Getting to Know: Don Stevens

If you’re an avid horse racing fan or handicapper, you’re probably familiar with Don Stevens, whose been the face and voice of Delta Downs Racing since 2003. But you may not realize he didn’t get into the racing business until his 30’s. Born in Kansas, but spending his early years in Oklahoma, Steven’s family moved to Washington State when he was a kid. He would attend his first ever horse race event at age 13 at famed Longacres in 1977. You may not also realize he has degrees in commercial art, broadcasting, and auctioneer announcing! Mr. Stevens was kind enough to grant a telephone interview that was conducted August 3, 2017.
5MTP: You attended your first horse race at the now defunct Longacres in Washington state in 1977. Did you become a fan of the sport immediately, or was it later on?
DS: Well I didn’t really see or pay attention to horse racing much growing up. There was a track near us, Longacres as you mentioned, that ran during the summer. Their big race was the Longacres Mile(which is still run at Emerald Downs ). So one summer when school was out of course, my mom took us to Longacres. My dad worked a lot so he had little free time for such things. I had just turned 13, and back then you had to be 13 to even get into that track, of course 18 to bet. So we went in, went to the paddock, and I remember picking the horse with the blue silks. And he won! I was thinking “Man this is easy!” (Laughs) of course I’ve spent the majority of the rest of my days since then proving it’s not! That was 1977, I moved back to Oklahoma where i had lived as a child after I graduated in 1982. Well, pari-mutuel wagering hadn’t been approved yet in the state, so there wasn’t any horse racing when I got there. A couple of years later, the first track in Oklahoma, Blue Ribbon Downs, opened in Oklahoma.
5MTP: So how did you get into the business? Was it something you’d aspire to do coming out of school?
DS: Honestly horse racing was an afterthought. After graduating High School and moving back to Oklahoma, I went to an Art Instruction School in Minnesota, where I earned a degree in Commercial Art. I’ve always been a creative person. Well, I quickly found out that there weren’t a lot of careers involving art that I’d be able to make a secure living for myself. So I worked different jobs , most notably for The Hertz Corporation. But I was constantly trying to expand my skills, so I enrolled at John Brooks Broadcasting School where I earned my certificate there. I started working in radio, and while doing that I met a man named Jim Byers. Jim worked at Remington Park as the track announcer. He’s the one who got me in to this business. This was about 1995. I did a lot of different duties at Remington at first. I would do the tip sheets, I was a chart caller for Equibase, I was the assistant media relations director, I was the on air personality for the Remington Park replay show. They didn’t have a replay show until I got there. I also produced it. And, I was the backup announcer for Jim! Jim was and is my mentor in this business and he’s my best friend as well.
5MTP: You mentioned going to Broadcasting School, but you also attended an Auctioneering Academy. Did you do this thinking it would be helpful in broadcasting or race calling?
DS: No, I was just trying to add another skill to my repertoire. As I said I’m a creative person, so I’m constantly trying to find outlets for it. I’ve done a few auctions. Some of the things they teach you there are helpful, but announcing at an auction and announcing a race are different, you have to speak with a tempo yet clearly when broadcasting, whereas an auctioneer just has a fast cadence. But some of the things learned there did help.
5MTP: You became the full-time Announcer for Remington Park in 1999. In 2003 you left to accept the same position at Delta Downs. Why did you decide to make that move?
DS: In the early 2000’s, Remington was really struggling to stay afloat. There were no casinos in Oklahoma to help, so there was the real probability Remington may close. I had a wife and kids to provide for, so needless to say I was concerned. So in 2003 I heard the job of Track Announcer had opened up at Delta Downs, which is in Vinton, LA, only 4 miles from the Texas border. The announcer at the time, Chris Kotulak, who’s a real great guy and multi-talented, left to go to TVG I think. Louisiana already had approved slots so the situation seemed to be much brighter there. I mailed in my resume, not expecting to get a reply. Well they got back with me, and to make a long story short, I got the job. (Laughs) I really wasn’t wanting to uproot my wife and kids, plus a lot of my other family were still in Oklahoma, but I made the decision I thought was in our best interests. Of course, a couple of years later, Oklahoma got slots, and Remington is still around and doing better than ever! (Laughs) But, we love it here and I don’t regret the move.
