Revered Race Caller Tom Durkin: A Master at His Craft

Tom Durkin with his plaque at Saratoga Race Course and his commemorative red jacket. (Adam Coglianese/NYRA)

When Tom Durkin walks down Broadway in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., it is almost as if he is stepping back in time. Fans often stop him to remind him of one of his legendary race calls and to express their appreciation for his extraordinary career.

Those conversations mean the world to Durkin.

“You’re walking down the street and somebody stops you and has something really nice to say to you about you,” said Durkin. “I don’t know that a lot of people go through this world experiencing something like that. It’s one of the great blessings of my life.”

Durkin working for NYRA. (Adam Coglianese/NYRA)

During his 43 years behind the microphone, the last 24 of them with the New York Racing Association, Durkin’s booming voice, his wit, his love of language, and his flair for the dramatic thrilled scores of racegoers.

Larry Collmus, who succeeded the Chicago native when he retired at the end of the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course in 2014, said simply, “He’s the best I ever heard.”

Durkin could make a mediocre weekday race pulsate with excitement. As the booming voice of the Breeders’ Cup from its inception in 1984 through 2005, he had much to do with bringing those championship races to prominence. His work for NBC from 1984 through 2010 made the sport approachable and fun even for those who knew relatively little about the intricacies of the game.

Durkin rose to the occasion without fail. His breathless calls are inextricably linked to many of the greatest moments in racing history.

Durkin’s meticulous preparation was evident when Cigar completed an unforgettable campaign by winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1995.

“A quarter of a mile between Cigar and a perfect season … coming down to the last furlong with a 2 ½-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!”

Durkin had made a list of adjectives that he could attach to Cigar if, as expected, he won. As the Classic champion neared the finish line, the contents of that list jumped to mind.

When Rachel Alexandra dusted the boys in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga in 2009, Durkin seized that moment, too.

“… Calvin Borel imploring his filly for more and Rachel Alexandra holds on to the lead. Bullsbay is second. Macho Again is making a tremendous run from the back of the pack. Rachel Alexandra! Macho Again! It’s going to be desperately close. Here’s the wire. Rachel won! She is indeed Rachel Alexandra the Great, beating Macho Again here, and farther back is Bullsbay in third. The time was 1:48 and one! Rachel Alexandra raises the rafters here at the Spa!”

Durkin anticipated that Rachel Alexandra might win. There was no anticipating what followed once she achieved one of the great triumphs in Saratoga history.

“You never get married to your preparation,” he said. “I tried to be in the moment and, literally, that whole building shook.”

Why would someone so expert at his craft walk away? His answer is simple.

“I didn’t think I was going to get any better,” said Durkin, “and I wanted to get out before it got any worse.”

The strain of performing at such a high level was severe. Durkin admits he was motivated by fear of failure as much as anything. When someone asks him to listen to one of his famous calls, he all-but winces.

“I still get nervous,” he said, “thinking I’m going to screw it up.”

Durkin, white hat with clenched fist, in 2017 Derby winner's circle. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Durkin has been plenty active since he retired, and he returned to the microphone in 2023 to call the Belmont Stakes. He is heavily involved with the Racing Hall of Fame, even playing Santa Claus at a party there. And that was, indeed, Tom Durkin in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs as part of the West Point Thoroughbreds contingent that bought into 2017 Kentucky Derby victor Always Dreaming.

“I was a very minor part of a minority owner,” Durkin said. “But it was great.”

Terry Finley, who heads West Point Thoroughbreds and has counted Durkin as a partner in a number of West Point horses, will never forget how much the Derby meant to Durkin as a fan and how well he was received at Churchill Downs.

“It was wonderful for him,” Finley said, “and it was really wonderful to see the response of the people seeing him having so much fun.”

Durkin recently had a studio built at his house to facilitate various projects such as commercials and audio books. He is not exactly the quiet, retiring type.

“As I tell people, I’m not retired, but I’m retired from calling races,” Durkin said.

Note: This story was originally published in 2020 and has been updated.

Fun Facts

  • Studied drama at St. Norbert College in DePere, Wis.
  • Kept charts for Daily Racing Form at Cahokia Downs and Thistledown
  • Honored by New York Racing Association during “Red Jacket” ceremonies in 2014
  • Career saluted with Eclipse Award of Merit in 2015
  • Called races at more than 50 tracks in six countries

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