Durkin makes a classy exit
SARATOGA SPRINGS The story is over.
Our favorite storyteller has closed the books on his career, the thick personal thesaurus that he filled with nouns, adjectives and verbs, and the drab, thin program that he filled with rainbow ink to guide him through each race card.
On a gray, rainy Sunday, track announcer Tom Durkin jauntily spun a sodden final yarn in the Spinaway at Saratoga Race Course, and now will go about the business of a retired person.
But not before thanking the one person who got him here, when a window in the all-day rain allowed a tribute ceremony after the Spinaway.
The man at the picnic table, the woman at the top of the stretch . . . “at a track in Ohio, in front of a computer terminal in California, and that person . . .”
At this point in our story, Durkin’s own tears served as a stand-in for the rain.
His voice choking, he thanked, “with inexpressible gratitude, YOU. The racing fan, the horseplayer, thank you, thank you for it all, thank you for everything.”
With that, the crowd exploded with unqualified adoration. Cheers of “Tom-my Durk-in” and “Tom, Tom, Tom” had serenaded him as he walked down the clubhouse staircase from his booth.
The terrific spectacle concluded when he and his blue suit and tie piled into the back of a red pickup truck to ride up the muddy stretch and fire T-shirts out of a cannon to the fans on the apron. It was only too perfect.
As a track announcer for 43 years, Durkin had to wear many hats — raconteur, comic, air traffic controller, magician.
After the Spinaway, he took all of those hats off, and just one, his trademark white fedora, remained: the hat of a friend.
If you’ve watched New York racing for any number of years, you feel like you’ve gained a personal attachment to Tom that goes beyond the disembodied voice coming through the speakers.
One of my favorite races of all-time is by far the 1994 Travers won by Holy Bull, a sparkling race to watch with no sound, made only greater by Durkin’s iconic call. Without him, it’s still a great race; with him, you have a collaborator.
On Sunday, we settled in comfortably when reminded that we were “. . . here at the Spaaaaah.”
“Annnnd they’re off!” got us out of the couch cushions to the edge of the seat.
Each Durkin call starts with that contraction, suggesting that this race, now, is not a singular event, but part of a never-ending narrative strand.
That strand ended on Sunday, but is still available in the video archives.
So I spent most of Sunday looking at them (tough job, mine) and assembled three top-five lists of favorites.
My Non-Saratoga Top Five includes the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic won by Ferdinand over Alysheba; the 1995 BC Classic (”And here he is, the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!”); the 1998 BC Distaff won by Personal Ensign; the 1998 Belmont Stakes in which Victory Gallop stopped Real Quiet’s Triple Crown bid; and Rags to Riches’ victory over Curlin in the 2007 Belmont Stakes.
In the Do Yourself A Favor And Just YouTube It Department, I’ve got his 2009 Fog Race from Aqueduct; the Arrrrr race from 2008, when he practically strangles himself trying to sound like a pirate before breaking into a refined British accent to complete the order of finish; “Professor Durkin Explains The Dosage Theory”; and his surreal Match Game appearance in which he and Jimmie “J.J.” Walker can’t connect on Pancho Gonzalez and Speedy Gonzalez.
In the Strictly Saratoga Department, I’ve got the 2008 Go for Wand won by Ginger Punch (”seven anxious furlongs”); the 2002 Test stretch duel won by You over Carson Hollow (”It’s a photo finish that doesn’t deserve a loser”); Holy’s Bull’s Travers (”But there is cause for Concern!”); Wise Dan’s Bernard Baruch on Saturday (”He did it!”); and, of course, Rachel Alexandra’s 2009 Woodward over Macho Again.
Tom picked his spots to entertain moments of self-indulgence, and we never held it against him because we were laughing too hard.
Some of his greatest calls also came during some of the greatest races, because he would rise to any occasion.
He also never phoned it in just because he was calling a dreary claiming race in the middle of the week at Aqueduct.
As is his custom, Tom walked into the pressbox two hours before first post to collect the small program that would soon be awash in color from his marker pens.
“I think I’ll quit after today,” he drily muttered as he walked out to his glass booth, and the few of us there, of course, cracked up.
Annnnnd . . . he’s off!