Belmont announcer Tom Durkin calling it a career
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He is coming to the finish! It's Tom Durkin in a dramatic stretch drive! Full tilt toward his final Triple Crown race! He has left a theater degree and possible acting career far behind! Forty-three years as a brilliant racetrack announcer, the last 24 in New York! And HERE comes a bid at history, the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years before Durkin retires! And it's going to be . . .
Durkin on Thursday was sitting in his catbird seat above Belmont Park's famous 11/2-mile track, about to bring binoculars to his eyes to describe, with rousing language and exclamation points, another day of thoroughbred competition.
And getting here, he said, "all happened because of a lie."
Here's his call:
"Growing up in Chicago, they had a wonderful track announcer. Very vibrant. Personality. Exciting. Fun. Phil Georgeff. He was my idol. So I started doing imitations of Phil Georgeff. All I ever wanted to do was be a racetrack announcer.
"My dad would bring me to the track when I was younger and, when I got to high school, I'd kind of sneak over there. So that was my dream. It wasn't a very sensible dream. The odds are tens of thousands-to-one against it. There's only a handful of jobs available and they only become available every 20 years or so.
"My mom, I think she wanted me to go to work for Sears because it was a very sensible thing to do. You had job security, which was a big thing, certainly to my parents, who grew up in the Depression. Benefits and what-have-you, the expectation to have a house in the suburbs.
"I was going to school in Wisconsin, St. Norbert's College in De Pere. Studying theater. I was in 17 plays. I had the lead role in 'Tartuffe' [a Moliere comedy].
" 'Put away my hair-shirt,' " he said, quoting the play. " 'And pray to the Lord for heaven's perpetual grace . . . I'm off to prison now and . . . '
"But everybody knew I always wanted to be a racetrack announcer. At parties and stuff like that, I'd do my racetrack party thing. Back in those days, people actually hitchhiked to get around, and my friend Jim Forrt was coming from Milwaukee to St. Norbert's and this guy happened to pick him up.
"Marty Helmbrecht, his name was. They started talking and eventually got around to the fact that Marty was running these county fairs in Wisconsin. And Jim told him that I was the assistant track announcer at Arlington Park in Chicago -- which was a bald-faced lie -- and that I wanted to break out on my own and that he'd see if I would be willing to call races at the county fairs up there.
"So I went to the Fond du Lac country fair, May 21, 1971. And I was introduced as the assistant track announcer at Arlington Park. Which was news to me."
Durkin spent four summers calling races in Wausaw, Wautoma, Fort Jefferson, Weyauwega, Beaver Dam and other such hot spots, then on to work at tracks in Ohio, Illinois and Florida, eventually becoming NBC's Triple Crown voice and New York's racetrack voice, where he -- so far -- is 0-for-7 in calling Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown in the balance.
This could be the year. "Every race [in his daily routine] is important," Durkin said, "because people bet money on them. But this" -- with California Chrome angling for the first Triple Crown sweep since Affirmed in 1978 -- "everything is on steroids, you know? Typical day might be 3,000 people here. There'll be 100,000 on Saturday. Rarefied territory."
Whatever happens, for the 63-year-old Durkin, after calling the summer Saratoga Park meeting, it will be . . .
And, he's off!