On retirement and champions

On Sunday, track announcer Tom Durkin is retiring. Such a simple sentence for such a momentous occasion.

Since the announcement was made, there have been countless stories on his legacy and his impact on the sport of horse racing. There have also been many good-natured debates about what his singular best race call has been during his storied 43-year career.

Although I have a strong opinion on the matter, I wasn't going to publicly enter the fray until a name was mentioned during the NTRA's weekly teleconference. Durkin was on the call, and when pressed about who the three most memorable horses he had seen were, his answer made my heart smile.

"It's a tough question because I've called so many, many great horses -- dozens upon dozens," he said. "But I'll try, and if I leave anybody out, you know, put them on the list. Cigar, Personal Ensign, Rachel Alexandra. I mean that's just three of a list of many."

As soon as Durkin offered up Cigar, I wanted to share why I think his call of the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic is his best. The call itself is a classic in racing lore: "And here he is: The unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!"

However, that isn't the only reason I think it is Durkin's finest work.

During his time on the track, Cigar was named Horse of the Year twice, won 16 races in a row, traveled halfway around the world to take the inaugural Dubai World Cup (before it was even a Grade 1 event), and retired as the richest Thoroughbred in North American history (a title he can no longer claim). However, due to infertility, Cigar never sired a single foal. As a result, he was sent to the Kentucky Horse Park to take up residence in the Hall of Champions.

The KHP itself is not focused on racing, but rather on the horse. Almost a million visitors pass through each year to learn about different types of horses and what skill each breed is known for, but the Hall of Champions has always been a big draw. Cigar lives there to this day as an ambassador of the sport of horse racing.

From time-to-time I have written about working in the Hall of Champions during my college years. It was the finest education a girl could ask for, and there are certain memories and small day-to-day things that will always stay with me.

One of those involves both Cigar and Durkin.

Before each horse was presented to the public during our shows, the announcer would do a short presentation that involved a video to explain why the horse was qualified to live in the Hall of Champions.

Usually during the show, five of "the boys" would be brought out, one at a time, so the introduction also gave us a chance to switch horses. Moving the horses in and out of the barn was a ballet in and of itself, and listening to the sounds of the presentation would tell us how much time we had before the next horse had to be in the ring.

As such, there was no way to avoid memorizing the script for the presentations and for the videos. For one, you heard them three times a day during show season, and for another, they were our cues.

Cigar's video showed the finish of each of his 16 consecutive victories, and obviously, Durkin's famed call was heard during that parade of wins. As that Breeders' Cup was race No. 12 in Cigar's winning streak, it also served as a warning that it was almost go time.

Horses are creatures of habit, and Cigar always enjoyed being shown off. He also knew his schedule, so I almost think it was a game for him to curl up for a nap in his deeply bedded stall during our lunch break. Part of me is convinced he knew that when we woke him up for his early afternoon appearance, we would have to move in quick order to get him looking in his prime.

All of the horses got a thorough grooming in the mornings before visitors arrived, but once a horse stretches out for a snooze, you are going to have some straw to contend with. Usually it was just a few strands stuck in a hoof or clinging to his rather thick mane and tail, but other times it required all hands on deck to turn the ragamuffin back into the rather handsome stallion that he is. He would absolutely preen as his human servants worked like cogs in a wheel to get him gleaming while guests watched his victories a few yards away.

Sometimes, though, especially for the morning and late afternoon shows, Cigar wouldn't require too much tending. Those quiet moments -- standing in the barn aisle with my arm resting across his withers, waiting for the magic words that meant it was time to lead him in to the ring -- stay with me, too.

As the video ended, the announcer would echo Durkin's iconic words, and that was when it was time to lead Cigar to his visitors. Time and time again, I saw jaws drop as he strutted into the ring, and I do mean strut. Cigar is a natural born ham, and he knows what a camera is.

Watching people who may have never seen a horse race before be awed by his sheer presence never got old. They may not have known who Cigar was before wandering into our show, but I guarantee most of them left knowing they had seen something great.

We are now 19 years removed from that Breeders' Cup, and my days in the Hall of Champions were a decade ago. Time, as we all know, doesn't slow down for anyone. Durkin deserves his retirement, even though the sport will not be the same without him. I am just happy his unforgettable words were part of my daily routine for a time.

For the purposes of this story, I tried to do the math on how many times that race call has been played in the pavilion next to the Hall of Champion's barn. I decided to go with: countless.

That is why I submit it as Durkin's best work. His words, combined with Cigar's charisma, have charmed, awed, and impressed millions of people over the years. Millions. Maybe some of his other calls were more entertaining or poetic, but none of them have been played as much to an audience of potential fans of the sport. And that makes it priceless.