The voice of horse racing on the New York circuit is silencing himself on Sunday, retiring after a 43-year career in which he also announced Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races.
Durkin’s last call will come in the Grade 1 Spinaway at Saratoga in upstate New York. Sunday will be declared “Tom Durkin Day” in Saratoga Springs.
“The reason I’m retiring is because I want to retire,” he said this week.
The 63-year-old announcer’s career began with a lie. A friend of Durkin pitched him to a man looking for someone to call the races at a county fair meet in Wisconsin, explaining that Durkin was the assistant track announcer at Arlington Park outside Chicago.
No such job existed, but Durkin got the small-town gig in 1971 and he’s been calling races ever since.
The Chicago native grew up imitating Phil Georgeff, the former announcer at that city’s tracks famed for his call at the top of stretch, “Here the they come, spinning out of the turn!”
“In college it became an act,” Durkin said. “I’d get up on top of the bar and my friends are running around the bar and I’d call this horse race.”
Durkin figures he found the job he was meant for in the announcer’s booth. He’s an Irishman who loves to talk and as the youngest in his family he was always seeking attention. Being a Midwesterner helped, too; he doesn’t have a pronounced accent that might make it difficult for listeners to understand.
Four years after debuting in Wisconsin, Durkin started calling races at small Midwestern tracks such as Cahokia Downs, Balmoral, Quad City Downs and Miles Park. In 1981, he took over at Hialeah in Florida.
Durkin was hired to announce the first Breeders’ Cup in 1984 and continued calling the world championships until 2005, when ESPN replaced NBC as the broadcaster. He called the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont stakes for network television during a 10-year run starting in 2001.
He stepped down in 2011, citing the stress of the job. In May, he announced that he would end his career this summer at Saratoga.
Durkin’s biggest regret is his call of the 2009 Kentucky Derby. He made a flub when he failed to notice the eventual winner, 50-1 shot Mine That Bird, take a three-length lead in the stretch. He kept calling the names of the horses in second and third place and ignored the front runner until just before the horse crossed the finish line.
“I just didn’t see him. I was looking in other places at the wrong time,” he said. “I’ve listened back to that once or twice and right from the beginning I knew I was going to screw it up. I was just very tentative and I wish I could have that one back. You don’t like to have those mistakes done with 20 million people watching.”
Durkin has handled announcing duties at New York’s Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga since 1990.
“It is truly fitting to see Tom take his final bow in Saratoga, a place that he loves and where he is truly beloved,” said New York Racing Association CEO and President Chris Kay.
Kay heard Durkin’s voice at Cahokia Downs in his first visit to a track.
“The way Tom uses his voice to build to a crescendo is unparalleled, and the words he uses to describe races are pure magic,” he said.
Durkin’s style incorporates storytelling as opposed to an earlier era of race callers who simply stuck to the facts.
“If I had been calling races the way I do, or the way most people do right now for that matter, back in the ’40s or ’50s, I’d have been sent out of town on a railroad car,” he said. “Race tracks were gambling places and they wanted to present a picture of propriety. You just did the narrative. You didn’t introduce the plot at all. But now if you just did narrative and you didn’t do the plot, you wouldn’t probably have a real good job.”
In the 1998 Belmont, Durkin captured the drama of Real Quiet’s failed bid to sweep the Triple Crown by a nose.
“As they come to the final sixteenth, Kent Desormeaux imploring Real Quiet to hold on! Victory Gallop, a final surge! It’s going to be very close! Here’s the wire!” he shouted. “It’s too close to call! Was it Real Quiet or was it Victory Gallop? A picture is worth a thousand words. This photo is worth five million dollars. Oh no! History in the waiting, on hold, till we get that photo finish!”
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