Swapping best seat in racing for peace of mind

Associated Press
FILE - In this May 26, 2008, file photo, Belmont Park track announcer Tom Durkin looks down at the homestretch while calling the first hose race of the day at Belmont Park in New York. After two decades or so as the signature voice for the sport's premier events, but more sleepless nights and anxious moments than he could bear, Durkin simply said, "enough." (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)
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FILE - In this May 26, 2008, file photo, Belmont Park track announcer Tom Durkin looks down at the homestretch while calling the first hose race of the day at Belmont Park in New York. After two decades or so as the signature voice for the sport's premier events, but more sleepless nights and anxious moments than he could bear, Durkin simply said, "enough."

As this year's Kentucky Derby drew closer, Tom Durkin took out a pencil, drew a line down the center on a sheet of paper and made two lists.

On one side of the ledger was the job he already had. On the other were sleepless nights and restless afternoons on a hypnotist's couch, medications, diets and bouts of the shakes that hit so forcefully he struggled just to hold onto a pair of binoculars. Something had to give.

That's the short answer to why a man who became the signature voice for a generation of Triple Crown fans finally yielded the best seat in the house at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

"It wasn't exactly St. Paul getting knocked off the horse," the 60-year-old Durkin said with a chuckle during a telephone interview Thursday. "No revelation. No blinding light. Nothing even close to that. ... Just a sense of dread I couldn't get out from under. It was wearing me out.

"I'm a race caller. It's what I do and will continue to do, just not at the Derby anymore, or at quite the same level. It's my identity and believe me," he added, "you think long and hard before cutting such a large part of that off."

The reference to the biblical tale of St. Paul is telling, since the only other calling Durkin considered while growing up on the west side of Chicago was the priesthood. Then he began tagging along with his father to the racetrack. Soon after he heard the golden baritone of track announcer Phil Georgeff booming over the PA system. That's when Durkin knew exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

In the intervening years, between radio and national television broadcasts, he called 30 Triple Crown races, including the Kentucky Derby on 13 occasions, and nearly two dozen Breeders' Cups. Thoroughbred fans all have their own favorites; what Durkin will relish most were the seven attempts at Belmont Park to complete the Triple, a feat unmatched since 1978 and one of the toughest in any racket.

"In my mind, nothing in sports can compete with that moment when the field turns for home with two furlongs left and history perched at the finish line. The building literally shakes," he said, "with 35 years of anxiety packed into the length of a stretch."

That might be an apt description, too, for how Durkin often felt even as he zoomed to the top of his profession. The first time Durkin was reminded to be careful what he wished for was at Hollywood Park in the 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic, where he called the photo-finish duel between Derby rivals Ferdinand and Alysheba.

"The two hit the wire together — as the man said," Durkin said, remembering what some consider his best racing call ever. "And right after that, my head felt like it was going to explode.

"I went back and looked at my work the next day — and it was good work — so I told myself, 'This is what you always wanted to do. You have to be able to control it."

The following year, he visited a hypnotist, who armed Durkin with the first of many strategies designed to push back against the stress.

At Churchill Downs, his trigger was focusing on the track's famed Twin Spires as a way to clear his head. In other places and times, Durkin tried almost everything: the beta blocker Inderal; a specially built stand to hold his binoculars; even a few months every year of what he dubbed the "monastic life" — no drink or heavy foods, coupled with regular exercise.

He would drop 25 pounds — no easy task for the big, affable Durkin — then put them back on trying to cope. This week, after expressing doubts earlier in the year, he decided not renew his contract for the Triple Crown events and informed NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer.

Larry Collmus, the 44-year-old track announcer at Gulfstream Park and Monmouth Park will assume those duties.

"Tom Durkin is a legend," Schanzer said in a statement. "While I regret that he has made the decision not to call the Triple Crown for us, I understand it and wish him nothing but the best."

Durkin has heard that same sentiment a lot in the last few days.

"People call and say, 'We're sad we won't hear you, but happy you made the decision. And really, I'm not going away. I'll keep my work at Belmont and I'm stoked about being part of what will be an improved product in New York over the coming years.

"Besides, I'm sleeping better. I'm more comfortable in my own skin. I'm reading more and, who knows, my golf game might even improve."

Durkin's greatest regret remains failing to spot 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird sneaking up the rail until the final few strides. Of all his calls, it's the one Durkin wishes he could take back.

What he won't miss, though, are the months spent studying flash cards in hotel rooms with cartons of takeout food strewn everywhere, nor the mounting anxiety of driving to the track under gathering storm clouds, dreading that the ensuing wet and slop would obscure the markings, colors and stripes on the horses and jockeys' silks he so desperately needed to deliver two perfect minutes.

"I'll miss the paycheck, no doubt about that. And the excitement," Durkin said.

"The Derby is special. It's one of those days when everybody walks around with a smile on their face until the 'official' sign is posted. And then," he added, "only a few are still smiling."

From here on out, you won't have to follow Durkin back from the betting window to know how Derby day went. Win or lose, he'll be the one grinning from ear to ear.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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