Is Durkin's return for Belmont Stakes the start of a comeback?

Is Durkin's return for Belmont Stakes the start of a comeback?
Photo: Courtesy of NYRA

Famed race caller Tom Durkin’s appearance on Fox’s broadcast of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday might be the precursor to a comeback.

Durkin, 72, thought he had called his last race when he detailed the Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga and left the announcer’s booth to a tremendous ovation in 2014. But he strongly suggested during an interview with Horse Racing Nation that he is re-thinking retirement.

“I miss parts of it, yeah. I miss having a certain purpose,” Durkin said. “That’s no mean thing in one’s existence.”

Asked whether he plans to return, he replied, “The answer to that question is, ‘I don’t know.’ I’ve made no plans after Saturday night.”

Durkin’s love of language and his passion for the sport were clear in many of his famous race calls. He wrote essays to himself about his craft and kept copious notes that would require many hours to read.

He said of calling the action, “It’s what I do. It’s tied into my identity. It was so tied into what I do until I didn’t do it.”

Durkin remains as quick-witted as ever. “At least I stayed retired longer than Tom Brady, who came out of retirement faster than you can say Gisele Bundchen,” he quipped.

His booming voice and flair for the dramatic delighted New York Racing Association fans for almost a quarter of a century. He worked every Breeders’ Cup telecast from 1984 through 2005.

His call of the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic, which closed the mighty Cigar’s perfect season, still resonates.

“And Cigar wants to go to the lead, but Jerry Bailey says no, not yet. Concern still last, three furlongs to go. Cigar, Cigar makes his move and he takes the lead with a dramatic rush! A quarter of a mile between Cigar and a perfect season…coming down to the last furlong with a two-and-a-half-length lead…and Jerry Bailey calls on Cigar for everything he has! L’Carriere is a weakening second. On the inside, Unaccounted For. On the outside, Soul of the Matter. And here he is, the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!”

He rose to most occasions, memorably when Rachel Alexandra took it to the boys in the 2009 Woodward Stakes (G1) at Saratoga.

“They are coming to the top of the stretch. It is still the filly in front. A dramatic stretch drive awaits in the Woodward Stakes. On the outside, here’s Bullsbay. And Calvin Borel imploring his filly for more and Rachel Alexandra holds on to the lead. Bullsbay is second. Macho Again is making a tremendous run from the back of the pack. Rachel Alexandra! Macho Again! It’s going to be desperately close! Here’s the wire. Rachel won! She is indeed Rachel Alexandra the great, beating Macho Again here and further back is Bullsbay in third. The time was 1:48 and one! Rachel Alexandra raises the rafters here at the spa!”

The future might depend on whether Durkin can meet the high standard he set during Fox’s broadcast of the Belmont Stakes and part of the undercard. To prepare, he has called Belmont Park races into his iPhone for the last three weeks. He also took a deep dive into his notes, which include almost 30 ways to describe a torrid pace (we will assume torrid is one of them). He described the preparation as “invigorating.”

Durkin first spoke to Fox representatives last year. He admitted his test runs have not always been smooth. “I must be honest. In the beginning, I didn’t do so good the first few days,” he said. “It’s not like riding a bike.”

The Saratoga Springs, N.Y., resident has stayed busy since 2014. He completed the two courses he needed to finish his degree at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, taking psychology and anthropology at Adirondack Community College and earning an A in both subjects. He proudly walked across the stage as a St. Norbert graduate in 2018.

He also has been involved in community theater, taught a course in public speaking and led tours of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Wearing a white jacket and white hat, he stood out in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle as a 2 percent West Point Thoroughbreds investor in 2020 Kentucky Derby winner Authentic.

Durkin had cited problems with anxiety as part of the reason for stepping away. He sought help for that and said he has been doing self-hypnosis exercises to help pave the way for the challenges that Saturday will present.

“I just don’t feel as much pressure as I used to,” he said. “That might be the advance of years, I don’t know.”

Whatever the future holds, he intends to set a fast pace.

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