04/06/2016 12:20PM

Hovdey: Wrona poised for next magical moment

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Benoit & Associates
Michael Wrona will call his first Santa Anita Derby Saturday.

Michael Wrona was driving southbound on that long, dreary stretch of California’s Interstate 5, bereft of any sights beyond factory cattle farms and almond orchards, when the phone chirped a blessed interruption. The message conveyed by the caller was brief and to the point.

“You got the job.”

So, there it was, one of those life-altering moments that a person who has just turned 50 does not really expect. Wrona was Santa Anita management’s choice to replace Trevor Denman, in itself an improbable thought, and suddenly the last quarter-century spent as a high-profile gypsy, crisscrossing the continent while plying his unique trade, was rendered as elaborate prologue to a dream come true.

“Suddenly, my head was spinning,” Wrona said. “I was lucky to keep the car on the road.”

Two weeks later, Wrona was treating himself to a collection of past Santa Anita Derby videos as his first call of the historic event approached on Saturday.

“I wanted to get into the groove of this magic week that’s coming up,” Wrona said. “I never get tired of watching Sunday Silence, and his win in the Santa Anita Derby really stood out. Of course, he was always a significant horse for me and could still be the best horse I’ve ever called.”

They say you never forget your first romance, so the feeling must be similar for a race-caller when the sound of his voice first intones names like “Secretariat,” “John Henry,” or “Zenyatta.” Wrona was 24 and fresh from his native Australia when he manned the microphone for the 1990 spring meet at Hollywood Park, where 1989 Horse of the Year Sunday Silence won his first start as a 4-year-old in the Californian.

Unfortunately, what Wrona hoped would be a steady job at a marquee track turned into a series of frustrations, as managements changed, dates shifted, and tracks were sold, went temporarily dark, or closed completely.

But like Ishmael clinging to a piece of flotsam from the Pequod, Wrona managed to survive the shipwrecks. His travels even put him in the booth for several of the game’s watershed moments: Cigar’s 16th straight victory in the 1996 Citation Challenge at Arlington Park, Laffit Pincay’s record 8,834th winner at Hollywood Park in 1999, Russell Baze’s record 9,531st victory at Bay Meadows in 2006.

Such moments tend to occur more often at a place like Santa Anita, where the stars of the game are on display in races that lead to attacks on the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup. The voice of the Santa Anita announcer has been attached to every great horse and rider to have competed in the West since Christmas of 1934, when Joe Hernandez called Santa Anita’s opening day.

“I can’t imagine ever losing the feeling of awe just walking from the car to the press elevator, through the paddock gardens and statues every day, one of them the bronze of Joe Hernandez,” Wrona said. “How many racetracks honor one of their announcers like that?”

Hernandez was on the job until his death in 1972, while Denman began his long tenure in 1983. In between, there were memorable stints with star callers Dave Johnson and Chic Anderson, as well as transitional roles filled by the talented Alan Buchdahl and Terry Gilligan.

In the end, though, Wrona must deal with not only the footprints of Hernandez and Denman but also the reputation of Santa Anita itself.

“There’s no doubting the extra pressure,” Wrona said. “Every day I’m amazed at the massive amount of money bet into these pools at Santa Anita. You feel an added responsibility to not mislead or misinform the people who’ve invested in these races. Even the inflection as you say something about a horse can raise or dash hopes, and I’m very mindful of that.”

As a result of Denman’s resignation from Santa Anita in mid-December, Wrona’s hiring came at the end of an unusual search process. Wrona, who already worked for The Stronach Group’s Golden Gate Fields, alternated three-week stints with the popular Frank Mirahmadi, whose circuit included Oaklawn, Monmouth Park, Los Alamitos, and Northern California fairs. In addition, the Santa Anita microphone was turned over to Craig Evans of Australia and David Fitzgerald of England for weekend tryouts.

Whether or not Wrona had a leg up because he already worked for the company is open to speculation. He’d been on the other end before, when Churchill Downs bought Fair Grounds in 2004 and brought in its Arlington Park announcer, John Dooley, to replace Wrona in the shake-up.

“It’s never easy following somebody who has enjoyed the career Trevor has,” Wrona said. “Maybe somehow the protracted audition process has served to create a little buffer, but there is no escaping the fact that Trevor will be dearly missed. He sent me a lovely e-mail about a week ago, for which I was very grateful.”

Denman’s first of his 33 Santa Anita Derby calls was the 1983 version won by Marfa in a mild upset of the favored Desert Wine. Hernandez called 34 runnings, beginning with the 1935 edition won by longshot Gillie for Greentree Farm. For his first of who knows how many, Wrona gets a field on Saturday that will feature local hopefuls Mor Spirit, Danzing Candy, Uncle Lino, Smokey Image, and Exaggerator. It’s safe to say Wrona is psyched.

“I am,” he said. “And I give Joe’s statue a silent nod every day.”