05/29/2013 3:23PM

Jay Hovdey: Denman's days of leisure a casualty of Hollywood closure

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Benoit & Associates
Trevor Denman, the voice of Santa Anita, Del Mar and Fairplex, will have less time to spend on his Minnesota farm.

Trevor and Robin Denman were blissfully embedded amidst the charms of historic Stratford-upon-Avon, England’s literary Lourdes, when the news drifted across the Atlantic earlier this month that Hollywood Park was officially closing for business at the end of the year.

To say this caused even a ripple in the fabric of the British racing scene would be a gross exaggeration. It was a day and a half before Denman could even read about Orb’s victory in the Kentucky Derby in the local press. The 20 or so regulars at the Coral’s neighborhood betting shop were far more concerned with the results from Fontwell, Brighton or Bangor-on-Dee than what was transpiring in racing’s nether reaches of the former American colonies.

For Denman, however, the new California calendar represents a significant game change in what has been a relatively stable personal schedule of race-calling that began at Santa Anita 30 years ago. For most of that period his widely acclaimed style and Americanized South African accent have been heard on a circuit that includes Santa Anita in the spring, Del Mar and Fairplex Park in the summer, and then Santa Anita again in the fall, with significant breaks during Hollywood’s dates of operation.

Now, according to the 2014 California calendar approved last week by the racing board, it appears as if Denman’s primary clients – Del Mar and Santa Anita – will be in operation for more than 10 months of the year, with alternating meets broken only by a brief gap in July, the Fairplex meet in September, and about three weeks of unassigned dates in December.

“The impact will be pretty heavy,” Denman said this week, just back from England. “My biggest concern is that I’ve got an operating farm out here.”

“Out here” is in the wilds of southeastern Minnesota, not far from the Wisconsin border, where the Denmans repair each year after Santa Anita’s traditional close in April. This year’s trip to Stratford-upon-Avon was special, celebrating 19 years since he proposed to her at Shakespeare’s fabled house. The farm was there, in all its labor-intensive glory, when they returned.

“It’s 110 acres,” Denman went on, “and I can’t just lock it up and walk away. It’s too big an operation. So I’ve got to figure out a way I can still handle the farm and the new schedule.

“I’ve said for a long time now that I had the best schedule in the world. You never got worn out. You always had a break and came back fresh. I guess I’m like everyone else – we’re going into this like blind men, taking one step at a time into the dark.”

Denman is one of a multitude of talented, dedicated people whose lives will be shaken in varying degrees by the harsh realities of California’s new racing calendar. Sadly, there will be people who end up leaving the business because of both the dramatic geographic shifts in racing and stabling and the inevitable consolidation of personnel. No part of accommodating the new calendar will be easy, and it is of small consolation that Hollywood Park, for all its rich racing history, is hardly the first American factory or plant to be shuttered over the past 20 years, in many cases destroying local economies and displacing hundreds of families.

California horse racing, at least in the near term, appears to have the will to live, and the sound of Denman’s voice filling the airwaves through most of the summer and deep into autumn will offer the reassuring impression of continuity in uncertain times. Not since the days of Joe Hernandez at Santa Anita and Harry Henson at Hollywood Park has an announcer so thoroughly come to represent horse racing in the West.

At one point, from 1991 through 1995, Denman called the races at every Southern California racing meet, January through December. Other announcers have survived a similar schedule but in California it was a first. The thought of it would make anyone’s eyes blur and throat burn.

“Don’t forget, I was 20 years younger,” Denman, 60, said with a laugh. “We’re only human beings. Things wear out faster as you age. That’s why the rejuvenation time we’ve enjoyed at the farm has been so important.

“Of course, your enthusiasm can suffer doing a job like mine practically year round. But can you imagine the pressure on a racing secretary, filling race cards for six straight months. And as for six months at Santa Anita and a month or more at Del Mar in December, we have no idea as to how the public is going to receive it.”

However Denman works out his schedule, he figured his trip to England was his last vacation of any length for some time to come. About a year from now, as Santa Anita moves into its sixth straight month of operation, he’ll look back on it wistfully.

“We took a flat instead of a hotel, came and went as we pleased, and had 25 trips to the betting shop,” Denman said. “There were pretty much the same characters in there every day, so we gave them all names. The Dog Man only bet on greyhounds. The Mouth would start yelling, ‘Come on Richard. Come on, you can win it!’ when there was still a half-mile to go. It was very entertaining just getting to know them.”

At the same time, such hardened horseplayers must have known they had an American racing celebrity in their midst.

“They didn’t know me and they didn’t ask, and thank goodness,” Denman said. “I was totally anonymous. Anyway, my accent’s not English, but not American, so they just fit you in as a Canadian.”