Pressure off Durkin at Belmont

ELMONT, N.Y. -- He doesn't host the post position draw, simply calls his nine races as if it were an average Wednesday. There are fried oysters and pasta waiting for him at Fiore, a little Italian restaurant on Tulip Avenue. Around six o'clock, Tom Durkin steps down from his announcer's booth high above the Belmont Park finish line and into the heat of a humid June evening.

It's been a simple week for the 60-year-old race caller, who has removed himself from the usual hoopla of Belmont Stakes festivities. There are no production meetings, no tech workers in black shirts and embroidered logos scurrying in and out of his booth with cables and electrical tape. While he'll narrate the Belmont in-house on Saturday, fans across the nation will tune into a television broadcast voiced by Larry Collmus, the track announcer hired by NBC two months ago to call the Triple Crown events -- Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Durkin doesn't mind. After walking away from a lucrative and prominent 10-year stint as NBC's "voice of the Triple Crown," the Chicago native finds himself a happier, steadier man. He's already left his position as the announcer for the Breeders' Cup after calling the first 22 editions of the championship event, although contractual issues forced that change in 2005. This year, the decision was necessary because of increasing performance anxiety and concerns about his health. It was the right one to make; if he were a racehorse, he'd be winging down off the final turn after taking a breather along the backside.

Back at his quiet home a few hundred yards from the stable gate, Durkin -- a jovial, burly man whose red hair has turned to white -- sits beneath the air conditioner after dinner and contemplates the twilight of an illustrious career.

"I think I've found more pleasure in it now in the last few months, because these day-to-day races are my big events now," he says. "I'm not saying I'll make a maiden claimer sound like the Belmont Stakes, but I just feel better about going to work every day. I enjoy it, and that was absolutely the idea. I'm very happy; I have no regrets at all."

* * *

This is a man whose voice forms the soundtrack for more than 2,000 races, from Grade 1 events to those maiden claimers, each year. Since 1990 he's called the action for the New York Racing Association, working at Belmont and Saratoga and leaving the chilly winter months at Aqueduct to an assistant. Every season, from January to April, he vacations in Naples, Fla. During day-to-day racing his narrative is generally strong, and many who listen on a regular basis have noticed a resurgence of sorts since he announced his decision to leave the Triple Crown broadcast, a relief, perhaps. This is not imaginary.

For more than 20 years, Durkin held himself together through waves of nausea, shaking hands, pounding heart. It was in 1987, hours before Ferdinand nipped Alysheba by a nose in the Breeders' Cup Classic, that he first felt the knots in the pit of his stomach. The pressure was so intense he considered getting out of the game.

"About halfway through that day I said to myself, 'What are you putting yourself through this for?'" he recalls. "I came up with the idea that I should become a school teacher. After I got done with the Breeders' Cup, that was it; I was going to be done."

The thought "kind of faded away" at day's end for the man who had only one dream as a child once his father brought him to the races -- to be a track announcer. Calling races was his calling, a career begun in 1971 on the Wisconsin county fair circuit when he was just 21 years old. After attending Wisconsin's St. Norbert College (where he majored in theatre only because he thought it would help him with his race call), he worked his way up from announcing winners in the back of a pickup truck on the county fair circuit to low-level tracks like Balmoral in Crete, Ill., and Florida Downs, now known as Tampa Bay. The first big gig that changed his life, a job at Hialeah Race Course in 1981, led to the Breeders' Cup assignment in 1984 via a stint calling harness races at the Meadowlands. He was doing what he wanted to do, quickly gaining a reputation as the best in the business.

Still, his anxiety over major events never diminished. He dreamt of not being able to get to the announcer's booth, that the lenses had fallen out of his binoculars. Days before big races were at hand, he'd go to sleep worrying and wake up the same way. He couldn't shake it.

He went to see a psychiatrist. He practiced hypnotism. He medicated, gave up caffeine, drank less, exercised more. After NBC hired him to call the Triple Crown races in 2000, self-discipline worked to stave off complete misery through 30 events, and then it simply didn't work any longer.

"I guess it's just a progression of time," Durkin says. "When you get older, you think, 'God, do I still want to do this stuff? Or would it be better just to get rid of it?'"

* * *

The week before the Belmont Stakes, Travis Stone is far removed from New York racing, working as the track announcer at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City. It's a gig he's held since 2005, landed straight out of college, the first open door of a lifelong dream like Durkin's.

"There's a picture of me in the paddock at Saratoga in my stroller," he says with a laugh, 68 minutes before post time at the southern oval where his voice provides the narrative. "I grew up listening to Tom Durkin, and when I got old enough to recognize what he was doing, his calls just mesmerized me; I was really captivated by them. During that time, there were some really exciting races at Saratoga, and he just made them that much better. It piqued my interest."

I grew up listening to Tom Durkin, and when I got old enough to recognize what he was doing, his calls just mesmerized me; I was really captivated by them.

-- Travis Stone, La. Downs track announcer

Stone, 27, still has the letter, written in 1997, that he sent to Durkin asking for advice. I want to be a race caller, what do I have to do? He also has another letter: the one Durkin sent back.

"He told me to practice, to get familiar with the aspects of the game," the younger announcer recalls. "Of course, I was like 13 at the time, so he told me to do good in school, to work toward it, that it would come."

