The Drama King

It’s not an easy job to run a racetrack these days, and for the New York Racing Association, it just got even more difficult. They now have to figure out how they are going to replace the irreplaceable: Tom Durkin announced his retirement yesterday.

Stories about Tom Durkin inevitably note that he studied Drama at Saint Norbert’s College in De Pere, Wisconsin. It’s uncertain whether this is done to make some larger point, or to just revel in the notion that among this world’s many charms there resides a Saint Norbert’s College in De Pere, Wisconsin (Durkin is the school’s most notable alumnus, by a few furlongs). But we bring it up here for a reason.

Norbert was born into a prosperous 11th century German family, where, perhaps unsurprisingly, he proceeded to have things pretty much his own way. Set up with a cushy job in the local church, Norbert soon subcontracted it out at a lower rate, which allowed him to network into a better-paying gig providing religious counsel to the emperor Henry V, in nearby Cologne. This double income allowed him to live in the high style to which it can be all too easy to become accustomed.

After years of putting off ordination (and all those pesky sermons and confessions that went with it), and even turning down the chance to wear a bishop’s miter, Norbert’s days of bling came to a crashing halt. One day, while riding into town, a presumably well-aimed bolt of lightning sparked at his horse’s hooves, tossing callow Norbert to the ground and into an hour of unconsciousness; leading to a period of reflection; followed then by a life of penance, asceticism and other things that tend to show up on a saintly resume. So, while Tom Durkin no doubt learned set design and lighting while at Saint Norbert’s, he also learned that some pretty dramatic things could happen when you sit astride a horse.

This is Durkin’s greatest gift. To see the lightning in the instant that it flashes, and to express it with a mix of awe and wonder perfectly calibrated to the moment. This quicksilver recognition – the kind that any improv actor would kill for – appears beautifully here in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, as Durkin excitedly anticipates the coming duel between Bertrando and Arazi, and then shows his outright shock when Arazi will have none of it.

You don’t need to be a college boy to make it as a top-notch race caller. Trevor Denman and Larry Collmus both started calling races as 18-year-olds, and who knows what they might have come up with if they were given some of the opportunities that Durkin has had. But it doesn’t work that way. Big race calls are arias written by horses that only one diva gets to sing. The race caller gets to handicap the race, of course, which provides the opportunity to plan for possible embellishments, and Durkin has no equal here. Such as in the 1994 Travers, where he notes a “cause for Concern” at the top of a thrilling stretch drive.

It’s hard to imagine any five-horse race (with only four betting interests) being better than the 1994 Travers, and it’s impossible to imagine a better call. Holy Bull puts away a dual-classic winner’s rabbit halfway through a ten-furlong race; gallops away from the dual-classic winner; then holds off, through a grueling stretch drive, a stone-cold closer that had benefitted from a perfect setup. The “cause for Concern” line may have been scripted, but the closing “what a hero!” was still more pure Durkin improv that perfectly captured the moment.

Considering how many big races Tom Durkin has called, it’s remarkable how few he screwed up. His biggest gaffe, of course, was in the 2009 Derby, where he failed to identify Mine That Bird until the gelding had nearly crossed the wire. But while the racing public was largely forgiving – they didn’t count on Mine That Bird either – Durkin, apparently, would not let himself off so easy. With twenty-horse Derby fields showing no signs of abating, Durkin retired himself from America’s biggest race call, a precursor to yesterday’s announcement of a more comprehensive retirement.

Along with that cognac and honey voice, Durkin will be missed for his easy charm, his astute readings of pace factors and jockey decisions, his eagerness to please, and his on-call humanity. That last one was on full display in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff: a race that was a sixteenth of a mile away from being the best race I ever saw, when terrible lightning struck, and it became instead the worst thing I ever saw. No pictures here. Durkin’s voice tells you everything you need to know.

Labor Day falls early this year: on the first of the month, like a bill that must be paid. Durkin’s last day will be Sunday the 31st. So this particular Labor Day doesn’t just fall early. It falls way too early. Even Saratoga will somehow never feel the same again.




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