Behind the Mic with Larry Collmus, the Voice of the Triple Crown

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2015

AP Images

Larry Collmus couldn't shake the nerves. It was 2011, and he was on the verge of achieving a life dream, calling the Kentucky Derby.

The grandstand and infield harbored almost 165,000 people, 16 million more watched at home, and "My Old Kentucky Home" streamed over the PA system. It was too much for Collmus. His heart hammered. His legs quivered. He had to take off his headset.

The emotion is part of what makes the Derby the hardest race to call. It's also a technical nightmare. No other race has more than 14 horses; the Derby has 20.

So how does Collmus do it? How does he prepare? There's so much preparation, yet there's no real preparing for the Derbyness of it all.

For the moment, still with his headset off, he fixated on all 19 horses (Uncle Mo scratched) as they paraded past. He focused on the field, repeating their names one by one, over and over.

Archarcharch. Brilliant Speed. Twice the Appeal. Stay Thirsty. Decisive Moment. Comma To The Top. Pants On Fire. Dialed In. Derby Kitten. Twinspired...

He did so until they finally reached the starting gate.

Seventeen days prior, Collmus walked up to his announcer's booth at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida. It was just another Wednesday and a rather weak card of horses to call—nothing elite, nothing memorable.

The phone rang and he noticed it was a 212 (New York City) area code.

"May I speak to Larry," the man said.

"This is Larry."

"My name is Fred Gaudelli. I'm the producer for the Triple Crown shows for NBC Sports."

"Oh, hey, how are you doing?"

"We want to talk to you about calling the Kentucky Derby."

Collmus wasn't sure what to make of this. He had friends who routinely pranked him. It was no secret he wanted to call a Kentucky Derby. That's like asking a baseball player if he wants to play in the World Series. However unlikely, it's still the dream.

Courtesy of the New York Racing Association

Collmus' dream went back to being a teenager in Maryland, helping his father rig the sound systems at the Timonium Fairgrounds. During lunch at Mount Saint Joseph High School, his friends would hand him newspapers with the previous day's race charts, and Collmus would call the race right there in the cafeteria. He did impressions of the iconic race-callers of the day: Dave Johnson, Ross Morton and Trevor Denman.

At the track, with a tape recorder in hand, he closed himself in a room and called races into the recorder. In doing so, he found his voice.

Yes, this phone call was NBC, and no, the man on the other end wasn't kidding. Collmus said, "As far as I know, that's Tom Durkin's job." Durkin, then 60 years old, was the incumbent voice of the Triple Crown.

"I can't get into any details, but Tom is stepping down," Gaudelli said. "This is us, and we want to talk to you about doing it."

Collmus had a few days before shipping to New York for the interview, and he knew in his gut that the producers planned on asking him how he would call the Derby. For a sport with little mainstream appeal, several million people tune in for the Derby. For many, it's the only bit of horse racing they'll see and, of particular relevance to Collmus, hear all year.

Collmus went deep into the archives, listened to past calls, wrote notes, studied and found consistencies and outliers among all the calls he heard. There's no other Kentucky Derby, and if he got the job, there's no other Triple Crown. He listened to Dave Johnson, Mark Johnson, Luke Kruytbosch and, of course, Tom Durkin.

It was this entire hullabaloo—all of this nervous, frenetic, chaotic exhibition—that opened the vacancy for Collmus in the first place: It tore Durkin apart and he could take it no more.

Durkin is retired now and sounds retired. While driving from Florida to Saratoga Springs, New York, his voice, still quintessentially Durkinesque, was butter-knife smooth. There was no edge. He was a man happily in control of his energies at the age of 64.

"I wish I had thought of this retirement thing when I was 25," he says. "It's pretty good. I'm doing the things I want to do, not the things I have to do."

He records voiceovers, does an occasional appearance, gets inducted into that Hall of Fame, receives this prestigious honor, travels to Italy, Trinidad, Kentucky and the Breeders' Cup. "I play golf. Do lunch. Visit friends. It's all good!"

Tim Roske/Associated Press

But bring up the Run for the Roses and, "Pretty much any time anyone mentioned the Kentucky Derby, I got a push of acid in the stomach," he says. "It didn't matter what time of year."

His preparation involved graduate-level studying for an infinite final exam. After calling races at Aqueduct in Queens, New York, he reviewed the previous day's tape. He wrote down what he liked while always striving for clarity.

"I had a lexicon of words and ideas, some phrases, some specific things, some nonspecific things," says Durkin. "I would read that as much as time would allow." Time would allow perhaps an hour a day for these memory-branding irons.

There were the 20-25 horses that could run in the Derby, their running styles, jockeys and silks, along with broad storylines to consider. He put the silks on one side of an index card and any baseball-card-type information on the other.

Durkin set up a sheet of paper with columns segmenting the field into running styles. "A" for front-runner; "B" for very close to the pace; "C+" for very close to the pace, but not as close as a "B"; "C" for close to the pace; "M" for middle of the pack; and "T" for trailer.

"Then I would break it down to half-mile times," he says. "The Derby pace is always going to be fast, so I've got those fractions. If they were going 50 and change—well, that would never happen—but if they did, I'd be prepared to say that was the slowest opening half-mile in the Derby since Citation or whenever."

All of these hours of studying, production meetings, 20 horses, 20 jockeys, millions of eyes and earsall for two minutes of race time in a day 1,440 minutes long. The performance anxiety that hit him from the 1987 Breeders' Cup until he recused himself from the Triple Crown in 2011 was tearing him up, nerve by nerve.

