07/21/2011 1:35PM

Q&A: Tom Durkin

Barbara D. Livingston

Tom Durkin became the full-time track announcer for the New York Racing Association on Aug. 29, 1990, which was opening day of the Belmont Park fall meeting. He didn’t begin calling the races at Saratoga until July 24, 1991, the year the meet was expanded from 24 to 30 days. This year marks the 21st year Durkin will call the races at the Spa. Recently, Daily Racing Form sat down with Durkin in his perch high above Belmont Park to talk about Saratoga.

Do you remember the first time you called a race at Saratoga?
It wasn’t the first race, but it was the first day I called races there. A horse named Lost Link got stuck under the starting gate, and they couldn’t get it out. They had to give the horse a shot to make it go to sleep for about three or four minutes so they could go pull it out from under the gate or move the gate. Everybody was looking at the gate, so I just started with this narrative telling everybody what’s going to happen. “They can’t get the horse out of the gate. The vet is going to give the horse a shot.” Talk about pressure − he better not have too much blue juice in that needle. They moved the gate out of the way, and everybody was sitting there waiting for this horse to come out of anesthesia. And it did, and I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Lost Link has risen,” and a great roar went up.

Does it feel any different calling races at Saratoga compared to other racetracks?
Yes, for a number of reasons it’s very different. From my own technical point of view, I’m just lower. At Belmont, I’m 94 feet up in the air; Saratoga I’m probably about 30. There’s good and bad in that. It’s nice to be close to the horses, but you’d rather have a vantage point a bit higher. It makes it easier to see margins and easier to see the horses when they get next to each other.

And then there’s these trees, which makes it sometimes just very difficult to see the horses. Especially before the start of a race on the backstretch, those 5 1/2-furlong races the horses wait behind the gate and they’re behind a little forest there and I just don’t see them there. When I started, there were three big ancient oak trees that were right there between the 5 1/2- and five-furlong pole. The creator of all race callers decided to send some lightning their way, and now they’re not there anymore. They kind of disappeared one by one over the years.

I can really hear the crowd very well [at Saratoga]. I got my door open and I can hear them react to things I say. Things I don’t see, if I hear a reaction from the crowd, then I know something is happening where my binoculars weren’t. I have a much closer relationship literally and figuratively with the fans there, and that makes it very, very different.

Considering that aspect of it, and the fact more people routinely attend the races, does it put any more pressure on you to not make a mistake?
Yeah, absolutely. You want to get it right at Saratoga. You can hide a little bit at Aqueduct.

What were some of your more unusual, fun, or memorable moments calling races at Saratoga?
Most unusual was an Alabama Stakes when I inhaled a moth. In the booth up there, the caulking’s bad because it’s just so old and bugs can fly in, and the cleaning people would always come by and knock down the cobwebs, and I’d say, “No, don’t knock those down. They trap all the insects.” We were doing a show for ESPN, and I guess I just took a deep breath when I said, “And they’re off in the Alabama,” and I swallowed part of this moth. I turned off the switch that I have to the public, but what’s going out over the air on ESPN is “EEEEEECCCH, EEEEEECCCH.” I mean it sounded like somebody in the death throes. I’m trying to expunge this insect from my throat, and it’s ugly and scary. Finally, I got some of it out. They were pretty well around the clubhouse turn at that point.

Besides that, what call or calls stick out, and why?
The one that people tend to forget because it wasn’t the Travers or the Alabama was the Go for Wand in 1997 with Flat Fleet Feet and Hidden Lake. That was the most exciting race I ever called. Hidden Lake did something that I’d never seen before and have never seen since − she lost the lead twice in the stretch and came back to beat Flat Fleet Feet, who was a great filly, a Grade 1 filly. And they were both trained by John Kimmel. It was a very close photo finish, but I could tell that Hidden Lake won, and so did [Richard] Migliore. It was an incredible display of gameness. She extended herself so much that she couldn’t make it back to the winner’s circle. Migliore had to get off her, and they had to hose her down in front of the clubhouse. They finally revived her, and she came back to the winner’s circle to tremendous, crazy applause.

What is your most memorable Travers?
One of the great performances I think I’ve ever seen from any horse was Holy Bull. Wayne Lukas sent out Commanche Trail as a rabbit for Tabasco Cat, and they went in 22 and change. Holy Bull was never meant to be a mile-and-a-quarter horse. By Great Above, out of Sharon Brown? Come on. People thought since he didn’t win the Derby he wasn’t a mile-and-a-quarter horse, and then he takes that punishment, and then here comes Concern, who goes on and wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Holy Bull beat him. That was one of the great Travers ever.

When Rachel Alexandra won the 2009 Woodward, it seemed to me like it was the loudest the place had ever been. What do you recall from that?
I recall saying that the rafters are shaking. Literally, in a race call you don’t think you’re going to say the rafters are shaking, but they literally were. It was a stunning performance. She was a wildly popular filly. It was just a magic moment. It’s just the kind of stuff that happens at Saratoga.

When friends or relatives come to town, what are some of the points of interests you take them to?
Congress Park. The Spa Park. Saratoga Battlefield. I take them out by Saratoga Lake. I take them out to the farms out there. Sometimes we’ll take a day trip to Vermont. I explain to them the historical importance of Saratoga and where these huge hotels were − “That’s where the Grand Union Avenue Hotel was, they had a dining room that seated 1,800 people.” “This is a gambling casino right in the middle of town where gambling was illegal, but here is where they did it.” “That’s where Ulysses S. Grant lived and died. All the great political figures have been here.” I like going through my little spiel about Victorian architecture.

I love taking people through the building at Saratoga and showing them the construction of the place and how the track was a mile at one point and how they changed it to a mile and an eighth and how they sawed the building in half and pulled it apart and put more seats in the middle and put it back together again. In the clubhouse, when I take the steps going down, I like the fact that the stairs creak. I’m tall and my hands don’t reach the railings because those railings were built for people that were four or five inches smaller than we are now. It’s not a Disney-fied building that’s supposed to look like a Victorian racetrack, it’s the real thing with various art-deco decorations and remodeling. It’s changed over the years.

You called the meet when it was 30 days. Now it’s 40 days. What’s your feeling on whether it should go longer?
I think what sums it up is we’ve actually become very biblical. There are not only 40 days, but there are 40 nights of Saratoga. I really pray there is never a 41.