Tom Durkin: Track Announcer

[image url=""]Tom Durkin[/image]

Chicago native Tom Durkin got started in his career of choice by calling races at county fairs throughout Wisconsin during the early 1970s. From there, he progressed from "call taker" for the Daily Racing Form to track announcer (and sometime line maker and/or director of publicity) at a number of tracks around the country, ranging from Cahokia Downs to Florida--now Tampa Bay--Downs to places like Commonwealth Park, Quad City Downs, and Balmoral Park.

By the mid-1980s, he found himself comfortably established as track announcer, et al at Hialeah, the Meadowlands, and Balmoral. By the end of that decade, Durkin was also serving as host of Racing from the Meadowlands and Thoroughbred World TV Magazine while also working as a race caller, analyst, and feature producer at ESPN. Tom also began his stint as analyst and race caller for NBC-TV broadcasts of the Breeders' Cup in 1984.

In addition to spending the first part of the decade as track announcer at Gulfstream Park, during the '90s Tom assumed his present place among the legends of racing as track announcer at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga and has become the voice of the Belmont Stakes and one of the most familiar symbols of Triple Crown racing on the airwaves today.

Tom currently splits his time between New York homes in Floral Park and Saratoga Springs and estimates that he's called races at more than 50 tracks in at least six countries around the world.

Chicago, IL:
What do you think about the new Ruffian movie coming out next year? After Barbaro’s injury, people kept harkening back to seeing the match race. It was before my time, and I often wonder if I'd have spurned racing like so many did then. I say not, but it's difficult to know. I saw footage of Go for Wand after it happened and was sickened, but I'm still here. It's hard for me to justify leaving a sport when the main problem is that medical science can't fix everything.

I think the Ruffian movie will be a plus for the sport. It is told through the eyes of Bill Nack a turf writer for Sports Illustrated. And Bill is a tremendous writer. I mean the best. He is also a great lover of the sport, and no one can communicate the passion racing fans possess like Bill Nack. So, the Ruffian tale, though tragic in the end, will have plenty of positives.

And medical science, while it can't fix everything, is doing better as research improves. Ruffian probably could have been saved had her accident happened in 2006.  

Winston-Salem, NC:
Hi, Tom; great to have you here! I was wondering if, this early in the season, it would be too unreasonable to say Barbaro could still come away with any kind of Eclipse award. I was looking up stats on the runners this season and realized that Barbaro’s were pretty impressive: 2 g1s (including the Ky Derby), 2 g3s, largest derby winning margin since Assault over one of the most competitive fields in 20 years, graded stakes wins over both turf and dirt. He also feeds into the biases toward dirt routers and classic winners. I realize he wasn't a dual winner but feel that, unless someone comes up with, say, 3 g1s, it's not so easy to discount Barbaro even if he's out so soon. Is there anything to consider that I'm missing?

Well, it is very early as you said. And people cast their votes soon after the Breeders' Cup. Let's say Bernardini wins....Preakness, Haskell, Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Classic. Hard to give the award to Barbaro. But, right now, I am rooting for Barbaro.

Deptford, NJ:
Because ESPN/ABC now own the rights to the Belmont again, will you or Dave Johnson be calling the Belmont this year?

Good question!!! I know I will be calling on track. I think I will be calling it for TV, but it is not finalized. So, if you hear something, let me know!

St. Paul, MN:
How do you memorize all the horses’ names before a race? I am twelve and would like to learn how to call races.

First thing you need to do is develop a way to memorize things. You being 12, I would say studying and doing your homework is the best way to prepare for a race calling career later on.

But what I do is associate the names of the horses with the colors the jockeys are wearing. Then repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Now, hit the books!  

Bel Air, MD:
What was the toughest race you've ever called?

Some would think the Arc d ' Triomphe with 26 horses and with the field disappearing behind a small forest for a while. But in those cases I use--shall we say...........hmmmmmmmmm...poetic license (making stuff up). But seriously, the hardest race to call was the 1990 Breeders' Cup mile. The race after Go for Wand's. Very difficult to concentrate.  

Lexington, KY:
What major race was your best call, and which was your worst call?

I wouldn’t say which was best. But among the worst was stating that Monarchos had won the Derby tying Secretariat's record. The track was playing incredibly fast that day. I thought the record could be broken. So I went back over the charts of Secretariat's Derby and wrote down on the bottom of my program the fractional times and final time. I wrote on the program 1:59.4 as the final time. Monarchos ran in 59.4; but Secretariat's time was 59.2. I didn't realize until a few months later how I could have made such a bonehead mistake..... I needed reading glasses! 

Hockessin, DE:
When did you start calling Funny Cide "the gutsy gelding"?

