By Tracy Gantz
As soon as ESPN and the NTRA announced that Trevor Denman would replace Tom Durkin as the racecaller for the 23rd Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, Denman's phone started to ring."I've had phone calls coming from South Africa, England," Denman said. "I've been hearing from many friends all over the world."Not that Denman hasn't called his share of major events. As the regular racecaller for Santa Anita, Del Mar, Oak Tree Racing Association, and Fairplex Park, he has lent his distinctive voice to Santa Anita Handicaps, Pacific Classics, and Santa Anita Derbies. Yet nothing compares to Breeders' Cup day."It's a great, internationally big day, and I'm very pleased to be involved," said Denman, who for the past 17 years has been part of NBC's Breeders' Cup broadcast team as the go-to guy for post-race analysis of trouble during the running of a race.At Churchill Downs Nov. 4, Denman's role will expand considerably. He will call the races both for the on-track crowd and internationally as part of the ESPN broadcast team. A 23-year veteran on the Southern California circuit, as well as having called 20-horse fields in his native South Africa, Denman brings a wealth of experience to the table. But he is still keenly aware of the unique challenges the Breeders' Cup card poses."The two problems are a new track -- you're going to be in a totally new booth -- and 80-90% of the horses are going to be new," Denman said. "Probably 10-20% of the horses are going to be California horses, while the rest of them are coming from all around the world. Having said that, though, a lot of them are in very familiar colors, being from huge stables."Unlike a regular circuit, where a caller becomes familiar with horses from seeing them in race after race, Denman won't be able to see many of the Breeders' Cup horses until they set foot on the track in the post parade. He is planning to arrive at Churchill on Wednesday of Breeders' Cup week to spend a couple of days familiarizing himself with the track and the horses, though his handicapping preparation has already begun."I think the worst thing announcers can do when they are studying is to try to predict what you're going to say or really even predict the running of the race," Denman said. "You know horse racing -- anything can happen out there. You're going to know the speed horses and be even more aware of the come-from-behind horses. Let's say the favorite or a well-bet horse comes from 15 lengths out of it. Obviously, you're going to keep your eye on him, and if you haven't done your homework, you wouldn't know that."Denman also looks out for the newcomer, both at the track and at home watching on television, because he knows what a draw the Breeders' Cup is for people who aren't daily race fans."One of the difficult things is that you're catering to so many different audiences," he said. "The way I look at it, though, is that the real pro doesn't need me. He knows what's going on out there. He knows the horses. Your average race fan is the one you're really focusing on. On a big day like Breeders' Cup, you're going to have maybe as many as half who have either no idea or very little idea of what's going on. For the benefit of racing and to encourage them to come back, you kind of focus on them."While Denman doesn't wager when he's calling races, he keeps a close eye on the betting. It's a talent he's honed since he began calling into a tape recorder at 14 in South Africa and then when he began his professional announcing career in that country at 18."You try to treat each horse equally, but just by a democratic process, you give more attention to the favorites because more people are listening for them," he explained. "A 100-1 shot, let's say, has 1% interest, and an even-money shot has 50%. So you're going to cater to the 50% more than the 1%. Not that you're going to neglect the 1%, but you obviously focus more on the favorites because those are the horses that are bet."Unlike a normal day of racing, however, on Breeders' Cup day, even a longshot could be a stakes winner. Announcers try to bring excitement to every race they call, but a Breeders' Cup race can't help but be special."You definitely get more pumped up for the feature races, probably just because of the horses that are out there," Denman said. "You don't consciously do it, but it's almost subconscious. You're learning the field on the way to the gate, and you're saying, 'Wow, there's Sunday Silence. Oh my goodness, there's Easy Goer.' "Denman diplomatically declines to single out a particular Breeders' Cup race as the one to watch. But he has called most of Lava Man's races this year in California and is looking forward to seeing the showdown between Lava Man and Bernardini in the Classic."That's going to be a great race because they've never met," he said. "And those turf races are just terrific. Not only the American horses, but then you've got the best of Europe in there as well."
Denman expects the Sprint to be the most difficult to call. "You have 14 runners and it's a knock 'em down, carry 'em out kind of race."
The Mile can also pose challenges with a full field bunching up on both turns."It's a trouble-prone race just from the sheer numbers and the turns involved," Denman said. "Because they're going a mile, they go fast. In the mile and half, they canter, but in the Mile they go into that first turn. If you don't have speed, you're going to be so far out of it, you're never going to catch them. But if you go too fast, you're going to weaken."Denman, like all the top announcers, makes a point of getting through the entire field as much and as often as he can early in a race.
"If they're bunched and they're coming to the quarter pole, I'll go to the last horse then as well," he said. "What I try to do when they're coming to the quarter pole is stop when a horse has no chance. Focus in on who's going to win because once they hit that quarter pole, you've lost your audience. No one's listening anymore. You're now calling for posterity. You're calling primarily for the owners and then for people down the road who want to play back and listen to how they ran on a particular day."The Breeders' Cup is a particular day that people will examine and listen to again and again. Denman's voice this year will become part of Breeders' Cup history.