The date: August 14, 1971. The location: Clairwood Racetrack in Durban, South Africa.
Track manager Gerald Lea was there when an 18-year-old, who had been pushing him for a tender, called the first six races from a relatively remote location, not even near the public address microphone. Then Lea said: “Trevor, come with me, you will call the next race.”
They went to the announcer’s booth where Trevor Denman called in the first race in a career to hit the 50-year mark in Del Mar on Saturday. he vividly remembers the first.
“It was the best thing that could ever have happened to me,” Denman said Thursday from his rooftop office at Del Mar. “Mr. Lea was a very intelligent man and he had a lot of acumen and courage to someone so young like me to take a risk. “
With an advance notice of his hiring, Denman would only have given time to build nerves and pressure and formulate insecurities in his head that would have affected his performance. As it was, he made the call as smooth and flawless as most of the tens of thousands of others since.
And for the record, the winner was New Gold, ridden by John McReady and trained by Des Rich; Runner-up Charm School, ridden by Burt Hayden and trained by Syd Laird. In Durban and South Africa in general, newspapers were the most widely circulated and easily available media at the time, and horse racing was big news.
So the story of a new, young announcer’s breakthrough was not on page 1 of the sports section, but on the front page of the newspaper.
“I woke up and didn’t think I was famous, I thought I was ‘known’ now and it felt great,” Denman recalls. “To me, it was like getting the Monday Night Football job a couple of years ago when it was big or something like that.
“People pointed this out to me and said, ‘I saw your picture in the newspaper.”
That was the starting point for a career that reached the half-century mark. What follows are some notable moments inside and outside the booth, by decades.
The rest of the 1970s
“Two things made the announcement in South Africa huge,” Denman recalls. “The tracks were huge, a mile and a half around, and until 1976 there was no television. So people relied on the announcer to tell (tell) what they couldn’t see, and that was very important.
“When television came up, we mentioned things like the colors the jockeys were wearing. It was a shift from calling out to people who couldn’t see what was going on, 90 percent of them anyway, to calling out to people who could see on television. The equipment has changed and the technology has gotten much better. “
The summer of 1981 marked a full decade for Denman at the job he’d drawn to when his sport riding and ambition to be a jockey faded. And he got restless.
“The three circuits in South Africa were very good, but when I turned 28 – and looked 40 – I couldn’t imagine racing on the same three circuits for the next 10 years,” said Denman. In need of a challenge and foreseeing the social unrest and political upheaval before the inevitable end of apartheid, his mind turned elsewhere.
There were only six English-speaking countries to consider, and in four there was “no chance” without a strong personal connection with someone in a high position – who he lacked – for real opportunity. For Denman, Canada or the USA collapsed and with courage, luck and skill the USA became home.
At his own expense, he flew to Golden Gate Fields in San Francisco to call a race on an international jockey day. In Los Angeles he traveled to Santa Anita before his return flight to South Africa and got an audition with track manager Alan Balch on the recommendation of track publicist Bill Kolberg.
That led to his hiring at Santa Anita in the fall of 1983 and Del Mar 1984, where his calling style “analysis on the run” – instead of just going through the names from cover to cover – caught on with Southern California fans and eventually went nationwide. Staccato off; Storytelling one.
This led to his call for Pimlico’s internal network of preakness from 1989, the “Race of the Decade” consensus.
Pimlico owner Frank De Francis called and asked Denman to be a guest speaker for three weeks.
“Two great horses, two great trainers in Shug McGaughey and Charlie Whittingham and it was so close,” said Denman. “That was definitely exciting.”
Talk about busy.
Early in the decade, RD Hubbard, owner of Hollywood Park, concluded that Denman at the microphone was a business asset to a number of racetrack managers.
“He came and asked if I would come to work for him in Hollywood Park,” Denman recalls. “I was under contract with Santa Anita, but he went to management there and had it sorted out with them.”
What followed was a period from 1992-95 when Denman was the voice of the Southern California county for essentially year-round. He estimates about 250 days a year.
“I don’t know how I did that,” said Denman. “But I was much younger then.”
Racers cite Denman’s call for Cigar’s 1995 Hollywood Gold Cup win and Free House at the 1999 Santa Anita Handicap as examples of how he could predict a result before it happened (in the former case) or keep the tension going to the last fraction of a second (in the latter).
In late 1996, he and his wife, Robin, bought a Minnesota farm (originally from there) that would eventually become a retreat once he began reducing his virtual non-stop schedule.
One word: Zenyatta.
Denman named six of the big mare’s first 14 victories before the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic and, like the rest of the racing world, he was excited to see the John Sherriff-trained superstar compete against the males.
“It’s just so nicely set up,” Denman recalled. “The Californian mare against such a talented field. Some said she only beat up California (women) and now she has to take on the best in the world. “
Hopelessly beaten even halfway through, as she often did in her races, Zenyatta came with a powerful rush and Denman’s perfect words gave a different rush to anyone who watched.
“Zenyatta is flying on the grandstand side! This. Is. Unbelievable! What an achievement! We will never see one like that again! “
The this. Is. Incredible! ”The sentence was said in perfect rhythm with Zenyatta’s final, winning strides on the wire.
“Your cadence was just right for this,” said Denman. “I never think about things like that before, it just occurred to me and the cadence was perfect. It was like listening to me walking through.
“Amazing, absolutely amazing.”
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The 2009 Breeders’ Cup was the fourth of seven consecutive years that Denman was the announcer for the ESPN / ABC shows and shared duties with Larry Collmus in 2012 before the event moved to NBC.
The 2010 classic, in which Zenyatta put a winning streak of 19 races on the line, but her later run was only inches close against Blame at Churchill Downs, is what Denman remembered what could have been.
“It was one of those races where you end up thinking, ‘Let’s do it all over again.’
he said. “Man, I thought she would. It would have meant so much to the sport that she retired unbeaten. “
In December 2015, Denman announced his resignation from Santa Anita after serving 33 years with The Great Place. (He parted ways with a Denmanic statement: “It is time to start counting dollars and counting stars.”) He soon started a schedule just for Del Mar to announce the summer and fall meetings and in the months in between to repair his Minnesota farm.
That schedule was interrupted last year when he decided to stay in Minnesota during the COVID pandemic and be replaced by Collmus at Del Mar. He’s returning for the current season – his 37th at where the turf meets the surf – and plans to return it again this fall and beyond.
“I can tell you in my life that I’ve never been happier,” said 68-year-old Denman. “In calling races, in my opinion, it is the absolute calendar year. If you have to work then Del Mar is the place to go. The landscape and the atmosphere here; that’s it.
“Three months in summer, one month in autumn, nine months in retirement.”
And 50 years in a job he loves.
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