When former NYRA track announcer Tom Durkin walks down Broadway in Saratoga Springs, it is almost as if he is stepping back in time.
Fans often stop him to remind him of one of his legendary race calls and to express their appreciation for his extraordinary career.
Those conversations mean the world to Durkin.
“You’re walking down the street and somebody stops you and has something really nice to say to you about you,” said Durkin. “I don’t know that a lot of people go through this world experiencing something like that. It’s one of the great blessings of my life.”
During his 43 years behind the microphone (50 tracks in six countries), the last 24 of them with the New York Racing Association, Durkin’s booming voice, his wit, his love of language and his flair for the dramatic thrilled scores of racegoers.
Larry Collmus, who succeeded the Chicago native when he retired at the end of the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course in 2014, said simply, “He’s the best I ever heard.”
Durkin’s work for NBC from 1984 through 2010 (which included the Triple Crown races) made the sport approachable and fun even for those who knew relatively little about the intricacies of the game.
So why would someone so expert at his craft walk away? His answer (much like the man himself) is both self-assured, and humble.
“I didn’t think I was going to get any better,” he said, “and I wanted to get out before it got any worse.”
The strain of performing at such a high level was severe. Durkin admits he was motivated by fear of failure as much as anything. When someone asks him to listen to one of his famous calls, he all-but winces.
“I still get nervous,” he said, “thinking I’m going to screw it up.”
Mr. Durkin has been plenty active since he detailed his final race. He is heavily involved with the Racing Hall of Fame, giving the occasional tour, and even playing Santa Claus at parties there.
He recently had a studio built at his house to facilitate various projects such as commercials and audio books. The one-time Eclipse Award Winner is not exactly the quiet, retiring type.
“As I tell people, I’m not retired, but I’m retired from calling races,” Durkin said.