06/05/2014 11:48AM

Belmont's voices strive for spontaneous call

Barbara D. Livingston
Tom Durkin, who will be calling his final Belmont Stakes before retirement, has been in the announcer's booth for seven prior runnings in which a horse who had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown failed to complete a sweep.

ELMONT, N.Y. – When the action builds to an absolute crescendo Saturday with California Chrome racing toward a Triple Crown in the 146th Belmont Stakes, it will not be without help from two announcers whose career arcs are intersecting in a notable way.

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Tom Durkin, the outgoing legend, will call the Belmont for ontrack and simulcast audiences, while Larry Collmus, the rising star, will call the race for a worldwide television audience on NBC.

It is the final Belmont for Durkin and the eighth time a Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner has tried for the Triple Crown with him in the booth. Durkin, 63, recently announced he is retiring at the conclusion of the summer meet at Saratoga.

For Collmus, 47, it is his first Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line and his fourth overall for NBC, the network for which Durkin called races off-and-on for more than a quarter-century.

The potential importance of the moment is not lost on either man.

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“I’m shying away from any kind of sentimental thoughts about how this is my last Belmont and [a Triple Crown] might finally happen,” said Durkin, arguably the greatest caller in American racing history. “They do get in the way. It takes away the focus of what I’m trying to do, which is describe the race and be in the moment. I’m trying not to dwell on any of that.”

“I’ll try to come up with the appropriate things to say in the event a Triple Crown happens,” said Collmus, “and also in the event it doesn’t happen. You want to not make it about you; you want to make it about the moment, and stay out of the way.”

Durkin laughs at the thought that perhaps he has been a reason no horse has captured the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. His first missed Triple Crown opportunity was Silver Charm being denied in 1997; the latest was Big Brown in 2008.

“The way I feel is as any fan does,” he said, “and that is you just want to see it happen. But so far that hasn’t worked too well for me. I’m 0-for-7 versus that long Belmont stretch. I guess it’s a bad part of my game. I’ve walked into that booth seven times with the hope of it happening.”

Collmus said he learned from Durkin that there is a “tricky spot” at the top of the Belmont stretch on late afternoons when the sun is shining.

“When the horses turn for home, they actually look like silhouettes,” he said. “So you better know who they are before they turn for home because they’re very tough to identify for almost an eighth of a mile. It’s from about the top of the stretch to the eighth pole. Once they get to the eighth pole, you’re fine.

 “For an example, Orb, who had white silks with a red stripe, looked black – it changed it that much. You have to be prepared for that and I’m glad that last year I got a chance to call a sunny Belmont because it is definitely a concern. Needless to say I’m rooting for clouds on Belmont Day. No need to rain, but clouds would be fine.”

Both callers say they have “some idea” of what they might say if California Chrome comes through Saturday but will rely mostly on the improvisational skills that have made them the great callers they are.

“I’m just going to try to react the way I do with any other race,” said Collmus. “I don’t want to be screaming like a maniac, but at the same time there will be a tremendous level of excitement.”