For the past decade, his has been the voice of the Triple Crown, on NBC. But to hear Larry Collmus describe the call that led to the country’s most prestigious announcing gig in thoroughbred racing, he was certain it was a prank, as he sat in the announcer’s booth at Florida’s Gulfstream Park one day in 2011.
After all, dream jobs don’t usually track you down. You chase them.
So when NBC Sports executive producer Fred Gaudelli, the man also in charge of the popular “Sunday Night Football” broadcasts, phoned, Collmus was in for the surprise of a lifetime.
“I’m guessing maybe he wanted permission to use one of my Florida Derby calls for the show or something like that. He actually was calling to find my interest in taking over as the voice of the Triple Crown for NBC. I thought it was somebody playing a joke on me. I was very skeptical, which Fred kind of got a kick out of. About four days later … they flew me up to New York and I met everybody at 30 Rock.”
While there, Collmus said renowned sports executive Dick Ebersol, co-creator of “Saturday Night Live” along with Lorne Michaels, walked into his meeting with Gaudelli, excited to share news about NBC’s lineup of NFL games that had just been announced.
“We got this game, we got this game. It’s going to be great,” Collmus recalled Ebersol saying to his colleague. “Fred goes, ‘Yeah, absolutely. Dick, by the way, this is Larry.’”
Pausing for a courteous hello, Collmus said Ebersol quickly pivoted back to his football conversation, before leaving.
“As he’s walking out of the office,” Collmus said, “he turns back, and he goes, ‘Hey, Larry? Do you believe us now?’”
Collmus said he flew back to Florida after his meeting and was picked up by a friend at the airport. They went to dinner. Collmus said his phone rang while walking into the bathroom.
It was Gaudelli, with a job offer.
And, this time, Collmus had no doubts.
More than 30 Kentucky Derbies, Preaknesses and Belmont Stakes later, the 54-year-old Baltimore native has cemented his place as one of the most talented ever behind the mic, alongside retired legendary race callers Dave Johnson and Tom Durkin, among others. Collmus also calls Breeders' Cup races, some of the richest in the sport, also on NBC.
And as prized a job as it is, nothing quite compares to being in the nation’s ears when a Triple Crown-winning horse crosses the wire in the mile-and-a-half Belmont in suburban New York City, the final, most grueling leg of the series.
Collmus has been gifted two of those rare moments already – already, because when Affirmed rode into history, in 1978, there wouldn’t be another Triple Crown champion until 2015, when Collmus proclaimed, with a flourish and excitement to match the occasion, “And here it is! The 37-year-wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!”
Three years later, the racing world braced for another run for the ages with undefeated Justify, whose thrilling career was brought to a close in a crescendo of joy and wonderment by Collmus: “He’s just perfect! And now, he’s just immortal! Justify is the 13th Triple Crown winner!”
Sweet satisfaction, after being teased in what would have been his first chance at the historic call, in 2012.
Collmus was jazzed about a horse named I’ll Have Another, which had won the Derby and Preakness that year, and Collmus’ enthusiasm for what was to come was more than obvious in the latter race, just a neck separating win from place. At one point it seemed he might lose his voice, his chords straining with delight as the colts thundered down the stretch.
“Bodemeister’s in front! I’ll Have Another is bearing down on him!” Collmus reported. “It’s Bodemeister and I’ll Have Another in a dramatic Preakness! Can I’ll Have Another get there?! Here he comes! Here’s the wire! I’ll Have Another did it! He ran down Bodemeister to win the Preakness! And the Triple Crown will be on the line at Belmont Park!”
But I’ll Have Another never made it to the race, scratched the day before with an injury; naturally, a huge letdown for Collmus and fans coast to coast.
Some good-natured ribbing followed.
“We’re in the NBC compound, and Bob Costas is walking towards me. He says, ‘Larry, I don’t know if you realize this, but your race call tomorrow is going to take on a slightly lesser historical significance.’ And, the way he said it, I just started laughing. He has this way of saying things that just make you laugh.”
Ever the pro, Collmus concealed any lingering disappointment on the air the next day, giving narrow winner Union Rags a heart-pounding call for the three-year-old's highlight reel.
On its face, calling horse races sounds easy. That’s because seasoned veterans like Collmus make it sound that way.
In reality, it’s perhaps as challenging an assignment as there is in all of sports broadcasting.