5MTP: As a fan of the sport, or even when you first got into the business, were there any Track Announcers you idolized? Do you think your announcing emulates any other announcer?
DS: Obviously, Tom Durkin and Trevor Denman were the two names I looked up to when first breaking in. Also Dave Johnson is another. He works for Sirius XM now and he comes down for the Delta Jackpot every year, so I’ve gotten to know him. Also,the guy who got me into this business, Jim Byers, who’s my mentor and best friend and was a great announcer as well. People who’ve heard both of us will tell me I sound a lot like him when I call a race. I really don’t hear it, but i guess it should be no surprise if I do since I learned so much about calling a race from him.
5MTP: How long on average does it take you to memorize a field for a race you’re calling?
DS: When I was at Remington, we didn’t have house silks, we had to memorize the owners silks, so that’s much harder but it prepared me. When I got to Delta it was much easier. While they don’t have house silks either, the jockeys cap is always the same color as the saddlecloth, so I know if I see a red cap, it’s whoever the 1 horse is, and so on. As far as memorizing the names themselves, it can take about 5 minutes, but usually I can do it in about a minute. For the bigger days, like Delta Jackpot Day, I don’t have to worry about it because I already know who’s who going in.
5MTP: What’s been your favorite race or moment that you’ve called during your career?
DS: Oh Gosh, there’s so many. I’d say the first biggest moment was when I got to call my first Graded Stakes Race when I was at Remington. I think it was August 1999, it was the Remington Park Derby (now Oklahoma Derby) and it was the first year it had been graded. So that was quite the thrill! I’ll never forget that feeling, such a rush of adrenaline.
Also, certainly some of the moments from Delta Jackpot Day. Over the last few years, we’ve gotten to see horses run like Big Drama, Goldencents, Take Charge Brandi for Lukas, who I tell ya, has got the energy of a 20 year old to this day. Exaggerator, even last year’s winner Gunnevera. Most memorable Jackpot itself had to be in 2007, where it looked for awhile we were going to have a triple dead heat. The photo sign was up for almost 10-15 minutes. Those are a few, but I have plenty of favorite moments.
5MTP: As well as the Track Announcer for Delta, you’re also the on air handicapper for Delta. What methods do you use to handicap?
DS: In the late 90’s  I opened up a BRISBET(now Twinspires) account, and I’ve been using the BRISNET Ultimate Past Performances for years, I’m not a sheets (Ragozin & Thorograph) person, though I know plenty who swear by them. I like the Brisnet pps because they have pace figures, which are extremely helpful when trying to figure out how the pace of a race is going to unfold. I also like their class ratings, you can see how a horse performed versus a similar level to others, and I also like the summary sheets. Plus they give you stats on jockeys and trainers for different conditions pertaining to that particular race.
5MTP: How much do you use trip handicapping?
DS: I do watch replays, but working here is a full-time job so I don’t have as much time to do that as I would like. The good thing is being the announcer here I remember most of the horse’s previous race or races so I don’t need to look at them as much. So, yeah I use it, probably more so for Quarter horse’s, because you can see a horse in there that maybe ran 8th, beaten a few lengths, but if you go back and look and see he had a bad trip or start, you know if you have a bad break in a 300 yard race it’s pretty much over. So trip handicapping is much more useful in quarter horse racing because you might be able to find a horse getting overlooked because of a bad outing or two. Not to say it isn’t important in thoroughbred, because obviously it is.
5MTP: Do you ever hear things from an owner, trainer, Jockey about a horse that may sway your opinion?
