Richard Lord: Memories of Tom Durkin in his early days
Given the thousands of races he has called, it is probably a moment that legendary race caller Tom Durkin has long forgotten. But it's one I will never forget -- in part because it was a one-time experience for me, and also because I watched from afar with admiration as Durkin worked his way to the top of the profession he is leaving this weekend.
At the time, I was the young executive sports editor at the Tampa Tribune and Durkin was early in his career, calling races at what was then Florida Downs in Oldsmar, Fla. It is now known as Tampa Bay Downs.
We at the Tribune talked him into making a pick of the day to run in the sports section with the track entries and results. We gave him an imaginary $1,000, as best I can recall, at the start of the meet to "wager" on his picks.
Durkin invited me to the track and into his booth atop the grandstand one day so I could see how he prepared for the races, and to witness firsthand his call of that day's "wagered" race.
His picks hadn't been clicking for more than a few days, but he was confident he had picked a winner on this sunny Florida winter afternoon. I watched as post time neared and he matched the jockey's silks to the horses' names in preparing for the race.
I don't remember when his choice took the lead, but the horse was perhaps a half-dozen lengths ahead at the top of the stretch. Maybe it was because I knew Tom had the horse picked -- I don't recall if he had any real money bet -- but I could hear the enthusiasm in his voice build as the finish line neared and victory seemed certain.
Suddenly, with his "losing streak" about to end, the horse took a bad step and threw the jockey just yards from the wire. Durkin didn't miss a beat in relaying the misfortune of the horse and jockey and calling the winner as it crossed the finish line.
But, once the call was done, he clicked off his microphone and let his true feelings be known to his eyewitness. Fortunately, as I recall, both horse and jockey survived the incident uninjured. As the afternoon ended, a frustrated Durkin decided to join me for a night at the dog track -- Derby Lane in St. Petersburg -- where his luck (and mine) didn't improve.
Obviously, as his talent vaulted him to the top of his profession, he didn't need any luck. His countless memorable calls of Triple Crown races and as the voice of Saratoga and New York racing have deservedly made him an admired legend in the horse racing industry.
While Durkin has been receiving all the accolades he richly deserves during his final week, it saddens me to know I won't be hearing any more of his pitch-perfect stretch calls after today.
But one thing is for sure -- the 63-year-old will cross the career finish line as the ultimate winner in his chosen profession.
To contact Richard Lord:
or (413) 496-6236.
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