Up to two-and-a-half minutes of nonstop action, nonstop talking, recalling unique horse names in a split second, remembering the names of the jockeys riding them, announcing speed fractions, reminding viewers the distance remaining to the finish line, keeping a watchful eye for a horse making a late move, and summing up the winner’s trek – all in memorable fashion.
By comparison, a football announcer might speak for, say, 10-12 seconds describing a play, before the play ends and an analyst goes into more detail about what just happened.
For Collmus, though, it’s just him, a trusty pair of binoculars and a vocabulary teeming with color, without being overly technical or more poetic than necessary.
While every race – from multimillion-dollar spectacles, to $5,000 claiming races at your local track – requires a fair amount of study by the announcer ahead of the call (and, often, it’s crammed into 20-25 minutes between races), it’s the Kentucky Derby in Louisville that Collmus says produces the biggest jitters for him.
Just another day at the office, with an estimated 15 million people clinging to his every word.
“I have to take (a sleep aid) the night before, because your mind is racing,” Collmus said. “You’ve got these 20 horses. You’ve got them in your head over and over and over. I’ll make flashcards with the jockey silks on one side. That’s what I use, and most announcers use, to identify the horse (are) the silks of the jockeys, because that stands out the most. So I’m constantly, five, six times a day going through those 20 horses with these flashcards. That’s ‘American Pharoah.’ That’s whoever. You just keep going through until you know who they are.”
Collmus says he knew this was what he wanted to do for a living while a teenager in the 80s working with his father, who installed the audio system at the Maryland State Fair. While his dad expected young Larry’s full attention to help with sound checks, Collmus was more interested in the horse races staged there.
“I started paying attention to the races, and then I started listening to the different announcers around the country. Back then there was no simulcast racing, but they had a weekly show on ESPN that they would show the big stakes races. And I would hear all those guys, and I started listening to the different styles. When I was up in the press box, I got to know everybody up there. I would do impressions of the different announcers that I heard. One of the guys, at the time the handicapper for the Washington Post, Clem Florio, said to me, ‘You should try this for real.’”
By 18, he’d landed his first real shot, working races at the former Bowie Race track in Maryland, eventually serving as a backup to announcers at other tracks around the state, Laurel Park, Pimlico and Timonium.
So long, college.
From there, he was off to Birmingham, Alabama, where he became the youngest full-time announcer in the country. He later worked at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, California, then moved cross country to Suffolk Downs in Boston (side note: Collmus admits he fell in love with that city’s sports teams, to the dismay of family and friends back home in Baltimore).
Over the years, his voice also became familiar at other tracks, in New York (Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga); at Churchill Downs (home of the Kentucky Derby); and, last summer, a short stint at Del Mar, near San Diego.
His longest-tenured post is close to where he lives today, Monmouth Park in New Jersey, where he served as announcer for 20 years, beginning in 1994. It was also there, in August 2010, that Collmus called a race that catapulted him out of relative national broadcast obscurity, a viral hit, with more than a million collective views.
It was the seventh race on the card and featured a pair of horses with odd, diametrically opposed names – Mywifenosevrything and Thewifedoesntknow.
And wouldn’t you know, it was those two who dueled to the finish. Collmus’ call was an instant classic.
“Into the final furlong,” he bellowed. “Mywifenosevrything. Thewifedoesntknow. They’re one-two. Of course they are! Mywifenosevrything, in front. To the outside, Thewifedoesntknow. Mywifenosevrything! Thewifedoesntknow! Mywifenosevrything, more than Thewifedoesntknow! Whew!”
His catalog of similarly catchy calls has grown thick with entries over the years, and even though he’s currently occupying the best seat in horse racing, Collmus is, remarkably, without a steady job as a track announcer. Says he needs the reps to stay sharp for the heavyweights he calls every summer on NBC. But he won’t campaign for any job with an occupant, he says. Doesn’t feel it’s right.
This summer, he joined the broadcast team at horse racing network TVG for a limited run as a co-host, though not calling races. This month, he'll call the 6-day Kentucky Downs meet and a pair of one-day steeplechase events.
Yet, after more than 35 years watching horses go ’round and ’round, painting fast-moving scenes syllable by syllable, Larry Collmus is worried about getting rusty?
When the gates open, and those large, beautiful animals charge forth, he’ll do what he’s always done – take you on a magnificent ride.
That's my take. What's yours? Fire off your comments!
Note: I'm a former correspondent for NBC News.