08/28/2014 10:49AM

Durkin: The stories he has told

Barbara D. Livingston
Tom Durkin, who joined the New York Racing Association in 1990, is retiring as race-caller Sunday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Few people can tell a story quite like Tom Durkin.

Asked to recall one he had yet to tell on his retirement media tour, Durkin harkens back to 1978, when he was the racetrack announcer at Cahokia Downs in East St. Louis, Ill. Jack Weaver, then the general manager of the track, came to Durkin’s booth after having received a call regarding a potential bomb scare at the track.

“He’s frantic,” Durkin says before breaking into a Weaver impersonation. “ ‘Tom, Tom, Tom, somebody called the switchboard. We’ve had a bomb scare. We’ve got to evacuate the building.’ ”

Durkin describes the next few moments as he tries to calm Weaver and collaborate on an announcement he can make over the public-address system. Durkin writes on a piece of paper that he will ask the crowd to “calmly, quietly, and collectively make your way to the exits.”

Durkin switches the microphone on and then, without Weaver noticing, turns it off. Speaking into the muted microphone, Durkin announces calmly, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have received a threatening call at the switchboard,” before shouting, “Run for your lives! This place is going to blow sky high!”

“I thought he was going to have a heart attack,” Durkin recalled.

There was no bomb. No heart attack. The only thing that exploded sky high from there was Durkin, who went on to become arguably the most recognizable voice in the history of racing.

:: Tom Durkin on his greatest calls

The curtain closes on Durkin’s 43-year career Sunday. After calling the Grade 1 Spinaway at Saratoga, he will drive off into the sunset following a post-race ceremony in the winner’s circle.

“He’s the greatest race-caller ever,” said John Imbriale, the man who will immediately take over for Durkin at the New York Racing Association and then, beginning next year, split the job with Larry Collmus. “And I don’t think people really realize what he had to put into things to get where he got. This is not something where he walked into the booth and called races.”

It sort of began that way. In the early 1970s, when working for Daily Racing Form at Cahokia as the call-taker, Durkin would tape record chart-caller Danny Hrysko’s calls and then go to a room next door and practice calling races. It would be those calls that he used to get his first racetrack job at Florida Downs, now known as Tampa Bay Downs.

Durkin called Hrysko “a very important figure in my career, maybe No. 1 or No. 2.”

Durkin, who joined NYRA in 1990, said his biggest influences were Phil Georgeff, the Chicago-based caller whom Durkin grew up listening to, and Dave Johnson, another iconic announcer whom Durkin worked with at the Meadowlands in the 1980s.

“I picked up a lot from Dave, the ultimate professional,” Durkin, 63, said. “It seems ordinary, but a lot of the people who had that job before him didn’t operate that way. Class guy.”

Durkin’s preparation, deep knowledge of the language, flair for the dramatic, and fear of failure elevated his game. He maintains a huge binder of catch phrases and carried with him a dictionary. When the Saratoga meet would end, his preparation for the Breeders’ Cup – which he called from 1984-2005 – would begin.

Durkin said he would live “a monastic lifestyle for two months before the Breeders’ Cup.”

“People would say the words ‘Breeders’ Cup,’ and I would feel the rush of acid getting into my stomach,” he said. “But on Breeders’ Cup Day, the hardest race was the first race. It’s like you’re a football player – you’re all psyched up, adrenaline is going crazy, then that first hit comes, and it was like, ‘Okay, all right.’

“That’s what was hard about the Derby,” added Durkin, the voice of the Triple Crown from 2001-10. “You didn’t get that boom. I never liked calling the Derby. That was a tension convention.”

Citing stress, Durkin stepped down from calling the Triple Crown right before the 2011 Derby. Two years earlier, he was late picking up longshot Mine That Bird rallying along the rail en route to winning the Derby.

“I wish I could have that one back,” Durkin said. “Everybody makes mistakes.”

The mistakes were few and far between for Durkin, whose iconic calls are too voluminous to mention. Durkin declined to single out a favorite call, though the way he still talks about Rachel Alexandra’s victory over males in the 2009 Woodward at Saratoga would lead one to believe that ranks at or near the top.

After leading most of the way through a testing pace in that race, Rachel Alexandra held off the onrushing Macho Again. An excited Durkin called the last few yards like this:

“It’s going to be desperately close. Here’s the wire. Rachel won! She is indeed Rachel Alexandra the Great! Rachel Alexandra raises the rafters here at the Spa.”

Durkin does recall the disappointment he felt when Smarty Jones lost the 2004 Belmont Stakes – and the Triple Crown – to Birdstone. So confident was he of a Smarty Jones victory that the night before the race, he marked off the 31-length margin of Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont with a piece of red tape along the rail, thinking Smarty Jones could threaten it.

Instead, Birdstone wore down Smarty Jones yards before the wire, continuing the Triple Crown drought and leaving Durkin clearly deflated.

Durkin’s voice gained urgency as Smarty Jones’s lead began to diminish in the stretch of the Belmont:

“It’s been 26 years. It’s just one furlong away. Birdstone is an outside threat. They’re coming down to the finish. Can Smarty Jones hold on? Here comes Birdstone. Birdstone surges past. Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.”

Richard Sandomir, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote the following day that Durkin’s call of Birdstone’s victory “was the most non-celebratory win call in sports history.”

“I was disappointed,” Durkin said. “I think a lot of people were disappointed. You can’t be completely above the fray. There’s emotion involved. Years ago, you couldn’t do that. Fred Capossela could not become emotional. ... That’s changed.”

At a press conference introducing him as the new NYRA race-caller, Collmus thanked Durkin “as a fan, because I thought his calls brought the excitement of this game to a new level, and I want to thank him as a race-caller because I think we all got better because of how great his calls were.”

It’s been an emotionally charged summer for Durkin, who said he has been stopped frequently by fans at Saratoga who let him know how much his calls have meant to them.

“This year, I’ll walk 10 feet in Saratoga, and someone will stop me, which is great, it’s completely gratifying,” Durkin said. “ ‘I remember you said this or you said that,’ and I have no recollection saying this or that. I just nod politely and say, ‘That was fun.’ It’s funny the things people remember I said. I mean, I can’t remember everything I said over 23 years.”

On Monday, Durkin will be hanging out at the Big Red Spring, greeting fans, signing autographs, taking pictures, and sharing stories.

Durkin said he does not have a plan for retirement, only that he would like to keep a hand in horse racing and do something “meaningful and relevant.”

Durkin loves to travel and was recently gifted by friends a two-week stay at a villa in Italy, that same villa where this winter he made the decision to retire. Durkin will split his time between New York and Florida.

Asked what he will miss, Durkin said: “The passion for theater, the passion for describing these things. Maybe I’ll miss being productive. I’ll have to do something else to fill that gap, but the passion for doing that stuff. When you take the element of passion out of your life, that’s probably pretty big. I don’t know. I’ll find out.”