So much of horse racing's wonder lies in its narration. To read William Nack in Sports Illustrated or Laura Hillenbrand in Seabiscuit is to feel the thunder of the thoroughbreds. To hear Dave Johnson yell "And DOWN the stretch they come!" is to be transported right to the rail.
One of the sport's all-time best narrators is Tom Durkin, who has called Triple Crown races for NBC for a decade and has called hundreds more races all over the country since the 1970s. He was trained, appropriately, in drama, which he studied at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. Durkin understands drama as well as any sportscaster, as his voice builds with every gallop toward the wire.
But now it seems the drama is too much for Durkin, who is retiring from the Triple Crown because of stress. All the heart-pounding excitement he brought to millions has come at his own heart's expense.
"I'm a classic example of (being stressed out)," Durkin recently told The Blood-Horse magazine. "Genetically I'm built that way. It's like for three months before the Triple Crown races you wake up in the morning nervous and you go to bed nervous. It's as though you're constantly on six cups of double espresso. I feel very disappointed, but sometimes you just have to do the right thing."
Durkin is 60, and he will keep calling races in New York, at places like Belmont and Saratoga. But he will no longer be the lone voice in so many living rooms which buzz with chatter on Saturdays in May until the lock of the starting gate and the momentary silence of anticipation.
"I call 105 graded stakes races every year," Durkin told The Blood-Horse. "That's a pretty good workload and I enjoy it, yet I don't feel like it's the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series and the bases are loaded and the count's 3-2 and Roger Clemens is about to throw me a 96 mph fastball. It's really not so much just Derby Day and that race. It's more a feeling that stays with you and you’re sleeping two hours a night. At this point in life, you start thinking a little differently."
We're fortunate that Tom Durkin's voice has been in our heads for years, capturing the very essence of speed. But perhaps he's fortunate that the voice in his head has told him to slow down.