Sunday Q-and-A Part II: Denman, you’ve got to take this more serious

Today’s editions carry a Q-and-A with Trevor Denman, who has been the voice of Santa Anita the last 30 years. That conversation we had with him Saturday at the track was a little less traditional — we were more interested in his favorite episode of “The Simpsons” (the one he was in, obviously), his largest wager and the odds of him doing this another 30 years.
Here’s a more traditional Q-and-A we also wanted to pursue for the 60-year-old South African native …. and away we go:

Q: What do you do with your time between arriving at the press box to announce the changes in the day’s races to when you get into that rhythm of actually calling the day’s racing card?
A:
Handicapping, just like anyone else. Clear the previous race out of your head, first of all, because some owners will have eight horses racing in a day and they’ll all be the same color, but basically, before the races, I handicap and in between races I handicap – exactly like the guy in the grandstand. Probably the only difference for me is that if it’s a 12-horse field, I have to know all 12. They look and can say, ‘OK, he’s got no chance,’ cut it down to focus on three or four, but I have to know them all because if a 100-to-1 shot goes to the front I’ve got to know him as well as any. Otherwise, the principle is exactly the same.

Q: You don’t just come up here and relax, grab a cup of coffee and read?
A:
Well, if it’s a shorter field, and there’s older horses who I’ve seen before, then I do get to do some reading. Right now, it’s the James Madison biography by Richard Brookhiser. He’s a bit of a dry guy – he’s no Jefferson or Franklin. But still interesting. But that’s totally dependent on how the day is going. If there’s a 20 minute gap when you’re just sitting there, rather than stare out the window I’ll read.

Q: I didn’t know you were involved in handicapping while at the track, but it would seem to be a natural thing, I guess.
A:
I don’t bet when I’m calling races. Two reasons: Being a human, you’re going to want your horse to win, which is very poor (ethics), and second, people will get to know and they’ll be wondering how you call it. There’s examples in the past of track announcers who had that reputation and people would say, ‘Oh, you can hear who he’s bet on.’ If I go to Vegas or something, sure, I’ll bet the horses, but not while I’m calling them, from a professional point of view. Then I really don’t care who wins.

Q: How do you calculate the number of races you’ve called over the last 30 years?
A:
I have rough calculations it’s somewhere around 80,000. When I started, as an assistant, I may have called just three races a day. Then there was a five year period of doing races at Hollywood Park, so that made it year-around. Right now, it’s settled into just over 1,000 races a year. So, doing it total for 40 years now, it’s like the least I’ve done working just seven months a year.

Q: You said recently that it was ”frightening” when you said you realized you’d been doing this here for 30 years. Why is that?
A:
You say, ‘It was 1985 . . . that was 20 years ago . . .’ But then you realize, ooooh, that’s much longer, 30 years. Frightening in the sense we’re getting old and life it getting short, isn’t it? Other than that, it’s just a number and who cares. Otherwise, ‘I’ve been around that long?’ It happens to everyone. Sure, the ‘70s, that was a long time ago. The ‘80s seem not that long ago, but you calculate it. Even 1995 is going on 18 years and that seems like yesterday. The feeling is, I’ve been here eight years. Certainly not stale or veteran, or just past an apprenticeship.

Q: I’m sure when you arrived, your voice was much different than was people were used to hearing. But your approach was also very different from the bare-bones way they’d call races as well. You put a lot of energy and inflection. Do you feel as if you’re the person other race callers now imitate?
A:
Probably there’s been a subtle shift over the years that people have hardly noticed, but if you listen to a race in 1980 before I came here, and listen to any track announcer now, it’s totally different. But I don’t think it just happened, and I don’t think they said, ‘I want to call races like Trevor Denman.’ You listen to old football games from the ‘50s – the announcers spoke in a certain way that we certainly don’t hear today. If you hear a football game without the picture you might be able to guess just by the inflection. I hardly say I changed racing, but maybe altered it from what they used to have with ‘chart callers’ – two guys upstairs who sat there with a pen and paper and all they wanted to know was the margins. No fluff, not anything else. Six by two. Three by one and a half. Four by a head. That’s OK for a chart caller, but not for the public. The original announcers in the ‘30s were mostly chart-callers. They got on the mike and called it like they’ve always called it and the public had nothing to compare it against. Our style in South Africa – English and Australian – the tracks were massive, at least twice as big as these here, and you have 24 horses, and it’s absurd to just go through the field so you had to describe it better. You had to paint the pictures. We called ourselves ‘commentators,’ which really is just putting the words ‘comment’ and ‘makers’ together. In America, there were the announcers who were the ones who said: ‘Go to your car, it’s burning.’ That was the difference in the two.

Q: Have your calls changed in particular since most watch the races on TV screens now, even if they’re at the track?
A:
Yes, it has. When I first called races, it was on track and TV monitors sparse through the track, and no large-screen TV (on the infield). It’s gone from watching a race with your eyes or binoculars to watching it on TV. Virtually no one watches it live anymore. We just used to call the horses names, but now, ‘It’s Zenyatta in the red cap’ so the guy looking on the TV knows. Again, it’s a subtle change, but if you compare the calls now to 30 years ago, you’d be able to tell it’s more for television. Now, you’re at the track but sitting at a table in front of a huge TV. Where’s the track? Over there somewhere. Even the trainers are more apt to watch the races on the TV. That’s the modern world. It’s more a challenge than in the days when there was less an obsession with television. You have to be more distinctive now.

Q: The future of the sport – are you optimistic about it? Is it viable going forward?
A: In my lifetime, yes. There are so many factors working against it from the very simplistic thing that we as people are no longer concerned so much with horses. I’m sure your grandfather knew horses well. Almost everyone did in the ‘40s. They were a means of transportation for so long. It was an agricultural society. Horses were part of that. Your milk was delivered that way. So maybe now it’s 2013, and how many kids have actually touched a horse compared to 1913? That’s a major contributing factor. So is the Internet, and Internet gambling. So much quicker and that’s the instant gratification some people are looking for. There are a lot of hurdles to clear, but it’s not anywhere near its demise right now.

Q: Especially when there’s such a grand place as Santa Anita to come and visit and watch.
A:
Yes, this will go on forever. Del Mar will too. Is it moribund? Not yet. Maybe another 10 years. Will the smaller tracks go by the wayside? Probably. And it’s not their fault. The tracks and management faces so much criticism, they’ve tried everything. Look at a circus. Have you even seen one in the last 10 years? At a zoo, the lions and tigers used to be in cages. Those are gone. The whole people’s perception is no one would go to a zoo where a lion is locked in a cage anymore. Things change. If you have to hit a lion with a medal rod to make him jump through a hoop of fire, it’s not entertaining anymore. It’s a changing perception.

Q: I know you tried to get started as a jockey. Have you ever tried getting into the game as an owner?
A: I do own a horse in South Africa named Kings Call. Great name. He’s won three races. That’s so gratifying. There’s no claiming system in South Africa, so once you buy him, he’s yours unless you sell him. In the American system, put him in a claiming race and he might be claimed. But no one’s claiming Kings Call.

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  • LongTimeEconomist

    Trevor, the circus is still around. Ringling Bros is touring major cities in Florida right now. They’ll be in LA in July.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1154396574 Kany Levine

    Trevor, you’re the man. Don’t ever stop.