06/07/2012 10:38AM

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.”

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Other than just simple bad racing luck that happens so often, the two things I worry most about are the jock on this track that is unlike any other and the possibility of rain.
Sam Shelby More than 1 year ago
I think IHA is gutsy in the mold of Affirmed, not just Silver Charm or Funny Cide. 2 of his last 3 races he was beat and he just went up there and said, excuse me and put his nose in front. And before I get blasted I'M NOT saying IHA is better than Affirmed.
STARR D More than 1 year ago
I agree and believe he is also gutsy - one who wants to win. I loved Affirmed so no he is not Affirmed...yet.... But it takes a career to determine that and hopefully he is just getting started!
David G. More than 1 year ago
Flat Fleet Feet
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
In mentioning that photo in '98 I guess it wouldn't have helped to tell Durkin "We all been there, Tom!"
Clint Kilmore More than 1 year ago
There was a horse running at Belmont a few years back named something similiar to, Do Re Me Fa So La Te Do, and to hear Tom call one of this particular horses winning races there, was a thing of beauty. He sang the familiar song syllables while the horse turned for home and he just belted it out with a great vibrato at the end that was so classic and professional at the same rime, I thought I heard a opera singer instead of a track announcer. Tom is one of my favorites of all time! Good piece on him.
STARR D More than 1 year ago
I've heard that call and it is hilarious! He is my favorite with Trevor Denman a close second!
Perl More than 1 year ago
Durkin is the greatest. I think maybe he's not quite as sure-footed a race caller as he once was, but he still has a flair for the dramatic. I think the current national race-caller Larry Collmus has modeled his style after Durkin. And Larry has improved tremendously from his days as the Suffolk Downs race caller. Other great race callers include Dave Rodman and Michael Wrona. My favorite Durkin call - the 2005 Kentucky Derby. It was a nutty race and Durkin picked up every horse as it all unfolded.
NeilNap More than 1 year ago
Durkin has made some calls in the big races over the years that bring still bring tears to my eyes. He is dearly missed on the NBC calls, and even more so, at the Breeder's Cup. Frankly, and this is nothing personal of course, I don't know how NBC arrived at Collmus. Other than trying to copy Durkin, his voice has absolutely no sense of authority to it. It is actually quite an irritating one, and it doesn't enhance the race in any way. A great race caller will do that; engage the viewer. There are several callers out there today that should be more high profile, because I think they are terrific, if somewhat too formal - Kurt Becker who does Keeneland and John Dooley at Arlington - straightforward and very authentic race callers. They don't have to add a lot of "color" or additional commentary to the race to make it exciting. They are "old school" in the way of the classic callers of yesterday. Need more of them. Trevor Denman doing the Breeders' Cup is a sin.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
They need Denman back in England, or whereever!
Max Power More than 1 year ago
South Africa
Mike More than 1 year ago
I agree completely with the sentiment about Tom Durkin. His call on Smarty Jones' Belmont was sublime. His excitement at the prospect of Smarty winning and his disappointment when he didn't was palpable, but he was the consumate professional, objectively calling Birdstone's surge to the wire. Many of Durkin's calls tell a compelling story that build an emotional intensity during the race that is almost unbearable, but which at the same time is thrilling. After having been a very casual racing fan for 30 years, I'm a new convert to being passionate about racing, in part because of the artistry of callers like Durkin, who impart the beauty and intensity of this sport. I'm not familiar with Collmus, but if he was the guy calling the Derby and Preakness on NBC this year, I'm not impressed. I was really looking forward to hearing Durkin call this year's Belmont but since I won't be in the crowd, I will sorely miss him. I will add that I do like Trevor Denman quite a bit.
B More than 1 year ago
He's the greatest race caller I have ever heard and I miss him terribly particularly in the Breeders Cup. I know that there are contractual issues here and we can't have the greatest in the sport, which is shameful, but clearly there are more talented race callers than Denman. Mixed feelings about Collmus.
Joe Tartaglia More than 1 year ago
One of my other favorite Durkin calls was of Cigar in the Breeders Cup at Belmont - "the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!" (or something like that)
Brian Leckie More than 1 year ago
I am a huge fan of both Larry Collmus and Tom Durkin. Tom is probably my favorite caller in the history of the sport. He is very engaging and I frequently listen to some of his best stretch calls because they give me such a great feeling reliving those great moments of horse racing. But his accuracy in race calling has begun to suffer in recent years after the brilliant '05 derby call, such as with his '09 kentucky derby call and failing to recognize animal kingdom's early-race stumble in the Belmont last year. I've been going to Monmouth Park for years now and I have to say Larry Collmus is a highly accurate race caller and is one of the best in the sport. Durkin may have a higher energy level and certainly captures the viewer's (and my) attention much more easily, but he cannot supplant Collmus' accuracy. I was actually thrilled to have heard Larry take over the reigns when Durkin resigned, and I have not been disappointed at all. Listen to his '08 Haskell Invitational call when Big Brown made his comeback!
Stargazer46 More than 1 year ago
I love me some Tom Durkin. Best race-caller ever...Luke (RIP) Kruytbosch was next. (Sorry I misspelled your name Luke...miss you!) This will be a great race and I am sad we won't hear the call. If you think he can be beat, listen to thereplay of his call as Cigar comes barrelling down the lane..."the incomparable, the unbeatable...CIG AR!!! I still cry everytime I hear that call. Safe ride tomorrow Mario and IHA...have fun Tom. no pressure, just your usual fun Saturday afternoon at Belmont.
Joe Tartaglia More than 1 year ago
ha - I wish I read your post before replying to the one above.
Max Power More than 1 year ago
"And look at the time on this race course"
Robert Pawelec More than 1 year ago
Luke was very good and is still remembered.