Monday, September 1, 2014


Race Caller Tom Durkin Spins Away To Retirement After A “Splashtastic” Career
By  Rob Fundter, aka. Amateurcapper

The career of race caller Tom Durkin came to an end Sunday afternoon, August 31 at Saratoga Race Course amid gray skies and rain, symbolic of the mood and tears of a grateful industry and fan base.  It is fitting that Durkin, who studied Drama in college before embarking on a 43 year love affair with thoroughbred racing, has the opportunity to take a curtain call on his own terms.

In no other industry, especially calling the action of a horse race, are patrons quick to point out things done wrong as opposed to praising what was done right.  Jockeys and trainers do well by losing 80% of the races they compete in.  Imagine Durkin getting the call wrong eight times in a 10 race card?  Aiming for perfection over the course of 80,000 plus races, in nine different states including mixed meets at Wisconsin county fairs in summers early in the 1070’s, took a toll on Durkin.

In 2011 he resigned from his contract with NBC Sports, for whom he called the Breeders Cup World Thoroughbred Championship races since the inaugural running in 1984 and countless Triple Crown races, citing stress. 

His career could loosely be compared to Bill Cosby doing his stand-up comedy act, not just on weekends but an average of five days a week.  Cosby could rehearse and perform the exact routine during a year of touring, with only the audience changing on a nightly basis.  Week in and week out for more than four decades, Durkin memorized the silks worn by the jockeys and handicapped the races to get a general sense of what would unfold.  As soon as the gates opened, chaos could force him to use the skills of improvisation he may have learned in college. 

Often, Durkin gave the moment more than it was on it’s own...he made it more than a horse race.  Here are a few of my favorite calls:
Ferdinand/Alysheba 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic

Alysheba1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic

Personal Ensign/Winning Colors 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff

Sunday Silence/Easy Goer 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic

Holy Bull 1994 Travers Stakes

Durkin was a fan of the game, but it was hidden in the professionalism of his calls.  He shared the exhasperation of over 120,000 fans and many more at home or wagering off track, through his voice in the final yards of the 2004 Belmont Stakes:

On Sunday, weather threw an already emotional day into turmoil.  Durkin would not be deterred, mustering yet another day of flawless race calling into a compelling final act to his illustrious career in the Grade 1 Spinaway.  Going forward he will not become a Condo Commando, the name of the filly who won the race and what retirees are wont to turn into.  Durkin will continue living in Saratoga Springs, New York, riding his signature scooter, and enjoying a “splashtastic” retirement. 

Fittingly the rain stopped before Durkin stoically addressed the adoring crowd at the ceremony for him at Saratoga, the weight of the moment hit as he uttered, “The person that I owe an inexpressible gratitude is you, the racing fan, the horse player. Thank you.”

On Labor Day, Durkin will begin his retirement by speaking with fans, signing memorabilia, but more importantly joining the masses…as a racing fan. 

Farewell to the indefatigableunflappableincomparableDURKIN!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

THE X-FACTOR - Hardest Core’s Arlington Million: All Heart?

HARDEST CORE decisively turned back 2013 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner MAGICIAN in the Arlington Million August 16, despite the troubled castration which nearly cost him his life and perhaps as a result of the training methods of a conditioner known more for steeplechase racing.  

After he won I wondered if there was more to the gelding’s form reversal since being purchased by Andrew Bentley Stables, LLC and transferred to the Edward Graham barn?

The literal “X” factor in breeding could be the “large heart” phenomenon, a genetic anomaly found in SECRETARIAT’s massive 22 ½ pound heart.  The ordinary equine heart weighs about eight pounds.  A larger than normal heart in a thoroughbred is a huge advantage.  SECRETARIAT would have been able to pump more than twice the oxygenated blood than his peers.  At 1 ½ miles in the Belmont Stakes, he was able to run an astounding average of 12 second furlongs stopping the clock in an impossible-to-fathom 2:24 and won the race by an astounding 31 lengths.

The genetic anomaly that assisted SECRETARIAT is attached to the “X” chromosome which helps determine sex in a thoroughbred. Males carry a “XY” combination whereas females exhibit a “XX” gene system.  Diving into HARDEST CORE’s pedigree I looked for stamina clues which could explain his wins at 1 ¼ and 1 ½ miles this year. 

Immediately my eye was drawn to PRINCEQUILLO, the sire believed to have transferred the large heart to SECRETARIAT through his daughter SOMETHINGFABULOUS.  PRINCEQUILLO is also the sire of HARDEST CORE’s third dam LUQUILLO.  She produced 1969’s second ranked juvenile HIGH ECHELON, winner of the Futurity Stakes (6.5f) and Pimlico-Laurel Futurity (8.5f) at two.  HIGH ECHELON was also a winner of the Belmont Stakes...
...along with a third place finish behind DUST COMMANDER in the Kentucky Derby at three.

LUQUILLO’s daughter GILDED LILLY produced 1992 Champion Juvenile GILDED TIME and his ½ sister LILLYBUSTER.  LILLYBUSTER is HARDEST CORE’s dam, also producer of Darley’s multiple stakes placed turf router CALLA LILLY.  CALLA LILLY’s only foal is 5y.o. SIDE ROAD, second in the G.2 Elkhorn at 12f over the Keeneland turf and the listed John’s Call S. at 13f on sod at Saratoga.  If the large heart remained recessive in LILLYBUSTER, as it seemed to in CALLA LILLY, her male offspring of which HARDEST CORE is the best of three, had the best chance of using it for success on track.

However, PRINCEQUILLO was not the only possible contributor to the potential “large heart” in HARDEST CORE.  MAHMOUD, thought to be one of four sources passing along potentially large hearts (along with PRINCEQUILLO, WAR ADMIRAL, and BLUE LARKSPUR), is also found in the dam line of the 2014 Arlington Million winner.

Research suggests a “zig-zag” pattern passes the large heart gene from the sire to his daughter, and she to her son.  There’s a possibility that GILDED LILLY was a “double copy” mare, carrying the large heart on “X” chromosomes from both her sire WHAT A PLEASURE, produced by the MAHMOUD dam GREY FLIGHT, and her dam LUQUILLO.

So what about sire HARD SPUN’s contribution as a G.1 winner of the King’s Bishop at 7f, along with seconds in the G.1 Kentucky Derby...
...and G.1 Breeders’ Cup Classic?

He may have inherited the ability to stretch his ample speed to 10 furlongs because of a recessive trait along his dam line.  Third dam LUIANA may have inherited stamina from her sire, British 2000 Guineas winner MY BABU, who himself traces back to MAHMOUD’s second dam MUMTAZ BEGUM.  LUIANA produced 1974 Champion 3y.o. LITTLE CURRENT (winner of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes).

If HARDEST CORE had not been purchased by Bentley Stables, gelded, and transferred to Graham, who employs an English style of training involving jogs on roads and gallops up and down hills, he may never have realized his true potential.

However, when considering the many factors contributing to HARDEST CORE’s success in 2014, remember that the best training regimens are only as good as the equines performing them.  Absent diagnostic proof, I'm left to believe that the Arlington Million win by HARDEST CORE may simply have been all heart.