Race announcer plans to keep it simple
NEW YORK -- For weeks, Tom Durkin has been writing phrases on index cards and speaking them into a tape recorder, trying to find the words that will capture the drama of the Belmont Stakes.
As Saturday's third leg of the Triple Crown draws closer, Durkin, who will call the race for NBC, is increasingly inclined to keep it simple.
"For this particular race, I'd be gilding the lily if I went a little bit too much with the superlatives here," Durkin said. "I mean, if you just say the fact, 'He's won the Triple Crown.' What more can you say? So it's probably going to be pretty simple, understated I would think."
The "he," of course, is Funny Cide, the gelding who will attempt to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978. Only 11 horses have ever won the Triple Crown and it remains one of sports' most difficult achievements.
If Funny Cide increases the club to 12 with a win at Belmont, Durkin's call is sure to be heard repeatedly. NBC producer David Michaels joked that Durkin's words would be "etched in stone."
But his possible involvement in history is not something the announcer dwells on.
"I really do my very best to avoid," thinking about it, Durkin said, "because it gets you out of focus and really makes you more nervous, which is the last thing you need."
Still, he acknowledges running through the race in his mind, "no more than two or 300" times.
This will be the fifth time Durkin, Belmont's regular track announcer, has called the Belmont with the Triple Crown on the line. The first was Silver Charm in 1997, followed by Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999) and War Emblem (2002). The first three were as Belmont's track announcer while last year's was for NBC.
However, this year is different.
Durkin thinks the public has latched onto the feel-good story of Funny Cide. The horse entered the Kentucky Derby an unappreciated underdog with a laconic trainer and a gaggle of upstate New Yorkers who pooled together $75,000 to buy Funny Cide.
The horse's jockey, Jose Santos, who has come back from troubles with drugs and injuries, had his career thrown into temporary turmoil after the Derby win when he was wrongly linked to carrying something illegal during the race. Then he rode Funny Cide to a 9 3/4 -length victory in the Preakness.
Not to mention that Funny Cide is the first New York-bred to challenge for the Triple Crown.
"If they don't make a movie out of this," Durkin said, "then they never should have made 'The Godfather."'
The interest has been so high that Durkin changed the outgoing message on his home answering machine to let callers know that he didn't have any tickets to the race, which could have a record crowd approaching 120,000.
It is the kind of story that draws the casual fan to their television set.
"It is very compelling TV and I think people are tuning into this kind of event to see some history and to feel good," said Michaels, who will produce the telecast for NBC. "Something exciting is going to happen."
There are, of course, five other horses entered in the Belmont but both Durkin and Michaels said the focus will be almost entirely on Funny Cide.
And if he wins? Durkin will just count on his preparation.
"I just put a whole bunch of stuff into my head and hope that I can pick it out when the time comes," Durkin said. "I hope when I see something that something lyrical might come out."