05/12/2009 12:00AM

Durkin: 'No excuses' for Derby call

Barbara D. Livingston
Tom Durkin has called the Kentucky Derby on NBC since 2001.

To quote the president who left office not long ago, "Fool me once - shame on, shame on you. Fool me . . . you can't get fooled again."

Words to live by, especially for Tom Durkin, the eminent race caller and NBC's voice of the Kentucky Derby, who is still second-guessing himself over missing Mine That Bird's miraculous winning move along the rail at Churchill Downs.

He was not alone. When Calvin Borel and his pint-sized gelding emerged from behind Join in the Dance a few strides past the three-sixteenths marker, after coming from 12th at the top of the stretch, millions of fans were driven to consult their programs. Mine That Bird was as overlooked in the betting, at 50-1, as he was by the assembled sports media in the days leading up to the Derby. It seemed fated that even a big-game pro like Durkin could be blindsided as well.

Of course, it does not help to have Mark Johnson's house call rubbed in his face. The Englishman, now employed by Churchill Downs and announcing his first Kentucky Derby for the assembled throng, picked up on Mine That Bird's move early enough to allow for a memorable stretch call. Durkin, on the other hand, had to scramble from Pioneerof the Nile & Co. and react to the image of Mine That Bird drawing off along the inside.

"They hire me to capture those moments," Durkin said, "and I didn't do the job I was hired to do. You try not to beat yourself up about it, but it's hard not to. I don't want to make any excuses."

Durkin was reached at his Long Island home Tuesday afternoon, a day off from his familiar gig at Belmont Park, preparing for the telecast at Pimlico on Saturday and, in his words, "just writing down some Preakness ad-libs."

The Derby, though, was still very much on his mind, and rightfully so, since all of the principals would be back for the Preakness, plus the filly, Rachel Alexandra. With a maximum of 14 horses in the field, the Preakness challenge is considerably less daunting compared with the Derby. Since Durkin began calling the Derby for NBC, in 2001, he has been confronted with fields of 17, 18, 16, 18, and four straight at 20 before this year's 19, which would have been 20 without the scratch of I Want Revenge.

This year, as the field of 19 rounded the final turn and began the long journey through the Churchill Downs stretch, Durkin's attention shifted away from the inside and the stubborn pacesetters, Join in the Dance and Regal Ransom, to the cluster of runners in a fierce battle toward the center of the track, including Papa Clem, Musket Man, and Pioneerof the Nile. To his experienced eye, that's where the race was shaping up. It was going to be a doozy, and Durkin's lively tenor was rising to the occasion.

Then, when he dropped his glasses, an entirely different tableau was revealed. Mine That Bird, unidentified by Durkin since he was last at the three-quarter pole, was in the process of leaving the opposition far behind. Durkin's proclamation of abject surprise was as honest as it was belated.

Dave Johnson, who called two decades worth of Derbies for ABC, feels Durkin's pain.

"When he saw that horse, Mine That Bird, he should have said, 'And down the stretch they come!' " Johnson suggested. "People would have thought it was me."

This was noble of Johnson, offering himself in sacrifice.

"The body of Tom's work is so enormous," Johnson added. "Unfortunately, this happened in this race."

There is literally nothing in an announcer's profession like calling a maxed-out Derby field.

"I try to build into any call redundancies that will prevent me from missing a horse," Durkin said, talking shop. "With those 19 horses, you have to keep your binoculars moving all the time. Front to back. Inside and out. Now, when Calvin did the same thing with Street Sense in the Derby two years ago, I got him pretty good. But this time, I've got no excuses."

He does, though, have another crack at them on Saturday at Pimlico.

Samuel's death hits hard

Some losses hit a little harder than others, and the death of retired California racing official Dave Samuel last Friday, at 75, is one of those blows to the soul. Samuel was like so many of us who are drawn to horse racing from other worlds, with no family skin in the game, just a burning desire to see how far the passion will lead. Samuel, a former ballplayer with an earlier career in retail, made it to the stewards stand at each of the Southern California tracks, and he did it in spite of a sardonic sense of humor and a true sympathy for the pressures that the business brings to bear.

Samuel spent most of his retirement dealing with the relentlessly debilitating symptoms of familial amyloid neuropathy, a hereditary disease of the nervous system that eventually renders the muscles of the arms and legs useless. In September of 2005, about two years into his retirement, he shared a few memories with this space:

"One of the first stewards' jobs I had was with Pete and Shelly," Samuel said, referring to Pete Pedersen and the late Alfred Shelhamer. "The first inquiry comes up. Pete says one thing. Shelly says the other. And when I finally make up my mind I decide Pete's right."

The punch line?

"Shelly wouldn't talk to me for two or three days," Samuel said with a laugh. "From then on, whenever we had an inquiry, I made up my mind to be the first vote, and then let the other two guys fight about it."