A few years later, Stone visited the announcer's booth at Saratoga Race Course (now Durkin allows people to do the same for a donation to charity, and last year he raised $25,000 for Anna House, the nonprofit day-care center for children of the workers on Belmont's backside). Once the youngster watched Durkin call a race, he knew he would never do anything else.

"Who knows?" he remarks. "If he never writes back, maybe that discourages me. If he doesn't call races the way he calls, maybe that doesn't captivate me. So from a very personal standpoint, I recognize his impact."

Durkin's calls have brought races to life for an entire generation of fans, his phrasing a picture of countless historical moments, his voice providing a play-by-play of history.

"I don't think anyone will ever be able to paint the picture to capture a moment and to bring a race to life like he has," Stone says. "He's hardly ever out of sync with the race; he's like a good melody with a good harmony, they go together well."

In some ways, the legendary announcer recognizes this fact.

"I know that I have a certain place in the sport, but I'm not the kind of person that pats myself on my back; I did that once and dislocated my shoulder," Durkin jokes.

In other ways, it's hard for him to believe that decades of famous stretch runs, narratives of great performances by Thoroughbreds now enshrined in horse racing's Hall of Fame, are all in the past.

"I really don't think of those races as being historic because it's my life, you know?" he remarks. "I think George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are historic. When it's your life, you really don't think of it that way. I do have a great appreciation for the fact that I've been able to have a front row seat for some of the greatest athletic events of our time, and I've been blessed to be associated with them, but you're only as good as your last call."

That call could come on Labor Day in 2015, when the announcer's contract with the New York Racing Association expires. He's already thinking that would be a fine time to hang up his binoculars.

"I'll be 64 years old, 64 and a half, actually," he says. "At this point, I'm thinking that's a pretty good time to go."

* * *

But first, this Belmont. Preparing for the race, Durkin will go over the runners involved, memorizing the colors of the jockeys' silks, running over the pronunciation of names, looking at past performances to see where certain horses are likely to run -- near the back of the pack or in front of it. The process has changed significantly since he started, when stacks of VHS tapes and magazine articles from across the country littered his dining room table as he studied up for key events.

"Now you can hop on the Internet and Google 'Master of Hounds' and get articles, pictures, replays, so the prep time doesn't take as long," he says. "It's a couple dozen hours. This year without the production meetings and the press conferences it's been a little less busy, but I don't think I've put any less effort into preparing for the call itself."

There are other tricks of his trade, things reporters who write about him like to mention. Most fascinating are the notes he keeps in the black loose-leaf notebook he's dubbed "the Mayor Daley" after the former Chicago politician; pages and pages on possible racing scenarios and terms to use. There are phrases like "tremendous run" for a horse closing late down the stretch, "full tilt" for two going at it neck-and-neck, "roaring back" for a runner that seemed beaten but managed to get in front again, "desperately close," "a relentless drive," "a final surge," "inhaling horses one by one."

The words are a part of him now, rolling off his tongue in the heat of the moment, descriptions he insists are only reflective of competitions beyond the realm of reality.

"You couldn't write it ahead of time, people would think you were crazy," he says. "That's the best thing about racing: When you put the great horses on the track together, they're going to put on a good show."

His authoritative mix of description and analysis is now widely accepted, but in the early days he rubbed jockeys and racing officials the wrong way with calls that accurately mentioned occurrences on the oval. Not afraid to mention bumping or faulty rides, he helps maintain the game's integrity. Also a strict purist, he defends the Triple Crown.

"I don't believe they should change it one bit," he says. "Some people say it's impossible to win, but I disagree. We've been very close to having Triple Crown winners over the years. Look at Real Quiet, look at Silver Charm. I think if Smarty Jones had been given a judicious ride he would have been a Triple Crown winner. Maybe Big Brown doesn't twist his shoe on the first turn or if Animal Kingdom wins on Saturday, maybe he could have been a Triple Crown winner if he'd gotten up in the Preakness in the final strides. The Triple Crown tries have been just tremendous in all sorts of weird ways. I think it's still a great, great series."

So does he still feel the weight of the upcoming race, its significance? And although his voice will only be heard by those on the grounds, will the butterflies return on Saturday? The answer to the former question is a resounding yes. The answer to the latter, he'll soon find out.

"That's a very good question, and I don't really know," he says. "Will I feel butterflies? Probably not. A little pump of adrenaline? Yeah. And that's a good thing in moderation; it makes you see better, work better, act quicker. The problem is only if you get too pumped up."

For Larry Collmus, 44, the pressure during his first Triple Crown season has been less about calling the actual races and more about filling Durkin's shoes. Preparing to voice the Belmont Stakes on the national level, he says he'll definitely be aware of the legendary announcer's presence as Durkin makes Saturday's in-house call.

"He's been the guy that has been the voice of horse racing to the nation for many years now," Collmus says. "He does such an amazing job of putting you in the moment in those big races, and he's set the bar so high. The fact that he's calling the Belmont Stakes on Saturday means I'll be even more on my toes. There'll be comparisons made for sure."

And somehow, with the pressure lifted, this race becomes more precious to Durkin, and he welcomes the chance to make a few more memories, and grateful reflection comes naturally.

"I can't imagine my life without the satisfaction and happiness that race calling, especially on this level, has brought to me," he says. "The definition of happiness as an adult is realizing the completion of your childhood dreams, and that was me, just being a kid, wanting to be a race caller. I got to travel the world, to Paris, Austria, Italy, Ireland, and I've made so many great friends along the way. My life has been a very blessed one because of horse racing."

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.