08/14/2014 4:52PM

Durkin's greatest hits


For the past 30 years of his 43-year career, track announcer Tom Durkin has borne witness to many of Thoroughbred racing greatest moments. To Thoroughbred racing’s benefit, and at times entertainment and delight, Durkin has provided through his race calls the ultimate soundtrack – word pictures that contained the essence of those moments. That so many of his calls conveyed, in bursts of spontaneous eloquence, what we all felt as it was unfolding before us is testimony to his greatness. Durkin will make his last call for the Spinaway on the Aug. 31 card at Saratoga. To celebrate his incredible career, Daily Racing Form presents, with commentary from the man himself, Durkin’s greatest hits.

1995 Breeders' Cup Classic

Cigar was looking to go undefeated in his 1995 campaign. And he did. And he wasn’t running against “tomato cans” either, winning the Oaklwan Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, Gulfstream Park Handicap, Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Donn, the Mass Cap, the Woodward, and finally that year the Classic. So what kind of superlative can the announcer attach to Cigar if he wins. “Undefeated” just sounded mundane considering his accomplishments. So I went to the thesaurus and looked up “undefeated.” There were a number of entries. I put them down in my dossier that I kept on Cigar. So comes the race and Bailey and Cigar display their now-familiar early restraint before raining down on the competition ( if you can call it competition) in the stretch. So by the eighth pole he has it won. So I’ve got plenty of time to state that he will close out an “undefeated” season. My subconscious mind refers to the dossier and I elocute all the words I had written down . . . unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable. He was all that.


1998 Belmont Stakes

Real Quiet-Victory Gallop . . . what can you say? It was the worst “bad beat” in the history of “bad beats.” One millimeter before the wire and one millimeter after the wire Real Quiet earns an extra $5 million for winning Visa's Triple Crown Bonus. Plus the winner’s share of a million-dollar purse. And, oh yeah, a place in the pantheon of racing immortals as the 12th Triple Crown winner.

But in that space no wider than the microscopic aperture of the photo-finish camera he loses to Victory Gallop. It was sooooo close. Over and over in agonizingly slow motion they showed the replay. You still could not tell. They must have played it 10 times waiting for that number to come. And up it comes. Victory Gallop wins.

Not enough drama for you? Then they put up the inquiry sign. More agony waiting for the stewards decision. Turns out Real Quiet gave Victory Gallop a little bump. Stewards said next day they would have taken his number down if he had finished first. Yeah, sure. All in all, it was the most dramatic ending to a race I have ever seen.


1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff

Talk about plot lines! Seeking to be the first undefeated American champion since 1908, Personal Ensign is to clash at Churchill Downs against the winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby. Doesn’t get any better. I think I used the word “miraculous” in describing Personal Ensign’s victory. So she is coming back to the winner’s circle. Churchill Downs is screaming in decibels of approval that had never been heard. I leave the glass-enclosed booth and go outdoors to join in the celebration and to sacrifice my larynx in roaring endorsement for a filly that in that last sixteenth of a mile did something that if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes . . . So I am at full throat and this guy next to me says, “Durkin. What the hell are you doing? You’ve got four more races to call.” I’m glad he pulled me up because I might still be there yelling today. It was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen.


2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic

I live in Floral Park, N.Y., just on the other side of those trees you see on Belmont’s backstretch. Mine is a New York City bedroom community with lots of people that work in the city and many cops and firemen. In Floral Park and the surrounding communities in the days after 9-11 there were daily funeral processions for the victims. September 11 was personal around Belmont Park. In the aftermath of 9-11, many events had to be canceled in New York for reasons of security. The Breeders’ Cup would not be one of them. By the time October 26 came around, things were starting to normalize. But there was very much a sense of American resolve that brought all together as one after 9-11. The American Horse of the Year versus the foreign champion Sahkee in pitched battle in the stretch. And so with a sense of pride and resolve, I guess, I blurted out, “Tiznow wins it for America!” Jingoistic, you thought? Too bad. I didn’t care.

