Echoes Through Memory’s Backstretch

When one plays selections from the mental jukebox of their life, there are doutbless a few entires entries from which they derive the greatest amount of pleasure: a song from a first with the young love who later became their immortal beloved; the sounds from a quiet lakeside early one morning while on vacation; the list goes on and on. For me, a handful of sounds that will resonate in my mind’s ear are associated with the sun-drenched, historic, timeless horse-player’s mecca that is Saratoga Race Course. The primary source of these sonic mementos came from the booming voice of the now-retired announcer, Tom Durkin. This story is more about the man who provided these yearly summer soundtracks rather than the 150-plus year-old location from whence many of them came.

Tom Durkin’s voice first boomed in Chicago on November 30, 1950. During his childhood, he first took to horse racing through his idolatry of Phil Georgeff, an equally legendary voice of Chicagoland racetracks, including Arlington Park. From there, a young Durkin decided that thoroughbred horse racing — at least the race calling aspect thereof — would be his life’s work.

Aware that there was neither any royal road to a race announcing career nor any horse racing degrees at any college or university in the U.S. — or anywhere in the known universe, for that matter — Durkin prepped for his vocation by studying drama at St. Norbert College in neighboring Wisconsin while spending his summers cutting his teeth in the announcing game at county fairs throughout the Badger State. Durkin credited his instruction in the stage as both instrumental in forming his creative process and helping in his overall performance as a race caller.

After his college days ended, Durkin went on to call races at Longshot Louie Edens such as Gulsftream Park, Balmoral Park, and Hialeah Park, among others. His stop at Meadowlands Racetrack seemed but a harbinger of his greater fame. As the last decade of the 20th century began, Durkin got the call from the New York Racing Association to ply his trade not only at Aqueduct Racetrack and Belmont Park downstate, but also the Spa — or as The Great Man himself would say, “The Spaaaaaaa!” in his almost welcoming, relaxing tone that marked the beginning of many a late summer’s afternoon there. Hearing that meant all was right with the world. It was in the middle of carefree boyhood that the subconscious affiliation between thoroughbred hrose racing and sense of place, as well as an unshakeable lifelong bond between pony player and race caller, began.

While I can’t possibly recall any particular race where Durkin weaved his words with the action on the track, there is one particular moment before a race one summer Sunday a few years back. Just a split second after Durkin announced that the horses had been loaded into the starting gate and ready to thunder down the track, one horse reared up in the gate, jockey and all. A rather audible gasp took over the grandstand, and it fell to Durkin to calmly explain to the crowd that aspect of a horse’s pre-race behavior. From my way of thinking, a horse acting up before going, say, seven furlongs usually elicits no explanation.

But, be it at the legendary Spa or on TV, Durkin’s calls were verbal magic. The first part of this millennium, which coincided with my young adulthood, saw a growing appreciation with his calling of the Triple Crown races. Durkin thus provided the soundtrack for many a failed attempt at the most elusive sporting achievement in recent memory; it did horse players and Spa aficionados like me proud that a broader audience was able to hear his calls and the excitement therein.

Tiznow’s victory in the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park nearly two months after the attacks of September 11 in Manhattan

(All videos courtesy of NYRA)

While Durkin will go down as the legendary voice of thoroughbred racing’s greatest and best moments of the last quarter-century or so, it’s his endurance that will also stand out. His time atop the perch at Saratoga saw a number of other tracks reduce racing days due to declining attendance and overall interest — its peak was seemingly in the 1970s, when horses such as Secretariat, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Ruffian were grabbing the headlines — all while the Spa has retained its popularity and despite the cloud of corruption and pseudo-incompetence that surrounded NYRA just several short years ago.

Durkin’s rather witty style of commentary won him many fans in his 24 years as the voice of Saratoga; this fan in particular feels some pangs of regret in not meeting the man in person, the opportunity to do so coming on the last day of the 2014 meet. However, my outpouring of appreciation on social media more that sufficed.

Of course, Durkin was in full flow during his last call on the penultimate day of this past meet, which was the co-feature Spinaway Stakes, but a funny thing happened on the way to retirement: during the post-race retirement ceremony, Durkin got emotional in expressing his thanks not only to those who braved the rain and murk on the day, but to throughbred racing aficionados everywhere.

Durkin’s successor, Larry Colmas, is by no means an unfamiliar voice. Incidentally, the erstwhile caller at the famous Churchill Downs succeeded Durkin micside on the Triple Crown broadcasts on NBC. While Durkin certainly can’t be begrudged his well-deserved down time, there will be a noticeable void at the Spa starting next summer. Sure, the horses will still be running, spinners will still be nabbing untold quantities of giveaway items on certain Sunday afternoons, almost exorbitant prices will still be charged for refreshments (cheaper than Yankee Stadium, perhaps?). But, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “There will be no there there.” At least on a personal level, such would be the case.

Happy Retirement, Tom…

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