History is in the homestretch at Belmont

Posted: June 08, 2014

THE PRESSURE at Belmont Park early this evening will be felt from the track all the way to the announcers' booths. Larry Collmus, the voice of the Triple Crown, will be calling his first Triple Crown attempt for NBC. Tom Durkin, the regular announcer at Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga who preceded Collmus on NBC, will be calling his final Belmont Stakes, a Triple Crown call away from being able to say he has done absolutely everything in the sport.

Collmus took over for Durkin in 2011. Durkin, one of the great race callers in history, is retiring at the end of the Saratoga meeting this summer.

Durkin first started calling at Wisconsin county fairs in 1971. He got the job at Hialeah in 1981, was the Breeders' Cup announcer from 1984 to 2005 and has been in New York for nearly a quarter century as the announcer for the New York Racing Association.

"I thought that 24 years here at NYRA was enough and that 25 might have been too many," Durkin said. "It has been an honor and a privilege to have been given the best seat in the house to some of the greatest moments in modern racing history."

It was Durkin's distraught voice calling Birdstone the winner over Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes that so caught everybody's emotion. It would be a perfect ending for Durkin to call a Triple Crown.

His 1998 Belmont Stakes stretch call was instantly legendary. Real Quiet had the lead, going for the Triple Crown and a $5 million bonus:

"As they come to the final sixteenth, Kent Desormeaux imploring Real Quiet to hold on. Victory Gallop, a final surge. It's going to be very close. Here's the wire. It's too close to call. Was it Real Quiet or was it Victory Gallop? A picture is worth a thousand words. This photo is worth five million dollars. Oh, no. History in the waiting, on hold, till we get that photo finish."

It was Victory Gallop. There was no Triple Crown.

"I've been trying to get myself as prepared as possible for it, because it is a first for me," Collmus said. "I want to be able to come up with the right thing to say if the event happens. I also think it's important to make it about the moment and try to stay out of the way. It's basically coming up with a thing that would be most appropriate if it happens. I can't say what that is, but I have a good idea of what I want to do at this point."

This will be Durkin's eighth chance to call a Triple Crown.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime event for many people, and I'm working it that way," he said.

Beyond the Belmont Stakes, this is a once-in-lifetime race card. Well before they knew a Triple Crown would be on the line, New York racing officials decided to line up many of their best spring stakes races on Belmont Day, a Breeders' Cup-type day leading into the Belmont Stakes, with five other Grade I stakes and four more stakes on the 13-race card.

Beyond typical Belmont Day fare such as the Manhattan and Acorn, they will run the Met Mile and Phipps.

They also will get the amazing Maryland-bred Ben's Cat going for lifetime stakes win No. 22 in the $300,000 Jaipur and Parx-based speedball Favorite Tale in the $500,000 Woody Stephens.

The Phipps brings together the three best 3-year-old fillies of 2013 - champion Beholder, the brilliant Pennsylvania-bred Princess of Sylmar and Cotillion (at Parx) winner Close Hatches. On most cards, that is a headliner.

On this card, everything is an appetizer. Then, just before 7 p.m., 11 horses will gather in the starting gate. It will be one lap around old Belmont Park, the start and finish in exactly the same place, a mile and a half of dirt, two turns, one endless backstretch and one often heartbreaking homestretch between California Chrome and racing immortality.

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