By Mark Berner

In 1983, Devil's Bag was the undefeated 2-year-old champion for the Hickory Tree Stable of James and Alice Mills. Woody Stephens trained the colt. Inducted into the National Museum’s Hall of Fame in 1976, Stephens was rewriting history with five straight Belmont Stakes wins in the 1980’s.

With a run that culminated in two Grade 1 victories, Devil's Bag won Belmont Park's Champagne Stakes and The Laurel Futurity, the traditional East-coast route to the two-year-old champion. The following year the Breeders' Cup would change everything.

Bred by Canadian E. P. Taylor at his Windfield Farms in Maryland, the colt by Halo from Ballade was syndicated for a record-setting $36 million for a juvenile by Seth Hancock's Claiborne Farm. Time Magazine touted colt as the next Secretariat.

Devil's Bag had right connections and all the Triple Crown hype going into Hialeah Park's Flamingo Stakes, the first Grade 1 of the season at 9 furlongs for 3-year-olds.

However, a colt named Time for a Change upset Devil's Bag in the 1984 Flamingo for Ogden Mills Phipps and trainer Angel Penna. Stephens came back to win the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes with the ill-fated Swale.

Just as the connections of Devil's Bag eventually dealt with an unexpected result, so did I. I went to see a horse race and came home with two lifetime friends: The late Paul Moran, a multiple Eclipse winner who became a colleague at Newsday and Tom Durkin, race caller extraordinaire.

Durkin, a lifetime racetracker, eventually owned a small share in Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, a horse whose name personifies what it means to be racetracker, always dreaming. Well done, Moran would have approved.

The Kentucky Derby of 2017 turned out to be a New York affair; Brooklyn Boyz Stable of former NYRA chairman Anthony Bonomo, Vinny and Teresa Viola, Terry Finley and West Point Thoroughbreds, MeB Racing, St Elias Stable, Siena Farm, Tom Durkin, Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez.

One night during Flamingo week in 1984, John and Toni Pricci, my late wife Karen, and I were dinner guests of Joe Hirsch, Daily Racing Form executive columnist, at Joe's Stone Crab in South Beach, long before the area became gentrified.

At an adjacent table was Angel and Elinor Penna and their party. With deference to Dr. John, I was in the right place at the right time. Everything was perfect, formal and proper. Jacket and tie, valet parking, good food, good friends and single-malt scotch.

In contrast, my first time out to dinner with Durkin, also that week with the same crew minus Joe Hirsch, was at the Fish Shack in Pompano; a lot of beer and the best conch fritters ever were consumed. Louder than the crowd at Joe's; right place right time, Act 2.

Top class racing no longer happens at Hialeah but the big gigs for 3-year-olds in Florida do, beginning with this weekend’s Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. This year there is no Devi’s Bag and you probably can find a few horses unique to everyone’s Derby Top Ten.

Hidden Scroll is very likely to be the favorite following his impressive wet-track debut victory at Gulfstream, but remember, Devil’s Bag…

Durkin left Hialeah for The Meadowlands in 1984, the year he began calling the Breeders' Cup. In 1990, he landed the NYRA job where he set the standard for all the race callers to come as the voice of Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga.

Honing his skills for the initial Breeders’ Cup, Durkin drove to Belmont and used my office to practice by day and returned to New Jersey to call the Meadowlands races by night. He did this for several weeks, right up to show time at Hollywood Park.

Durkin came equipped with binoculars, a tape recorder, and his book of words, a loose-leaf binder that contained the language and phrasing he would use to describe the races. It was a unique opportunity to get a preview into the future of race calling.

I might be one of the rare few who has heard Durkin experiment with his art. Sometimes I would just listen. Other times we would analyze his calls, discuss the phrasing and, most of all, had a very good time doing it.

Tom Durkin was born in Chicago November 30, 1950 and grew up listening to Phil Georgeff, the legendary voice of Chicago racing.

Durkin studied drama at St. Norbert College in De Pere Wisconsin and called his first race at a Wisconsin fair in 1971. He did that through 1975 and a year later was taking the chart call for Daily Racing Form at Cahokia Downs and Thistledown.

Durkin resumed his race calling career at Florida Downs In Oldsmar--the present Tampa Bay Downs--Miles Park in Louisville, Quad City Downs in East Moline, Illinois and Balmoral Park in Crete, Illinois, After that he hit the big time, calling races at both Hialeah and Gulfstream.

Durkin not only was creative but he had fun doing it at every level. Each race day, or should we say sound check, began with “Anthony Cantore, please call your office.”

Cantore was a boyhood friend, had no office, but the announcement surely beat ‘testing one, two, and three’. On the day Durkin gave up his mic, August 31, 2014, a Saratoga race was named the Anthony Cantore.

Aside from racing, Durkin is in love with Italy and has vacationed there for many years. He also has an affinity for food, wine, architecture, language and classical music.

Durkin called the Breeders' Cup for NBC from 1984 through 2005 along with 81 Triple Crown races through 2010 and, by NYRA's count, over 80,000 races. Not quite that of his mentor Georgeff, credited by the Guinness Book of Records as having called 96,131 races.

NYRA's past President and CEO Chris Kay gave Durkin an open offer to call the races at Saratoga in 2015, but we have probably heard him call his last race.

Durkin was not perfect--no race caller can be--but he accurately described almost instantly anything and everything that could happen, like that! His great sense of humor not only recognizes Murphy's Law but also O'Toole's postulate; Murphy is an optimist.

I grew up listening to Fred Capossela and started working at the racetrack when Dave Johnson and Chic Anderson were at the top of the game. Durkin has surpassed them all, and all who have come along since owe him a debt for his legacy of words and phrases that have become the stock and trade of the modern race caller.

His body of work should land him a spot as the first announcer to enter The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. For now, Durkin conducts personalized tours at the museum during the Saratoga racing season. He belongs there and not simply as a tour guide. He needs to be listed in the Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor.

The words he used to describe horseracing action were words he himself wrote. His voice is his instrument and his mind the lyrics. For horseplayers, he wrote the songs.

© Mark Berner, 2019