06/07/2012 11:38AM

Belmont Stakes 2012: Voice of Belmont reflects on drama of multiple Triple Crown near-misses

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Barbara D. Livingston
Announcer Tom Durkin calls Victory Gallop's nose victory to deny Real Quiet the Triple Crown in 1998 the best Thoroughbred race he has ever seen.

ELMONT, N.Y. – It is now 34 years in the waiting and 12 furlongs to go for racing’s next Triple Crown winner. I’ll Have Another is the 12th horse to try to capture Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978.

Beginning in 1997, Tom Durkin has called the last seven attempts at immortality, including the last four tries for network television.

Durkin, who two years ago stepped down as the voice of the Triple Crown for NBC, will be in his usual perch Saturday high atop Belmont Park. Though his call will only be heard by those 100,000 or so in attendance – Larry Collmus will call the race for NBC – one can bet it will be a memorable monologue as so many of his previous calls have been.

Durkin said his preparation for Saturday’s Belmont differs from years past only in that he doesn’t have to coordinate it with the stories that the network is producing.

“I tried to incorporate those storylines that were in the show if possible,” said Durkin, 61, who has been track announcer for the New York Racing Association since 1990.

The first Belmont Stakes he called with a Triple Crown at stake was 1997 when Silver Charm lost by what Durkin described as “a heart-breaking half-length” to Touch Gold, under Chris McCarron.

In recalling that race during a recent interview, Durkin said McCarron gave Touch Gold “the best ride I ever saw,” because he made sure Silver Charm and his rider Gary Stevens couldn’t see him coming.

“Everybody knew if you got head-and-head with Silver Charm chances are he was going to out-gut you to the wire.” Durkin said. “It was a brilliantly timed move, a brilliantly conceived ride.”

Durkin calls Victory Gallop’s nose victory over Real Quiet in the 1998 Belmont “the greatest Thoroughbred race I ever saw.”

And Durkin’s description of it ranks as one of the most memorable calls in Triple Crown lore.

When Real Quiet, under Kent Desormeaux, came to the eighth pole with a four-length lead, Durkin bellowed “Twenty years in the waiting, one furlong to go.”

But as Victory Gallop came charging at Real Quiet inside the sixteenth pole, Durkin said “Kent Desormeaux imploring Real Quiet to hang on.”

At the wire, with both noses on the line simultaneously, Durkin roared, “It’s too close to call? Was it Real Quiet or was it Victory Gallop?

“A picture is worth a thousand words, this photo is worth $5 million dollars, oh no! History in the waiting!”

Harkening back to that day, Durkin said waiting out the photo and subsequent stewards’ inquiry into a bumping incident near the wire “was just agonizing.”

In 1999, Charismatic was valiant in defeat, finishing third, beaten 1 3/4 lengths by Lemon Drop Kid. After the wire Chris Antley jumped off Charismatic and held his broken left foreleg in comfort as he waited for assistance from track veterinarians.

“You could tell he was trying,” Durkin said of Charismatic. “I think the call even referenced that he was trying to get there. I wasn’t calling for TV that day. My call was done prior to Chris Antley dismounting.”

Durkin – and the racing world – would have to wait three more years for another Triple Crown bid.

But War Emblem’s bid ended virtually when the gates opened and he stumbled. The front-running War Emblem never made the lead and finished eighth.

Working for NBC that day, Durkin had taped a piece in which he said “the start of the Belmont doesn’t have anything to do with anything because they’ve got to go a mile and a half.”

Fortunately for Durkin, the piece never aired.

“They ran out of time and cut the piece,” Durkin said. “From then on I never asked for face time.”

In 2003, the New York-bred Funny Cide was defeated by Empire Maker, who had finished second to Funny Cide in the Kentucky Derby after beating him in the Wood Memorial.

"Empire Maker was just a better horse," said Durkin, noting that Empire Maker’s training was compromised by a bruised foot.

Subsequently, trainer Bobby Frankel couldn’t train Empire Maker as hard as he would have liked before the Derby.

Speaking of the Empire Maker-Funny Cide rivalry, Durkin said, "Courage could take you so far, but sometimes talent can take you a lot farther – especially an extra quarter of a mile."

The night before Smarty Jones attempted to win the 2004 Belmont and capture the Triple Crown, Durkin, with the help of a member of the track maintenance crew, marked off 31 lengths from the wire up the stretch. He put a red piece of tape on the rail in that spot.

“I thought he might have won by the length of Secretariat’s margin, that’s how [dominant] I thought he would be in his victory,” Durkin said.

When Birdstone was getting closer to Smarty Jones inside the sixteenth pole, Durkin said “They’re coming down to the finish! Can Smarty Jones hold on? Here comes Birdstone … Birdstone surges past. Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes!”

Durkin recalled Richard Sandomir’s review of his call in the New York Times the following day that described it as “the most non-celebratory win-call in sports call history.”

The most recent Triple Crown try came in 2008 when Kent Desormeaux pulled up 1-5 favorite Big Brown with a quarter of a mile to go in the race after he had plummeted to last.

“As weird as it gets,” Durkin said. “It was even weirder than Barbaro in the Preakness because Barbaro I knew broke down. Big Brown just got eased. The real story is there at the quarter pole with Kent Desormeaux taking his feet out of the stirrups.”

As far I’ll Have Another is concerned, Durkin calls him “gutsy” in the mold of Silver Charm or Funny Cide.

However, Durkin wonders if the lack of experience jockey Mario Gutierrez has at Belmont Park could play a determining factor in the race.

“I think that’s a huge, huge story,” Durkin said. “Smarty Jones got beat because of a bad ride. Mine That Bird I thought moved a little quick and those jockeys [Stewart Elliott and Calvin Borel] neither of them really paid much attention to riding at Belmont.”

Gutierrez was to ride his first race at Belmont Park on Friday.

“Five weeks ago this was a relative unknown,” Durkin said. “Saturday afternoon at 6:30 he could become the most famous jockey in America.”