LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Larry Collmus wasn’t even old enough to drive a car when he made his first horse-race calls to an expectant crowd. He already was becoming more polished in the art, calling races as a teenager into a tape recorder from the press box at Bowie Race Track in Maryland.
But it was at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore that he found his most enthusiastic listeners. His friends, including now-NFL coach Jim Schwartz, would shove a copy of The Baltimore Sun into his hands and ask him to re-create the races from the day before. Between classes, they’d bet on races that had long been decided, but the drama of Collmus’ calls preserved the excitement.
These days, Collmus’ calls are eagerly awaited by a much larger crowd. For three years, he’s been the NBC announcer for the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup. Now, he’s been hired as track announcer for Churchill Downs. He’ll become just the seventh man to call the famous race at the historic track, and only the third whose track call will double as the national broadcast call. The other two? Chick Anderson and Mike Battaglia. Collmus knows he’s in great company.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun here,” Collmus said. “I am looking forward to this tremendous opportunity. . . . I’m happy to be the guy to get to call the one race that everybody wants to call.”
The 47-year-old Baltimore native fell in love with horse racing early. His father was a sound engineer and worked at the Timonium Fairgrounds in the summer.
“He wanted me to work in his business,” Collmus said, “but found out I was mechanically incompetent.”
Collmus never made it in the sound business. But he loved the horse business, and said he “decided that whatever this horse racing thing is, I wanted to be a part of it.”
He practiced at home, and was even known to practice race calls in the shower. He did odd jobs around the racetrack just to be around the game. He bought a pair of binoculars and a small tape recorder, and found an empty area in the press box at Bowie. There, he called hundreds of races, by himself, into that tape recorder.
He called his first race before a live crowd at age 18. That call went without a hitch, and he can still tell you the winner (Tiara’s Flame), winning trainer (King Leatherbury) and winning jockey (Alberto Delgado).
Two races later he confused two horses wearing the same color silks. Later, he found Bowie public relations director Chick Lang Jr. and apologized for messing up. Lang, who hadn’t heard the call, looked up at him and said, "You didn't say the f-word, did you?"
Collmus said he hadn’t.
“Then you did fine,” Lang told him.
A good rule to remember. Keep the F-word out of your race calls. Collmus has. And he’s moved up the ranks. He has been calling races for 30 years, and has been the track announcer at Monmouth Park for 20 years.
He became the voice of the Breeders’ Cup for NBC after the retirement of Steve Durkin, and has called the last three Derbies for NBC.
So it won’t be his first time around the track, as far as calling the Kentucky Derby. But as Cawood Ledford used to say, anytime you see 20 horses break out of a starting gate, it takes your breath away a little.
“The Kentucky Derby is unlike any other race,” Collmus said. “Because there are 20 horses in the field, you have to be completely prepared. But the biggest difference is if you are not nervous calling the Kentucky Derby, there’s something wrong with you. And I will be extremely nervous, even though I’ve done it three times. It is unlike any other race because of what you see around you — 165,000 people, 16 million watching on TV — you have this feeling that everybody is listening to everything you say for the next two minutes, and not only that, but for years and years. The last thing you want to do is mess it up.”
There’s no practicing for the Derby. There aren’t many 20-horse races to use to work out your timing and cadence.
Collmus says his guiding principle of calling races is first to be accurate, and second to get out of the way. He’s known for clean race calls — and I’m not talking about the absence of the F-word. He doesn’t like to use extraneous phrases, and is economical in his descriptions. His style is even and clear. His voice will rise when the drama increases, but he’s not big on adding over-the-top emotion, saying, “it’s the race that makes the call.”
“The horses are the stars,” Collmus said. “. . . I just want to be clear and accurate, and try to be a good storyteller.”
The Derby requires more of everything — more calm, more preparation, more focus. He said he’ll do some breathing exercises on race day to try to relax. My Old Kentucky Home? It’s a nice song, but he’s not going to listen. He doesn’t want to get emotional.
He’ll spend this week memorizing the silks and horses. The Derby is just one race, but it’s The Race. “I want those horses that are running in the Kentucky Derby to be my best friends, so by the time they go on the track, I don’t have any questions.”
That kind of preparation came in handy last year, on a sloppy track, when the field turned for home and mud had turned the jockey’s silks into a mush of gray and brown.
“In the Derby last year we had several horses with red and white colors, one of which was (eventual winner) Orb,” Collmus said. “And when they were coming around the turn, one of the things I try to do in the call is look back for any horses that are expected to be closers, especially of the favored group, and Orb was one of those, so I called the first six or seven horses on the turn, and then looked back for him.
“I remember saying, Orb is still fifteenth, but is beginning to move on the outside. And when they turned for home, I saw this, covered in mud, barely could discern the colors, but I could see red and white, and in the split second, and I’ve told people, I was eighty percent sure that it was Orb, and so I went for it, and I remember I gave the long ‘Orrrrrrrrrrrrb,’ and thank goodness it was the right horse.”
Having called the Derby several times, Collmus says he’s now developed a strategy. If NBC covers storylines in its pre-race coverage, he tries to work those individuals into his call. He knows there are going to be jockeys or trainers he mentions in the race, regardless of where in the field their horse is running. But there’s more.
“You have to have a game plan for 20 horses, because they all have to get a call,” he said. “And I’ve changed, I’ve developed a game plan over the years. I try to give a good picture of the start, as far as what happened, who broke well, and then stick to the top four until, and I’ve figured out now, until they get to the eighth pole, and at the eighth pole I start the one through 20. But I don’t say that a horse is eleventh, is twelfth, is thirteen, to me, that’s a waste of words. I try to say other things. But my goal is to get to No. 20 by the time they have run a half mile, and then I can give that half-mile fraction. The first year it took longer than I thought, so I realized I needed to start earlier.”
Those are the kinds of insights you get from experience.
Collmus finished his first-ever call of the Derby for NBC in 2011. He asked one of his audio producers, via the microphone on his headset, if he’d gotten through it without mistakes, without calling it the Florida Derby, or any other of the thousands of tiny mistakes that can be made without realizing. No, she told him, the call had been good.
“I remember it was as if somebody had lifted a thousand-pound weight off of me,” Collmus said. “The pressure was off. And I’m not ashamed to say this, I cried. I thought wow, I just called the Kentucky Derby. If you grow up, being an announcer since you were 18 years old, it’s the most exciting and nerve-wracking two minutes you can ever imagine.”
I can’t imagine a more wrenching time than the moments before calling the Kentucky Derby for a live and national television audience. The number of moving parts, the number of things that can happen, and the speed at which they happen, all of which require a split-second reaction and complete poise because of the audience. You have only two minutes, and they’re two minutes that will last a lifetime in replays and Kentucky Derby history.
It’s a long way from calling the races off the newspaper charts in his high school cafeteria. And it's more, even, than calling the race on national television. This year on Derby Day, when the bell rings in the starting gate, it’ll be his voice that fills the sky.
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