DS: When we’re running at Delta, we have a 4 day race week, Wednesday through Saturday, but I still work a full week, so on Tuesdays, when there’s no racing, I’m still there in the morning doing prep work for the week, media relations, press releases, stuff of that sort. I’ll also get a chance to go down to the track and barns to look at some horses and talk to a few people. Trainers and owners are often coming to me telling me to watch out for their horse in an upcoming race, or making a case why their horse didn’t run well the last time they raced. But you have to take it all with a grain of salt, because of all these “hot tips” I’ve gotten I can’t remember many panning out (laughs)
5MTP: One of the first jobs you did when getting into horse racing was being a chart caller for Equibase. How many times do you have to re watch a race to fully chart it?
DS: Well, you have a caller and then someone writes down what that person has called. I’ll tell you who taught me the tricks to being a chart caller, when I first started working there, there was a guy, Jeremy Plonk, who does and also Night School, well he was the chart caller at Remington at the time, and he showed me the ropes and taught me everything about it. He’s another who’s just a great guy and very knowledgeable about this business.
5MTP: What one thing, or things , do you think horse racing can do to attract new fans to the sport? It’s getting more and more competitive for the entertainment dollar?
DS: I think the one thing, and I’m not trying to pat myself on the back or anything, but the one thing that’s easy to do is interact with your customers/fan base. When someone sends me an email or a tweet, I make sure I respond to that person to let them know their opinion matters. I’ll a lot of times when calling a race invite fans up to watch me call it, we do giveaways both on air and online. They’re little things, but it makes them feel like they’re more than just a customer, they matter. And if people feel like their voice is being heard, they’re more likely to come back again and again.
5MTP: OK, tough question, and you can’t be diplomatic on this answer. What’s your favorite racing to call; Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse’s?
DS: (Laughs) Oh boy that is tough! Look, I love Quarter Horse Racing, but a Thoroughbred Race going a mile or over, I can really tell a story with that in my call. In Quarter’s,  there’s pretty much only one way to call it because it all happens in a matter of seconds. So, yeah, I guess I would say Thoroughbred’s because you can see a storyline unfolding in most races.
5MTP: I was asked to ask you about the Neshoba County Fair Races that you recently attended. What’s the story?
DS: Yeah they just happened a couple of weeks ago as a matter of fact. I originally went there as a guest, I guess I should point out for people who don’t know about it, it’s the 2nd oldest running County Fair in the country. It takes place in Neshoba, Mississippi, which is the ONLY time Mississippi runs horse racing, and they’re all non-wagering events. In spite of that, they draw around 10,000 each year for the few days of racing. So like I said, I went there as a guest, and the track announcer they have, a fellow named Jim Dance, asked me if I would call a couple of races, so I called 1 Thoroughbred and 1 Quarter Horse race. They also had Harness Racing as well. So, to describe the track, it’s about a 4 furlong… well I wouldn’t say “oval” because its not (chuckles). There’s no announcers booth, , the good thing is you don’t need binoculars because of the size of the track, plus the announcer is located in the middle of the infield. Of course you had to turn your body in the chair announcing as they would come around the track. They had races of different distances, but the finish line moved for each distance because they couldn’t move the starting gate! Wonderful atmosphere though.
5MTP: You have a good presence on Social media, with you very active on Twitter, and you even have a YouTube channel called the HorsemanDon Show. In what ways do you think social media has changed the way fans see horse racing? And conversely how do you think it has changed the way the people in charge in racing see their fans?
DS: I think definitely the immediate interaction that can be had. It used to be at the track, you saw people there, talked to them about different horses, races, topics, and then when the racing was done for that day, we’d all go our separate ways, and those people wouldn’t have a way to communicate with other fans until the next time at the track. Now, they can pretty much express their opinions whenever, and you know if I ask a question on air, usually Twitter in a matter of seconds, someone on there has the answer. Yeah, it’s a big difference nowadays.
5MTP: I mentioned your YouTube channel, I got to watch a few episodes of it preparing for this interview, one of them was just a drone flying around very erratically, what was that about?
DS: (Laughs) Yeah, I gotta get the hang of that! I was trying to film the installation of the new safety rail at Delta. You should definitely check out the other episodes of the channel when you get a chance. Like I said, I have a real creative side and this is just another way to have an outlet for it.

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