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Race caller at fairgrounds here to retire
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Legendary longtime race announcer Tom Durkin, who got his start calling races at the Langlade County Fairgrounds, is calling it a career.

Durkin will call his final race on Sunday at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York, capping a 43-year career, the last 24 of which have been spent at the New York racing Association.

In between each of the day’s races, a small tribute will honor his accomplishments, with a larger ceremony planned in the winner’s circle, following the last call of his career, the Grade I Spinaway.

“I did say this is the day I was looking forward to least in this year’s meet but it has been so rewarding to be able to see so many people come on different occasions to show their appreciation for all that Tom has done," said NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay.

Durkin chose to retire one day before the close of the meet so he can spend Labor Day among the fans. He’ll be replaced by Larry Collmus this spring.

Durkin is known as the “Voice of the Triple Crown” and the “Voice of the Breeders’ Cup.” But before that voice was heard anywhere in those lofty circles, it was heard at the Langlade County Fairgrounds, back around 1971.

Durkin, a Chicago native, was a student at St. Norbert College in DePere in 1971, where he would entertain by calling mythical horse races, using his friends, including Antigo’s Steve Brettingen, in place of the ponies, at one of the town’s night spots.

“It was no secret what I wanted to do,” he said.

One of those friends, Jim Forret happened to be hitchhiking somewhere between DePere and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he attended school. He was picked up by Antigo horseman Marty Helmbrecht, then doing double duty as a racehorse owner and caller for the Wisconsin Horse Racing Association’s fairgrounds circuit, which centered around Antigo

Helmbrecht wanted out of the calling duties, and in the course of the ride, Forret said he knew a perfect replacement.

“They started talking,” Durkin recalled. “Jim said I was the assistant track announcer at Arlington Park in Chicago, which was just a bold-faced lie.”

In truth, Durkin spent many days of what he termed a “misspent youth” at Arlington, but never anywhere near the announcer’s box.

“The first time I ever called a race there was the Breeders Cup in 2002,” he laughed.

Helmbrecht, impressed, asked Forret if Durkin might be interested in some summer work. The pay wasn’t great, he said, $25 a day, but fun was guaranteed.

“When Jim told me about this I was jumping through my skin,” Durkin said. “Gas was only 20 cents a gallon back then so the pay was no big deal. Actually, if Marty wanted me to pay him $25 a day to call the races I would have done it.”

The truth came out at his first race, at the Fond du Lac County fair.

“Marty introduced me as the assistant track announcer at Arlington Park and up to then I didn’t realize what Jim had told him,” Durkin said. “I called those races there and the next thing I knew, I was calling the Kentucky Derby.”

Durkin has some fond memories of the fairgrounds circuit, including Antigo.

“I remember sitting at the old A&W the night before the races and all the guys in their hot cars would drive through,” he said. “We’d talk to some guy in a Corvette or something and ask if he’d be interesting in running his car against a horse the next day.”

It seemed a sucker’s bet and it was, for the automobile.

“We’d work up some friendly bets knowing a car could never beat a horse at 220 yards. At the start, the horse would be way down the track and the car would still be spinning its wheels,” Durkin said. “I’d be calling the race, hyping it up beforehand, making some remarks about one horse versus 220 horses or man versus machine.”

And he and his buddies collected every time.

Without legalized gambling, entertaining the crowd was key, he said.

“It was part of the whole thing,” Durkin said. “I guess that’s my nature. Even today, when ESPN or NBC want or need something lighter, something less about gambling and more about entertainment, I’ll wind up doing it. I like producing pieces that are funny and entertaining.”

Pat Frey, of Antigo, who ran horses on the circuit, said that even then, Durkin was someone special.

“Tom had all the horses’ names on cards,” Frey said. “He would take those cards and go off and practice them over and over again until he had it down. He also gave color commentary, which just added to the program.

“We didn’t know we had such a star in our midst,” Frey added.

Durkin ran with the fairground’s circuit for half-a-decade, living in Chicago and traveling north to Antigo, Jefferson, Wausau, Weyauwega and other spots on the weekends.

From the fairgrounds circuit, he was hired as a clerk by Daily Racing Form and eventually started announcing races at lower level tracks. He worked his way up to the Meadowlands and then the New York Racing Association and was named the first voice of the Breeders’ Cup when the eight-race championship series was inaugurated in 1983.

Durkin now lives near Belmont Park in New York.


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Tom Durkin high in the announcer's booth at Belmont Park.
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