Tom Durkin is quick with the call when the topic is favorite horses.
“Holy Bull, Personal Ensign, Turkoman,” Durkin said, seated inside the closet-sized, gizmo-packed announcer’s booth at Saratoga Race Course. “Gate Dancer, he was fun to call. Groovy was fun to call because he was fast. And the girls, Rachel Alexandra and Rags to Riches. I could go on forever.”
But he won’t. This past spring, Durkin announced his retirement as announcer for the New York Racing Association, which operates the Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont race tracks. Last Wednesday, NYRA introduced Churchill Downs announcer Larry Collmus as the next voice of New York horse racing.
Durkin says it’s the right time to leave. His NYRA contract was supposed to end in September 2015, but after 24 years on the job at New York tracks, Durkin thought it might be time for a change.
“I just wasn’t feeling it this year,” Durkin said. He made up his mind during a solitary day in Tuscany on a recent trip to Italy.
“I just can’t see doing another year of it,” said Durkin, who owns a home in Saratoga Springs. “When you’re 63, you have to think about, do you still have that mental acuity and drive, are you going to have that when you’re 68? I came to the conclusion and I’m very happy with it.”
… “Rachel Alexandra, Macho Again, they are coming to the finish. It’s gonna be desperately close. Here’s the wire. RACHEL WON! She is indeed Rachel Alexandra the Great, beating Macho Again here, and further back is Bullsbay in third. The time was 1:48 and one. … Rachel Alexandra RAISES THE RAFTERS here at the Spa!”
— 2009 Woodward Stakes, Saratoga
Durkin’s deep and mellow voice has been part of the racing game since the early 1970s, when he was hired to call races at the Fond du Lac County Fair in Wisconsin. He later landed a job at Florida Downs (now Tampa Bay Downs) and worked there for five years. Jobs followed at Hialeah in Florida and The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Durkin also began broadcasting for ESPN and NBC, gigs that allowed him to call races all over the world. In 1984, he called his first Breeders’ Cup.
During the 1990s, when Durkin was on the job for NYRA, he also called races at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla. In 2001, Durkin became the Triple Crown announcer for NBC. He called the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes through 2010.
The personable Durkin, dressed in long-sleeved blue patterned shirt and cadet blue slacks during a recent weekend day at the races, has been surprised by the numbers of people who have thanked him for his career at Saratoga and the other tracks.
“The well-wishers have been unbelievable this year,” Durkin said. “The kindness and sentiments people have expressed to me really caught me off guard. I had no idea of the depth of their passion and the breadth of it. … It’s been the most satisfying few weeks of my life.”
Some race fans, familiar with Durkin’s occasionally thrilling, often breathless, always intense race calls, think they know him personally.
“People, when they come and wish me luck, some have actually started crying,” Durkin said. “I guess they do feel they know you.”
The announcer’s day begins in the morning, at home, going over the day’s card and reading over names of horses who will be in competition. Durkin has compiled a book full of words, and will make selections to help him tell the one- or two-minute equine dramas. There is a routine involved — Durkin offers a recent long turf race as an example.
“I was expecting a slow pace so I wrote down ‘sleepwalk,’ then ‘somnambulant,’ then ‘sleep-inducing,’ then ‘dormant’ and then to follow dormant, ‘gets a wake-up’ call,’ ” he said. “That’s how the creative process works with me.”
“ … And Mike Smith … lets the Bull roll! He’s in front by five as they come to the quarter pole, but there is CAUSE FOR CONCERN! Concern comes on, second on the outside! Mike Smith’s asking Holy Bull for everything he has. Concern is coming hard under Jerry Bailey. It’s still Holy Bull, desperately trying to hold! Concern a final threat, but it is Holy Bull, as game as a race horse could be, coming down to the wire. Holy Bull wins! What a hero!”
— 1994 Travers Stakes, Saratoga
Durkin can’t offer favorite race calls. There are just too many of them.
He can list a favorite Travers Stakes — the 1994 battle between Concern and Holy Bull. “Holy Bull really wasn’t a mile-and-a-quarter horse,” Durkin said. “Concern was a mile-and-a-quarter horse.”
Durkin said calling a race used to be a form of mass communication. That’s the way Fred “Cappy” Capossela used to annunciate, when he worked at Saratoga and other American tracks during the 1940s and 1950s.
“It’s not really mass communication anymore,” he said. “When Fred Capossela was here, it was mass communication, it was just basically speaking to the people who were on the track. There was a reason he was so good at what he did, people could understand him, he had a very high-pitched voice and an almost exaggerated sense of elocution and that was perfect. His voice could cut through the hum of the crowd. That was mass communication.
“Now the thing is different, because television is not mass communication. It reaches a lot of people, but it reaches people on a very close basis. You’re only 3 or 4 feet from a television speaker. I can get away with stuff that Fred Capossela couldn’t have gotten away with because I don’t have to elocute as perfectly and as elegantly as he did.”
Durkin is all alone in the booth, but in a way, he’s all over the track. Track patrons say they are going to miss the voice of Saratoga.
“I like his excitement. He gets the blood flowing in me and everybody else,” said Bill Gard of Loudonville.
“He’s probably one of the best race callers ever,” offered Rick Breton of Enfield, Conn. “I’m sure this place is going to miss him. I know I will when I come up. I love hearing him call a race.”
“Just before they got to the finish line, his voice got louder and louder,” added Tom Hobbs of Guilderland. “It just made it more exciting.”
Durkin will play more golf, do more reading, stay out later — low-stress activities. Stress was the reason he decided not to renew his contract with NBC Sports in 2011, leaving behind races such as the Kentucky Derby. Anxiety and fear of failure can come with the binoculars and microphone.
“If there was no stress on the job … ” he said. “But you can’t get around it. I deal with it the best I can because you just can’t make mistakes. I do from time to time, but it’s not because I haven’t done anything possible to avoid that circumstance.”
Durkin can’t say what he’ll miss most about the job.
“You’re going to have to ask me a year from now,” he said. “I really don’t know what I’m going to miss. Certainly getting paid. I told my accountant I wanted to retire. He’s the only person I know who said it was a bad idea.”