Summer with Tom

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The title of this piece might work for a $3 romance to be found in the literature section of, say, the local Walmart, but it’s not like that at all. Still, it is a love story, of sorts.

No one could be more (dare I say) “responsible” for my becoming a full-timer in the world of Thoroughbred racing (New York racing that is) than Tom Durkin. As one destined to become a refugee from a humanities corner of academe, what could be better designed to suck me in than Tom’s wit, verbal agility, imagination and sheer love of language?

As I fell in love with horse racing in the mid-1990s, I also fell in love with Tom’s race calls. As a horse-person of long standing (with many gaps, some long), I was privileged to do some time on the backstretch as a hotwalker in the early to mid 2000s. I have ended up, by a circuitous route, as a Turf writer.

A vivid memory. One of my first summers at Saratoga Race Course, which I visited for the first time on a chance invitation in 1995 and thereafter as many times as possible, I arrived at the track a little later than I had planned.

Walking solo at the chain-link fence along the back of the paddock toward the Nelson Avenue gate, I could hear the announcement of scratches and changes over the public address system.

I had handicapped the card with care and knew all the names.

All of a sudden I hear The Voice say, “And in Race 8.” Pause. “Number 5.” Pause “Itch.” Longer pause, followed by a statement of grave solemnity, “Is scratched.” Another lengthy semi-dramatic pause. Then, even more solemnly, “Itch is scratched.” Honestly? I almost had to sit down.

Right there.

On the ground.

This gem kept me laughing on and off for weeks, well years.

Well, obviously, for more than two decades.

So, flash forward to 2014 when my summer home-away-from-home had become the Saratoga press box and my career had transmogrified from that of a professor of ancient Greek language, literature and philosophy into that of Turf writer, with the fabulous job of covering all things New York-bred for the New York Thoroughbred Breeders’ website.

Tom’s retirement. August 31, 2014. I knew it was coming. We all did. I entered a period of proleptic mourning as soon as I heard the news. But, you know? Tom’s calls had been a little lackluster, perhaps. Maybe not as crisp or precise over the past couple of years as they had been before. I mark the change from the time he declined Triple Crown duties because of stress. I think it gutted him. Just guessing. But from the day he announced his retirement he absolutely started pulling out all the stops again, perhaps even surpassing his wonderful past standards in those last few months.

Retirement Day. I dreaded it. What I never suspected was that I would laugh so much on such a very very sad day.

We all witnessed it. It was a lousy, wet, soggy, rainy day at the end of the Saratoga meet, but the clouds parted and the rain held off for the ceremony. I pass over Tom’s last race call – wonderfully broadcast with an inset video feed of the booth – as well as his rather gaudy “splashtastic” applied Condo Commando in the Spinaway, which will go down in racing lore.

After his last call, with a dramatic sense of staging that could have served as a triumphant scene from Citizen Kane, Tom descended from the booth and paused at a landing on the central stairs in the box seat section. He turned back to wave to his adoring fans. Then he made his way to the winner’s circle and began to press the flesh of those standing on the outside the iron palings, connecting to every single person hand on heart. The crowd responded with a spontaneous outpouring of love.

After the handshaking, the formal part of the ceremony began. Mary Lou Whitney attended elegantly in a chair close by; the NYRA brass made speeches and presented gifts. Tom’s emotional salute to the fan, the horseplayer, Saratoga and all of racing from the podium in the winner’s circle held all rapt.

But then what? I certainly didn’t see it coming, but apparently no Grade 1 retirement ceremony would be complete without a madcap episode of shooting T-shirts out of cannon from the bed of a flat-bed truck magically appearing out of nowhere on the sloppy track. The providential break in the weather made it all possible, but I don’t think anyone would have minded a downpour for all this. Watching from the winner’s circle, and muscling up to get my iPhone in position for photographs I would treasure, I laughed till I cried and spent the rest of the day laughing and crying in turns.

My title is “Summer with Tom.” When the summer of 2014 began, my plan was to try to immortalize Tom’s last hurrah as a racecaller after 43 years. I didn’t do a good job at all. The Saratoga meet makes extraordinary calls on NYRA employees, horsemen, stable staff, patrons and, of course, writers. I didn’t even begin to achieve my goal. Nor did I try to capture the essence of the Great Man’s visits to the press box before the first post or mid-card for a cup of coffee, a quip or an exchange of stories with a writer or two (always worth the eavesdropping, though). But I did manage to take a few notes as the days passed. They follow.

