Remembering great Tom Durkin moments

August, 28, 2014
08/28/14
12:45
PM ET

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Change is a word not commonly associated with a place as timeless as historic Saratoga Race Course.

From one passing year to another, the ages-old charm and feel of the Victorian era is magically re-born every summer to enthrall a new generation of fans.

Yet next year at this time, there will be something different about racing at Saratoga.

For the first time since 1990, it will have a new sound.

On Aug. 31, Tom Durkin will step to the microphone and call his final race as the New York Racing Association's track announcer. It will bring to an end an illustrious career which spanned 43 years, the last 24 of them serving as the voice that masterfully painted the pictures of each day's races at not just Saratoga, but Belmont Park and Aqueduct as well.

Be it a bottom level claiming race or the Kentucky Derby, Durkin's incomparable ability to weave drama, shock, excitement, wit and even shtick into his calls have elevated him to the gold standard in his profession.

He was the voice of the Breeders' Cup from its inception in 1984 until 2005 and for Triple Crown races from 2001 through 2010.

A long list of this era's greatest races have been framed by his calls and in many of them the words he chose like "unconquerable" became as legendary as the great champions he attached them to.

Yet he could also turn a mundane allowance race into an internet sensation by lampooning the sound of a crusty pirate.

It's only when you ask Durkin if he has a favorite call that you'll get silence from him. He would probably compare it to singling out a favorite child, except that he finds comparisons like that inappropriate and says it smacks of "too much patting myself on my back."

So it's left for others to decide which diamond sparkles the most, and it's surely a near impossible task to choose just a handful of them that belong on a cloud above the others -- much less just one of them.

There are that many gems to consider.

To best illustrate that, there's no better means than Durkin's own words. The following are not Durkin's best calls -- as brilliant as they may be -- but rather a package of clips that represents the full range of his skills, from his passion to his humor, along with his recollections of what made each of them special.

Enjoy.

Cigar, Breeders' Cup Classic 1995

"One of the things that stands out most about that race was that it rained like crazy and Cigar didn't like an off-track. That was a big part of the drama in the race. The tag most people remember is the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar, but after that what I thought stood out is that he would finish that season unbeaten if he won the Breeders' Cup Classic. He was already Horse of the Year. This was just icing on the Eclipse cake. But the tag I put on after that was that he was faster than all the other horses and Mother Nature too, which I thought was an important factor in his victory."

Rachel Alexandra, 2009 Woodward

"Rachel Alexandra was extremely popular and the week before that Woodward they had these banners made and it was an illustration of her face with that very distinctive blaze she had. They were all up and down Broadway (in Saratoga Springs) and there was kind of a juggernaut for her running at Saratoga. People at the track had signs that said 'Rachel Alexandra, she runs like a girl.' And any time you get that battle of the sexes in horse racing it really makes for a juicy plot line.

"Then, of course, there was the victory and that was the loudest I ever heard at this place. The only thing louder was the cheer for Smarty Jones entering the stretch in the Belmont Stakes, but there were 80,000 more people there.

"It was deafening and this is an old wood building here at Saratoga and you could actually feel the rafters moving. Sound is molecules in the air being pushed through the air by a force. Usually it's your voice and you're pushing air out and that's what makes sound. Well, when you get everyone underneath an old wood roof pushing all of those molecules through the atmosphere it actually made the building vibrate. That was a visceral feeling and she was thrilling in victory."

Victory Gallop/Real Quiet, 1998 Belmont Stakes

"I said in the race that Kent Desormeaux was moving early. I was careful not to say he was moving too soon. To say you're moving early and to say you're moving too soon are two completely different things. He moved early, outside the 5/8ths pole. A lot of people criticized him, saying, 'You know, he moved too soon.' Well, if he had won the race it would have been one of the most perfectly timed races in the history of the game. Jockeys take it on the chin when they don't deserve it quite a bit, and he did not deserve that.

"As for the moment, it was a 20-year drought and Chrysler was offering a $5 million bonus to the winning owner of a horse that swept the Triple Crown. That was a big part of the story and I included that in my call. That wait. I don't recall how long it was, but it was quite a few minutes and they kept playing that replay over and over in slower and slower motion and as many times as they played that over no one could figure out if the Triple Crown had been won or not. Then they put up Victory Gallop's number and there was a bit of a moan."

Rags to Riches, 2007 Belmont Stakes

"Again, a very sexy storyline, with the boys versus the girl. Curlin was a fabulous horse and so was she, of course. I just recall that before big races I jot down the storylines and who the protagonists and antagonists are, the subplots, things like that. It's not something you do on a daily basis or race to race basis. But it was very clear here. It was a boy against a girl and a girl has not won the Belmont in 102 years.

