Sunday, June 22, 2014
Tom Durkin: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 22, 2014---Allegiance to present day race callers very often is a matter of taste, like appreciating a fine wine, a movie, favorite athlete, etc., etc.
Consequently, it follows that provincialism plays a huge role in formulating those preferences, just as one would for a favorite horse or jockey: Seabiscuit or War Admiral; Shoemaker or Arcaro; Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra?
And, so, when it comes to con the world of contemporary race callers, the majority of racing fans are aligned in two camps: Denman or Durkin?
Personally, it’s impossible for me to remain neutral. I, like so many others who have crossed paths with Tom Durkin during his 43-year career, consider him a cherished friend.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t strive for objectivity.
I have not listened to Denman’s calls nearly as many times as I’ve heard Durkin’s. But I can’t imagine, even if the coasts were reversed, I would remember as many of Trevor's calls as I would Tom’s.
Twenty-four Breeders’ Cups and 11 Triple Crowns has given Durkin far more opportunities to voice racing’s most memorable events, and he has had more than his share of “moving like a tremendous machine” moments:
There was Easy Goer and Sunday Silence “in a racing epic,” the Real Quiet-Victory Gallop Belmont photo: “a picture is worth a thousand words, this photo is worth five million dollars; history... in the waiting.”
And, of course, Smarty Jones’ crushing Triple Crown bid, marked by Durkin’s diminishing crescendo as he informed 120,000 fans “Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.”
But there are, too, the moments of whimsy, Durkin’s paean to Wallace Beery as Long John Silver with his “Arrrrr” call in Saratoga, or singing the scales as “Doremifasolatido” crossed the finish line in front.
One of Denman’s widely acknowledged gifts is his uncanny knack for picking up winning moves, anticipating outcomes before a fan might make the same surmise, including one in particular.
Until I googled it, I had forgotten that the Denman call I won’t ever forget took place 17 years ago. The horses for the Santa Anita Handicap were at mid-far turn when Denman said that trainer Richard Mandella’s horses could finish 1-2-3.
To this day, I don’t know how he could have known that, or had the cojones to make that call out loud. I consider myself a good race-watcher and I never saw it coming that far from the wire.
Calling one horse “moving like a winner” three furlongs from the wire is one thing; but three for the money? Never. But there they were: Siphon, Sandpit and Gentlemen at the wire, the runnerup coming from seventh of 11.
I first became aware of Durkin’s gifts one winter at Hialeah. My routine seldom changed: Get there early and find a seat in the back yard adjacent to the statue of Citation--the same one Michael Corleone drove passed in Godfather II.
I’d put my feet up on the fountain’s retaining wall, point my face toward the South Florida sun, and try to pick a few winners.
After making my bets, I’d either either walk out on the apron to watch it live or return to my place in the sun and listen to the call.
The first time I did this, the race was delivered with deadly accuracy, but it was more than that. The race unfolded perfectly in my mind’s eye, the word pictures not only indicating where each horse was but whether or not it had winning position.
I introduced myself to say how much he added to my Hialeah experience and we’ve been friends ever since.
There have been many great race callers that have filled the soundtrack of my racing life, including the legendary Fred Caposella, Joe Hernandez, Chic Anderson and Dave Johnson, to name just a few.
But with the exception of comedian Robert Klein’s hilarious takes on ‘Cappy’, no race caller has been more imitated than Durkin.
His phrasing, word pictures and drama-building cadence are mainstays in the lexicon of today’s best announcers, an homage paid by any one of them who describes a game front running winner as a horse that “won’t be denied.”
There are other phrases or words not generally heard anywhere else; a hot pace that’s “audacious,” an even pace conducted as “a steady beat,” slow fractions that are “nonchalant” or “calculated,” or the slowest ones, which are “pedestrian” or “soporific.”
But, to me, Durkin’s greatest attribute is making all the races he calls better, whether it’s “a filly in the Belmont” or a maiden claimer getting up in the final strides to win the nightcap.
Everyone has their favorite announcer and I have mine. But when racetrackers and fans are asked to join the conversation about who they believe is the greatest race caller of all time, the name Tom Durkin will not be denied.
Written by John Pricci