Durkin’s First Call Was A STRETCH
By Sherry Ross
om Durkin’s fate was built on a fib. The man known for the ac- curacy of his stretch calls needed the truth to be stretched just a little – okay, by a country mile – by a pal who gave Durkin the entrée to the career he had coveted since he was a teenager growing up in Chicago.
“A friend of mine, Jim Forret, was hitchhiking from Milwaukee to Green Bay,
where my college was, and a guy named Marty Helmbrecht picked him up,” Durkin recalled. “He ran these county fairs where they had horse racing. They started talking and my friend said I was the assistant track announcer at Arlington Park. There WAS no assistant track announcer at Arlington. Jim told him I was trying to break out on my own and I might consider being used at some of his fairs. I didn’t know he had done this until I started working the fairs and I was introduced to the crowd as the assistant track announcer from Arlington.
“My career has been based on that single great lie.”
It isn’t a lie that to an entire generation of fans, no significant horse race has been run without Durkin, 56, providing its soundtrack. Until last fall, when contractual agreements forced him to bow out, he called every Breeders’ Cup race since the event’s historic inception in 1984. He has called all of the Triple Crown races, some of the most prestigious races from abroad, and has been the announcer for the New York Racing Association since 1990.
When Afleet Alex nearly met disaster at the head of the stretch in the 2005 Preakness, it was Durkin dramatically describing the courageous colt nearly being knocked to his knees. Personal Ensign’s impossible finish to keep her perfect racing record intact, Cigar keeping his unbeaten streak alive in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the thrilling finish between Victory Gallop and Real Quiet in the Belmont, all were accompanied by Durkin’s precise and passionate narration.
Those career-defining moments had a humble beginning. Durkin’s first “race calls” involved people, not horses.
“I would use my friends in the neighborhood and they would run around in circles and I would call them,” said Durkin, who, if he’d ever captured those moments on tape would have had a chance at winning a prize on ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos.’ Later, in college, I would stand on top of the bar and they’d run around the bar and I would call races with them.”
Until his friend Forret’s chance meeting with Helmbrecht, who passed away in 2006, Durkin’s only experience had come from those unorthodox practice sessions and the more ordinary practice of going to the track – Arlington and Sportsman’s Park were his regular haunts – and calling actual horse races into a tape recorder. From the time he fell in love with horse racing as a teenager, being a track announcer was all Durkin longed to do. He chose theater as a college major when he attended Wisconsin’s St. Norbert College in 1968 because he figured the skills he learned there would enhance his race calling. “And it surely did,” said Durkin, who is known for his dramatic flair.
At 21, Durkin made his debut on the fair circuit. The county fair races in Wisconsin, which featured Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and Appaloosas, were non-betting exhibitions.
“We’d generally run six races in front of a grandstand on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon,” Durkin said. “The purses were about $200. A number of good horsemen were involved in it. A little before my time, a man named Wayne Lukas was at the Antigo county fair. Clyde Rice, his daughter Linda Rice, (now a trainer in New York) was just a little girl running around then.”
Durkin left college before earning his degree (he didn’t actually graduate until 2002, when he said St. Norbert generously gave him the few credits he needed to make it official). Since the country fair circuit wasn’t enough to make a living, he went to work for his uncle’s golf club company, but was always casting for another racing connection.
Yet another fortuitous break came Durkin’s way when a neighbor of his brother-in-law helped him get a job at the Daily Racing Form. Durkin, as they say, was off to the races.
“In 1976 I got a job as a call-taker at Thistledown, and about a week after that I got transferred to Cahokia Downs. The next year they hired me to be their announcer,” Durkin said. “I sent a tape to Florida Downs – now Tampa Bay Downs – and Lorraine King hired me to be the announcer there in 1977.”
For the next several years, Durkin’s resume included Balmoral, a harness track in Chicago, and such now-defunct tracks as Miles Park. At small tracks, the announcer usually wears more than one hat, and Durkin learned many different aspects of the business while on the job.
“When I worked at Balmoral, I was the director of publicity, the director of advertising and promotions, the morning line maker, and the bartender at the beer garden after the races,” he said.
Durkin’s big break came in 1980.
“I was asked to fill in for the month of May at Hialeah,” Durkin said. “They hired me the next year as their full-time announcer. I got to call a race on national TV, the Flamingo Stakes.”
In 1983, Durkin came north to the Meadowlands to call harness races in the summer, returning to Hialeah in the winter. In 1984 the Breeders’ Cup was born.
“At that time I was 34 years old and calling the Breeders’ Cup,” he said.“At the time, we didn’t know what it was going to grow into. It was totally off the wall.”
Durkin’s deep voice is a gift, but what has distinguished him is his command of the language, his instant in-race analysis, and attention to detail.
Tom Durkin speaks at the 2006 Hall of Fame Intduction Ceremony.
That’s the result of his sometimes controversial personal feeling of what the job should be.
