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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By Richard Deitch, for The Athletic — One of horse racing’s most iconic voices is coming out of retirement to call the Belmont Stakes for Fox Sports.

Tom Durkin will call the final leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown on June 10, he told The Athletic. As part of the eight-year agreement Fox signed in 2022 with the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA), Fox is now the exclusive home for the Belmont Stakes, which had aired since 2011 on NBC.

“I really hadn’t given it that much thought until they raised the possibility,” Durkin said. “I was pretty good retired, but I didn’t have many challenges in my life. Calling races was the driving force of my adult life. That was my identity. It’s what I did until I didn’t. So I needed a challenge.”

Durkin, 72, concluded his 43-year career as a track announcer in August 2014. He called Breeders’ Cup races for NBC from its inception in 1984 to 2005 and was the voice of the Triple Crown for NBC beginning in 2001 before stepping down from that role in 2010. The list of great horses Durkin has voiced is extensive, including Cigar, Rachel Alexandra, Holy Bull and many others. He spent the final 24 years of his professional career with NYRA.

Since his retirement, Durkin said he worked on assorted projects, including voice-over work, and did some traveling as well as community theater. He also went back to college. He said he was two courses shy from graduating from St. Norbert College in Wisconsin and was able to finally walk across the stage in 2018.

“It took me 52 years to graduate from college,” said Durkin. “When I retired, I thought to myself, ‘Let’s get your degree.’ And I got the first two A’s in my brilliant academic career in anthropology and psychology.”

Durkin said Fox Sports executives Mike Mulvihill and Pete Macheska approached him at last year’s Belmont Stakes to see if he would be interested in calling this year’s race. He thought about it for a week and then decided to go for it.

“When you get a new property and you start with a blank sheet of paper, you want that sheet of paper to eventually be filled with massive names and iconic voices and people that resonate,” Fox Sports executive producer Brad Zager said. “When it came to us getting the Belmont, Tom Durkin’s name was at the very top of that list for our coverage. Right after we got the rights and we had our first meeting, Mulvihill and Macheska (who will produce the telecast) were in my ear saying, ‘God, if we could pull off getting Tom Durkin to do it, that would be huge.’”

Fox will announce its lead host and analysts for its Belmont coverage next week. Chris Fallica, the longtime ESPN presence on “College GameDay” who joined Fox earlier this year, will have an on-air role for the Belmont that Zager described as “heavy into gambling … but someone who can give you something deeper as in the why and how he got to this decision.”

Durkin said he is contracted only for this event. He does not see himself getting back into announcing on a daily basis, but he is open to seeing where this experience will take him.

“I’m not looking at Tom as a one-off,” Zager said. “I look at it like this is our year to make our biggest impact, and you only get one chance to make a first impression with our Belmont coverage. Then we’ll figure out everything after that. Hopefully, we come out of the gate making a great first impression for horse racing fans and sports fans in general.”

Durkin was extremely hard on himself as a race-caller and very public about the anxiety he dealt with over his career. He left race-calling at age 60 because the stress of the job became too much.

“The real pressure is on big races for national TV,” Durkin said. “I’ve already started dealing with it. I started my self-hypnosis last week. I’ll go downstairs in my basement and put on hypnosis tapes about anxiety and breathing. I know I will have some anxiety that day. I mean, if you are not nervous calling the Belmont Stakes, then you really have a problem.”

As far as calling the race, Durkin said one of the biggest challenges for a Belmont Stakes race-caller is the setting sun, given the time of day.

“Those horses turn for home in the Belmont Stakes after 6 p.m. ET and they are in shadows — you cannot tell when they are at the top of the stretch unless it’s a cloudy day,” Durkin said. “It’s not like that anywhere else because Belmont is one of the few race tracks that are exposed to the north.”

The 148th Preakness Stakes will run this Saturday on NBC as Kentucky Derby winner Mage attempts to win the second leg of the Triple Crown. Durkin joked that he was 0 for 9 as a race caller during his career when a Triple Crown was on the line at Belmont. That list includes Silver Charm, Big Brown, War Emblem, Smarty Jones and California Chrome, among others. The first year Durkin was not in the Belmont booth for a potential Triple Crown horse, Larry Collmus called American Pharoah’s victory in 2015.

“If you want to make a bet with my personal history, if a Triple Crown is on the line and I’m calling the race, that horse is going to lose,” Durkin laughed.

this story first appeared in The Athletic
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