LQHBA Insider - By Martha Claussen June  22, 2017

TRACK ANNOUNCER DON STEVENS

The 2015 Delta Downs Quarter Horse meet kicks off on April 22. It will be filled with highly competitive 2-year-old races and major stakes for older horses. But one of the tremendous attractions of the Delta Downs racing season is the talented man behind the microphone, track announcer Don Stevens.

His career path has been a whirlwind adventure dating from his childhood when he thought art would be his destiny. After graduating high school in 1981, Stevens attended the Art Instruction School in Minneapolis, Minn., and earned a diploma in commercial art.

“I was very creative as a kid,” Stevens said. “When I was 12 years old, I won an award in an adult art show. I loved art. I didn’t like abstract art. I’m a Virgo so I like everything very clear-cut and precise.”

The art career never panned out. He would later gain diplomas from the John Brooks Broadcasting School and the Oklahoma Auctioneering Academy. Stevens worked in radio and joined the Hertz Corporation as a group sales representative.

While working for Hertz in Oklahoma City, Stevens heard Jim Byers, who was the track announcer at Remington Park, speak at a function. Byers invited the attendees to come out to the track and Stevens was thrilled to do so.

Stevens had been intrigued by the racing industry since attending the races as a teen with his mom at Longacres in Renton, Wash. In 1996, he quit his job as a national sales representative at Hertz after an 11-year tenure, and went to work as a chart caller at Remington Park.

“Jim Byers was my mentor, and I could not have worked for a greater guy,” said Stevens. “He was at Hollywood Park in 1986 and then took the job at Remington Park a year before it opened. For a year and a half, I spent my weekends on the roof practicing my race calls. To tell you what a great guy Jim was, I would rewind the tape and he would listen to my calls and critique them.”

Forgettable First Race Call

So with Byers’s blessing, Stevens stepped into the announcer booth for his first call. It is an event he remembers in meticulous detail.

“The first time I called a race it was a 12-horse field going a mile and a sixteenth,” recalled Stevens. “There was a horse named Bourbon Straight Up. He was favored and went right to the lead. I’m so nervous; I’m shaking. He’s in front, so I’ve got the leader. I get through the first five and realized that I was lost. Coming down the stretch, he’s in front, and this horse named Colloso comes from dead last under Luis Quinonez. I had no idea who it was, and finally pick him up at the 16th pole. I was able to close with, ‘It’s Colloso at the wire,’ but the middle part of the call was awful.”

But, Stevens plugged away and began to get more comfortable behind the microphone. He had fond memories of his Remington Park tenure, but can still remember his less-than-stellar performances. “The worst name I ever had was Sassy Sues Slew,” he recalled. “She led wire-to-wire, but for me, it was like I was reciting ‘she sells seashells by the seashore’. I never said her name right in the entire race. All I could think was, ‘God, I’m an idiot.’ I screwed that one up royally.”

In 1999, Byers departed and Stevens was given the job of fulltime announcer at Remington Park. In November 2003, he accepted the same position at Delta Downs.

All in a Day and Night’s Work

Multi-tasking is second nature to Stevens, who credits his workload at Remington Park for preparing him to handle an assortment of duties.

“I called the races, did the media relations work, hosted and produced the Remington Report television show and wrote the stable notes every day. I did it all, and that’s how I learned.”

Night racing can be tough, and 10-to-12 hour workdays are not unusual.

“I spend at least two hours a day handicapping because I don’t want to go on television unprepared,” Stevens said.

His announcer booth, thanks to Hurricane Rita, was rebuilt as a spacious area in which Stevens can host his television duties, call the races and respond to emails throughout the evening.

Each race card has its share of challenges, but Stevens is adept at juggling. Interruptions occur frequently, race updates, steward’s inquiries, and how about one Louisiana-only distraction: alligator sightings. Stevens has an easygoing personality and can find the humor in pretty much anything. He laughs when he remembers the alligator that wandered onto the track prior to one of the races, obviously causing quite a stir. The outriders expertly ushered the reptile out of sight and Stevens took a deep breath and prepared for his race call.

“The first time I saw that it was surreal,” he admitted. “I thought here I am at work and there are alligators right outside my window. That was crazy!”

Popular with Fans and Horsemen

From his pre-race show, to his race calls and announcements for jockey and trainer milestones, Stevens strives to be informative, but also to make the racing experience enjoyable for the public. He prides himself on taking the time to interact with fans and keeps a steady stream of social media updates on tap. More importantly, he will respond directly to players who email or engage his opinion on Facebook or Twitter.