Do re mi fa so la ti do

The owners named Doremifasolatido with every intention of me singing its praises to victory. And I couldn’t resist. So as she was winning, I sang the scale all the way down the stretch and managed to nail each note on key. I was pretty surprised, but it really didn’t sound so bad.

She was a good filly and a few weeks later she came back in a stakes at Belmont. Unfortunately, I had bronchitis. By the time I got to “ti,” the note was as sour as month-old lemons. That was the end of my singing career from the booth.

The next year, the same owners named a horse “Volare” after the song popularized by Dean Martin and others. So the horse wins without a singing announcer. I am sure the owners were disappointed, but music lovers were not.

1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic

Mike Leitis was a behind-the-scenes marketing guy that was in great part responsible for the success of Breeders’ Cup as an event. He had a great sense of what was big and what was important and how to make things simple. A few weeks before the event, Mike and I were talking about the big issues for the ’89 BC. He said, “Tom, I can tell you that in four words . . . Easy Goer Sunday Silence.”  So when I was trying to conjure up a plan for the call I just thought of what Mike said. So when I was calling the race, every time I referenced either Easy Goer or Sunday Silence I called the margins between those two without really paying too much attention to the rest, keeping it simple and big and important. It worked out well as every time they were on a straight Easy Goer gained ground. Around each turn the more nimble Sunday Silence widened the margin on Easy Goer. The end was dramatic and I used these words for the first and last time . . . “racing epic.”

Fog race

I loved the fog at Aqueduct. Right off Jamaica Bay, boy it could come in thick as thieves. I loved the fog there because it gave me a few races off now and then. Heck, I’ve got binoculars that can read a license plate at a quarter-mile. But even if I had X-ray vision like Superman I couldn’t have seen through that foggy Kryptonite.  For that matter, nobody in the grandstand could. So, roll with it, baby!

2004 Belmont Stakes

Richard Sandomir was the TV sports reviewer for The New York Times. Back in those days, racing still had enough cachet that newspapers reviewed the big racing events shown on TV. He came over to my house that week and did one of those up-close-and-personal-type stories about me. He may have been a little disappointed that I was probably not as exciting or energetic as my race calls. Hey, he wanted up close and personal. We talked about Smarty Jones winning the Triple Crown. I was so confident that he was going to win that the night before I borrowed a surveyor’s wheel to mark off on the rail the distance of Secretariat’s 31 lengths from the finish line. I actually thought that Smarty could possibly win by that much and I wanted to be able to say it. Instead, I would say, somewhat glumly, “And Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.” The next morning I pick up the Times to read Sandomir’s review of the show. When it came to my call, he gave it some very complimentary notices. Adding, that my words at the finish were . . . “probably the most non-celebratory win call in sports history.” I guess. I could have said, “There is no joy in Mudville, the mighty Casey [Smarty Jones] has struck out.”


Yackahickmickadola ( if that is how you spell it)

Owners from time to time, and good-naturedly, like to give names to horses that are seemingly impossible to pronounce. Like Flat Fleet Feet, She Sells Sea Shells, and the flatulent Hoof Hearted. (Luckily another announcer had to deal with that one).

So back in the day (those glorious days) at Hialeah a guy names a horse with the fatuous Yackahickamickadola. So I figure . . . well you want me to screw up? Fine. Here you go . . .  Dickarockadolahockadolamolacolarolladoladolamolahackadickamickarollapoladollamolamolarockahacka.

Did you really think I could play it straight?

2002 Test

Sometimes the words just don’t rise to the occasion. Sometimes there just aren’t words to describe something.  I can’t really recall what I said about You and Carson Hollow. But I can remember what every step of the stretch run looked like. Look it up on YouTube. I will later, just out of curiosity. But the images of those two fillies in that fiercest stretch drive embodies the Thoroughbred spirit in ways that be put into words.

