12/18/2014 3:09PM

Durkin to receive Eclipse Award of Merit

Barbara D. Livingston
Tom Durkin recently retired after a 43-year career in the announcer's booth.

Tom Durkin, the longtime announcer for the New York Racing Association who retired earlier this year, has been selected to receive the Eclipse Award of Merit, the organizers of the Eclipse Awards announced Thursday.

The Award of Merit is one of the highest honors in racing, recognizing a lifetime of outstanding achievement in the sport. It caps an extraordinary 43-year career for Durkin, who called his last race Aug. 30 at Saratoga Racecourse. After the final call, Durkin gave a moving speech in front of the track’s grandstand thanking “you, the racing fan, the horseplayer.”

Durkin’s booming baritone is one of the most recognizable voices in racing history. Many of his calls have become singularly associated with dramatic racing performances, perhaps none more so than his famous branding of the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar” in the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

:: Tom Durkin's greatest hits

Durkin, who last week was presented with the Turf Publicists of America’s Big Sport of Turfdom Award, will receive the Award of Merit at the annual Eclipse Awards ceremony Jan. 17 at Gulfstream Park.

“This is quite an honor and quite a surprise,” Durkin said in a statement. “The award has never been given to a track announcer before, and to be singled out when you consider all of the great announcers who preceded me like Fred Cappossela, Joe Hernandez, Chic Anderson, and Dave Johnson, this is quite a distinction.”

Durkin called races at the three NYRA tracks from 1990 to 2014, following stints at Florida Downs (now Tampa Bay Downs), the Chicago-area tracks, the Meadowlands, and Hialeah Park. He was hired to call the inaugural Breeders’ Cup card in 1984 and was the voice of the Triple Crown races from 2001 to 2011.

:: Tom Durkin: The stories he has told

Though his voice rarely wavered during the call of a race, Durkin acknowledged that he asked to be removed from calling the Triple Crown races due to anxiety. He was often critical of himself for failing to identify Mine That Bird in the 2009 Kentucky Derby until the horse was nearly at the finish line.

Durkin has said that he always aspired to be a racing announcer, citing Chicago’s legendary Phil Georgeff as his inspiration. He lied to get his first race call, at a county fair meeting in Wisconsin, telling track management that he was the assistant at Arlington under Georgeff. Forty three years later, he retired with more than 80,000 race calls under his belt.