Wednesday, June 4, 2014

2014 Belmont Stakes Preview Part I: The Greatness of Tom Durkin

August 31, 2014 will mark Tom Durkin's final day as the racetrack announcer for NYRA, which runs Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct.  A mainstay of NYRA since 1990, Durkin was also the voice of the Breeders Cup for over two decades and called all the Triple Crown races for 2001-2010.  He's had an extremely accomplished career, and after calling just shy of a bajillion races, it's no surprise that he's decided to hang up his spurs.

Durkin has long been one of our favorites.  He has a great voice, almost always lets the viewer know exactly where their horse is at all relevant times, and has elan.  And it's not just in the big races, he'll often make a conventional race at a New York track seem like a bigger deal than it actually is, and when appropriate, give the race call the denouement.  The track always felt like a bigger deal when Durkin was calling the races.  There are other announcers we love - Larry Collmus is a dear friend of this blog who we think is second to none, and we love the work of Trevor Denman and Kurt Becker - but Durkin is the voice of racing we grew up on.  We'll miss him.

We're going to honor Durkin by posting our 13 favorite Durkin calls.  Some of these have been posted on this site before; nobody should mind seeing them again.  So large is Durkin's breadth that some calls that would make other people's lists - Cigar's Breeders Cup Classic, Barbaro's Derby, Sarava's Belmont - aren't here.  We're not trying to put together The Definitive List; this is our list.  Here's the baker's dozen we love the most.

13.  Belmont Maiden race, July 4, 2008.  As you'll see from the first few videos, 2008 in some ways was Peak Durkin, as if he decided to basically say "to hell with it, let's just have fun."  And we're convinced that owners specifically named their horses to bait him - not racetrack announcers in general, but Durkin specifically - to give their steed a great call.  Durkin obliged the owner of Doremefasolatido by belting out a perfect scale when she took the definitive lead in the stretch.

12.  Saratoga Allowance Race, August 23, 2008.  One of Durkin's great attributes was an awareness of the exact circumstances of a race and the participants.  When Arcangues and Volponi pulled off their huge upsets in the Breeders Cup Classics, he was amply prepared to tell everyone just how shocking the result was.  Ditto for Giacomo in the 2005 Derby.  Which makes his call of this win by longshot Slambino in an innocuous allowance race at Saratoga all the better.  Listen to Durkin's voice after the finish line - it's clear that he basically forgot that the horse was even in the race, and all but screamed out "holy shit!" after reading the horse's odds.  Even though he had the best view, he was as shocked as everyone else at the track.

11.  Breeders Cup Mile, 1998.  The Breeders Cup Mile has always been one of our favorite races, but we imagine that it's an utter bear to call.  It's usually a full field running fast early and late, more often than not encompasses two turns with loads of traffic issues, and has been fodder for many upsets.  So the fact that Durkin nailed every element of this renewal in 1998, including catching Hawksley Hill at all pertinent points (look early on, he's last then wends his way through) is impressive in and of itself.  What separates this race, though, is his call and after race comment concerning Da Hoss, who won the race 2 years earlier, and came into as a decided outsider having run in a whopping one race in the 24 months since the '96 Mile.

10.  Saratoga Allowance Race, August 16, 2008.  If I'm not mistaken, the owner of Arrrr actually admitted at some point that he wanted Durkin to have fun calling this horse.  We were at Saratoga for this race and it was hilarious as it happened.  For our money though, our favorite part comes right at the end when Durkin deadpans "Feline Felon second, Stand Pat third."

9.  Belmont Stakes, 1997.  Silver Charm's bid for the Triple Crown in 1997 was the first Triple Crown opportunity since Durkin took over at NYRA, and he did a fabulous job of calling Touch Gold's minor upset.  Keeping track of where Touch Gold was at all times during Chris McCarron's flawless ride was an accomplishment.

8.  Travers Stakes, 1994.  We'd love to have Durkin tell us who were his favorite horses to watch race.  We would guess that one of them was Holy Bull, who emphatically won the Met Mile and Woodward in 1994.  But his best achievement was winning the Travers over Concern in dramatic fashion.  Durkin called several great Travers - the '97 renewal between Deputy Commander and Behrens, Coronado's Quest over Victory Gallop in '98, Colonel John winning by a nose in '08, the dead heat in '12 - but Holy Bull's was the best, and his call matched its greatness.

7.  Belmont Stakes, 2007.  Even though he called the Derby for ten years, Durkin never really had a memorable Derby call.  Most of his winners were either boringly professional (War Emblem, Super Saver) or dominating to the point where there wasn't much to say (Smarty Jones, Big Brown, Barbaro, Street Sense).  What could have been the two best calls - Monarchos and Mine That Bird - were marred by errors he made, comparing the former's time to Secretariat, and completely missing MTB until it was too late.  We're not trying to pick on Durkin, it's just a fact that his Derby calls aren't his best.

The Belmont was really his bailiwick, and this renewal is the second of several that appear on this list.  Well aware of the history behind a filly going for Todd Pletcher's first victory in a Triple Crown race, Durkin appropriately rose to the occasion.

6.  Breeders Cup Classic, 2001.  This would have merely been a "memorable race" but for Durkin's call.  His finish line pronouncement of "Tiznow wins it for America" may sound cheesy today, but if you attended the Breeders Cup at Belmont Park less than 2 months after 9/11, trust me, you didn't think it was at all.

5.  Woodward Stakes, 2009.  The style of the race was similar to Holy Bull's Travers - go to the front, run fast as hell, and hold on for dear life.  The first filly to take the historical Woodward was amazing, and Durkin's call perfectly captured the energy and moment.

We mentally have a gap between the top 4 calls and the 9 that we've already gone through.  The final four are, to us, about as good as you'll get in race calling.

4.  Breeders Cup Juvenile, 1991.  Arazi entered the 1991 Breeders Cup Juvenile as the European hotshot and was made the favorite.  He did win, but the way he did it shocked every person at Churchill Downs, none moreso than Durkin.  Durkin's line "and Arazi runs right by him" is one of the immortal calls in all of racing, almost matched by his enthusiastic declaration that Arazi was indeed a "Superstar!"  And god, this race is still amazing to watch 23 years later.

3.  Test Stakes, 2002.  You have to be a real fan or student of racing to remember this race, because the Test - a 7 furlong race at Saratoga for 3yo fillies - isn't exactly on most people's radar.  But the 2002 Test  drew Bobby Frankel's You, who came into the race having already banked 4 Grade 1 wins, and Carson Hollow, who was fast as hell.  They put on one of the best races in recent Saratoga history, and Durkin's call, especially the final 8 seconds, encapsulated how great a race this was.

2.  Belmont Stakes, 1998.  We could write 4,000 words about whether Real Quiet was overrated, underrated, or properly rated.  The point here isn't whether or not he's gotten his due, it's that he was a nostril from winning the Triple Crown.  Durkin perfectly captures the stretch drive, and his call for the final yards and when Real Quiet and Victory Gallop hit the wire together are historic.

1.  Belmont Stakes, 2004.  Every element of this call is perfect.  He sets up the race perfectly in the first two furlongs.  He keeps track of all of the horses for precisely as long as they're relevant.  He apprises everyone of the tactics that Eddington and Rock Hard Ten are using to try to beat Smarty Jones.  He notices that Birdstone is a threat long before most patrons did.  And the final three furlongs are just sublime.  The line "it's been 26 years! it's one furlong away!" is possibly our favorite call ever.  And the disappointment that rings from Durkin's voice when Birdstone wins captures exactly what every person at Belmont was feeling when Smarty Jones lost the race.

Enjoy retirement Tom.  You've earned it.

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