Tom Durkin: Farewell to a Legendary Track Announcer

September 2, 2014

Closing weekend at Saratoga not only brought the end of summer and the premier race meet in the country, but also the end of the career of Tom Durkin. Tom retired from the announcers’ booth at New York tracks on top of his game and went out first class, delivering another of the great calls we have learned to expect and get from him.

In addition to calling the action at NYRA, Tom Durkin gave us many memorable calls of Breeders’ Cup races and some of the three year old classics as well. He mastered his craft and never lost touch with the fans and bettors, evident by his farewell speech on the track at Saratoga where he pointed out there were too many to thank individually but there was a special someone he felt obligated to. He said that person was sitting in the back and he owed it all to them. It was us, the players; finally someone did not forget the bettor. Classy exit, Tom, much respect your way.

Once again the NYRA stewards displayed the inconsistency in rulings we have come to expect from them. I remember a time in racing when you watched the replay of an inquiry, particularly the head on view and you knew the correct call and what was about to happen. It was a rarity for you to be wrong. That’s how it should be and with the technological advancements we have at our disposal today, there is no excuse for it not to be. The game is tough enough without having to endure inconsistent, subjective rulings.

When I covered this very issue following the infamous Rainbow 6 disqualification at Gulfstream, the track responded as if they read it, announcing they would be more transparent with their rulings. That’s a nice idea and it helps but it isn’t enough. To be clear, it’s not whether you agree or disagree with a subjective ruling, what we need is consistency and a reduction of subjectivity. It would be better for everyone, not only the bettor. These are the rules, this is how they will be enforced, and these are the causes for disqualification. Minimize the subjectivity and what seems to have become the norm: sometimes we leave a horse up because the infraction did not affect the race or cost a placing, and sometimes we take a horse down even though the infraction did not affect the outcome or cost a placing. I mean come on guys, seriously.

It started in the 3rd race Saturday in front of a large Woodward Stakes Saturday crowd. Mshawish, the even money favorite from Todd Pletcher was aggressively ridden by Irad Ortiz who found himself in a pocket turning for home and as they straightened away in the stretch. There was a horse directly in front of him, and a horse two paths or so outside of him. Irad moved outside and Mshawish accelerated to go after the leader like a good horse will. As he moved outside, he brushed the horse outside of him slightly. It was not a cause for a disqualification and had no significant impact on the race’s outcome. As those two horses brushed slightly, the horse inside of Mshawish came out a bit and forced Mshawish out a little further. This made it look a bit worse but still did not effect the outcome and more importantly, this additional impact was not Irad’s or his mount’s fault. As Mshawish accelerated to the lead, a second bump occurred between him and the horse outside of him but this was as much the outside horse’s fault as his. The inquiry light went on and the stewards reviewed what was just described. To the dismay of many bettors who backed the favorite, not that the odds affect a disqualification decision, Mshawish was disqualified and placed third. The call was very questionable and highly subjective. Worse, it was not consistent with other calls we have seen from these same stewards.

Later on the card we got to see more inconsistency, this time in the Grade 1 Woodward stakes. Moreno and Itsmyluckyday put on one heck of a show going at it just about the entire mile and an eighth. Moreno took his usual position in front under Junior Alvarado and Itsmyluckyday, wearing blinkers for the first time, stayed glued to his flank under Paco Lopez until they hit the stretch. As Itsmyluckyday drew alongside Moreno, Junior went to the left hand and Moreno came out a bit and brushed Itsmyluckyday. Neither Paco Lopez nor his horse backed down from the fight and the horses continued to brush and bump down the stretch. The inquiry light went on and Junior argued his case. Although these horses bumped more often and harder than Mshawish, there was no change to the order. I agreed with this call, but disagreed with the earlier one, but again it’s the lack of uniformity.

On Sunday we saw a bit more, just in case you were not confused about stewards’ rulings. In the eighth race, a one mile maiden special weight event on the grass, 55-1 shot Coordinate, ridden by Junior Alvarado shot to the lead on the outside but bore in nearing the wire and brushed a horse along the hedge. Although he traveled several paths to the inside he was clear when he did and the brush was slight. He was disqualified. Seriously? Is bumping allowed? Is herding allowed? To what extent is it allowed? How is it judged? How many paths can you cross? Do you have to be clear? How clear? All these things can be defined and judged objectively and enforced with consistency.

What a display of heart, class and tenacity Wise Dan showed in his return from a break necessitated by colic surgery. This horse not only refuses to lose but he refuses to even lose a step with age. Carrying top weight of 127 pounds against a good group, off a lay off since May, Wise Dan held off hard charging Optimizer to win the Bernard Baruch by a nose. Expertly managed by Charles LoPresti, Wise Dan looks on target for a third consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile try.

Competitive Edge made mincemeat of the Hopeful pretty much as expected. While the performance looked impressive, the golden rail he wound up on surely flattered him. Stonetastic was my early pick for the Breeders’ Cup juvenile fillies last year in the preview I did. She scratched early and didn’t compete. Saturday you saw why I picked her.

Del Mar closes Wednesday and with it we say goodbye to their controversial synthetic track. While the jury never settled on the pros and cons of synthetic tracks, they seem to be short lived. Keeneland opens soon with their return to conventional dirt as well. From a wagering standpoint, the change is welcome but if the horses’ safety is jeopardized I’d happily deal with the fake stuff. The trouble is I am not sure we ever found out.

High 5

Tom Durkin, thank you Tom and all the best.

Low 5

The NYRA Stewards, come on guys get it together, seriously!

Horse to Watch

El Kabeir, stone cold runner, as impressive as any two year old at the meet.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

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