When preparing for the Derby that year, I was trying to find a word to describe him. His Wood Memorial was very courageous, as were some of his earlier races. I thought 'gutsy' was a good word. And in the Derby, it just came out ‘gutsy gelding'. 

Bossier City, LA:
There is no Triple Crown and understandably the excitement is lessened a bit. How will your preparation change? How much time will you spend on the race before the race?

Depends on how many horses are in Belmont. I'll go over their previous races, lay out a few scenarios, and listen to what story lines will be played out for the TV broadcast. In terms of hours of preparing, probably considerably less than the Derby because I have already done the research on Belmont starters that have already run in the Derby and races leading up to it. Also, there are not 20 horses running. But, basically, I'll use any free time Belmont week preparing.  

Marco Island, FL:
Can you speak of the narrative of a race call and how it is perfected into a style? You not only announce the positions in a race, you also comment on the individual action of each horse. It is almost as if you are telling a story. I listen to you online, and it is very helpful; you describe the race so that the listener can not only hear it, but see it in the mind’s eye.

Well each race is a different story. Some stories are more important than others. The Derby is more important than the 4th at Aqueduct. But the 4th at Aqueduct is pretty important to a guy who is alive in a pick three. So you need to find a "tone" for each race. And you need to give each horse at least one call. And getting a "feel" for a pace scenarios develop, interaction between horses and jockeys. Most important--be accurate and energetic. And don't "try" too hard at style. Let that take care of itself. Horse races are innately exciting. Just describe it accurately, and you'll be fine.  

New Hyde Park, NY:
Which one was more exciting to call--Probe and Park Avenue Joe or Victory Gallop and Real Quiet? Did you think there was a dead-heat in both instances before the photo?

Probe and Park Ave Joe dead-heated in a match race -- an unbelievable, unimaginable result.

Victory Gallop - Real Quiet. Real Quiet wins the Triple Crown 3 inches before and 3 inches after the wire.

Which was the more exciting? I'd say 'dead heat'.  

Burlington, ON:
Which is the most satisfying and exciting Kentucky Derby commentary you have given and which was your favourite Derby winner?

Most exciting Derby I have called......I suppose Barbaro. Huge effort. Sublime was the word I assigned.  

Gloversville, NY:
We love having you call at Saratoga race track. Do you enjoy being at "the spa?"

I Love the spa. In fact, I just bought a house a half mile from the track. I close this week and can walk to work now. I love the Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!  

Bethseda, MD:
Tom, no question -- I just wanted to let you know that I think you are the Vin Scully of horseracing.

Well, thank you …. And pull up a chair.  

Miami, FL:
Do you bet on the races?

Used to. But about a year ago the folks at NYRA said they didn't want employees betting. So I don't.  

Niceville, FL:
Tom, I think you are the best in the business. As for my question, do you have any prepared phraseology that you are saving just in case a "Secretariat-at-Belmont" performance happens during one of your calls, or do you prefer to keep it completely spontaneous?

The calls for big races are not totally spontaneous. But I do write down pages of stuff to say. And if they pop out of my mouth during the call, fine. If not, fine. I just like to be prepared. I have a book of phrases and words I refer to constantly. I just transcribed them to a new file and did a word count. 8708 words.  

Nicholasville, KY:
Give us a quick "call" for Secretariat's Belmont.

How does ‘tremendous machine’ sound?  

Conklin, NY:
Is there a place in horse racing for Hialeah?

Horse heaven. What a shame to see her just sitting there. I always thought it would be perfect as the permanent sight for the Breeders' Cup. Won't happen, though. Hialeah was my first big job. I love that place.  

Omaha, NE:
Tom, we have enjoyed your work for years. What do you consider to be more of a challenge to call -- the Derby (due to field size) or the Breeders' Cup (since there are so many races)?

No doubt BC is more challenging-- 8 races, a hundred horses.  

Ft. Lauderdale, FL:
My question is: if there was a race of all 11 Triple Crown winners and you owned of them, who would it be and who would be your jockey?

Horse would be Citation. He won the Jersey Derby between the Preakness and Belmont. Chantall Sutherland—hey, I'm a guy, what can I say.  

Asheville, NC:
Do you think it was strange that Bernardini chose to run in the Preakness and skip the Belmont rather than do a Peter Pan/Belmont double? I figured a son of A.P. Indy and a late bloomer would have been pointed toward that.

I would not have run him in the Belmont. Only 4 starts and then going 12 furlongs in a grade one. No. He does not have enough "bottom" for that job. I'll look forward to the Travers with him.  

