09/13/2012 12:21PM

Denman inspires new generation of race-callers

Benoit & Associates
A native of South Africa, Trevor Denman, 59, started his career in North America in 1983 and is the current track announcer at Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Fairplex.

John Lies ascended the Turf Club elevator and then the rickety wooden stairs that led to the announcer’s booth atop the old grandstand at Del Mar, where his hero awaited at a meeting arranged by his father.

Lies was 10 years old and was “nervous, as nervous as I ever remember being.”

The door flung open. Trevor Denman welcomed his visitor.

“He said, ‘I want to be an announcer,’ ” Denman recalled. “He watched a few races, and from then on, we’ve been buddies.”

That first visit made a lasting impression on Lies and truly was life-changing.

“He didn’t treat me like a child,” said Lies (pronounced LEES). “He treated me like a 20-year-old. He told me, ‘If you were 18, I’d have you as my apprentice.’ That’s when the dream was set in motion.”

The dream has been realized, for Lies is currently calling races at Kentucky Downs and at Lone Star Park. He is part, though, of a larger brethren. Lies, 35, is one of at least five race-callers in this country, all under age 45, who grew up or spent considerable time in Southern California, and whose careers began after the arrival of Denman, whose style has influenced a whole generation of race-callers since the early 1980s, when he emigrated from South Africa.

Much like the city of St. Louis has spawned great sports announcers such as Jack Buck and Joe Buck, Bob Costas, Harry Caray, and Joe Garagiola, Southern California has turned out to be a Petri dish for current race-callers. In the cases of Lies, a native of Long Beach, Calif., or Frank Mirahmadi, the influence of Denman, 59, was profound.

“He has been the influence,” said Mirahmadi, 44, a native of Beverly Hills, Calif., whose current gigs include Oaklawn Park and several of the Northern California fairs after previous stops at, among others, Hialeah and Louisiana Downs. “Everything I’ve accomplished, I’ve been inspired by his brilliance – how he does it, how he changed everything.”

Others such as Bill Downes, Bobby Neuman, and Jonathan Horowitz also said Denman left a mark on them, but as part of a stew, not necessarily the sole ingredient.

Downes, 41, is a native of Chicago and said his first influence was Arlington Park’s Phil Georgeff. Later, while working as a publicity assistant in Southern California in the late 1990s, Downes was inspired by Denman and, in particular, Luke Kruytbosch.

“The guy for me was Luke,” said Downes, who calls races at Ellis Park and Beulah. “When I was doing the results line at Hollywood Park, I would listen to his calls every day. I’d go on the roof and call races into a tape recorder. Luke loved those tapes. I don’t know if it was cheap entertainment, but he always wanted to hear them.”

Downes said his appreciation for Denman was as a student of the craft.

“Trevor is very good at seeing a race,” Downes said. “He’s always a step ahead of seeing the action.”

Neuman, 43, who grew up in West Los Angeles, has been the race-caller at Calder for the last seven years, following stints including Thistledown, The Downs at Albuquerque, The Downs at Santa Fe, and Sandy Downs in Idaho. Like Downes, Neuman pays a debt of gratitude to Kruytbosch, who died in 2008, as well as Denman and Ed Burgart at Los Alamitos.

“I remember going to Santa Anita, standing by the fountain, listening to Trevor’s call, and, without watching the race, knowing exactly whether my horse had a shot or not,” Neuman said.

“Luke went out of his way to help me,” he said. “I was calling at Albuquerque when John Dooley left Thistledown, and Luke called me and told me to try for the job. I’d have never known about it otherwise. I Fed-Exed them a tape, and a few days later I was hired.”

Horowitz, 27, grew up in Irvine, Calif., and as a teen befriended Burgart and Michael Wrona, who was then calling at Hollywood Park. He called his first race at Los Alamitos because one of the Quarter Horse races on a stakes program was named in honor of a youth association. He received national exposure, still as a teen, when invited to be one of the race-callers on an All-Star Announcers card preceding the 2002 Breeders’ Cup at Arlington.

“I was with my idols – Tom Durkin, Luke Kruytbosch, Trevor Denman, John Dooley,” Horowitz said.

After getting an undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California and a master’s at the University of Maryland, Horowitz got a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but has taken leaves of absence from that position to call races at Arapahoe and Zia Park. His style is an amalgamation of Denman, Wrona, and Britain’s Simon Holt, one of Horowitz’s mentors.

