Tom Durkin at Belmont Park. Durkin will retire from calling races at all three NYRA tracks on August 31 after a 43-year career. (Photos courtesy of NYRA)
By Tom Pedulla, America's Best Racing
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – For years, Tom Durkin would take an extended winter break from his duties as track announcer for the New York Racing Association and return in the spring as enthusiastic as ever to call the action in his inimitable style.
This year, that did not happen. Durkin, 63, did not find that he was restless to go back to the booth. His desire to excel was still there, but he wondered if he had the energy to match. That doubt led to an inevitable conclusion. He announced that he would end what has arguably been the finest career any track announcer ever enjoyed by retiring on Aug. 31, one year before his contract expired.
As much as any of his unforgettable calls, the decision itself points to Durkin as a consummate professional.
“I know for sure I could have done this job for four or five more years,” he said. “But I am not so sure that three, four or five years from now I would be as skillful in the job as I am now.”
Durkin will be succeeded – but never replaced – by Larry Collmus. As accomplished as Collmus is as the voice of the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup on NBC, there is no replacing Durkin because his personality and flair for the dramatic made him unique. As Collmus said, “He has more memorable calls than anyone I’ve heard. It’s a work of art.”
Durkin, a native of Chicago, developed an early passion for the sport by attending local tracks. He prepared for what he viewed as a longshot career as an announcer by studying drama at St. Norbert College in DePere, Wis. He called races off the beaten path – Florida Downs, Miles Park in Louisville, Balmoral Park in Crete, Ill. – until he was ready for prime time.
DURKIN AT AQUEDUCT
He served as the first announcer when the Breeders’ Cup was launched in 1984. His call of the 1995 Classic is regarded as one of the finest in history.
“Cigar wants to go to the lead, but Jerry Bailey says no, not yet ... Concern is still last, three furlongs to go. Cigar, Cigar makes his move and he sweeps to the lead with a dramatic rush! A quarter of a mile between Cigar and a perfect season … coming down to the last furlong with a two-and-a-half length lead … and Jerry Bailey calls on Cigar for everything he has! L’Carriere is a weakening second. On the inside, Unaccounted For. On the outside, Soul of the Matter ... And here he is, the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!”
1995 BREEDERS' CUP CLASSIC
Video courtesy of Breeders' Cup World Championships
Although there are countless examples of Durkin rising to the occasion, that one surely stands out. He said in referring to the ’95 Classic and other famous races: “You can’t make the fourth at Aqueduct sound like the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It would not be appropriate. The tools of my trade are words, so you can get a little lofty. There are superlatives that you can use with the Breeders’ Cup Classic that you cannot use in a claiming race.”
Only recently has Durkin understood his tremendous impact on the sport and its fans. “I really did not realize the depth of passion people had for horse racing,” he said. “It’s amazing and I never knew that more than this year with the well-wishers. I can’t walk more than five feet without somebody saying something nice to me. It’s been extremely gratifying.”
If fans could send Durkin one message, it would be this: The pleasure was all ours.