SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Try calling a race into a tape recorder and the replay will make you cringe. Even with no pressure and no audience, you'll stumble over names, misidentify horses and get tongue-tied. It's so much harder than you'd imagine.
But Tom Durkin not only made it sound easy, he put on a show.
As trainer Gary Contessa said: "Tom revolutionized race-calling by making a story out of the race. He made listening to a race fun.''
Derek Jeter isn't the only New York sports icon exiting to endless tributes. Sunday's Saratoga card will be the finale of Durkin's 43-year career, the last 24 in New York. From county fairs to the Breeders' Cup, from Cahokia Downs to Churchill Downs, his distinctive voice and unique style informed and entertained millions at more than 60 tracks in six countries.
The 63-year-old Chicago native grew up idolizing Phil Georgeff, "The Voice of Chicago Racing," who called races at Arlington Park and other tracks and whose signature line -- "Here they come, spinning out of the turn'' -- was heard almost nightly on evening newscasts.
Durkin never tired of hearing it. "Phil was very energetic, a lot of fun and completely unique,'' he said. "I didn't sound a lot like him, but I think I got my start imitating him.''
Durkin majored in theater at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, and on May 21, 1971, at Fond du Lac county fair, he began blending his passions for the track and the stage. Like Durkin, the back story is one of a kind.
While hitchhiking, his friend Jim Ford learned that the driver, Marty Helmbrecht, ran the racing at Wisconsin's fairs. Ford said his buddy called races at Arlington Park. Not so. Ignoring due diligence, Helmbrecht hired Durkin, who didn't know Ford had falsified his resume.
"Marty gets up there and introduces me that day as the assistant track announcer at Arlington Park,'' he said. "Well, there was no assistant track announcer at Arlington Park. That's how I got started, and it's all based on a big lie.''
From that bogus beginning, Durkin left his mark on a 350-year-old sport. To New York Racing Association handicapper Andy Serling, "He had the ability to turn a phrase and make a horse race into an event.''
His high-profile predecessors -- New York's Fred Capossela and California's Joe Hernandez come to mind -- didn't inject themselves into their commentary. Durkin couldn't resist, figuring racing was entertainment, so he brought his heart to work.
Early on, he met resistance. "I got a lot of blowback, particularly from jockey agents,'' he said. "They'd get upset if I said a jockey had to check or went three-wide. If I'd been calling races like that in the '40s and '50s, I'd have been run out of town.''
Durkin's theater background gave him insight into the creative process. "In acting, you learn how to build a character,'' he said. "I looked at races as little stories to be told. You have the past performances, so everybody knows the characters.
"First of all, I'm Irish; I love telling stories, I love words and I love language. I think I'm a natural storyteller. Growing up, I was the youngest in the family and the class clown, always looking for attention.''
Former NYRA executive Steve Duncker happened to be there for Durkin's 1977 debut at Cahokia Downs in downstate Illinois, not far from St. Louis. "The next day the newspaper said, 'Energetic young Irishman Tom Durkin made quite an impression on the fans. We think he'll be around to stay.' They were right about that.''
If greatness is measured by the number of imitators, Durkin's is a voice for the ages. Among those who followed him are Larry Collmus (his NYRA replacement), John Dooley and Travis Stone. All acknowledge his influence, which extends beyond his colleagues. Duncker said, "Tom thinks it's creepy that grown men come up behind him and repeat his calls word for word.''
Not surprising, because so many of them are memorable. "His calls have been classics the instant they came out of his mouth,'' Contessa said.
High on the list is the 1998 Belmont Stakes, when Victory Gallop nosed out Real Quiet, denying him the Triple Crown and a megabucks bonus. Before the photo's result was posted, Durkin ad-libbed, "A picture is worth a thousand words. This photo is worth $5 million. Oh, no. History in the waiting.''
Others were "the unconquerable, the unbeatable, the invincible Cigar'' from the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic; "It's a filly in the Belmont'' in 2007 after Rags to Riches became its first female winner since 1905, and "She is indeed Rachel Alexandra the Great'' after she beat males in the 2009 Woodward.
Besides Georgeff, Durkin learned from the late Chic Anderson ("Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine'') and Dave Johnson ("And down the stretch they come!''). As for favorite horses and riders, he named Cigar, Personal Ensign and Rachel Alexandra, and Angel Cordero and Julie Krone.
As for regrets, there's his faux pas on NBC in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, when he missed 50-1 shot Mine That Bird's last-to-first surge up the muddy rail. "I just didn't see him,'' Durkin said. "I was looking at other places at the wrong time. I wish I had that one back. Everybody makes mistakes, but you don't want to make them with 20 million people watching.''
Well, even the great ones screw up once in a great while.
Durkin won't be working on Labor Day but he'll still be around. You'll never meet a more personable and approachable celebrity, and he'll begin retirement hanging out in Saratoga's backyard, signing autographs and posing for pictures.
"It's been a hell of a ride,'' he said. "I've had the privilege of having the best seat in the house for some of the best athletic competitions of the past 40 years.
"This last month has been the most gratifying time in my life. I've just been completely overwhelmed by all the people who have wished me well and the depth of their sentiments.
"It kind of makes you think you've done OK with your life.''
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