“The first time I met Trevor, to me it was like someone who wants to be a sports broadcaster getting a chance to discuss the craft with Bob Costas,” Horowitz said. “He was open and gave advice to someone who wanted to do what he was doing.”

Horowitz is a racing historian and appreciates the notable race-callers who have made Southern California their home.

“Maybe I’m a little biased, but to me, Harry Henson and Joe Hernandez, when you hear their voices, that was the way to call a race in their era,” he said. “They were the standard.”

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Horowitz was actually given one of his first big breaks by one of Henson’s sons. Horowitz was practicing calling races into a tape recorder in the Vessels Club at Los Alamitos when the track’s general manager approached him.

“I thought he was going to tell me to stop bothering people,” Horowitz said. “He said his name was Rick Henson, and I immediately thought of Harry Henson.”

It was Rick Henson who arranged for Horowitz to call his first race, thinking it appropriate to have a teenager call a race named for a youth organization. Horowitz also was active then in Kids to the Cup, founded by Trudy McCaffery and overseen by John DeSantis.

“Looking back, I appreciate all the people who took an interest in me,” Horowitz said. “They gave me great guidance. It’s cool to have people like that in your court.”

Lies, the son of a trainer, made annual Del Mar pilgrimages to Denman after that first visit. He said Denman encouraged him to have his own style, not to merely mimic Denman. In addition, Denman offered guidance on various aspects of the business, like how to deal with track management, something that proved invaluable once Lies starting calling races professionally.

“Everything you could think of,” Lies said. “It was like having the best person you could possibly look up to in your corner.”

All five announcers credit Denman with changing the manner in which races were called in this country and opening the eyes of race-callers to a new, better way.

“It used to be very much position and distance,” Horowitz said. “He really changed the approach. It was no longer like the ticker tape in the movie ‘The Sting.’ He added color, how the horses were traveling. He changed everything in the United States. All announcers owe him.”

Listening to Denman, Lies said, “set the example of how to do it.” Lies has kept a tape from 1991 that he says he’ll cue up every so often as a reminder of what struck him at such a young age about Denman’s style.

“Every choice of word,” Lies said. “It was like, ‘This is what you should be looking for. This is what’s important.’ It’s like having a Master Class.”

Neuman said one of the things he picked up from Denman was to always be cognizant of the position of the favorite.

“You’re either betting on the favorite or trying to beat him,” Neuman said. “He knows exactly that that’s who everyone’s interested in.”

Downes said he was impressed that Denman never read off fractions, believing an announcer “should be able to tell the pace just by feel.”

Mirahmadi was such a fan of Denman’s that, while living in Baton Rouge, La., in the early 1990s, he would phone a friend each night in Southern California and listen to the local race replay show.

“I know it sounds so absurd,” Mirahmadi said. “I called Trevor in the summer of 1990 and told him I wanted to meet him. I didn’t know him. I wasn’t even going up there asking how to be a track announcer. I was just a fan. I just wanted to pay tribute to him. I met him that summer at Del Mar. He was great.

“It’s funny, because my initial impression of him, when he first came here, was not good. Dave Johnson had been calling at Santa Anita before him, and he was great. I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’ But then you hear his calls. His vocal control is amazing. His voice is so powerful, he doesn’t have to yell. He’s very calm. He knows how to let his voice create excitement.

“I think everyone would agree it’s his ability to read the race that sets him apart,” Mirahmadi added. “He can see who’s ready to make their move before anybody else. It’s an uncanny ability. When he gives you a ‘let’s see,’ you better pay attention. When he says a horse is ‘telling them they’ve got to pick up their feet,’ he’s basically telling you it’s lights out.”

To Denman, though, calling races in his style was simply new to American ears but was the standard in his native South Africa.

“To be fair, most of the announcers in the 1960s and 1970s had been chart callers,” Denman said. “It’s a great way to call a race for a chart, but not the way to call for the public.”

Denman’s flair for capturing the moment is probably best exemplified by his call of the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, when Zenyatta charged from behind to beat the boys at Santa Anita, as Denman cried out, “This . . . is . . . un . . . be . . . lievable.”

“You’ll never see it again, not against those horses,” Denman said. “Coming from last against those horses. I’ve been in racing 55 years, calling for 41, and that’s my favorite race, for sure. It wasn’t money or the betting. It was the people’s horse.”

And Denman is the announcer’s announcer.

“He’ll go down as the greatest announcer of all time,” Mirahmadi said. “I have the highest level of respect for so many others. But I believe Trevor is the best race-caller of all time.”