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Hovdey: Two more big stakes and away Trevor goes

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

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Trevor Denman has been calling races for more than 40 years.

Once the final race is run Sunday afternoon at Del Mar, California racing’s most recognizable voice will fall silent until next July, when Trevor Denman returns from the tranquility of his southeastern Minnesota farm.

Meanwhile, California’s second most familiar race caller has been silenced, now that Michael Wrona has been replaced as Santa Anita Park announcer by Frank Mirahmadi.

There are readers who will respond with a resounding “So what,” referring to their utter lack of interest in the subject, rather than the classic Miles Davis tune. Track announcers can seem both interchangeable and anonymous in today’s racing marketplace, their contributions marginalized by sketchy public-address systems and muted offtrack video screens.

John Cherwa, writing for the Los Angeles Times, asserted that, “Wrona’s firing and whoever replaces him will have absolutely no impact on if people will come to, or bet on, the track,”

For the record, Tim Ritvo, the man who declined to renew Wrona’s contract and hired Mirahmadi, does not agree.

“The caller is an intricate part of your product, no different from the music and the lighting in a restaurant as an important part of the whole experience,” Ritvo said. “They can definitely bring an audience to the track, or even run some people away, depending on who it is.”

At the same time, exposure to race calling has never been more intimate. An overwhelming share of the product is being consumed through individual experience with a digital device or from a video screen providing in-home access. Stir in the constant supply of replays used for handicapping and historical research, and you have a fan culture deeply familiar with the entire cast of North America’s announcers.

Few of them, however, have achieved the iconic status of Denman, who at one point in his long career called the entire Southern California circuit. Now, with only Del Mar summer and fall on his plate, he and his wife, Robin, spend most of their time at the farm, enjoying a newly built house and the snowy isolation of a long Minnesota winter.

“If you don’t have to work in it, it’s quite beautiful and peaceful,” Denman said.

For some time, Denman, 66, has been a godfather of sorts to the next generation of track announcers. Miramahdi, 51, credits Trevor as his inspiration to become an announcer, while Wrona, 52, succeeded Denman at Santa Anita in 2016 with appropriate humility.

“There is no escaping the fact that Trevor will be dearly missed,” Wrona said at the time. “He sent me a lovely e-mail about a week ago, for which I was very grateful.”

Denman also welcomed Wrona into his Del Mar booth on the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend for a visit. The next day Wrona learned he was out of a job, that Santa Anita was taking what was described as a different approach to the announcer’s role.

“I will bet my life he had absolutely no inkling,” Denman said. “And it’s very scary. When you’re an announcer it’s very hard to find employment. It’s not like a jockey, where you can pick up your tack and move somewhere else. If I was his age I’d be petrified.”

Denman’s last weekend of the year will be graced by his calls for two of the West’s best Grade 1 races. Both the Matriarch and the Hollywood Derby have lingered from the former Hollywood Park fall meet as grass events of national significance. Eastern stables looking for one last hurrah circle the Del Mar dates with enthusiasm, and this year is no different.

In Saturday’s Derby, River Boyne, an Irish colt who has won six of nine starts for Jeff Mullins since his U.S. debut at Del Mar a year ago, will face earnest challenges from 3-year-olds trained by Tom Morley (Carrick), Christophe Clement (Have At It), George Weaver (Way Early), and Chad Brown (Raging Bull and Instilled Regard).

Then, in Sunday’s Matriarch, Denman will be confronted by an exotic menu of names that will include Uni, Quidura, Dona Bruja, Fahan Mura, Rymska, Valadorna, and Vasilika. Going a mile, kicking like demons through the short Del Mar stretch, you can rest assured most of them will be clustered under a blanket at the wire.

And then, poof, like that, Trevor’s gone. Until next summer.

“Bettors are not a particularly loyal bunch,” John Cherwa wrote in the L.A. Times, “and Wrona will be a memory, forgotten after the first close beat on a photo finish.”

“That’s pretty callous,” Denman said. “If you wanted to, you could say that about anyone working anywhere.”

It’s also debatable if someone can be both a memory and forgotten. Kind of a Zen concept. Either way, you can bet Wrona always will remember the highlights of his two seasons at Santa Anita right alongside his calls of Cigar’s 16th straight victory at Arlington Park in 1996, Laffit Pincay’s record-setting race at Hollywood Park in 1999, and the race in which Russell Baze broke Pincay’s win record at Golden Gate in 2006. Then there was that little number in the Santa Anita Derby last April.

“It’s Justify by three-quarters of a length,” Wrona proclaimed as the field passed the eighth pole. “Bolt d’Oro trying ever so hard. But Justify, another exhilarating exhibition by this supremely gifted athlete. He’s on a dizzying ascent to greatness, winning the Santa Anita Derby clearly from Bolt d’Oro.”

Anyway, he got that right.

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Photo Credits:   Vassar Photography (Northern CA)  |  Benoit Photo (Southern CA)  |  Michael J. Marten (Southern CA)

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