"And the Belmont is a spectacle like no other. It is played out on a majestic stage that was made for that mile and a half race. There are no excuses in those mile and a half races that could be attributed to the race course itself or the distance. At a mile and a half, if you miss the break, well, with the exception of War Emblem, it usually doesn't make a big difference. So when they rebuilt Belmont Park in the 1960's they had a choice that they discussed a great deal. What should be distance of the track be, because a mile and a half makes for a big place and those horses get awfully small on the backstretch. But they decided to make it pure and keep that mile and a half track going because it's a purist's configuration and it lends itself to great moments like Rags to Riches' victory."

Sunday Silence/Easy Goer, 1989 Breeders' Cup Classic

"I discuss things with the Breeders' Cup's marketing people going into the races and at that time I was doing all of the commercials for the Breeders' Cup and basically we were just marketing the whole day around Sunday Silence versus Easy Goer. So when I sat down to figure out my approach to the call, I said let's just focus on those two. If something else happens, OK. So in the call, instead of saying so-and-so's three lengths from the lead or five lengths off the pace, my margins were between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.

"So those margins on the turn were wider for Sunday Silence because he was so much more nimble going around Gulfstream than Easy Goer. Then when they went on the straight on the backstretch, Easy Goer would get closer. Then Sunday Silence would spurt away on the turn.

"The entire call was like a laser beam focused on those two. It then came down to that spectacular finish and for the first and only time I used the word epic in a race call. I'll do that with particular words. I also retired the word sublime after Barbaro's Derby."

Personal Ensign, 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff

"[Jockey] Randy Romero called me up after the race because at Churchill Downs the jockeys can hear the announcer. At a lot of tracks that's not the case, but at Churchill they can. So Tom Hammond tosses It up to me and I'm doing the end of the load and I'm really laying it on thick about Personal Ensign having a chance to retire as the first undefeated champion since 1917 and blah, blah, blah. Randy Romeo heard me and got real nervous. I put a lot on his shoulders right there but both he and Personal Ensign were up to it.

"The set up, obviously, was having the winner of that year's Kentucky Derby against a would-be undefeated champion at the place where they conduct the Kentucky Derby. I mean that will never happen again. I wound up calling her run in last sixteenth of a mile miraculous and that's another word I retired."

Barbaro, 2006 Preakness

"There's two things I deal with in race calls or in any story or novel or play, and that's plot and narrative. That race had its plot and narrative but the moment Barbaro was pulled up that was the plot. That was what the intrigue, for the lack of a better word, was all about. That was where the interest was at that point. So that became the plot and the narrative was Bernardini. So Bernaradini's effort, which was tremendous, got short shrift as far as the call goes. But at that point, that was just the narrative once you saw Barbaro stricken before the clubhouse turn.

"As a race caller, you just react to what you see. You have all this adrenaline in you and it helps you make decisions on the right thing to say. Adrenaline's a good thing in those situations. You just react and describe what you see. My mandate is to accurately and appropriately describe the race and that's what I did there."

Arrrrr, 2008

"I'm very cautious about putting humor into the mix because people are betting. But there are certain places and times you can do it and the place is usually Saratoga. The time is when you have a feeling and know you can trust yourself to do what's appropriate and what people are going to buy into. Arrrrr was just a fun thing and I'm certainly not opposed to have fun in any venue. The racetrack is supposed to be a fun place so I didn't mind doing things like that. There's also shtick and not shtick and that was shtick.

"Afterwards, everyone was walking around town and instead of saying hello, they'd say, Arrrrr."

Doremifasollatido, July 4, 2008

"Again that's a real judgment call. The first time I was shocked at how well I sang the scale. Then the second time, I was at Belmont Park and I had laryngitis, and my voice cracked and hit several sour notes and that was the end of that. The same owners also named a horse Volare, which is a popular song, and at that point I decided I'm not going to encourage people to name horses and expect me to sing, so I let that one lie.

Onoitsmymothernlaw, August 22, 2008

"A fun name and hope that it didn't offend all the mothers-in-law out there; they're wonderful people. You try to get cute and believe me I could get cute with every race, but that becomes shtick and you have to stay away from shtick but every once in a while it's OK."

There is, of course, at least one more race waiting to be added to Durkin's most memorable moments in the announcer's booth.

It will come on Aug. 31 at the Spa when a stakes with an all-together fitting name -- the Spinaway -- will serve as Durkin last call.

There's no telling who will win the race, or whether it will be a thriller or laugher. But for sure, it will have a golden nugget attached to it in Durkin's final words to an audience he dazzled for so long.

In the end, of the all the races this season at Saratoga, the surest bet of all is that the Spinaway will be a classic -- just like every other race fortunate enough to have Tom Durkin's voice attached to it.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.

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