Kentucky Derby Announcer Tom Durkin Too Stressed to Call Biggest Races

Tom Durkin decided not to renew his contract after calling the Derby 13 times.

ByABC News
April 28, 2011, 2:26 PM

May 2, 2011— -- The stress of the "fastest two minutes in sports" appears to have caught up with Tom Durkin, long-time announcer for the Kentucky Derby. After 34 years as one of the most recognizable voices in horse racing, Durkin announced that he would not be renewing his contract to call the races of the Triple Crown.

"It's something I have dealt with a long, long time and the cumulative effect finally got to me," Durkin told the New York Times. "It's like you're getting hit on the head with a hammer, and you do everything you can to make it better -- you take aspirin and put a bandage on it, but eventually you got to take your head out from beneath the hammer. Life is too short and precious."

The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes make up the Triple Crown of American thoroughbred horseracing. Durkin said he would continue to announce other races, just not Triple Crown events.

"Those three races, though, are like being up to bat with a 3-2 count in Game 7 of the World Series," Durkin told the Times. "I had to get out from underneath the heavy stuff."

The stakes are high in Triple Crown racing, and Durkin was the man talking millions of vested viewers through the thrilling, albeit fleeting action. In 2009, he missed the Derby winner Mine That Bird -- a career blunder he said he wished he could undo.

Durkin is not the first professional in the sports world to succumb to the stress of the job. It's not uncommon for the pressure of the spotlight -- or microphone -- to build up over time, according to Dr. Simon Rego, a clinical psychologist and director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

"The clinical lore is that fear of public scrutiny is ranks above death for a lot of people in terms of things that make them anxious. It's up there among people's biggest fears," Rego said. "When it reaches the point when it interferes with your ability to perform in your job, connect with people socially or enjoy life, it's at a level where it's disordered and there are treatments available."

It's normal -- healthy even -- to be under a little stress, Rego said, because it helps people avoid threatening situations.

"It is an evolutionarily prewired gift," said Rego, "but the context has changed and the brain hasn't caught up."

In a job like Durkin's, where every second counts and accuracy is paramount, stress can hinder more than it helps.

"The irony is we don't think as clearly when we're in this state of arousal," Rego said. "It's harder to be creative."

And when anxiety starts to make things harder, it's worth addressing, Rego said.

"My rule of thumb is to not make a decision out of anxiety or stress, but out of preference," he said. "Don't let your emotions push you around."

Durkin said the decision to give up calling the Triple Crown -- a job that had become his identity -- was a tough professional one, but a great personal one.

"I am a racetrack announcer, it is who I am," he told the Times. "I call the Kentucky Derby. My profession's greatest stage, but now that is no longer true."