2007  Belmont Stakes

What a confrontation! What a Belmont! The plot was simple. A battle of the sexes. By virtue of his victory in the Preakness over Street Sense, Curlin was clearly the best 3-year-old colt in the country. But was he the best 3-year-old? Rags to Riches simply destroyed her female competition that spring. It made for one of the “sexiest” matchups in Belmont or, for that matter, racing history. One had to reach back 102 years to find a filly winner of the Belmont.

There was drama every step of the mile and half. She stumbled coming out of the gate but soon thereafter and for the entire trip the best 3-year-old filly in the country and the best 3-year-old colt would never be more than a length apart from each other. It was truly a “battle of the sexes” in the stretch. At the end of a mile and a half, they were the separated by a nose. Things get easy for an announcer when the plot lines are so clearly drawn.

“It’s a filly in the Belmont.”


One gets a little educated calling races. Google gets a pretty good workout on my computer when I’m working. You see a horse’s name and it is not familiar. Go to Google and get educated. You learn somethin’ every day in that booth. Well, there was Arrrgh. Do a little research and you’ll find that there is actually “National talk like a Pirate Day” every September. Who knew?

So as I recall Arrrgh had three R’s in his name. By the time I was done with it, he had about 20 RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR’s. Hey, horse racing is supposed to be fun. The announcer has to pick his spots when it comes to being light-hearted. I mean, people are gambling, you know. But every once in a while, when it seems appropriate, I’ll go to that place.

That summer at Saratoga ARRRRRRRRRRRRGH went viral on the streets. Instead of greeting each other with “hello,” people would do their best ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH. Most days won’t go by during the Saratoga season when I am not greeted with an enthusiastic ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH. It wasn’t exactly “He is moving like a tremendous machine,” but it’s what a lot of people remember. Having fun at the track. What a concept!

1994 Travers Stakes

I always thought of Holy Bull as the best miler I ever saw. His Met Mile (won by 5 1/2 in 1:33.80) that year was plenty of testimony. Holy Bull was never thought of as a great mile-and-a-quarter horse. I suppose it was his Derby failure. And I suppose he got that reputation because he was so fast. And fast he had to be in that year’s Travers. Wayne Lukas had entered his Preakness/Belmont winner Tabasco Cat. But he also entered a rabbit, Commanche Trail, whose only purpose was to run speed-loving Holy Bull into enervated submission so distance-loving Tabasco Cat could catch a tired Holy Bull in the stretch. Almost. But it wasn’t Tabasco Cat that almost caught Holy Bull. Commanche Trial took it right to the throatlatch of Holy Bull to a quarter in 22 and four. Twenty-two and four in a 10-furlong race. Forty-six and one-half. In the meantime, stretch-running future BC Classic winner Concern was nowhere to be seen. Until the three-eighths pole, when he started uncoiling that classic stride. Holy Bull held on at the end of a bruising mile and a quarter. He was fast. He was brave. I’m not sure that I have ever seen a braver performance by a Thoroughbred.


1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic


When one is preparing for a big race call it is fairly essential to draw up the basic story lines. In this case it was the fact that the winners of the last two Kentucky Derbies were in the same race. Ferdinand and Alysheba were the two most famous horses in America. So that plot line was crystal clear. And riding Ferdinand was America’s most famous jockey riding in one of his last big races . . . the aging icon Bill Shoemaker. There was a lot to work with in that race, but that stretch drive! That stretch drive! No announcer could ever had it fall into his lap any better than when you get to say . . . “two Derby winners hit the wire together.”


1984 Breeders’ Cup Classic


I was three years out of being the track announcer at that world-famous track in East St. Louis, Ill., Cahokia Downs. In the world of race-calling I could have been referred to as “Tom Who?” but Arthur Watson, the president of NBC Sports took a huge risk and gave me a shot at the first Breeders’ Cup job. The rehearsal the day before was usual for me. I just liked to goof off in rehearsals to take a little tension off. The NBC folks got a little worried. After Wild Again’s absolutely wild BC Classic, I went down to the truck after the show. I walked over to Arthur and asked how did the show go? He grabbed me and said, “I love you.” I’ll never forget that and I’ll never forget Arthur Watson for giving a kid from Cahokia the chance of a lifetime.