Weary Of The Pressure, The Voice Of The Triple Crown Races Walks Away

Apr 27, 2011
Originally published on April 28, 2011 12:54 pm

It's called the "most exciting 2 minutes in sports."

But the Kentucky Derby — and the months surrounding that race and the other two legs of the Triple Crown series — were an incredibly stressful part of Tom Durkin's life.

So the man who's been calling those races for NBC Sports over the last decade is walking away, as New York's Daily News reported this morning. He'll continue to be the track announcer in Saratoga Springs and New York State's other major tracks, but he won't be on the air when millions tune in to see who wins the run for the roses.

"For three months a year [leading to the Derby and through the Belmont Stakes], I'd be walking around with this pit in my stomach," the 60-year-old Durkin told All Things Considered host Melissa Block this afternoon. "You wake up worrying and you go to bed worrying."

He tried drug therapy, hypnosis and — Durkin jokes — even exercise and healthy eating.

But he would still feel like he was on a three-month adrenaline rush.

"It's like being a baseball player," said Durkin, and "the Derby is like being at bat [when] you're down one run, the man's at second, the count's 3-2, [and] it's the seventh game of the World Series. It's that kind of intensity."

One call that Durkin says he wishes he could do over is the finish of the 2009 Kentucky Derby, when Mine That Bird came out of nowhere to win and he didn't see what was happening until the very last moment.

But he's skillfully called many, many other races, as this video posted by The Saratogian shows:

The Associated Press says that Larry Collmus, the track announcer at Monmouth and Gulfstream Park, is expected to replace Durkin on NBC.

This year's Derby is set for May 7. Durkin's conversation with Melissa is due on today's edition of All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-aired version of the interview to the top of this post.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

This year, a familiar, exciting voice will be missing from broadcasts of the Kentucky Derby and the other Triple Crown races: the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Tom Durkin, who has called the races on network television for the last decade, has decided not to renew his contract with NBC Sports. The reason? Stress and performance anxiety.

We're going to talk with Mr. Durkin about that decision in a moment. First, let's listen to him calling the final stretch of the Derby in 2004.

Mr. TOM DURKIN (Sportscaster): And Smarty Jones rose to the lead by journeyman jockey Stuart Elliot(ph), and they have taken the lead away from Lionheart. Farther back is (unintelligible), and here is the first undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew in 1977. Smarty Jones has done it.

BLOCK: That's Tom Durkin broadcasting for NBC sports in 2004. Mr. Durkin, how did you come to this decision to stop doing the broadcast?

Mr. TOM DURKIN: Well, just a general - you know, for three months a year, I'd be walking around with this pit in my stomach and almost a sword of Damocles over my head. You wake up worrying and you go to bed worrying, and you're just on edge. And, you know, the stress leads to bad health.

And I'm 60 now, and I just thought, you know, let's - let's just get rid of the stress. I mean, I tried everything I could to treat it with hypnosis, which I've been doing for 20 years.

BLOCK: We have some tape from the Kentucky Derby in 2009, when a horse came out of nowhere to win, Mine That Bird, 50-to-one shot that year. I want to listen to you calling the end of that race.

Mr. DURKIN: (Unintelligible) is coming hard down the (unintelligible) track, and (unintelligible)'s right there, too. Now through the inside, coming on through, that is Mine That Bird, now is coming down to take the lead as they come down for the finish, and a spectacular, spectacular upset. Mine That Bird has won the Kentucky Derby, an impossible result here.

BLOCK: You can hear the amazement in your voice there, but I'm wondering if that would be the kind of thing that would just give you nightmares - the idea that a horse could come out of nowhere, you can't remember who it is, who the jockey is, and you're missing a call.

Mr. DURKIN: Well, yeah, that was - you know, that was - of all the Derby calls, I think that's the one I wish I could have gotten back.

BLOCK: Well, everyone was surprised by that one. But I'm guess I'm curious if, sort of broadly, that would be the nightmare scenario for you that would just wake you in the middle of the night, the night before a race.

Mr. DURKIN: Oh, I have - oh, God, I have crazy nightmares. And most of the time, I just can't get to the announcer's booth, or someone has spray painted my binoculars, and I can't see through, or the lenses has fallen out of my binoculars, or the horses starting running on the ground.

One time, I was - in my subconscious mind, I was calling the Kentucky Derby, and a Norwegian cruise liner came down the stretch.


Mr. DURKIN: And I couldn't see the horses. Like, oh my God. Those are big ships, too. Can't see many horses behind them.


BLOCK: Wow, that's amazing. It is interesting that you are still going to be announcing at the track at Belmont, and at Aqueduct in Saratoga. Is that a whole different thing for you, being the track announcer as opposed to being the race caller for the TV broadcasts?

Mr. DURKIN: It's like being a baseball player, and you play 164 games a year. The Derby is like being at bat and you're down one run, the man's on second, the count's three and two, it's the seventh game of the World Series. It's that kind of intensity that kind of stays with you for a long time.

BLOCK: Do you think that that will be a bittersweet thing when the Kentucky Derby is run on May 7th, and you're watching not as the announcer but as a spectator? Is that going to feel funny?

Mr. DURKIN: I'm not the weepy type.


Mr. DURKIN: I'm the only guy in the place that doesn't cry when they play "My Old Kentucky Home." No, I'm comfortable with the decision, and I will watch it with a clear mind and probably 50 bucks to win on Shackleford.

BLOCK: So an open mind and a whole lot less anxiety, I guess.

Mr. DURKIN: A lot less. And, by the way, I'll be able to watch the Kentucky Derby actually sucking down a mint julep while the race is going on. So that's good, too.


BLOCK: Can't beat that. Well, Tom Durkin, we will miss hearing you on the broadcast for the Triple Crown races. Best of luck to you.

Mr. DURKIN: Okay, I hope you bet the winner.

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