Tom Durkin retired Aug. 30 at Saratoga Race Course from his life’s calling, ending a 43-year career as the nation’s premier racetrack
The native of Chicago’s West Side has called more than 80,000 races, beginning at a fair circuit in Wisconsin. He rose through the ranks at major tracks in Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois before landing at the New York Racing Association in 1990. While calling for NYRA, he was the voice on network television for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships from its inception in 1984 through 2005 and for the Triple Crown from 2001-11.
Durkin was ever mindful of the people who really put on the show and served for 17 years on the board of the Backstretch Employee Service Team. For the last several years during the Saratoga meet, Durkin would invite six fans to sit alongside him in the announcers booth and watch him call a race in exchange for a donation to BEST. He raised more than $200,000 for the organization. For his lifetime of achievement in horse racing, Durkin has become the first racetrack announcer to receive The Jockey Club Gold Medal, the Big Sport of Turfdom Award, and on Jan. 17 the Eclipse Award of Merit. The following is a transcript of Durkin’s speech at the Eclipse Awards, though the written word does not do justice to the beauty of his delivery, timing, and inflection. Be sure to visit BloodHorse.com to listen to the podcast as well:
[audio url="http://www.bloodhorse.com/content/audio/BHEDEclipseAwards2015_TomDurkin_01172015.mp3" title="Tom Durkin and Eclipse Award for Merit"]
“I am not sure if you are fully aware of what you’ve just done.
You have just given an Eclipse Award to a person that is allergic to horses. And as someone who has seldom ever touched a horse, you’ll understand if I consider myself unworthy of the honor. There are so many more people worthy of this distinction, people who actually prepare the horse, care for the horse, ride the horse, breed the horse; all I ever had to do was describe what you made possible. It just doesn’t seem right…but I’ll take it. I’ve always wanted one of these babies. I’ll accept it on behalf of all race callers past and present.
This statuette has been molded by many hands. By some of the people here tonight who put their own necks and reputations on the line to hire some guy named “Tom Who?” to call the races and make a boyhood dream a reality.
My parents may have been the first to give it form. They wanted me to be a priest or a lawyer or a doctor or a congressman. Weren’t they overcome with joy when their dear son came home and said, “Mom, Dad, I’m going to be a racetrack announcer!” They never uttered a word to discourage my dream, which any reasonable person would have considered to be nothing more than a reckless, youthful fantasy.
Molded by many hands—far too many to mention here—but forged by those people that we owe a debt of gratitude. The fan and the horseplayer, who without we would probably not be here tonight and not be wearing tuxedos. The statuette will be placed on a mantel at Saratoga Springs where it will be a reminder of great luck and good fortune in horse racing. It will too be a reminder of the responsibility to those hard-working people who toil in the game daily and do not enjoy much great luck and good fortune.
When I look at this statue, it will remind me of a lifetime of memories and names; names from Arazi to Zenyatta. Names whose mere mention quicken the pulse. Names like Tiznow and Cigar and Personal Ensign, Winning Colors and Lady’s Secret, Rachel Alexandra and Curlin, Rags to Riches and Fourstardave and Wise Dan. Stretch calls like Easy Goer and Sunday Silence, Personal Ensign, Alysheba, and all the rest. And even horses with names like Arrrrr (pronounced with a pirate’s growl).
Together we saw some amazing performances over the decades, performances that allowed me to honestly elocute words that racehorses routinely generate. Words like courageous, determined, sublime, otherworldly, magnificent. Thousands of words that were only an attempt to describe the indescribable Thoroughbred. What other game, what other pursuit provides a prism for such actions?
If nothing else, horse racing is an obsession fueled by dreams. Here in a room full of dreamers, thank goodness for these incredible horses and the incredible things they do. I thank the game for the privilege of being able to have described their exploits. I thank the game for making a dream come true. And, I thank you for this truly incredible honor with my deepest affection. Thank you.”