Durkin's First Brush With Fame

Pop Culture

Tom Durkin concludes his racecalling career on Aug. 31 but his first shot at fame was on a game show in 1977. (Photo by NYRA)

As we near the end of the Saratoga Race Course meet, we also near the end of Tom Durkin’s career as one of America’s most memorable racecallers. Since 1971, Durkin has honed his craft and developed a style that is completely his own. Over the last 40 years, he has raised the bar for racecallers around the world with his impressive vocabulary, his sense of humor and his melodic cadence.

You can revisit some of Durkin’s best calls with Penelope Miller’s look back at her 10 favorites. Here, I’d like to look back at another Tom Durkin performance - one that happened far away from the racetrack.

In 1977, while Durkin was the announcer at Quad City Downs in Illinois, he flew to California to appear as a contestant on the popular television show “Match Game”. Calling races at small tracks and county fairs just wasn’t enough to pay the bills back in those days, so he tried out for many game shows. 

“I was always good with words, and I figured I might get on the shows because they liked people with goofy jobs,” he told the Sun Sentinel back in 1995. His way with words and his goofy job also got him a chance at the “$20,000 Pyramid,” but Match Game was where he performed best - and nearly took down the grand prize.

Durkin played well and made it into the final round where he stood a chance to win $10,000. He just had to match with one celebrity from the panel - Jimmie “J.J.” Walker. The clue was “_____ Gonzalez.” Durkin first thought of the popular tennis player Pancho Gonzalez, but then he thought of the cartoon character “Speedy Gonzalez”. He told the Sun Sentinel, “I saw J.J. Walker on a celebrity tennis tournament. Surely, he would say Pancho.”

When the time was up, Durkin revealed his answer: Pancho. The audience booed him. Walker’s expression soured. They asked Walker to reveal his answer. Disappointed, he turned around the card. It read “Speedy.”

“I changed it!” Walker explained.

It turned out that Bret Somers, the celebrity sitting next to Walker, saw him write Pancho down and told him “there’s no way he will say Pancho,” leading Walker to cross it out and write Speedy. Unfortunately, Durkin was smarter than they gave him credit for, and it cost him $9,000. (Durkin took home $1,000).

You can watch the whole thing on YouTube. A younger, svelte Tom Durkin bragging that he was “29 years single,” the man was as funny and engaging as he is today.

Now that Durkin’s a celebrity in his own right, perhaps we will see him on the other side of the panel. Maybe even as a host? Best of luck in retirement, Tom. We will miss you.

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