There’s only one way to improve on the experience of listening to Tom Durkin’s call of Rachel Alexandra’s Woodward victory:
Watch him listen to it, while he’s standing in front of an adoring crowd.
That’s what we were treated to during the National Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Friday.
The Hall did a special recognition of Durkin, who emceed the event and is retiring on Aug. 31 after 43 years as a track announcer, the last 24 in New York.
The short video montage could end in no other way, with Rachel’s Woodward.
Whoever came up with the Pillars of the Turf category for induction two years ago has impeccable timing, because as soon as possible, Durkin needs to go in the Hall of Fame. Like, yesterday.
He’s not a trainer, jockey, owner or breeder, but is as integral a part of the New York racing experience as anyone in the sport. More than that, he elevated it without being intrusive.
At the Hall of Fame ceremony, he was his usual hilarious self, a mix of dry Irish wit, a twinkle in his blue eyes and the white wisps of his eyebrows easily visible even to those in the upper deck of the pavilion.
Snappily attired, as always, in a cream jacket, dark blue pants, light blue shirt, turquoise-and-dark-blue striped tie and dark peach pocket square, Durkin — our Tom — ladled out relaxed, spontaneous jokes and respectful narration in equal measure.
He was able to pull off a call for Hall of Fame nomination of all the faceless grooms who take care of the horses without letting it sound like pandering.
When he introduced historical review inductee Lloyd Hughes, who died in 1958, Durkin said, “Lloyd couldn’t be here today . . .” without letting it sound crass. Everybody laughed, and I’ll bet old Lloyd’s soul got a chuckle out of it, too.
It was technically a celebration of the inductees, but unavoidably became a celebration of Durkin himself, too, because his race calls provided the backdrop to race highlights, in particular Ashado’s 2004 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
As she and jockey John Velazquez found a seam and powered through it inside the eighth pole, Durkin’s voice shifted into a dramatic growl as he announced, “Into the breach goes Ashado!”
During the acceptance speeches for Ashado, co-owner Paul Saylor said, “I was yelling my head off. At the eighth pole, Tom Durkin sang, ‘Into the breach goes Ashado,’ and I immediately went from a baritone into a soprano.”
He may have done that whether there was an announcer or not, but because Durkin so perfectly captured the moment, that race will be preserved in amber forever.
If you haven’t watched Rachel’s Woodward in awhile, go watch it. Now. Then watch it again. And again. That’s what I did Friday afternoon.
Durkin’s call is a precisely timed symphony building to an exquisite crescendo, seamlessly matching the action on the track with pieces of foreshadowing.
“OH! The first quarter was 22 and four-fifths seconds. There’ll be no free ride for Rachel Alexandra. They’re making her work for every step today.”
Durkin appeared on Andy Serling’s ESPN radio show at the Parting Glass earlier in the meet and talked about the elements of plot and narrative that he tries to bring to every race call.
Plot points are fractional times, lengths, placement, etc. That’s the necessary stuff.
Narrative is what separates a great caller from a proficient one . . . detail, description, context, color. That’s the delicious stuff.
At the quarter pole: “It is still the filly in front. A dramatic stretch run awaits in the Woodward Stakes . . .”
At the eighth pole: “Macho Again is making a tremendous run from the back of the pack . . . Rachel Alexandra . . . Macho Again . . . they’re coming down to the finish . . . It’s going to be desperately close!”
At the wire (like, EXACTLY at the wire): “Here’s the wire . . . RACHEL WON! She is indeed . . . Rachel . . . Alexandra . . . the Great!”
We gave Durkin a standing ovation. The white eyebrows angled down a little. The twinkle got a little misty. Pounded his fist on his chest.
He’ll be gone soon. But never actually gone.
There wasn’t a dram of sadness.
Not a drop.
It was pure joy.
The man who has served us “obstreperous” and “vanguard” and countless other gems said, “Here are two words I’ve never used in a race call: Thank you.”