Tough Call - By Lenny Shulman

  (Originally published in the May 7, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Lenny Shulman

 There aren’t many advantages horse racing has over other sports when it comes to being television-friendly. Games such as football, baseball, basketball, and hockey play out over the entire length of the programming window. Triple Crown racing, on the other hand, boasts just two minutes of action within a 90- or 120-minute show. One distinct edge racing has enjoyed, in this age of bland, faceless sports announcers, is the booming and distinctive tone of racecaller Tom Durkin, whose presence has been synonymous with major national race events on NBC for the past 27 years, including the last decade as the voice of the Triple Crown.

That era, sadly, comes to an end May 7 with the recent announcement by Durkin that he is stepping down from network coverage of the Triple Crown races. The hesitancy in his voice—usually so fluid and true in finding just the right word or phrase—as he attempts to explain his reasoning tells you what a difficult choice this was for the Illinois native.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the best one,” Durkin noted from a golf date in Saratoga, where he was enjoying the break between meets at Aqueduct and Belmont Park. “Like any important decision, you sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil and list the good points and bad points. Good point number one was ‘would you like to live longer,’ and I’m not sure you need to go past that.”

There is a tremendous amount of pressure on those whose voices will be the official chroniclers of history. Walter Cronkite wouldn’t have wanted to mess up the names of the astronauts who first landed on the moon or misinform his viewers surrounding the Kennedy assassinations of the ’60s. We critics—viewers—get to sit back and nitpick every stumble and deplore each error without appreciating the degree of difficulty that comes with broadcasting live. Sure, there is glamour inherent in such jobs, and those who attain them feel fortunate to have reached the heights of their profession. But behind the public persona, they are people with real-life concerns.

Stress is a problem for Tom Durkin. At 60, his body and his physicians are telling him to take it easy, though a part of him would like nothing more than to continue narrating the history of our sport.

“I’m a classic example of (being stressed out),” Durkin said. “Genetically I’m built that way. It’s like for three months before the Triple Crown races you wake up in the morning nervous and you go to bed nervous. It’s as though you’re constantly on six cups of double espresso. I feel very disappointed, but sometimes you just have to do the right thing.”

Happily, this is not a eulogy of Durkin’s career. He continues as the voice of the New York Racing Association at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. It is a plum job for which he is beloved and one that is greatly appreciated by the man who began his career calling races at Wisconsin county fairs.

“My job at NYRA is something I look forward to every day,” Durkin said. “I put a lot of work into the job, and I get a lot of satisfaction from it. When the slots money kicks in in New York, it’s going to be tremendous.

“I call 105 graded stakes races every year. That’s a pretty good workload and I enjoy it, yet I don’t feel like it’s the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series and the bases are loaded and the count’s 3-2 and Roger Clemens is about to throw me a 96 mph fastball. It’s really not so much just Derby Day and that race. It’s more a feeling that stays with you and you’re sleeping two hours a night. At this point in life, you start thinking a little differently. I’m not sure I need to fill up my résumé anymore.”

Durkin declined to list any Triple Crown moments that stand out for him. Clearly he does not want to look at this decision as an end to anything. He seems slightly uncomfortable that anyone wants to make a big deal of it. But with a vast fan base and other racecallers who have patterned themselves after him, it sort of is.

It takes a real man to admit he’s not bulletproof and to step off the throne while he’s still on top. And it takes a man with a sense of humor to put it all in perspective.

“I would have never thought in a million years I’d turn my back on this,” Durkin admitted. “It’s exciting and glamorous, and the money was great too. I’ll probably be looking at a Ford Focus for my next car.”

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