On race day, Durkin took Inderal, a beta-blocker, to keep his hands steady so that his 15x binoculars wouldn't shake. He meditated, prayed, practiced self-hypnosis and received professionally administered hypnosis. These relaxation practices ramped up in the weeks leading to the first Saturday in May. Finally, in 2011, with two weeks to go before the Derby, enough was enough.

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

"I didn't want to deal with the anxiety anymore," Durkin says. "I think as you get older, that's harder to do. You're hitting yourself over the head with a hammer. All right, let's stop this pain here and take an aspirin. You're still hitting yourself over the head with a hammer.

"So let's try to do something more prophylactic and we'll put on a motorcycle helmet. You're still hitting yourself over the head with the hammer and your brain's rattling around. It occurs to you: Why don't I stop hitting myself over the head with a hammer?"

Should he pass his interview, Larry Collmus was waiting, arm outstretched, ready to take the hammer and run.

Collmus did well in his interview, everyone shook hands, and he flew back to Florida. He met a friend for dinner and excused himself to visit the restroom.

While at the urinal, his phone rang. Area code 212, New York City. He finished and answered the phone. "It's Fred from NBC. You got the job. Welcome to NBC."

With a volcanic energy, Collmus told his friend he needed to step outside. Twenty-five long years of honing his craft, missing jobs, always being told it's not your turn yet—a slow, grinding ascent up the mountain came to this.

"All that you strive for in this business just came true," Collmus says. "To me, that's the one thing, if you were asked, 'What would you want to do as a race-caller?' I'd love to call a Triple Crown for network television. Only a few have done it."

Collmus ran out to the sidewalk and screamed to the sky as loudly as he could so that the world could hear his voice.

Now that Collmus is a seasoned regular preparing to call his fifth Derby, he has settled nicely into his routine. The nerves attack him, too, but he partners with them and accepts them for what they are: evidence that this isn't just another horse race. It's better to admit it than to fight it.

Courtesy of Larry Collmus

Courtesy of Larry Collmus

Like Durkin before him, Collmus tapes an image of the silks on one side of an index card. On the other side, Collmus writes notes. For example, if they were for Dortmund, one of the 2015 Derby favorites, they'd read: BAFFERT/MARTIN GARCIA, SPEED, WHITE STARS ON BLUE CAP, PLAIN FACE/NO BLKS.

The last one means "no blinkers," the equipment that limits the horse's field of view.

Collmus remembers seeking the advice of all those who had called the race, most notably Durkin's.

"Tom, is there anything I'm missing? Is there any wild card that's going to cross me up? Is the crowd crazy loud?" Collmus asked.

Durkin didn't have to think long. He had done this for so many years and endured the acid punches to the stomach.

"No," he said. "The crowd shouldn't be a factor. You won't have a problem knowing all the 20 horses because they will be so engrained in your memory, so that part will be easy.

"Nerves too. Heart rate will spike. Hands will shake."

Durkin added something else, a piece of advice he never followed during all those iconic and memorable race calls: "Try and enjoy it."

Now, four years after Collmus' first call, he can listen to "My Old Kentucky Home" while wearing the headset.

In the announcer's booth for the 2011 Derby, Collmus kept reciting the field—Master of Hounds. Santiva. Mucho Macho Man. Shackleford. Midnight Interlude. Animal Kingdom. Soldat. Nehro. Watch Me Go—while "My Old Kentucky Home" finished.

He put the headset back on.

Leading up to this moment, Collmus told himself, "You don't want to be the guy who screws it up." He also didn't want to be too cute. The Derby speaks for itself.

NBC broadcaster Tom Hammond said, "As they load into the gate, let's go up to Larry Collmus."

There was no more time for nerves. Just 10 seconds later, all 19 horses in this field would erupt and Collmus would rely on the foundation of thousands of races he had called over the decades. But it was never this. How could it be?

They were all in line.

The gate erupted.

"They're off in the KenTUCKy Derby!"

Collmus never sounded better, never stuttered. In that "mad rush to the first turn," Collmus sounded mellifluous, delivering the field with ease. "Decisive Moment rides the rail in fifth. Nehro is sixth on the far outside. He's pretty close."

He needed to mention the entire field by the half-mile fraction in 48 seconds. Collmus was a little slow, maybe eight to 10 seconds off nailing the field by the time that fraction went up, but he wasn't hurried. He was well within himself with just over a minute to go, "As Shackleford leads the Kentucky Derby field into the far turn."

Collmus didn't miss a motion. He caught Nehro moving fast on the outside. He kept his glasses trained on the long shot Shackleford still clinging to the lead. Collmus had an eye on Animal Kingdom as he hit the three-eighths pole. The leaders straightened out with a quarter-mile remaining.

"They're into the stretch!" he piped.

Nehro challenged Shackleford, and Animal Kingdom came "ROARING down the center of the track!"

All the while, Collmus caught it all. "And it's Animal Kingdom and John Velazquez to WIN THE DERBY!" Every last call to action, the winner, the place, the show, the superfecta.

"Animal Kingdom did it," Collmus punctuated, before Hammond returned in relief.

Collmus' eyes were steady, but his legs were like Jell-O. He had no idea how he stood upright. His heart hammered in his chest, 200 beats per minute by his estimation.

Collmus turned to his audio person. "Did I say anything stupid like the Florida Derby? Did I say anything wrong?"

"No, I'm pretty sure you got it," she said.

As soon as she said it, Collmus hugged her and started bawling. The 5,000-pound weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He felt accomplishment and relief in equal measures.

"Holy s--t," Collmus said. "I just called the Kentucky Derby."

He has ever since, like the voices before him, grabbing us by the ears and never letting go.

Brendan O'Meara writes about horse racing and other sports for Bleacher Report. His work has appeared at The Blood-Horse and Horse Race Insider. All quotes in this piece were obtained firsthand.


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