Famed horse racing announcer Trevor Denman abruptly announces retirement
It was just past the final turn when Zenyatta made her move, starting well back, launching into a desperate stretch run.
From where he stood trackside at the 2009 Breeders’ Cup, trainer John Shirreffs could see only glimpses of his famed thoroughbred, but could hear the urgency creeping into track announcer Trevor Denman’s voice.
And that told him Zenyatta had a chance.
“Trevor really gets the dynamics of a race,” Shirreffs said. “When he starts mentioning a horse, you knew something can happen.”
Not only did Zenyatta storm back for a historic victory that day, the call — “This is un-be-leeve-ah-ble” — cemented Denman’s place among the top announcers in racing.
On Friday, the 63-year-old abruptly announced his retirement after serving more than three decades as the voice of Santa Anita Park and big races on national television.
In a city where fans always want another season from Hall of Fame announcers Vin Scully and Bob Miller, Denman’s departure marks the end of an era.
“One of a kind,” jockey Gary Stevens said. “There will never be another like him.”
For someone who spent a career talking to audiences both at the track and on television, Denman left in relatively quiet fashion, with an unexpected email to Santa Anita officials.
“It is time for me to kick back, relax and enjoy the rest of my life on my farm in Minnesota,” he wrote. “It is time to stop counting dollars and to start counting the stars.”
The native of South Africa harbored dreams of becoming a jockey when he was young, but was dissuaded by doctors who told him he would grow too tall. As Denman recalled in a 1986 interview with The Times: “If I couldn’t be a jockey, the next-best thing would be to be an announcer.”
As a young man in the early 1970s, he rented a flat overlooking the Durban Turf Club, calling races into a tape recorder. The track eventually gave him a start as assistant announcer.
By 1983, he had moved to Southern California and secured a job at Santa Anita, working part-time before taking over the top spot. That lingering South African accent became a signature as he began each race by saying: “And away they go.”
Horses hugging the rail were described as “scraping the paint.” When the leader pulled away, the rest of the pack “would need to sprout wings” to catch up.
His words often matched the beat of the hooves. People in racing heard substance behind that distinctive cadence. Trainer John Sadler called him “the consummate professional.”
Often arriving hours before first post, Denman studied the Daily Racing Form, scribbling notes in red ink, learning the histories and tendencies of thoroughbreds scheduled to race. Once the action began, he had an acute sense of pace, as if a clock ticked inside his head.
ESPN and NBC hired him to work big races and he served as announcer at tracks other than Santa Anita, including Pimlico, Golden Gate Fields and Del Mar.
“He paints a picture for you,” California trainer Ron Ellis said. “I could sit in the paddock and visually see the race with his call.”
As a jockey, Stevens had a similar experience watching replays.
“I would think, he’s calling the race as if he was riding the horse I was on,” Stevens said. “He was calling what I was feeling.”
Though many around Santa Anita sensed Denman was nearing retirement, Friday’s announcement was a jolt. As track Chairman Keith Brackpool put it: “We knew this situation would come one day, but we were selfishly hoping it would be many years down the line.”
With the 2015-16 meet beginning this month, Michael Wrona and Frank Mirahmadi will take over the microphone while track officials decide upon a permanent successor.
Denman is expected to announce Del Mar’s shortened schedule this summer, but his plans beyond that were unclear.
Calling himself a student of literature, he quoted the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus in his goodbye statement. The passage spoke to man’s quest for a happy life.
“He should seek the calm of the countryside and find his deepest happiness and tranquillity of body and mind,” Denman wrote. “There he will find the greatest of all goods, which is peace.”
Follow David Wharton on Twitter @LATimesWharton
Times staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.
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