Stevens shared several compliments from simulcast fans across the country, who faithfully followed the Delta Downs Quarter Horse meet.

“A really nice fan from New Jersey thanked me for making every effort to make the Delta simulcast enjoyable and informative,” said Stevens. “He was irritated at track announcers, who in his opinion, walk in to the booth, bury their nose in the past performances from another track, look up momentarily to call the live races and make no effort to interest their audience about the local racing product.”

Stevens acknowledges that sustaining the interest from horseplayers is a high priority, and interaction with fans is something he truly enjoys.

“I have fans from all over the country,” Stevens said. “One of my nicest compliments came from a horseplayer who emailed me that I mix racing with entertainment and put on a one-man show. Fans have sent me over 50 bobble heads, which I rotate on my desk during the pre-race show. I even had one fan make one of me.”

He also spends time getting to know Delta’s trainers and jockeys. They, in turn, appreciate his interest.

Kenneth Roberts Sr. is one of the top Quarter Horse conditioners in Louisiana and clinched his sixth training title at Delta Downs last July. He was one of many horsemen happy to give props to Stevens.

“Don is special,” commented Roberts. “He keeps up with the horses, riders, trainers and whatever is going on and makes it fun. Don is right on the muscle at all times. We are grateful in the state of Louisiana and at Delta Downs for Don.”

A Fan of Quarter Horses

Stevens has a year-round position at Delta Downs with Thoroughbred racing in the later part of the year and Quarter Horse action each April through July.

Stevens has seen some of the superstars of the Quarter Horse world at Delta. He has fond memories of the incomparable race mare, Kool Kue Baby, SLM Big Daddy, Eyesa Special two talented 2-year-olds, Jet Black Patriot and JLS Mr Bigtime, who went to Ruidoso Downs and placed second in the All American Futurity. Vals Fortune was another standout for Stevens, who called his races throughout his 3-year-old campaign.

But without hesitation, Stevens recalls the Quarter Horse whose presence was undeniable.

“I will never forget going to the VanBebber barn when Tailor Fit ran at Remington Park,” Stevens said of the two-time AQHA world champion. “He was so physically imposing; I and do not remember ever seeing a horse in person that made that kind of impression.”

Tony Patterson, executive director of the Louisiana Quarter Horse Breeders Association (LQHBA) has high regard for Stevens.

"I first met Don at Remington Park in the late 1990’s," said Patterson. "He is a great ambassador for our sport; he truly cares about the industry. We are very lucky and proud to have him at Delta Downs, our premier Quarter Horse Meet."

Eleven Years at Delta Downs

Last October marked the 11th anniversary of Stevens’s tenure at Delta Downs. He was enticed to move to Louisiana when Delta Downs offered him a full-time gig with benefits. Stevens and his wife, Jan, and their children Brooke, Nathan, Emily and her husband Daniel, make their home in Lake Charles, La.

In addition to announcing and publicity duties for the Vinton, La., racetrack, Stevens has expanded the scope of his duties. He serves as television host and racing analyst and writes an annual media guide covering both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse highlights and statistics.

Steve Kuypers is the vice president and general manager at Delta Downs and has high praise for Stevens.

“Don does a tremendous job for us,” said Kuypers. “His energy level and knowledge of racing makes his show enjoyable to watch every night. We are very fortunate to have Don as our ‘Voice of Delta Downs Racing.”

Stevens, 50, reflects that he has called more than 20,000 races, and continues to find ways to add new dimensions to his craft.

"This is not brain surgery," states Stevens. "It's about entertaining and our sport needs a little more jazz. I have had fun with jockey nicknames (Alfonso "Fonzie" Lujan; Gilbert "The Man" Ortiz and Donnell "Mr 870" Blake. Plus we play the best music in the country at Delta, and are happy to take request from fans."

“I love doing this and Boyd Gaming has been an excellent company to work for,” Stevens added. “Is Delta Downs the biggest racetrack in the country? No, but what means more to me than anything is fans emailing me and saying that they watch and play Delta Downs because I respond to them and make them feel important.”

Louisiana horsemen and Quarter Horse fans here and across the country are rooting for at least eleven more years!

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The LQHBA Insider is a monthly feature written by Martha Claussen. She served as publicity director at Sam Houston Race Park for ten years. She continues to be active in writing, fan education and Quarter Horse racing publicity in Texas, Louisiana and other regions in North America.