By ANTHONY STABILE
“Anthony Cantore, call your office.”
If you’ve frequented a NYRA racetrack in the past couple of decades you’ve likely heard track announcer Tom Durkin, who will retire after the last race of the day at Saratoga on Sunday, Aug. 31, say these words at some point during your visit.
Anthony Cantore never worked for NYRA and probably never will. Cantore is Durkin’s childhood friend whose name he invoked at a county fair one night when he was tired of using the usual “testing 1, 2, 3…” associated with a microphone and P.A. system test.
I remember Tom telling me this back in 1991 in his booth at Aqueduct. I was 13 years old, finishing up junior high school and doing the first of several term papers I would wind up doing on him throughout my school years. It was the first time I was conducting a real interview, which meant it was the first time I would use a tape recorder.
I peppered Tom with dozens of questions and he sat there answering for two hours. I went home to write the paper and realized the recorder didn’t get a word of it. The next day, Tom sat there and answered every question again. Before doing so, he showed me how to test the recorder. I’m sure he wasn’t very happy with me but you never would have known it.
Until I sat down to write this piece, I hadn’t thought about that day for a long time. It made me think about my Anthony Cantores, how we’d sit around the lunch table in school talking about who we wanted to be when we grew up. My best friend, Joe Costa, wanted to be Don Mattingly. Stephen Davis wanted to be Jose Canseco. I wanted to be Tom Durkin.
My dad trained mostly bad horses at Monmouth and the Meadowlands, and it was at the Big M where I first met Tom. My dad is as Damon Runyonesque as it gets; he got to Tom and told him how big a fan I was. He told Tom what it was like to drive with me in a car, where every made yellow light was met with a patented Durkin “YYYYEEESSS!” and how he knew he’d run a red one when I remarked, “Too late, not enough.”
Tom invited me up to the booth, showed me the colored markers he used to prep his program daily, the binoculars he used to call a race, and then actually called a race with me in the booth. The only other things that mattered to me in those days were the New York Mets and wrestling, so for me, this was like watching Gary Carter hit a home run or Hulk Hogan drop the leg, only better. I was in awe for hours.
I would use and repeat Tom’s words and phrases whenever I could. They all helped expand my vocabulary. No one ran by me in a foot race, they instead “CAT-A-PULTED” past. My leads in Scrabble went from big to “insurmountable.” And how was a wise-ass like me supposed to know that my eighth grade Spanish teacher would get mad when I told her our confrontation over a missed assignment was “percolating” like a speed duel? Certainly not me.
The moments after the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic were when I knew, for sure, that my future would be in the sport, whether I was going to be the next Tom Durkin or not. I was the biggest Easy Goer fan there was and I’ve watched that race what seems like a million times and I’ve always sensed some disappointment in Tom’s voice that Easy Goer’s “one final acceleration” fell a “desperate neck” short of Sunday Silence, but I’ve never put him on the spot. Besides, it helps me sleep better at night thinking the disgust I felt in my heart resonated in his voice. I remember telling my folks that I wished I had a way to express how I felt, about the race, Pat Day’s ride and Tom’s call. They encouraged me to get into journalism.
As I grew older, I did what I could to learn as much as I could about writing and broadcasting, and because I was pretty much born at the racetrack, I had more opportunities to learn from the best and access to places, like the press box, others didn’t. I did well in school, but I learned a lot more in the Aqueduct press box than I ever did in a classroom.
I watched dozens of races in Tom’s booth, learned about the essence of writing and how to conduct myself from consummate pros Fran LaBelle and Ed Fountaine, and was well on my way. I graduated high school and went to St. John’s University. Though my diploma says my degree is in Communication Arts, I majored in Aqueduct and minored in Belmont. I started writing for the New York Post in 1999 and Tom was one of the first to congratulate me on my new job.
I’d add TV and radio to my resume over the course of the next few years but had to wait to fulfill my track announcer dream until 2012 when I began calling the Virtual Races at Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. It wasn’t the real thing but it was close enough for me. I couldn’t wait to tell Tom.
That may sound weird to you, that a 34 year-old-man couldn’t wait to tell a guy in his 60s about a job he has, but that’s one of the best things about Tom, for me anyway. I feel like a kid again when I’m around him. Part of me always will.
Through the years, those things that meant so much to me as a kid -- the Mets and wrestling -- they’ve changed. The Mets stink, they closed Shea Stadium on me, and though I’ll always be a Hulkamaniac, we all know now that Hogan was training, saying his prayers and taking a lot more than just vitamins. Horse racing, specifically Tom, was the constant. My grandparents had Frank Sinatra. My folks, the Beatles. Tom Durkin has provided the soundtrack of my life. I think most die-hard fans around my age feel that way.
He’s been there for the good, the bad and the ugly. We’ll never forget the “Doremifasolatido” and “AAARRRRRRRRRRRR” calls, the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!” or that there was “cause for Concern,” in the 1994 Travers before Holy Bull hung on in what Tom has described as the bravest effort he’s ever seen by a horse.
But those are the fun and exciting moments. They’re easy. Tell me if you want his gig when a spill occurs. That concern and sadness in his voice is real for horse and rider. Sure, he’s had the best seat in the house for more than 40 years, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded not being there for one or two, like the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff when Go for Wand paid the ultimate price and I wandered around the Belmont grandstand watching grown men weep openly. Tom held our hands for the rest of the day and pressed on.
I remember walking into Belmont for the 2001 Breeders’ Cup, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks. There were snipers on the roof, and two military men with semi-automatic weapons checked my computer bag and then rode up the press elevator with me and my colleague Dan Lauletta. It was the first time in my life I would have rather NOT been at a racetrack.
There was a pre-race ceremony honoring those who perished and an international flag ceremony showing our resilience. Almost everyone was on edge. But then, that familiar Durkin voice began to boom throughout the track, people got their program changes, and things settled down a bit. As the sun began to set hours later, Tom’s “Tiznow wins for America!” call in the Classic would become an instant classic.
I believe it was that year that I attended my first Tom Durkin Christmas party. Held at his home not too far from Belmont, everyone would congregate at Tom’s place for a fantastic night of food, drinks and, of course, Christmas caroling. And believe me, we caroled, complete with instruments. It took a year or two, but eventually Tom handed me the cymbals and I never relinquished my duties.
Led by Tom in his Santa suit and the NYRA bugler, we’d traipse through Floral Park like a bunch of Christmas pirates, stopping at other parties and random homes to spread our version of Christmas cheer, and, if I’m being completely honest here, to grab some of their food and booze as well. Most people never get to even come close to meeting their idols. I got to sing “Jingle Bells” with mine every year.
It was at the 2002 party that Tom and Fran grabbed me and told me it was time to do something about my weight. I was well over 450 pounds and they were both concerned. They had been dieting and seeing a personal trainer and were doing great. I joined them in their battle of the bulge and together we lost close to 250 pounds in a year. I’m not gonna lie and say we kept it all off, but I’m a good 60 pounds lighter than I was the night of that party.
For that, and a plethora of other things, I say thanks, Tom. Thanks for informing and entertaining. Thanks for talking and listening. Thanks for encouraging me to go after my dreams.
Racing will resume tomorrow but it will never be the same.
Enjoy your retirement. You too, Mr. Cantore.