12/26/2003 1:00AM

He's the Rembrandt of racecallers


ARCADIA, Calif. - Trevor Denman needed little prompting to recall his first day on the job as the voice of Santa Anita Park. It was a Wednesday, Dec. 26, 1984.

"I can honestly say it was one of the most memorable days of my career," Denman said. "I don't think I slept much the night before. There was apprehension, but there was also tremendous excitement. It was like, 'Wow, I'm actually going to do this.' "

For the past 20 years, no one has done it better. The man Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer described as "the best American race-caller ever" commenced his 20th season at Santa Anita on Friday, far removed from the machine-gun delivery and broad South African accent that at first rang so foreign to the ears of California's racing fans.

It wasn't long, however, before the fans figured it out. Denman was calling the game in a way they had never experienced, even when delivered by such icons as Joe Hernandez, Harry Henson, Chic Anderson, and Dave Johnson. Suddenly, the race became an organic creature, full of jockeys making subtle moves and horses tipping their chances long before they reached the head of the stretch. The reliable, old-school technique of calling names and margins, margins and names, was turned on its head. Once racing fans got used to Denman's analytical style, anything else suffered by comparison.

"Since he's come here and started calling the races, I've quit watching them," said D. Wayne Lukas in 1986, three years after Denman called his first full meet at Santa Anita. "He gives you such a vivid description of what's happening, he's so accurate and comprehensive, that you can just sit there, not look up, and not miss a thing."

Indeed, the Denman way of presenting a horse race has spawned a generation of racetrack operators who appreciate the difference. Tracks such as Lone Star, Emerald Downs, and Thistledown now employ announcers who practice the Denman style, much to the delight of their fans. Denman, the recognized pioneer, defers any credit.

"Someone's always got to be first," he noted. "There was nothing conscious about it. When I started at Santa Anita, I was just happy to have a job, and get a chance to live in the country I wanted to live in."

With some early help from an "American" elocutionist and a concentrated effort to slow his pace, Denman was quick to accommodate his new audience. Soon, his popularity soared to a point where Southern California's major tracks were fighting for his services. Twice, Santa Anita management turned down Hollywood Park pleas to share Denman's services before finally giving in.

Then for five years - 1991 through 1995 - Denman was the consolidated voice of Southern California, wall-to-wall Trevor at Santa Anita, Hollywood, Del Mar, and Oak Tree. No West Coast announcer ever enjoyed so much exposure.

For Denman, the 11-month grind finally became too much of a good thing. Beginning in 1996 he dropped Hollywood Park from his rotation and - with his wife, Robin - commenced a part-time life as a gentleman farmer in Minnesota, not far from the city of Rochester.

Since then, Denman has emerged from his seasonal hibernations, fresh and ready to fire for opening day at Del Mar in late July, and then Santa Anita's opener on the day after Christmas. His first race on Friday - a six-horse allowance field going six furlongs - did not exactly tax the range of his talent. But it did end in a close finish that required Denman to be throwing strikes right out of the box.

It was also the first race Denman had even seen, live or otherwise, since the last race on Oak Tree's closing day, Nov. 9. While his farmhouse has all the modern conveniences - running water, indoor plumbing, electricity - it has no television.

"Hard to believe, I know, but no TVG, nothing," Denman said. "I make my living at horse racing, and when I'm at work I have to be very involved. But I don't follow racing as a casual fan, otherwise I might as well go ahead and work straight through the season."

The view from Denman's Santa Anita booth is enough to inspire creativity. Few track announcers can lay claim such a remarkable view, with the San Gabriel Mountains and the forested hills of Sierra Madre serving as backdrop to the graceful palms and manicured gardens of the Santa Anita infield. There is nary a barn, a freeway, or a construction crane in sight.

Still, Denman's working space is smaller than the average horse stall - crammed with monitors, bookshelves, and a small couch - and his job requires both isolation and bursts of fevered concentration.

"You would think you shouldn't be tired after doing a job like this," he said. "But it's that combination of a little mental strain, and being confined in this booth for six or seven hours. You do feel a little wrung out when you go home.

"But that's the whole point of getting away on a vacation, just washing it all away for a little while," he added. "It's good, and it works, because I arrived here today fresh and full of enthusiasm."

Lucky Santa Anita.