TRACK'S VOICE SILENT ON TRIPLE CROWN

Saratoga's Tom Durkin stops calling major races on NBC to escape stress

TIM WILKIN STAFF WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Thursday, June 9, 2011

ELMONT -- Tom Durkin is known throughout the country as the voice of horse racing. For decades, television viewers anticipated his signature "and they're off" at the start of the three biggest races of the year.


But in recent years, while viewers heard the smooth cadence of a seasoned track announcer, Durkin's hands would shake just holding his binoculars.


Durkin, who had called races for NBC since 1984 and at Saratoga Race Course since 1991, was overwhelmed by anxiety in the months leading to the Triple Crown.


"All people would have to say was 'Kentucky Derby,' " Durkin said, "and it was like I got a shot of acid in the stomach."


As track announcer, Durkin paints a picture of horses thundering around the track. He started to fear that if his painting was wrong, millions of people would know it.


Durkin went to psychiatrists and hypnotists and took prescription drugs.


It didn't work, so he quit.


Durkin called NBC in January and said he couldn't do it anymore. Three days later, he changed his mind. Then in April, he decided the war was over.


He couldn't beat himself.


The 60-year-old Durkin still will be heard Saturday at Belmont Park -- he'll continue to call daily races for the New York Racing Association tracks, including Saratoga -- but he won't be heard on NBC.


Durkin was the voice recorded in the first 22 runnings of the Breeders' Cup, and he has called the Kentucky Derby 13 times, nine on NBC.


His biggest fear came true in 2009 when he blew the Kentucky Derby call. He was late to see Mine That Bird, the 50-1 long shot, scoot up the rail, get in the clear and win going away.


"That probably had some effect on the decision to give up the job, but not a lot." Durkin said. "Life is too short. In the last year and a half, I have given eulogies over the caskets of two of my best friends. So what's the point? You start thinking a little differently."


NBC hired Larry Collmus, the regular track announcer at Gulfstream Park in the winter and Monmouth Park in the summer.


"I think Tom's calls in big races are terrific because he puts you in the moment," Collmus said. "An example was when Birdstone won the Belmont (in 2004) and denied Smarty Jones the Triple Crown, Tom gave Birdstone his proper due while his voice also gave the sense of the disappointment that most racing fans felt at the time. That's not an easy thing to do."


Durkin will be back in Saratoga this summer, and he plans to keep coming back until the end of the 2015 meet.


"Will I ride off into the sunset?" Durkin said. "No, I'll probably walk over to Siro's."


Reach Tim Wilkin at 454-5415 or twilkin@timesunion.com.