur Fabuleux is right there at the rail, a close fifth, only a length and three-quarters off the lead. Danseur Fabuleux has nowhere to go! She's being steadied on the rail full of run. She's dropping back to ninth but still only four lengths off the lead! It's Devon Diva leading from Tamil and Danseur Fabuleux still can't get a run. It's Devon Diva and Tamil -- Chris McCarron and Corey Black in still another driving finish!"
Amidst all the action, Denman somehow had managed to remember that four races earlier the same two jockeys had waged a similar head-and-head duel through the stretch.
"I'm extremely fortunate that racing comes to me very easily," Denman said. "I read something once and retain it. When I started calling the races here in 1983, the American system of racing was very different to me, but now I'm much more comfortable, and feel right at home. I think the fans are used to my style, too. When I started here, I had to slow down my speech dramatically and concentrate on delivering every word. Now I'm back to where I was before I came here.
"When I call a race, I try to identify all the horses the first time through the field. The second call, I'll name the first half dozen and spot the top choices -- if the favorite is going to come from last place I might skip the eight, ninth and 10th horses and call the favorite 11th. Then when the horses hit the top of the stretch, I start looking for the winner."
This is where Denman astounds even the most seasoned racing fans. By the time the field has turned for home, the announcer almost always seems to know who is going to win -- and he communicates it. When he says a front-runner is "going very easily," a bettor can head to the windows. If he says the leader is "being asked to keep up," tear up your tickets.
Not long ago, I was sitting next to a local handicapper and rooting with him for a filly named Shotgun Wedding. We were groaning in unison as our horse was running fourth and couldn't seem to get past the third-place horse. Then we heard Denman's call.
"It's Fashion Book, Quick and Solid, Silent Arrival . . . and that's Shotgun Wedding fourth, going beautifully on the rail."
My friend and I breathed a sigh of relief, for Denman knew that Shotgun Wedding was going to win. And, as usual, he was right.