June 4, 2018
A horse-racing lifer, ‘the other’ Tom Durkin called thoroughbred races for more than 40 years. Last year, he made the transition from the announcer’s booth to the winner’s circle.
By Mark Vruno
Durkin smelled the roses at the '17 Kentucky Derby.
Fenwick alumnus Thomas Durkin, Jr. ’68 will be watching the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday (June 9th) in Elmont, NY, along with about 20 million other horse-racing fans and curious observers. Durkin’s legendary voice called some 25 Belmont Stakes’ races along with about a dozen each at the Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Derby (including 2001-09). Those 50 or so triple-crown calls are mere snapshots of the more than 80,000 horse races Durkin announced during a career that spanned 43 years.
And to think: It all started at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois. Between classes in high school, Durkin entertained his classmates 50 years ago by imitating Phil Georgeff, the famous Chicago horse-track announcer, in the locker room.
Durkin's 1968 Blackfriars Yearbook portrait from Fenwick.
“We had quarter bets. Guys would run around the lockers and I’d call the races,” he recalls with a laugh. Friars’ coaching legend Tony Lawless often heard the commotion and, on more than one occasion, enjoyed the spectacle taking place. “Mr. Lawless never told me to stop,” smirks Durkin, who now resides in Saratoga Springs, NY (less than a mile from the track), and spends his winters either in Naples, FL, or Tuscany, Italy. He retired his vocal chords from the horse racing scene in 2014.
Calling those 25-cent, Fenwick locker-room trots may have sounded something like this imaginary Kentucky Derby race from a half-century later, although Durkin’s voice may have had less baritone as a teenager. The video clip is from 2017, two years into retirement and two nights before the Kentucky Derby ran. Durkin politely refuses to rank his favorite race calls, so instead he offered this fictitious account that turned out to be prophetic: “Always Dreaming” did, indeed, win the derby last year. Durkin is part owner of the thoroughbred, claiming a small percentage. He also has invested in “My Boy Jack,” who took 5th place in the 2018 Kentucky Derby a month ago. “Jack is resting and not running at Belmont this weekend,” Durkin reports. “He will return to action later this summer.”
Durkin is part owner of thoroughbred "My Boy Jack," who ran fifth in this year's Kentucky Derby last month and will return to action later this summer.
At Fenwick, Durkin played football as a freshman; his older cousins were football players for the Friars. “My father wanted me to go to St. Ignatius, where he went.” But Mom won out, “and Dad made me play football,” their son says. Durkin also swam as a sophomore but says he didn’t have enough dedication and discipline to be a varsity athlete: “I missed a swimming practice on Christmas Break and got dropped from the team.” His sports focus shifted to having intramural fun on basketball courts and baseball fields.
He remembers himself as an average student and a bit of a class clown. “I was a goofball,” Durkin admits, “and spent my nights in JUG.” JUG, of course, is the acronym for Judgement Under God, also known as detention. “I wasn’t a bad kid,” Durkin insists. “I never got into any serious trouble.”
Another Tom Durkin
There was a freshman three years behind him also named Tom Durkin. “Back then they used to announce JUGs on the public-address system,” he says. “This poor kid would hear his name during the morning announcements and report for JUG,” even though he had done nothing wrong. “It was kind of funny.” Ironically, perhaps, that Thomas Durkin ’71 now is a Federal Judge serving in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
The elder Durkin’s locker mate in “the pit” was Greg Drevs. The two frosh boys hit it off and became best friends, even though Drevs was a St. Giles guy. (Durkin attended Resurrection Grammar School, then St. Catherine of Sienna on the West Side.) Nicknamed “Grubby,” Drevs convinced Tom to try out for the school play.
“At first, I didn’t want to do it,” Durkin says, “but then we agreed that it might be a good way to meet girls.” He ultimately was cast in a lead role for “The Bells Are Ringing” and found his dramatic calling, sort of. He went on to major in theater at St. Norbert College, a small, liberal-arts school in De Pere, Wisconsin, near Green Bay. Grubby was his roommate. The two long-term remained friends, rooming together after college, until Drevs succumbed to lung cancer 10 years ago. (Durkin is Godfather to one of Drevs’ children.)
Durkin was honored by New York Racing Association during “Red Jacket” ceremonies in 2014.
In college, Durkin fine-tuned his locker room bit, standing up on bars to the delighted cheers of imbibing audiences. When hitchhiking was still a thing in the early ’70s, a stranger in Green Bay gave him a ride and their conversation turned to the horse racing that takes place at county fairs in Wisconsin.
“I announced races all that summer and was at a different track every day,” he remembers. “It paid $25 per race.” Five years later, Durkin took a job as a clerk with the Daily Racing Form. “I wanted to be up in the press box!” he jokes. He kept charts at Cahokia Downs in Illinois (near St. Louis, MO) and the Jack Thistledown Racino east of Cleveland, Ohio. Then he heard about an opening for an announcer in Florida. “I sent in my tape and got the job,” he relates. It was the break for which he had been patiently waiting.
Durkin has called races at more than 50 tracks in six countries – from historic Churchill Downs, to Hialeah Park Race Track and Tampa Bay Downs in Florida, to those Wisconsin County Fairs and harness race tracks in Illinois (Hawthorne Race Course and Sportsman’s Park in Cicero, Maywood Park in Melrose Park). “Early in my career I worked seasonally,” he explains, “in Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio. I think I had 29 addresses in my first 10 years on the job.”
Durkin in his press box domain, with field glasses and the Daily Racing Form in hand.
Durkin says his really big break came in 1984, when he got to announce his first Breeders’ Cup in Louisville, KY. He parlayed that experience to gigs out east in New Jersey (the Meadowlands) and down south in Florida (Hialeah). From there he worked his way up the proverbial ladder, or down the track as it were.
“You get a reputation,” Durkin explains, and he had developed a good one for being well prepared. His success was paved with “a lot of luck and a lot of hard work,” he says, a career path part by design and part by accident. There are, after all, only so many of these horse-caller jobs in the United States, he points out, and they tend to come open only about once every 20 years or so.
He finally settled down in 1990 when he was hired for the top job in country at the Saratoga Race Course in upstate NY. Durkin stayed put for the next 24 years and became “the Voice of New York Horse Racing.”
The Fenwick Factor
Durkin feels he has been fortunate, but he also was very good at what he did. “No school can teach you how to call horse racing,” he asserts, but taking Latin for four years at Fenwick did hone his memorization skills. “Father Hren was the best teacher I ever had. He was a taskmaster, but he also was one of the most influential people in my life.”
Durkin’s career was saluted with the Eclipse Award of Merit in 2015.
Perhaps the most difficult part about calling equine athletes in a race is that “you need a good memory,” Durkin points out. “You have to memorize the colors of the silks and associate those with the names of the horses,” which change every 20 minutes. In a large race, such as the Kentucky Derby, that transfers to some 20 colors plus duplicates.
“The three hours of homework we got each night at Fenwick turned a fairly undisciplined child into a disciplined adult,” he concedes.
Curious fellow alumni can enter “Tom Durkin race calls” into an online Google search and watch your computer screen fill with YouTube links. You also can listen to his “last call” from 2014. Hear more of his mellow pipes on Durkin's website.