“Originally, I wanted the descriptions to be like a chart,” he said. “I starting using words that appeared in the footnotes, stuff that people didn’t accept readily at the beginning. Some-thing like, ‘Off slowly,’ the starters did not like that. ‘What did you have to say that for?’ I even remember (longtime former New York announcer) Fred Caposella saying to me, ‘Why do you have to say a horse is last? Nobody wants to hear that.’ ”
Jockeys, too, took exception to Durkin’s instant analysis at first.
“Very rarely now,” he said of any complaints. “When I started out, it may have sounded inflammatory. But then they also in time realized I was drawing attention to the good things they were doing, to the athletic and thoughtful things they were doing, probably more to anything that might be interpreted as a bad ride. There are very few bad rides, because jockeys just don’t have a lot of options. If you’re caught wide or stuck down inside, that’s just a fact. I think I’m very even-handed. I certainly have no favorites as far as horses or trainers go. But I think I draw attention to things that people might think are just horses running around in a circle. It’s a lot more interesting than that. There are stories of courage by horses and courage by jockeys, extraordinary things that go on, and that’s what makes it entertaining.”
As he grew more comfortable in his role, Durkin made his job even more complex. There may not be an announcer in the world who is more keenly aware of how a race is expected to unfold – what horse should be on the lead, whose running style is to launch from off the pace – or how crucial the pace is to the outcome.
“I started getting more into the upper part of the chart, where numbers started to come into play,” he said. “Usually only harness announcers called fractional times. There were some Thoroughbred announcers who only did it for big races, but why wouldn’t you? It seemed to be very key. It seems to me races are won and lost by how fast you run and when. Horses lose races because they run too fast too soon. Any horse can run :22 1/5, but a good horse can run two quarters. And only a great horse…as much as we like to think of class as something abstract or noble, it’s just the ability to run faster longer.
“To me, the pace is the essence, but it’s not always the story. There are lots of stories.”
Durkin always has a sense of what the major plot lines in a race are. A listener could tune into any of Durkin’s Kentucky Derby calls and get a sense of who the major combatants are, even in a 20- horse field. Color is never missing from Durkin’s descriptions, either.
Racing is a business, with serious financial implications for participants and bettors alike, but Durkin’s playful nature is often evident. In his keynote speech at the 2006 Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Saratoga Springs, Durkin brought down the house when he summed up how he admires Thoroughbreds from afar: “I love horses, kind of like I love Angelina Jolie. I love to look at them, but I probably won’t be petting either of them anytime soon.”
Far from the dry recital of order and pace, Durkin’s spiel is peppered with a variety of phrases that aren’t limited to racing jargon. A horse splashing home on a muddy afternoon at Belmont was said to be “winning the seventh regatta,” and if Durkin is ever at a loss for words, all he has to do is open his thesaurus. That’s right, HIS thesaurus.
A black loose-leaf notebook labeled “Mayor Daley” (in honor of the former mayor of Durkin’s hometown) is always at his elbow. Categorized by chapters covering splits, duels, turf races, runaway winners, and almost any imaginable racing scenario, Durkin has compiled his own reference material.
“You can be cute at times, but VerY judiciously, because people bet on this… There was a horse called Undertaker and I said he left other horses in his wake, and I didn’t even realize I’d said it.”
“I had notes all over the place, it was crazy, so right before Saratoga I finally put this together,” said Durkin, who will jot down any colorful phrase he comes across to add to the collection. “I did a word count on it, and it’s 8,708.”
Durkin is aware though, of the power of his words, and prides himself on making sure his phrasing suits the occasion.
“You can be cute at times, but VERY judiciously, because people bet on this,” he said. “You have to be very careful about that. It’s funny how your subconscious works. There was a horse called Undertaker and I said he left other horses in his wake, and I didn’t even realize I’d said it.”
Durkin’s appreciation for the appropriate attitude to any race call goes beyond getting revved up for a Triple Crown attempt in a Belmont or keeping interest in a off-the-turf claiming race with only four betting interests on a weekday afternoon. He is quick to pick up if a horse or rider has been injured or is in distress, and calls the finish with the proper perspective.
“You’re not going to be cursing out the fact you just missed out catching an exacta when there’s a jockey laying at the quarter pole who might be paralyzed,” Durkin said.
The balance was never better struck than when Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was injured only a few strides out of the gate in the 2006 Preakness, and Durkin had to keep an eye on the drama that was unfolding both in Bernardini’s perfor- mance and the battle to save the stricken Barbaro.
“I went back and forth between the two, called the race, gave a report about the horse, went back to the race,” he said “You just have to trust your own instincts. Because that was such a big race, you didn’t want to take away from what Bernardini did. But what we would find out for weeks and weeks after was what a huge story Barbaro was.”
If it was a huge story in racing, Durkin was probably there to narrate it.
Apart from a break he takes every late winter/early spring, spending seven weeks in Italy, Durkin plans to be around for many more historic moments.
“I don’t see any point in quitting or retiring,” he said. “I want to do it as long as I’m capable of doing it or as long as people enjoy me doing it. I don’t see myself doing it after I’m 65 years old. Probably seven to ten years from now is as good a window as any.”
Sherry Ross covers Thoroughbred racing for the New York