Jul 22 2014

Meet Tom Durkin (before he says “Goodbye”)

Photo courtesy of Bob Coglianese Photos

Photo courtesy of Bob Coglianese Photos

Tom Durkin will make his final race call on August 31, 2014 at Saratoga racetrack.  For those of us who have followed him throughout his stellar career on the NYRA circuit, racing without Tom Durkin is going to take some getting used to.  We have been privileged to witness a true master plying his craft with a unique style that is best described as theatrical.  In a recent interview with Tom, he said “I get the best seat in the house for the greatest racing. And, there’s a new show every 25 minutes.”

Having always been impressed with his mastery of vocabulary and witty turn of phrase, I asked Tom if his race calls are spontaneous? He replied, “No, they are by no means entirely spontaneous. I do all sorts of preparation.”  At this point, he handed me a medium sized notebook filled with handwritten notes, including countless words and phrases.  He said, “This is about half of the things I’ve written down. My proper book, which I keep at home, is double that size and I try to read through it on a daily basis. So, some of the stuff is extemporaneous … but, the genesis of it comes from this notebook.  And, I still add stuff to it.  For example, I had never used the word ‘flagging’ before, so on May 17, 2014 I used the word ‘flagging.’ ”  As he tells me this, he points to a recent entry in his notebook.

Following this comment, I immediately think of Tom’s call of the 1994 Travers Stakes, when he famously said “There’s cause for Concern” as a horse named Concern came from far back in the race to challenge and nearly defeat Holy Bull.  In a prior interview I did with Larry Collmus, he identified this race as one of his all time favorite race calls.  The video replay is below if you’d like to hear the call again, and witness the thrilling finish.

I asked Tom if he thinks of phrases ahead of time that might include a horse’s name.  He replied, “Yea, but I never get married to it.  Because, 99.9% of the stuff I never use. And, it’s got to be extemporaneous, and it’s got to be truly felt. It can’t be hoke.  A person has to rely on and trust their own taste, because you can sound pretty stupid if you do something that’s too obvious.”

All of this talk about preparation and putting on a new show every 25 minutes led me to the following series of questions.

Do you happen to have a theatrical background?

I do, I studied theater when I was in college. You’ve got to learn how to get up in front of people and perform. It also helped me a great deal in the creative process. I have a creative process that I work on all the time. In theater, when you work on a character, you work on that creative process. I cannot explain it. It kind of starts from an idea and you let that idea roll around, and then you go over the top, and then you pare back … and form a creative box, with drawers that you can pick stuff from … from time to time. The theater helped me do that. I was in seventeen theater productions in college.

How important was learning how to memorize theatrical lines?

Theater certainly helped me a great deal, there’s no question about it. I once did a 16-minute dialog. So, memorization is a big thing.

The memorization is the first thing you have to learn how to do in this job and I was thinking, why do I have this particular knack? And I think it’s because I took Latin and I was very good in Latin in high school. I was never a good student in things I wasn’t interested in, but for some reason or another I was interested in Latin and it’s all about memorizing. Taking Latin did a couple of things. It really made me learn how to memorize and also, my language skills are good. And, I pick up languages pretty well.

Are you multilingual?

At various times I’ve been … my Italian is fairly passable.  In the past, I was able to speak German, French, and Spanish. But, from pure lack of use, I’ve forgotten all of that.

It always sounds like you are having fun … that you truly enjoy what you are doing.

I certainly do.  Fun is not the word I would assign to it. I’m interested, and one of the very important things my college drama teacher (Kelly Collum) taught me … drilled into me … was “energy, energy, energy.” So, I’m energetic, and that’s probably why it sounds like I’m having fun. When I switch on that microphone, then I’m on. Even when I’m just reading the scratches.

At this point I became curious about hearing some of Tom’s thoughts about his career in retrospect and his plans for the future.  Tom explained that he is not a very retrospective or introspective person.  When I asked him if he wished to thank anyone in particular that helped him along the way, he replied “That list is soooo long.  It’s in the hundreds and I can name everyone of them. I got pushed along in the right direction by a lot of people.  One domino fell onto the other and here I am.”  So I joked with him by saying, “So you didn’t do this entirely on your own?”  To which he answered, “Absolutely not.  I did it in spite of myself in fact!”

He did reply to a couple of retrospective questions however; starting with, do you have any regrets?

The main regret is, I could become fanatical about it. Particularly the Breeders’ Cup and Triple Crown stuff. You know, devote too much time and energy, where I probably could have done something else. And, like I said, 99% of the work goes out, but it’s a cumulative effect I suppose. It’s not a real big regret, but if I could do things over, I’d probably have been less fanatical about it.

Was that because of the importance or historical significance of the moment?

No. It’s fear of failure. It’s just a fear of screwing up. That’s why I dropped off of the Triple Crown job, because I didn’t want to deal with the anxiety anymore. You know, if you and I are talking, I can slip up and make a gaffe, or have a slip of the tongue … but you do that when you’re calling the Breeders’ Cup Classic … and like the nuns said, “That goes on your permanent record Tom Durkin.”

What or whom do you think you’re going to miss the most?

The only thing I do worry about is – this has been a passion for me, and that’s going to leave a pretty big hole. A big part of the passion of my life is doing this, and I’m not going to have that. That’s going to leave a hole somewhere, that I’ll have to fill, but I don’t know what I’m going to fill it with.

Do you think you’ll remain connected with racing?

Certainly. I don’t know if I’ll work in racing in any capacity.  It’s certainly not going to be a full-time capacity … or even if at all. But, I’ll certainly be connected. You know, I just love the game too much to not be around it you know.

Do you see yourself just going down to the races and hanging out in Saratoga like an average fan?

I would say it might be a frequent pastime. I live less than a mile away, down Nelson Avenue.

