Mark Twain of the Mic

It feels inadequate to refer to Tom Durkin as a race caller. He is a person of many interests--a philanthropist, a lover of language and the arts, an owner and breeder of world class trotting horses, and a raconteur par excellence--the kind of Monday night speaker you enjoy listening to before taking the day off from horse racing.

Turf writer Mike Kane, serving as moderator, did all that he could to keep Durkin on a biographical track during his 1 ½ hour presentation at the Saratoga Springs library the evening of July 23. But it was evident that the 200 people who came to the library wanted to learn more about why the game’s most eloquent announcer was so good at his primary job than what’s on his resume.

Dressed in a summer-appropriate, cream-colored sport coat with lime green dress shirt, tie and pocket handkerchief and sporting a straw hat like a modern-day Mark Twain, Durkin drew applause even before his introduction. Once he began answering audience questions, he explained that he keeps an 1800-word reference book to help him avoid becoming stale with his race calls. He described the tedious days of preparation that he puts in before a big race and the roadblocks he often faces, such as inclement weather, tricky names to pronounce and the refusal of racecourse officials to help him with minor adjustments in the color of caps worn by jockeys on various horses in a multiple-horse entry.

Tom Durkin
NYRA race caller Tom Durkin kept a crowd of about 200 people in stitches with stories about how he goes about his job.

Durkin should have little difficulty calling today’s $200,000 grade II Lake George Stakes.The field numbers eight. But if you are to believe what the experts predict, the winner will emerge from a couple of horses, specifically the British-raced Samitar, trained by Michael Channon, and Stephanie’s Kitten, ridden by John R. Velazquez, the second of two mounts that will mark the popular rider’s return to competition after a collarbone injury.

In another return to racing after a similar brief sabbatical, Ruler On Ice, the 2011 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner, will run in the eighth race, an allowance/ $75,000 optional claiming race for $85,000. He needs to beat Cease, the 5-2 second choice.  

A memorial service for Dick Hamilton, a racecourse official and public relations practitioner who served the horse racing world well for as long as people remember, will be held in the evening at the Racing Museum. Contrast that to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Jockeys vs. Horsemen Basketball Game at the Saratoga Recreation Center for the New York Chaplaincy. They’re all happening tonight.

A headline in Tuesday’s Pink Sheet must have made editors blush. It read, “Rachel Alexandra’s foil to be named.”  Barbara Banke, an owner of Stonestreet, will announce the foal’s--not foil's--name following the $100,000 Curlin Stakes on Friday.

Vic Zast is the author of The History and Art of 25 Travers. He has attended the races in Saratoga for 47 straight summers.

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