One thing that always tickled me in recent years was Tom’s witty-facetious, but formulaic, introduction to “Talking Horses.” It varied from day to day. You always wondered which one was coming. And if you were like me, you laughed every time, whatever it was. Here is a selection.

“Up next . . .

. . . another sibylline session of Talking Horses,” or

. . . the augury of Talking Horses,” or

. . . the handicapping stylings of Talking Horses,” or, a personal favorite.

. . . is it art or is it science? It’s Talking Horses.”

Then there was the erudite “…an aleatory session of Talking Horses” (which I confess I had to look up: alea = dice in Latin, i.e. pertaining to gambling [and I was a Classics scholar!]). Another personal favorite was, “Talking Horses. The content may not be appropriate for young and impressionable children.”

One rendition near the final day, set me to pondering: “Next, prepare for Significant Prophetic Activity on Talking Horses.” Think I to myself, “What an, odd, awkward expression.” Then it hits me: it’s an acronym for SPA. I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet the farm on it.

I conclude with some variata (some of them set pieces, most unique) that I managed to scribble down in margins of racing forms over the course of the 2014 Saratoga meet, gathered into a few broad categories.

 

Scratches and changes:

“The weather TODAY is just FINE, thank you.” (The day after one of the rainiest and most miserable days of the meet which was Day 24, Thursday, Aug. 14)

“Have some sharp pencils ready. There are lots of scratches.” (Day 9, Sunday, July 27: muddy, off the turf).

“So, from ‘happily ever after’ onto the changes for the fourth race.” (Follow-up on a winner’s circle wedding proposal [accepted], Day 25, Friday, Aug. 15).

 

Race calls:

“On a humid day at the Spa the favorite made you sweat.” (Day 5, Race 3, Wednesday, July 23, Got Lucky)

“Miss Electronica went right to the lead and improved her position.” (Day 6, Race 3, Thursday, July 24)

“…Snowbell waving his long white tail goodbye to them all.” (Whitney Day)

“Aaaaand . . . they’re NOT off.” (Day 24, Thursday, Aug. 14, steeplechase race, false start)

“Just a 2-year-old frolicking in the mud,” (Sunday Sonnet romps, Day 9, Sunday, July 27, Race 1).

“Just put ’em them asleep for the first half mile and kept ’em awake for the next five furlongs” (Electro Peg, Day 9, Sunday, July 27: early fractions, :26.36, :51.98, including an early comment “speed, if you can call it speed,” and later, “Now the tempo’s starting to quicken. The race is on NOW.”)

 

Clownish byplay:

“Direct your attention tu-tu the winner’s circle for the presentation by the Museum of Dance.” (Alabama Day)

“. . . honoring among others D Wayne Lukas and Allen Jerkens.” (Mock modesty in announcing the upcoming red jacket ceremony Aug. 22, Day 31, at which he was the third honoree).

“Who won the Travers? Jimmy Jerkens!” (Travers Day, when Jerkens runners finished 1-2 in a close photo)

“Angel Choir bumped Fresh Feline who bumped Jolene. Bingo, bango, bongo.” (Day 6, July 24, Friday, Race 10. Description of a video illustration of the reason for a stewards’ disqualification

 

I loved one final, ad hoc comment from between-race byplay, which I only captured approximately. The event was the weekly “Taste New York: Food and Artisans” which featured products made in New York State (craft beer, cider and various eatables). Tom announced between races that “The event today is Taste New York,” and ran through a scripted array of items, which actually ended in “soaps.” Realizing his script had made him say something utterly absurd, he added, “Well you don’t taste the soaps.”

I still love racing, and probably will continue to do so for life, despite much cause for worry.

The essence is the horses, horsemen, stable workers, jockeys and inspiring performances (sometimes in even in the most mundane of races), not to mention the lifelong challenge of trying to solve the handicapping “puzzle.” But I don’t think I will ever again have so much sheer fun as I did listening to the race calls of Tom Durkin. Nor, for that matter, do I think I will ever see as brilliant, talented and smart a jockey as Ramon Dominquez. I am probably not alone on both counts, but let’s face it. You can’t turn back the clock, so let’s just carry on with thanks to those responsible for making this so much a joyful part of our lives.

Sarah Mace is communications manager for the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc. in Saratoga Springs.