At this point we switched gears.  I explained to Tom that our website is all about educating and entertaining fans in racing, including learning more about the people that help to put on the show.  His immediate reply was, “There’s not enough of that actually.”  I then asked Tom if he can see himself playing a role in attracting new fans to the sport? He answered, “Absolutely.  I love the history of racing, including the architecture (Saratoga in particular).  And I enjoy public speaking … so, yea I think I could be very useful in that way.”  Then he added, “I do think horse racing fans are made one at a time.  You need to go with somebody, sit down with them for a day, have them explain it to you, and answer every question they have.”

Tom continued, “A guy from Kentucky said if you can get people to touch a horse, then you’ve got them.  You know, just touch a horse.  And get women involved.  When I was working for NBC, their research showed that the majority of the people who watched the Triple Crown are women. So we made the first hour of the show about the event, the fashion, the food, the society, the horses … women are certainly interested in horses, they love horses in a different way than men do.”

“They (NBC) used to send me out to get on the Today Show, very heavily watched by women. And women have money now. It’s not like your grandma.  One thing they did in Japan that made it so popular over there, is they had ladies night, where young ladies were admitted free and given free drinks … and where do you think the men went? They had huge crowds there.”

As the first race drew near, I knew my time with the legendary race caller Tom Durkin was coming to a close.  I could see his game face starting to come on.  But, before I left, I had to ask him what happens after the last race call on August 31st?  He chuckled, and replied, “I’m not sure. Beyond having a beer after the races that night, I don’t have any solid plans.”  Then he added, “But I’m not going to be a retired person in the classic sense.”

I’m sure that I speak for many people when I say, Thank you Tom.  For your style, for your humility, for your candor, for the pleasant memories we have etched in our minds as a result of your work. You have touched so many of us, and we are forever thankful.

Readers, please feel free to add comments of personal favorites of Tom Durkin race calls, anecdotes, etc.

FOOTNOTE: During the interview, I resisted the urge to ask Tom if he had any favorite race calls.  I figured he has been asked that question a thousand times and was probably tired of answering it.  So, I decided to close this article with a video replay of my personal favorite … about the mother-in-law, that just won’t “go away.”  Enjoy.

Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

11 comments on “Meet Tom Durkin (before he says “Goodbye”)

  1. Where to begin? “Bravo! Outstanding! Fantastic!”, were all thoughts running through my head as I finished reading your interview with Tom Durkin, the Maestro of the Race Call. It wasn’t surprising to learn he had a background in theater. The difference between an actor and his job, is that he wasn’t just reading lines all these years, he was writing the script as it happened with the only limitation being the names of the horses and jockeys. As we have all been blessed to observe, his training allowed him to offer his calls with a sonorous effect unlike so many of the nasally race callers that permeate the tracks today.

  2. I have enjoyed tom durkin from the top of the
    mountain(Saratoga) to his appearance at
    the base of the valley(great barrington fair).

    donat ferland on
  3. My 2 favorite Durkin calls that I remember are Personal Ensign beating Winning Colors in the Breeders’ Cup and his “Unbeatable Cigar!” call.
    King Tom should do guest appearances and call races at tracks, big and small, around the country. Track announcers are great promoters of our industry. We will miss you King Tom.

    larry wells on
    • I did not ask him that question directly, but nothing in the conversation would suggest that he makes wagers while he is working. Actually, I’d be quite surprised if he does.

  4. Nice article Neal. My favorite memory goes back to a meaningless race in 2011 (meaningless for others but myself). I had a live Pick-4 going in the Saratoga finally on a rainy, miserable Labor Day 2011. I needed an even money favorite named Keiko in the last race of the meet to bailout for the entire season. I was too nervous to watch the race, so I decided to stand under a speaker and just listen to Tom Durkin’s call. It starts with the standard “they’re in the gate” soon followed by “and they’re off!”. Immediately you hear the concern in his voice with his first words being “and unseating the rider is…..”. My head just drops expecting the worst, but he quickly identifies the horse in his call putting my mind to ease that it’s not Keiko. It was the standard race call heading down the backstretch, but midway far turn I hear Tom’s voice rise with excitement “Here’s Keiko coming up to join them on the outside”. The tone of his voice gave me goose bumps. I knew right then that he knew Keiko was going to win. Seconds later…”As the field turns for home in the finally at the Spa…..here’s Keikoooooooooo. Keiko takes the lead outside the eighth pole”. He reassured there was nothing to worry about any longer. Seconds later…”Keiko splashes home in the finally” was music to my ears. All the emotions he portrayed in a 5 ½ furlong race call. It wasn’t just the words, but the delivery. It was like poetry. Concern at the start due to the unseated rider. Building anticipation as Keiko was revving up for his run near the top of the stretch. Then his matter of fact delivery as the race became a formality when Keiko rolled home down the stretch. I had the whole race clearly visualized in my mind without ever looking at a TV monitor. Tom Durkin is the best and will be missed.

  5. Great article…..it certainly will take a lot of getting used to in the coming years..especially opening day 2015 in the first race: The call that starts off the meet ” And they’re off at SARATOGA!!”

    Rich Cristiano on
  6. You may find this interesting, since Tom was pretty subdued about saying a favorite call, and then ultimately chose the cigar race. You could kind of tell on his face, that wasn’t his favorite call.


    if you watch this Youtube interview on the Meadowlands simulcast channel from Dec 13, he says without a doubt it was the Park Avenue Joe and Probe dead heat in the Hambiltonian, and honestly, who could blame him.

  7. Tom is a true entertainer! There were so many times when he made me laugh with his great imagination calls. I’ll never forget the call with Doeraymefasolateedoe. He was singing so loud as the horse crossed the finish line first …


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