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The Dazzling Race Calls of Tom Durkin >
Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos will be a contender at Saturday's Belmont Stakes
One major appeal of Belmont race:
Tom Durkin's inspired race calling
By STAN ISAACS
EVEN IF you are not a horse racing fan and don't have a bet on Saturday's Belmont Stakes, it is worth tuning in to the NBC telecast (starting 4:30 PM, eastern time) to experience the thrill of a big horse race invariably provided by race caller Tom Durkin. He is the best.
Durkin is the track caller for the New York races at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga. He has been bringing his special brand of excitement to the full card of Breeder's Cup races for 17 years. And this year he is, for the first time, calling the Triple Crown races, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and now the Belmont Stakes.
A race caller is always under presssure to get it right. Never more so than when he is working a race before a national television audience. Durkin says, "A man at the Derby told me, you know, you are one gaffe away from being a national joke."
Racetrack lore is rich with examples of race callers making the wrong calls in big races. In the 1947 Preakness when radio was the big medium, the legendary race caller Clem McCarthy mistook the red jockey colors of Faultless for those of Kentucky Derby winner, Jet Pilot, and mistakenly called Jet Pilot the winner. He realized his mistake almost instantaneously and immediately apologized to the audience.
Durkin has been calling races for some 30 years. He regards his first Derby call last month as his most difficult assignment.
"Because the scrutiny is so much more intense for the Derby," he explained. "And there's nothing as intense as a Triple Crown attempt. There hasn't been a triple crown winner in 20 years. When the horses are at the top of the stretch in the Derby with a chance to win and be in position to make that attempt, those last two furlongs have to be the most intense 30 seconds in all of sport."
Durkin is 50, a burly six-footer with thinning, curly reddish hair, a ruddy complexion, blue eyes and a whimsical air. Durkin brings, knowledge, wit and a keen sense of drama to his calls. He says, "My task is to describe the races accurately and appropriately. I don't make the fifth race at Cahokia Downs sound like the Belmont Stakes. In both cases, though, I have to be correct. Sometimes high drama is appropriate. Or humor when the situation presents itself."
He once called a harness race at the Meadowlands involving a duel between a horse named No, No, No and Please Please by imitating a dialogue between the two, saying, "Please, Please, No, No, No" and heightening the pleading and rejecting as the horses dueled to the wire.
He said, "I think what I do has to be consistent with the fact that we are in both the gambling and entertainment business. You can't start making jokes because people's money is involved. But we are not involved with a cure for cancer, either."
Durkin, who came out of Chicago and was a drama student at at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, says, "My drama teacher, Kelly Collum, kept drilling one thing into us: energy, energy, energy. I think that has been a great influence on me."
Durkin's call is something of a rising and falling wave that builds to a crescendo as the horses thrash down the stretch toward the finish. He seemingly constructs a short story in each race, with a beginning at the start, a mid-race pause and a pounding finish.
He is so capable and seemingly so loosey-goosey it is hard to believes he approaches big races with something close to dread. He prepares by indulging in self-hypnosis and, "I take a drug called inderal which stops excessive flow of adrenalin. It's used by people who suffer from stage fright."
At Belmont he works alone in a small booth 8 by 10 feet. He looks down at the track through field glasses from on high. He memorizes the horses, using several magic markers matching jockeys' colors to highlight the horses' names on the program.
He is ever on the alert for different ways of describing actions. He has compiled a vocabulary of words on his computer. Titled, "Ideas/Words for Race Calls," it lists words, expressions and directions for all aspects of a race. He has "Top 40 Stuff" for big races. Phrases such as "strides away powerfully," "a colossal victory" and "a photo finish that doesn't deserve a loser." He is invariably fresh, often coming up with new combinations that fit the moment.
For all the pressure of his first Derby call on television, Durkin came through handily despite a mistake that earned him some criticism. His voice pulsated with bursts of energy as the horses made their way around the oval. The audience heard:
"The opening half-mile was the fastest in Derby history. (voice rising) Songandaprayer is blistering down the backstretch and the pent-up power of Point Given is rising .Jorge Chavez gets busy on Monarchos and they are surging as they move toward the top of the stretch .And (name drawn out) Con-ga-ree has come away with the lead record time .here comes Monarchos under a heavy drive on the outside Invisible Ink is there Point Given not today .here comes Monarchos who sweeps to the lead. He is pulling away by two, he is pulling away by three Jorge Chavez and Monarchos have won the Kentucky Derby .Absolutely thrilling. (as the screen showed the horse galloping out) Jorge Chavez on top of the world, Jorge Chavez on top of the Kentucky Derby winner."
Durkin announced the winning time, 1:59 and 4/5, declaring, "He was as fast as Secretariat.'" A mistake. Secretariat had won the Derby in 1:59 and 2/5.
"I thought I knew Secretariat's time like my own name," Durkin said. "I blew it. I felt bad but it wasn't one of those pick-up-the-phone and throw-it-out-the-window mistakes."
On Saturday Durkin will, as always, call the entire card of races in addition to the Belmont. "I am the track caller," he said. "And actually I like calling some races before I do the big one. When I do the full Breeders Cup card, I am most tense before the first race."
Oh yes: and he called a good Preakness, too.
© 2001 by Stan Isaacs.
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