09/21/2008 11:00PM

A golden throat celebrates silver anniversary

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ARCADIA, Calif. - A quarter-century later, the chaos remains a vivid memory.

Trevor Denman, age 31, fresh off the plane from Durban, South Africa, stood in the announcer's booth atop Santa Anita, preparing to call the first race of the 1983 Oak Tree meeting. Things were not going smoothly. A radio technician was frantically trying to repair a broken communication line at the moment when Denman needed a moment of calm.

"It couldn't have been worse timing," Denman said. "It's probably the most nervous I've ever been."

As the field neared the gate, Denman finally asked the technician to leave. He called the race in solitude. Today, Denman remains a singular figure among America's racing announcers.

Wednesday, on his 56th birthday, Denman celebrates the 25th anniversary of calling his first race at Oak Tree. The nerves are mostly gone, replaced by the knowledge that he has become a fixture in California horse racing and arguably the sport's most recognizable voice. A little more than four weeks after opening day, Denman will call his third Breeders' Cup championships. It will be the first in front of his home crowd.

Denman's "and away they go" has become a staple for the start of races at Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Fairplex Park. His "they would need to sprout wings" or "it's just a matter of how far" during a stretch run have become victory anthems for bettors whose horse is romping clear.

Nevertheless, Denman remains something of an elusive figure in his booth at the top of the stands. He makes few public appearances, and camera time for him is mostly restricted to the start and finishes of race replay programs. The voice, though, is omnipresent - he gets recognized about town only when he opens his mouth, particularly in the night spots surrounding racing-mad Del Mar.

"They always want 'And away they go,' " he said. "It's embarrassing, but it's all in good fun."

The years, he said, have flown by. "It feels like 10 years," he said between races last week at Fairplex Park. "Anyone who is under 25 wouldn't have been alive when I got here. That's kind of frightening."

His calls have changed over the years, the voice more Americanized. At the start of his career, he was told to call races slowly - "the emphasis was on being clear," he said - while his voice was carried through a dodgy audio system at Santa Anita.

From the start, his calls were different from American announcers. It wasn't just a list of horses in running order, but an in-race commentary that offered a critique that a horse was "not responding," or in the stretch that a leader was "moving like a winner."

Gone, too, was a reading of the fractions, replaced by an interpretation of whether "the pace was strong" or "any slower and they'd be trotting."

The change was noticed immediately. By the late 1980s, Denman was in demand at other racetracks in the United States, including Pimlico. Denman ranks the 1989 Preakness, the epic stretch run between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, as a personal favorite.

"It would win by a nose," he said that race, "and there are 10 in a dead heat for second."

Following Denman's style, American announcers are now more descriptive in their calls, throwing in an assessment of a horse's chances at pivotal points in a race.

"That's why we're called commentators," Denman said. "You could see a shift starting to come. You have to describe the race. You better know what you're talking about. I couldn't call baseball. I wouldn't have a clue what's going on."

Denman said that he is not an original. Peter O'Sullevan and Peter Bromley of England and Bill Collins of Australia greatly influenced Denman's style when he launched his career in South Africa as a teenager. "I stole a little from each and made a unique style," he said.

"If I did influence it, it would have been through more of the Commonwealth style of commentating," he said. "You have to describe the race. It's such a condescending word, but you have to be an expert."

Denman cut back his work schedule in the 1990's. At one point, he called at all Southern California tracks, including Hollywood Park. He admits that he was near burnout. In the last decade, Denman has split his time working among Del Mar, Fairplex Park, and Santa Anita's two meetings and retreating to a farm he shares with his wife of 14 years, Robin, an hour's drive from Rochester, Minn.

"I tell people I could do this year-round, but you'd get a little jaded," he said. "My schedule is perfect."

Through a legion of supporters among racing fans, and a dedicated audience who record the race replay program on cable and satellite television, Denman has one other unique distinction. A bobble-head doll of his likeness was given away to fans earlier this decade.

"That's the weirdest thing that happened to me in my life," he said. "You know, we don't have a place in the hall of fame, so in a topsy-turvy way, it's one of the greatest compliments I've ever been paid."