09/06/2006 11:00PM

New Cup voice in fine form


DEL MAR, Calif. - On the afternoon of Aug. 18, two days before the running of the Pacific Classic, Trevor Denman finally got the call he had been waiting for. And what did he do? He told the guy from the network that he was busy, and asked if he wouldn't mind ringing back in 10 minutes or so.

At least Denman had his priorities straight. The ESPN executive was not aware that horses were just then entering the Del Mar starting gate, and even an offer to call the Breeders' Cup program had to wait in line while Denman unspooled one of his peerless commentaries.

"I wasn't rude, but I suppose he could have said, 'To heck with that jerk. I'm not calling back,' " Denman said with a laugh.

Fat chance. The decision to put Denman in the announcer's booth for the telecast of the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4 was a key piece of the ESPN puzzle as it attempts to wean viewers from the comfort zones established after 22 runnings on NBC.

One of the most comfortable corners of the NBC package featured the race calls of Tom Durkin, and he will be missed, given that his voice is so deeply associated with towering performances by such stars as Personal Ensign, Arazi, Miesque, Princess Rooney, Daylami, Johannesburg, Inside Information, Ghostzapper, and "the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar." His words.

But unlike the unreasonable psychological demands placed upon Charlie Brown by Lucy - "Who do you like better, your mother or your father?" - racing fans never have had to chose between Durkin and Denman, so the transition should be bloodless.

There are Denman imitators and Durkin wannabes, but there are only two true originals. One is the voice of New York, the other is synonymous with California, and between them they have called the vast majority of the most important events to have taken place over the past 20 years. It is only fitting that the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Champion-ships have a chance to provide them both with an international stage.

Beyond his obvious qualifications, Denman is particularly well prepared to call a Breeders' Cup. There will be no surprises. He has been a part of the NBC telecast as sideline analyst and reporter since the early 1990's. He has called the occasional guest-shot race at Churchill Downs, so he knows the playing pitch. Large fields present no problem, since he honed his craft on 20-horse stampedes in his native South Africa. ("I actually prefer them," he said. "Far more interesting.") And he is braced for the possibility of an early November blizzard in central Kentucky.

"I called once at Albuquerque in the snow," Denman recalled. "You could hardly see the horses at all."

Denman even has experience calling a Breeders' Cup, although few noticed, and Trevor himself had to be reminded that 20 years ago he was the voice of Santa Anita's low-watt, in-house radio broadcast when the races came to California in 1986.

While Durkin's voice boomed out across the public address system and the television airwaves, Denman was sequestered in a sound-proof radio booth, painting word images of Lady's Secret romping in the Distaff, Manila escaping trouble to beat Theatrical in the Turf, and Skywalker shocking Precisionist and Turkoman in the Classic. The transmission reached about as far as the parking lot, but there were listeners, especially among the early Denman loyalists who actually booed when their man turned the microphone over to Durkin as the Breeders' Cup races commenced.

"I think the signal just barely got across the street to Tommy T's, or one of the local bars," Denman said. "But as far as I know, nobody saved a tape."

Lost treasures, to be sure. Thank goodness, 20 years was not too long to wait.

Colt looking like the real thing

Denman isn't inclined to play favorites - even with his dramatic flair, he is the consummate, cold-blooded reporter - but he came away from his call of the Del Mar Futurity on Wednesday, closing day, convinced that the victorious Horse Greeley might have something to say about the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"That's the thrill of calling the best races, because when those horses make a run, you know they'll keep going," Denman said. "This colt looks to be one of them, a very nice horse, and progressing the right way - every race better than the last."

That would be Richard Mandella's fault. Horse Greeley was making his third start in the seven-furlong Futurity for owners Ted and Martha Parfet, and it was a powerful piece of work for such a full-bodied young animal, especially since he got himself left at the gate.

"He was standing real good, but right at that moment he kind of sat back just for a tiny second," said jockey Victor Espinoza. "He's so big, though, he broke a little slow. Luckily, everybody else broke straight. I had my view clear, so I could put him right into the race. And what an athlete he is, to be so big and move so quick."

The best thing about Horse Greeley is that he is far from a screwed-down, finished product.

"When he opened up and made the lead he got a little green again, but that's okay," Mandella said, playing coy. "We can work with that."