“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you
got, til it’s gone…”
It may be bizarre for a turf writer in his mid-20’s to quote
Joni Mitchell. Then again, it’s pretty bizarre for someone to be born and
raised on the baritone stylings of one of the greatest race-callers to ever
step behind a microphone, and that’s why I’m here right now.
On Saturday, Tom Durkin, whose big pipes and even bigger vocabulary have made the sport better for 43 years, announced that he will call his last race on August 31st at Saratoga. After the announcement, various forms of social media were bombarded by tales of his famouscalls, from
Personal Ensign and Tiznow to Arrrrr and Doremifasollatido.
At his peak, they didn’t come any better than Durkin, who
bounced around the country before landing at NYRA’s tracks in 1990. Even in his
60’s, he’s one of the nation’s most recognizable voices, one millions of people
here every year.
I grew up almost exactly between Belmont Park and Saratoga,
and every summer, when kids my age were doing more normal, socially acceptable
things, I would make pilgrimages to the Spa. One of the few constants from when I was a
young, bumbling kid to when I became an older, still-bumbling scribe has been Durkin, and
this news, while not entirely unexpected, hit me hard.
I was fortunate enough to get to know Tom a bit through my
work for The Saratogian. Unlike other celebrities, who are anything but
accommodating, Durkin was everything one could hope for in a semi-public
figure. He was outgoing. He was never afraid to laugh at himself. He never once
shooed me away or made me feel unwelcome in his presence, and an interview I
did with him for a feature (that you can read here) is one of my favorites.
He let me watch his standardbred horses run. He saved me
when Jack Van Berg asked me about a restaurant I’d never heard of (as anyone
who knows Jack can attest to, when he tells you to do something, you do it!).
He put a smile on my face just by weaving through traffic on his Vespa scooter,
mere moments after I’d been nailed on the wire and cost a $170 Pick Four
I don’t envy the next announcer at NYRA tracks. The void
Durkin will leave behind is enormous, not just for his talents in the booth,
but for his larger-than-life personality as well. There are plenty of good announcers
out there whose names will likely be considered for one of racing’s top jobs, but
the task at hand figures to be daunting.
Even in California, I’m still a New Yorker at heart, and I
still get chills whenever Durkin’s voice gets just a bit louder as a bunched
field moves into the stretch. He deserves a happy retirement, but as evidenced
by the outpouring of memories we’ve seen today, that doesn’t mean we, the
racing audience, are happy to see him go.