04/26/2011 3:56PM

Durkin steps down as Triple Crown announcer, citing stress

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Barbara D. Livingston
Tom Durkin has called the last 30 Triple Crown races on network television.

Three days before last year’s Kentucky Derby, track announcer Tom Durkin found himself on a couch in a Louisville psychiatrist’s office getting hypnotized. Though he had called the world’s most famous horse race 13 previous times – nine for NBC Sports – Durkin was feeling stressed out.

“It’s always been stressful,” said Durkin, who was prescribed Inderal, a beta blocker, to deal with the anxiety.

Looking to alleviate that stress from his life, Durkin will no longer be the voice of the Triple Crown, deciding not to seek a renewal of his contract with NBC Sports, with whom he has been affiliated for 27 years. Durkin, who has called the last 30 Triple Crown races on network television, will continue to work as the announcer at the New York Racing Association’s three tracks – Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. Durkin is under contract with NYRA through the fall of 2015.

NBC has not officially announced a replacement for Durkin, though speculation centers on Larry Collmus, the track announcer at Gulfstream Park and Monmouth Park. Collmus, 44, drew national attention last summer for his stretch-call in a race featuring Mywifenosevrything beating Thewifedoesntknow at Monmouth Park.

“We will announce a replacement for Tom shortly,” said Adam Freifeld, senior director of communications for NBC Sports, which will broadcast all three Triple Crown races through 2015.

This year’s Kentucky Derby is May 7, followed by the Preakness (May 21) and Belmont Stakes (June 11).

Durkin, who called the first 22 runnings of the Breeders’ Cup for NBC, had called all three legs of the Triple Crown on television – albeit for different networks – since 2001. From 1997-2000, he called the three races on radio. Durkin will still call the Belmont at his home track of Belmont Park, but that call will only be heard by ontrack patrons.

Durkin, 60, said he first thought of walking away from the Triple Crown last year after his anxious feelings prompted him to seek therapy.

“It’s just the stress got to be too much,” Durkin said. “When you’re walking around with a pit in your stomach for three months a year, just a general bad feeling and nervousness. You look up stress in the dictionary or online, and I’m a classic case of it. Sometimes you have to look out for your professional life; more importantly, you have to look out for your personal life. This is a bad professional decision and a good personal one.”

Durkin said he called Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports, in January to tell him he no longer wanted to call the Derby.

“I couldn’t sleep for two days and I called him back and said ‘forget what I told you,’ ” Durkin said. “He said ‘good.’ About three weeks ago, when you start turning up the pressure cooker, I just wasn’t up to it.”

Durkin said he instructed his agent to discontinue negotiations with NBC at that time.

“I’m disappointed in myself; it was a battle of nerves that I lost,” Durkin added. “And at the racetrack, you don’t like to lose.”

In a prepared statement, Schanzer said “Tom Durkin is a legend. He is not only one of the great race-callers of all time, but I have been honored to call him my friend for more than a quarter-century. While I regret that he has made the decision not to call the Triple Crown for us, I understand it and wish him nothing but the best.”

Added Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports Group: “It’s rare in this business that you find someone who has such extraordinary talent, who works relentlessly, and never ceases to be the nicest person in any room he’s in. We will truly miss Tom on our Triple Crown broadcasts.”

Between radio and television, Durkin has called seven Triple Crown attempts, the last being Big Brown’s failed bid in 2008. Perhaps his most memorable Triple Crown came in the 1998 Belmont, when Victory Gallop denied Real Quiet’s Triple Crown bid by a nose. After the horses hit the wire, Durkin said, “A picture is worth a thousand words, this photo is worth $5 million . . . history in the waiting.”

While Durkin said he has never truly felt that he has made the perfect call, he does regret spotting Mine That Bird so late after he took the lead in winning the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

“You wish you could get that call back,” Durkin said. “You do your best and you don’t beat yourself up over it. If I didn’t prepare, I could beat myself up. I walk in there ready.”

Durkin said he still enjoys his job at NYRA and is anticipating a much-improved product in New York once revenue from a casino that is scheduled to open this summer at Aqueduct starts to kick in.

“This is going to be the thousand-pound gorilla of horse racing,” Durkin said. “It’s going to be great to be around and great to do.”

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