“And Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of 120,000, but Birdstone is gonna make him earn it today! The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It’s been 26 years – it’s just one furlong away! Birdstone is an outside threat! They’re coming down to the finish; can Smarty Jones hold on? Here comes Birdstone – Birdstone surges past! Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes…”
That was the very first stretch call I ever heard. Out of the countless ones I’ve heard since, that one will forever be in my head. Tom Durkin gave his magical voice to that race, among so many others.
“What’s the final margin?! She might have won by twenty!!”
Tom Durkin seems to breathe life into the races he calls. He raises goosebumps and brings tears to anxious eyes. He turns horse races into works of art.
“Curlin surging – Street Sense in deep water – TOO CLOSE TO CALL! TOO CLOSE TO CALL!”
Today, Durkin announced that he would be retiring after a long, storied 43-year career as a track announcer. He will call his last race on August 31st at old Saratoga. I’m very happy for the guy – he deserves the best of retirements. But it was almost a punch in the gut to hear; I felt very empty upon receiving the news.
“With nonchalant brilliance…Bernardini has won…”
Durkin is, and will probably always be, the voice of racing to me. Every race he’s called is made just a little more special with his deep, resonant tones. I always looked forward to his “And they’re off in the Kentucky Derby!” year after year, until Larry Collmus took over in 2011. He called races with my favorite horses and gave lines that will be etched into my memory forever.
“And it’s all Barbaro in a sublime performance! He runs away from them all, and he has saved something left for the Preakness…”
Etched, indeed. Hell, at one point in my adolescence, I had the 2005 Belmont Stakes call memorized because I had recorded it on VHS tape and watched it over and over again. Those races turned into more than just races with Durkin’s voice around. Those races became poetry in motion. He is a poet.
“And Afleet Alex ran right by Giacomo like he was standing still!”
I so envy those who have been around for the more than four decades of this legendary career. There are so many calls that I would have loved to hear live. Thanks to the Internet, however, I still get the chance to hear them.
“Tiznow wins it for America!!”
And even with such a way with words, he knew when it was appropriate to say nothing at all. As he said of a horse (aptly) named Commentator, who was soundly defeating a small stakes field, “Just take a look at this horse move. No need to call it.”
I knew the day would come where I would have to wake to the news of Tom Durkin’s retirement. I just didn’t want it to be this soon. Though, I suppose, any time would have been too soon. It sounds almost ridiculous, but I feel like my beloved sport is losing its voice. We have many, many brilliant announcers, but to me, Durkin will always be the master.
Whether he’s singing – “Doremifasolatidooooo!” – incredulously calling a longshot – “Mine That BIRD has won the Kentucky Derby – an impossible result here!” – or just gutturally shouting – well, you know…“ARRRRRRRRR!” – Tom Durkin will always be the voice of the sport I love most.
And looking back, I’ll still have the audio and video to look back on, the memories to smile and laugh and cry over. I may even be crying now…
If you ever read this, Tom Durkin, I want to thank you for all the years of beauty and magic you brought to the racing world through your calls. You were one of the biggest contributors to my undying love of racing, and I wish you the happiest of retirements.