Tom Durkin, the longtime track announcer at the Saratoga Race Course who has also called dozens of Triple Crown races and 21 years of Breeder’s Cup races, started his career at county fairs in Wisconsin.
Despite calling the most important horse races in the country and calling races at 50 different tracks in six countries, he is humble.
“I do not have a great opinion of myself,” Durkin told an audience of about 100 at Saratoga Springs Public Library this week.
He described himself as a “race track gypsy” who slowly climbed from calling harness races at county fairs in the Midwest to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May for the Kentucky Derby.
“I loved the track growing up. I wanted to get involved in racing,” Durkin said. He told humorous stories about his life throughout his talk, keeping the audience laughing every few minutes.
Durkin grew up in Chicago, loved attending races at Arlington Park, and was a theater major at St. Norbert’s College in De Pere, Wis. He started calling harness races at county fairs in 1971.
“The county fair stuff was fun,” he said. Durkin said well-known trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Linda Rice started their careers at county fairs.
Durkin’s talk was this year’s “Saratoga’s Racing Legends” presentation at the library. He was introduced and interviewed by Mike Kane, racing analyst for YNN, author, and well-known Capital Region sportswriter.
Durkin eventually started calling races at established tracks, including Thistledown near Cleveland and Tampa Bay in Florida.
He said a major break in his career came in 1981 when he called the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah Park in Florida. His call was praised on national television and that led to a call asking him if he would call the inaugural Breeders’ Cup races in 1984.
“I was 34 years old and very scared,” Durkin said. He would go on to call Breeders’ Cup races for 21 years as these races in October became the premier stage for thoroughbred racing in the world.
“That’s opened the door,” Durkin said about the Breeder’s Cup.
‘Dream come true’
In 1990, when he was 40, he was working at Meadowlands in New Jersey when he received a call from the New York Racing Association, asking if he would like to be their track announcer at Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont Park.
“Yahoo, it was a dream come true,” he said about taking the NYRA jobs, which he continues to hold.
After calling the major races in the United States for many years, he said it got to the point he didn’t want to do it anymore.
“The nerve problems got worse and worse,” Durkin said.
To prepare for calling the Breeders’ Cup in October, Durkin would stop drinking alcohol on Labor Day, go on a strict, healthy diet, exercise, and even use meditation to focus his mind.
He also pored for hours over racing charts and learned the silk colors of the horses that would be racing in the high-stakes Breeders’ Cup races.
Finally it became too much. “Let’s have a little fun, not to worry all the time,” Durkin said about no longer calling the Triple Crown (last one was 2010) and Breeder’s Cup (last one was 2005).
“Good races deserve good calls, great races deserve great calls,” Durkin said. He said the action on the track must be described “appropriately” without excessive elaboration.
Durkin’s favorite track? Saratoga Race Course. But it is also one of the more difficult places to call a race.
“You are down very low, trees block the vision, the far turn is very hard,” Durkin said. “But the racing is great, the people are great.”
“What’s so special about Saratoga?” a man asked.
“You are close to the horses, they walk through the crowd, you can feel the power of the animals …” Durkin said.
Durkin owns a home in Saratoga Springs. He said he still enjoys calling the “day-to-day” races at the NYRA tracks.
“The worst thing for me is to have rain,” Durkin said. Rain means a muddy track that makes it very hard to see the mud-covered colors of the jockeys’ silks and numbers on the horses.
“The wonderful blessing of my job is when people you don’t know come up to you and say something nice to you,” Durkin said.
“Nobody paints the picture of a race like you do,” said a man in the audience.
The room burst into applause for perhaps the greatest thoroughbred horse race caller of his generation.