If there is a single contest that can truly claim to be the ultimate horse race on the Flat, it is surely the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
No other event offers quite the same blend of quality, occasion, expectation and, not insignificantly, money. For over 20 years it was the job of Tom Durkin to convey the vibrancy of the America’s biggest raceday to televisions across the globe through his role as racecaller for host broadcaster NBC.
Durkin did so using a trademark style that made him the voice of the Breeders’ Cup. More than any other racecaller, the man from Chicago sounded like he was out there in amongst the horses rounding the turns and thundering down the stretch, occasionally his voice breaking into excitement, desperation, exhaustion and elation.
Here, he talks to Matthew Taylor about his six favourite renewals of the race that has become Thoroughbred Racing’s most coveted prize.
1987: “Two Derby winners hit the wire together”
Just four years after the Breeders’ Cup had been born, Hollywood Park hosted an unforgettable clash between Kentucky Derby winners Ferdinand, a four-year-old and the year-younger Alysheba. The race was the first time that two Derby winners had met in over a decade and, played out under the California sunshine, it lived up to its billing with Bill Shoemaker and Ferdinand holding off the late challenge of Chris McCarron and Alysheba by a nose.
TD: “The build-up to this race had all been about Bill Shoemaker, rider of Ferdinand. He was 56 at the time and a national icon and this was going to be one of his last major races. To get two horses in that finish was pretty special. When they hit the wire it was so close neither Shoemaker or McCarron knew which had won and Bill looked over and said “you wanna save” – which meant the losing jockey would get a certain amount of money from the winning jockey – the reply back was “how about ten thousand?”
2001: “Tiznow wins it for America”
In 2000, Tiznow had just prevailed over Giant’s Causeway in a thrilling finish to the Classic at Churchill Downs, but his defence had been beset with injury and the Jay Robbins-trained four-year-old arrived at Belmont Park on the back of defeats in both his prep races. All that, however, was overshadowed by the 9/11 attacks just six weeks earlier and if ever sport was needed to lift the spirits of a city, this was it.
TD: “I lived right by Belmont Park and the Breeders’ Cup was the first major sporting event to be held in New York after the attacks. My neighbourhood was particularly hit by what happened – 33 people from my parish church had died that day. At Belmont the security presence was everywhere and there was a lot of tension so we needed a performance to lift us. The race delivered with a spine-tingling stretch duel with Arc winner Sakhee in what turned out to be a showdown between the continents. Some might say it was jingoistic but, given all that had happened, it seemed to fit for me to close with “Tiznow wins it for America”.
1995: “The unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar”
Cigar’s isn’t quite a rags-to-riches tale – he was owned by millionaire businessman Allen Paulson - but his transformation from under-achiever to equine superstar became THE story in American horseracing in 1995. With a perfect season that saw him arrive at the Breeders’ Cup on an 11-race winning streak, his triumph under Jerry Bailey in the Classic at Belmont would prove to be an iconic moment, made so by Durkin’s perfectly-phrased closing commentary.
TD: “This horse didn’t have any rivals – he just kicked everyone’s butt! Because he kept on winning, Cigar was extremely popular with the public; he was almost a throwback to the sporting heroes of yesteryear. Originally Cigar had been a turf horse, and an ordinary one too, but I think a combination of the switch to dirt and fixing some issues he had with ulcers was the key to him suddenly finding form. At the Breeders’ Cup the concern was an off (wet) track and sure enough on the big day it came up muddy. But it didn’t seem to affect him at all and he just strode away from them; I couldn’t help but finish the call with “he beat the best the world could offer and even Mother Nature too.”
1989: “Sunday Silence in a racing epic”
The summer of 1989 had seen a great rivalry develop between West Coast king Sunday Silence and his East Coast equivalent, Easy Goer. Sunday Silence had won the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness in a spectacular stretch drive to nose out Easy Goer but had been denied a Triple Crown by his rival in the Belmont. The two met for one final time in the 1989 Classic at Gulfstream Park, Florida, in a race billed as the decider between two great horses.
TD: “The two were very different horses; Sunday Silence was a handy horse who was suited by a tight track whilst Easy Goer was a big, long-striding individual. Watching the tapes of their Triple Crown races I realised that Sunday Silence gained an advantage around the turns but Easy Goer would close the gap on the straights. So I decided to call the margins between the two as opposed to their positions in the race. Sunday Silence built up a lead around the turns. At the first turn Easy Goer was 10 lengths off the lead, after half a mile it was five, turning in it was three, and though Easy Goer cut down into that margin in a desperate final furlong in the end the track just played to Sunday Silence’s strengths that little bit more. The margin was a neck at the line, but the two still gave us all an incredible race.”
1998: “A wild finish to the Classic”
The 1998 Classic, run at Churchill Downs, brought together a stellar field that included Silver Charm, a Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Dubai World Cup winner, Skip Away, hero of the 1997 Classic, Belmont Stakes winners Touch Gold and Victory Gallop, plus Godolphin’s European Champion Swain, dual winner of Ascot’s King George. None, however, could quite match undefeated older horse Awesome Again, who came from a long way back to triumph in a thrilling finish.
