It might be more accurately mistaken as a small branch of the Arcadia library.
Keeping his mind engaged between the tens of thousands of races that he’s described at this race place for the last 30 years has resulted in a collection of the printed word that exceeds just the necessary reference material.
Sure, there’s the English, Latin, Spanish, French and Italian dictionaries neatly shelved in one bookcase, with an encyclopedia of Greek gods and other mythical figures that often end up used as the names of thoroughbred horses and are subject to a quick, correct pronunciation.
But then there’s the series of Dick Francis mysteries, a volume of poems by Shelley (his favorite), Page Smith’s “The Nation Comes of Age,” and books on the lives of Michener, Khrushchev and Mandela.
Off on the small couch buried under a stack of notes and The Racing Form is the latest biography on James Madison by Richard Brookhiser that Denman is currently devouring.
“He’s a bit of a dry guy – he’s no Jefferson or Franklin,” Denman says of the subject matter. “But he is still interesting.”
On an otherwise normal Saturday afternoon at the track, we could go by the book and ask Denman to recall some of the dry subject matter that he’s surely covered over the years.
His most memorable race call? We know it’s Zenyatta’s 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic victory.
For this, we’re going off the beaten path with 10 questions to test the reflexes of the 60-year-old South African native, whose voice is as connected to Southern California sports as a Vin Scully, Bob Miller or the late Chick Hearn:
Question: What kind of New Year’s resolutions did you come up with this year?
Answer: (Laughing) I saw a cartoon of two dogs sitting there and one says to the other, “What do these humans mean when they say ‘New Year’s resolution?’” And the other dog says, “Oh, that’s something they do the first week of January.” I don’t make them. Maybe it’s not so much a New Year’s resolution, but I do set goals, and by the end of this meet (in April) I want to finish these two courses that I’ve started, one on the mastering of Greek thought and another on the history of Africa. They are tapes from a program called “The Great Courses,” lectures by university professors done by The Teaching Company, and I’ve been watching them for five years. They are so interesting. I always have two in my bag.
Question: Better movie, “Seabiscuit” or “Blazing Saddles”?
Answer: Oh, “Blazing Saddles,” for sure. One of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.
Question: Was there ever a horse that made you laugh out loud as you were saying its name during a call?
Answer: Some names I can look at and chuckle but by the time the race starts, you’re OK. The one I somehow managed not to trip over was called Softshoe Sure Shot (winner of the 1995 San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita). Try doing that one when there’s 12 coming down the lane.
Question: What’s the best episode you’ve ever seen of “The Simpsons”?
Answer: The one I was in, of course (season 11 in 2000). Called “Saddlesore Galactia” (where Denman called races at Springfield Downs and calls the Springfield Derby). That was one of the highlights of my life working with those guys. The nicest people in the world. I walked in there and you’d have thought I was the star and they were just there to back me up. Hilariously funny people, too.
Question: What would rather do, introduce the Dodger lineup during a game at Dodger Stadium or the Laker lineup at Staples Center?
Answer: Well, I’d rather call Chelsea versus Man U at Wembley Stadium, to tell you the truth. I follow American football, but I’m not really into baseball or basketball. Maybe if it was a Minnesota Vikings-New England Patriots Super Bowl, but otherwise I’m a soccer nut.
Question: What was the largest wager you ever put on a race – and won?
Answer: Me? Probably $200. I’m really not big into betting race horses. I’ve been into this sport since I was 5 years old. Let’s put it this way: Not to say you can’t win at it. You can short term. But long term? The best analogy I could give you is the croupier at a blackjack table betting. They’re there all day, every day, and they know you’re going to lose. It’s the law of averages. If you’re there 52 weeks of the year, the odds are stacked against you. So intrinsically, I’m not a big gambler. I will, like anybody else. A game today (in the NFL playoffs) I might put $50 on the Vikings. But do I rely on gambling to pay my rent? Never.
I was 14 once, going to the track in South Africa, where bookmaking was legal. I’m walking around and there’s this enclosed area, ropes all around, and it said ‘Bookmaker parking only.’ I looked at the cars: Jaguar, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Maserati. The penny dropped that day and I knew there was something going on there. It’s like, you don’t go to Vegas and see a Motel 6.
Maybe if you’re a professional gambler, you get used to it, but when you work at a place like Santa Anita, it would seem to be almost suicidal to be a gambler.
Question: Is turf toe something you can get from walking on the artificial race track?
Answer: No, and I loved the artificial track when they had it here. I honestly think they didn’t give it an honest shot. It’s a known fact that mortality rate is down 100 percent since the brought it in. Del Mar has gotten along great with it. We went in with a very negative attitude and we never gave it a chance. From Day 1 it was doomed because of public opinion.
Question: When you’re a the track, you hear things described as Grade I Stakes, Grade II Stakes . . . how do you like your stakes?
Answer: I’m vegetarian. I really am. I’m vegan, actually, trying not to use any product that’s animal based. Absolutely nothing. But then you’ll ride in an airplane with a leather seat – I can’t control that. I believe in ahimsa – doing no harm to any living thing, within what I can physically do. Although, if a lion is charging at me and I have a gun . . .
Question: There’s one betting tip we’ve heard and believe to be about as accurate as possible: Always go with the jockey wearing white pants. What’s the craziest betting strategy you’ve ever heard of?
Answer: When people start telling me about betting strategies, I pull the iron curtain down and I’m not listening. First timers at the race, I’ll tell you, have just as good a chance at winning as those who’ve been here 40 years. The ladies love picking anything in pink silks, the guy will pick a horse with blinkers.
Question: Jackie Gleason was the one who had the famous line, “And a-waaaay we go” – did that have any influence on your “And away they go” start to each race call?
Answer: No, no. We didn’t have television (at our home in South Africa) until 1976. And there was only an hour a day. We had two radio stations. Once in a blue moon we got a race from England or Australia. I never, ever heard an American race caller until 1978. And a Jackie Gleason? We knew all the English guys, but an American comedian, or something he said, no, we wouldn’t have even known that. That’s purely coincidental. I’ve always done “And away they go” since I was a kid. I know people easily assume we were tied, but . . .
Question: Ever have to call a match race between a horse and a human?
Answer: Not quite. One day a guy got onto the track and Del Mar and tried to commit suicide and was running down the track with the horses – that’s as close as I’ve got.
Question: What are the odds that 30 years from now, you’ll still be here calling races?
Answer: Nil. I won’t be able to see the track in 30 years. In a more round about answer, I honestly don’t know when I’ll stop doing this. I talk to my wife about it, that intrinsic feeling you’ll have when you know it’s time. There’s a massive advantage I have in only working seven months of the year – the other five are at my farm in Minnesota. If I did this 12 months a year, for 40 years, you can make horse racing a year-around job. Could you do it? Sure, but would you lose some of your enthusiasm? Any human being doing the same job would. The edge can gone. I still have the enthusiasm for it. I can’t cheat at this. They (the fans at the track) will know if that’s happening. When I see the horses in the gate, I still feel like a 12-year-old again. When the enthusiasm dies, that’ll be the time to call it a day.
Next up: Part II, where Denman talks about why he won’t bet while he’s working at the track, the shift of calling races for the TV rather than for the live patrons, and his thoughts on the future of the sport of kings.