Greenville, OH:
Do you think the Kentucky Derby would be a fairer and safer race if the number of horses was limited to 14 or 15? Looking back at previous Kentucky Derby races, 1947 through 1968, most races were 15 or less horses. Only one, in 1951 had 20 horses. Also, how and when did the limit of 20 horses become a rule?

I think they should completely abandon the rule which limits the field to 20. As the announcer I say limit it to ... 4 or 5 horses. Actually, I think 20 is a good number. It adds greatly to the spectacle and, well, you'll get that occasional Giacomo who would have never gotten in if the field were limited to 14. 3YOs can get very good very quickly, so I think a small field would not be fair. As I recall, the 100th anniversary of the Derby when Cannonade won there were something like 23 0r 24, that was too many. Shortly after, a few years after that they limited the fields to 20.

Nashville, TN:
I didn’t see anything about books on tape in your bio, and I was wondering if you'd ever given any thought to that? (P.S. Does anybody ever recognize your voice when you're not at work and figure they know you from somewhere?)

I'd love to do voice on tape. I really enjoy doing voiceover work. Most of it limited to horse racing commercials and when I used to produce feature pieces on ESPN. I wish I could do more of that. And, once in a while someone will recognize the voice, usually when I am up in Saratoga. Thank goodness I have a good, clear voice -- what in the TV business we call ' a good face for radio."

In the realm of do I know you from somewhere? When I first started working at the Meadowlands back in 1982 or so, I was taking the elevator and this fellow starts looking at me. And he says I know you....hmmmmmmmmm I know you....don't tell me're,,,,,you''re not Dave Johnson!!

Raleigh, NC:
If a Triple Crown is on the line, is preparing something to say sort of like writing an Oscar speech where you feel silly having it already written (like you're presuming victory) but feel even worse being caught unprepared should the big moment arrive? Real Quiet almost did it so were you happy with your test run there?

Actually I am pretty sure if and when a horse wins the Triple Crown I am pretty sure I would not try to be too poetic. I think just simply “so and so wins the Triple Crown " is all need be said. Those simple words carry with them a great deal of passion and history. To handle it otherwise I think would be gilding the lily.

Miami, FL:
If you could call a Belmont of the past, what would you like to've called or even just witnessed? Are there any horses you'd like to've seen?

Well it sure would have been fun to call secretariat. When smarty Jones was trying to win it I went out the day before and measured the spot where 31 lengths was and marked it on the rail. That is how confident I was that day. Oh well. That's racing

Atlanta, GA:
Is there something you'd recommend for a first-time Belmont attendee? Something you feel would make the experience particularly special? (You can totally tell a 'best-kept secret'...just between us we promise!)

Come to my house afterwards for the annual post Belmont party. I live 200 yards from the track -- a good time. But I kick everyone out at midnight. Work the next day... Ask the folks at the BloodHorse for my e mail. I’ll give you directions.

Portland, OR:
In my humble opinion, you're the best race caller there has ever been. You add so much excitement to the race, and I can listen to your calls again and again (pity the poor horse that has a VCR near his stall). I’ve always been struck by Barbara Livingston’s "Best Friends". Be they high or low, if you had the place, are there two or three retired Thoroughbreds you'd like to "adopt".

Thank you for the nice words. I must say you have excellent taste in race callers. Evening Attire is one of my favorites. I think he is close to retiring. And a maiden named Conflictofintereset in which myself and fellow nab compatriots own. First horse I ever owned. What a thrill when she finally got on the grass and ran third.

Queens, NY:
Don't you think they should add a nice veal parm hero to the food selections at Saratoga? What do you like to nosh on at the track?

Now you are talkin'! Usually I bring my own lunch. But afterwards at 'Toga try the veal parm at Sergio’s!

Florence, SC:
Tom, I'll be at Belmont next Saturday for the fourth straight year. I'm always impressed by your obvious emotion within your calls (Songandaprayer's opening half in the '01 Kentucky Derby). Have you any role models from the past, or is this your own developed style?

I never made a conscious attempt at "style" -- the calls are a reflection of my own view of the game, my vocal dynamics (what I can and can't do with my voice), and my sense of taste. What I think sounds good. But my inspiration as a race caller comes from the inimitable Phil Georgeff of Chicago. My childhood hero. It was his enthusiasm that inspired me to be a race caller.

Conshohocken, PA:
Before you call a big race, i.e.: the Belmont, do you picture in your mind a pace scenario beforehand and if so how do you see this year's Belmont being run?

I plot out several scenarios. And what I think will be a pace that would be too fast or too slow. For instance, in the Derby any horse that runs faster than 46.1 usually has no shot. So I plot out the call accordingly. As far as this year's Belmont. I haven’t done that work yet.

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