TD: “This was the best field of horses that has ever been assembled for the Classic. There were eight horses that year that had earned $1m or more! I called it an all-star field and it really was. In the stretch they spread right across the track with Swain diving towards the grandstand and I had to pound out half a dozen names 100 yards from the wire. To see such a great field together like that fighting out such a finish doesn’t happen very often in a lifetime.”
1984: “Three in a dramatic finish”
The inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic had drama both on and off the racecourse. Staged at Hollywood Park, the race developed into a three-way battle in the stretch with outside Wild Again just edging out favourite Slow O’Gold and Gate Dancer in a thrilling finish that launched a stewards enquiry. The placings of the second and third were reversed but Wild Again kept the race to become the first ever Classic winner.
TD: “This would be my number 1. There had never been anything approaching what that first Breeders’ Cup was for American horseracing. A $3m Classic! It was the big race on a card with seven races worth at least $1m – the whole day was just an orgy of money! The story of Wild Again was incredible too. His owners had to pay $360,000 to supplement him into the race; it was a big gamble and they were effectively taking 7/2 on a 35/1 shot but it paid off.”
TOM WHO? HOW DURKIN BECAME THE VOICE OF THE BREEDERS' CUP
As racecaller for the Breeders’ Cup from its inception in 1984 up to the end of NBC’s contract in 2005 Durkin’s is a voice familiar to racing fans the world over.
But it is surprising to learn that Durkin was propelled into calling the world’s biggest raceday from relative obscurity thanks to a twist of fate whereby he literally found himself to be in the right place at the right time.
Durkin explained: “I had been the track announcer at Hialeah Park, Florida, and from time to time ABC and ESPN would cover a race from there. However, at that time I was 32 and my name in the business was pretty much ‘Tom Who’?”
“However, at that time I was also calling harness races at the Meadowlands in New Jersey and one of the regulars was Arthur Watson; he was the president of NBC sports and he apparently enjoyed my commentaries.”
When NBC bought the rights to the first Breeders’ Cup for $1m, Watson approached Durkin. He continued: “I never applied for the job. To be honest I probably didn’t really have the credentials for it but Arthur gave me a shot and put his reputation on the line for me.”
Short on experience, Durkin honed his technique in the Autumn of 1984 at Belmont Park. “I would drive over to Belmont and stand up on the roof calling races into a tape recorder as I needed more work calling thoroughbreds.” He said. “I’d then put the tape in my car and listen to my recordings and do a lot of self-critique on my way back.”
Recalling that first Breeders’ Cup, Durkin reflected: “There had never really been a definitive championship series. Everything was so subjective back then and champions weren’t really honoured on the racetrack. The first race that day was the Juvenile and for me the whole Breeders’ Cup concept came into focus when Chief’s Crown crossed the wire first and I was able to proclaim him a champion – no-one had really been able to do that before.”
Fortunately, the race day, which included an international triumph in the form of French-trained winner Lashkari in the Turf, was an immediate success. Durkin concluded: “After the racing was over I felt I needed a drink and I went downstairs to where there was a party going on, saw Arthur Watson and he just gave me the biggest bear-hug of my life!”
Durkin would go on to call over 80,000 races in the US - many as the resident announcer at Belmont and Saratoga - before retiring in 2014. In honour of his dedication to the sport, he was awarded the Eclipse Award of Merit in January 2015.
And 33 years since that first Breeders' Cup, 66-year-old Durkin is once again making the journey to California, he explained: “I’ll be at the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar this year, working at an owners’ seminar and I’m also part-owner of Untamed Domain who runs in the Juvenile Turf so I’ll be sticking around for sure. I’m a bit of a weekend warrior now when it comes to betting but I still love the sport and particularly Saratoga, which is within walking distance of my home.”
He added: “I’m now an Irish citizen as my grandparents were from there and I love going over there – I called the Irish Derby a number of times. This year I went over to the races at Listowel, which isn’t far from where my family is from, whilst my new ambition over there is to go to the Galway Festival.”
OUR FAVOURITE BREEDERS’ CUP CALL
With a minimum $1m on the wire for every race, calling the Breeders’ Cup is a serious business, but Durkin was never afraid to add a hint of humour to his race commentaries. One which deserves a special mention has to be his closing handover after the 1994 Distaff in which Gary Stevens scored a wire-to-wire victory aboard One Dreamer, which prompted Durkin to announce: “We have just witnessed a felony! Jockey Gary Stevens has just stolen a $1m horse race and we got it on videotape!”
Durkin remembered: “I thought it was a real possibility that One Dreamer could control the race from the front. She was coming in off a race over a longer trip, the Beverley D Stakes, and sure enough the fractions were slow - when you’re on the front of them as Gary Stevens was you’re as good as stealing the race”.