Racing: Fast talking is easy for the Village voice

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The Independent Online
Tom Durkin's unique commentaries have enlivened every Breeders' Cup meeting, even though he has required hypnosis to conquer his nerves. His training for the big day excludes alcohol, but as Richard Edmondson, in Los Angeles, discovers the post-race ritual makes up for the abstinence.

We're not the same in European and American racing but nowhere is the difference quite so pointed than in the technique of race commentary. Britain has Peter O'Sullevan, who employs pauses so protracted that you sometimes wonder if he has popped to the village shop for a jar of chutney. His counterpart over the pond is Tom Durkin, who can hold his breath as long as a sperm whale and deliver the contents of an entire dictionary before you can say "down the stretch they come".

Durkin, 45, a former harness-racing announcer at the Meadowlands track in New Jersey, was just beginning to get a television break when he was called up for the inaugural Breeders' Cup here at Hollywood Park in 1984. He has not missed one since.

The man from Chicago always changes his diet in the autumn to salubrious foodstuffs and alcohol-free beverages. Come Breeders' Cup time he has a six-pack stomach, though his natural bear-size physique makes it appear the six have been sent down the throat into his tummy. "I just like to feel good physically before I do the show, but I do have a vexing problem with my weight," he said yesterday. "I just try to do the right thing for a while."

On his very first call at the Breeders' Cup, Durkin though it had been his luck to commentate just at the same time as an earthquake struck Inglewood. His binoculars started to shake violently. Then he realised the tremor was being caused by his hands. It is odd to consider that this most fluent of performers almost had to be led away a jibbering wreck at one stage, that his career was rescued from tension by hypnosis therapy. "I still get pretty nervous, but only to the point where it is a good thing, because it's a problem when you're not a little nervous," he said. "There's a lot of people listening out there and it's very easy to make a mistake."

Durkin did get through that first Breeders' Cup and rewarded himself with a beer at the nearest outlet. In his smog of relief, Durkin left his binoculars at the door with two nice, young men who were wearing earplugs. They explained they would soon have to leave as they were looking after someone in the room, Gerald Ford, President of the United States. Our man looked up to find Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire and Cary Grant also in his close proximity.

If by Breeders' Cup day he is the mild-mannered racecaller Tom Durkin, our commentator becomes the city's unbridled carouser by night. He may not have had a drink for several weeks, but he appears to log the missed ones and work throught them all diligently on that Saturday night each year. The Durkin post-Breeders'-Cup party is an extraordinary function that makes an Oliver Reed bash sombre by comparison.

The commentator and his college friends dress up on stage as the Village People (our man as Sitting Bull) and deliver YMCA. They touch and revere the icons collected from previous Breeders' Cups: posters and something which resembles a gold tablecloth. Tom's buddy, Grubby, is turned upside down and carried above the shoulders until he is Dancing On The Ceiling, which is the Lionel Ritchie ditty playing at the time. Durkin himself does a phantom race call, which is always won by Tough Betty, the horse named after his 82-year-old mother. And they drink.

To close the show, Tom Durkin skates across a polished floor on his tummy, like a penguin sliding down an ice floe. It is believed that Peter O'Sullevan performs a somewhat different exit.

It was Durkin who announced the draw yesterday, in a pulling of the pills ceremony which suggested that the connections of Britain's Carmine Lake would not be having a party of their own on Saturday night. Peter Chapple- Hyam's filly drew the coffin box of Noi1 for the Sprint and is out to a top-priced 25-1 (with William Hill) from 16-1. And for the cynics who care to believe that the further you travel from home the worse draw you get there was the added fuel of Pas De Reponse's Noi3 draw for France(8- 1 from 7-1 with Hills). Royal Applause, though, drew a perfect gate eight for Barry Hills.

The belief in the Mile is that if you are out on the track then you are out of consideration. The draw was kind to the Europeans here with Decorated Hero (down to 16-1 generally) and Frankie Dettori placed next to the rail, while France's Spinning World (top-priced 9-4, Coral) was put in Noi3 stall.

Singspiel's pulse stopped beating yesterday, but it did not mark the termination of his life, rather the end of the throbbing in his leg. There was no pain in his draw for the Turf either, for which he was allocated berth five. The little horse was out on the track for a gentle canter and such is his allure that the viewing platforms were crammed with workwatchers witnessing little more than a morning stretch.