Imagine you’re standing atop the world — more than 100,000 people, effervescent with electricity, gathered on the cement far beneath you. Silhouettes line the rails as far as the eye can see, looking more bird than human, from so far above — each from different backgrounds with different stories to be told, wondering what’s to come — awaiting the words dancing about in your very head, in anticipation of the unknown.
Imagine, they’re hanging on your every silence — awaiting the moment you begin to speak. Your palms are misty. Your heart flutters like that of a frantic hummingbird— all eyes forward, all ears, on you.
They’re in the gates. It’s go time. What will you say?
For you and me, this is an unrealistic, hypothetical situation — one which we are unlikely to ever experience. For Larry Collmus, the voice of NBC, the Triple Crown, and The Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, this is a way of life.
It’s more than a job. It’s more than a hobby. It’s a dream realized following years of dedication. It’s a love affair which was born on the grounds of Timonium, home of the Maryland State Fair, when Larry was a mere teenager. Helping his father run the sound system, he recalls his first summer in the presence of Horse Racing –
“I knew immediately that it was something I wanted to be involved with. Not only was I fascinated by the horses, but by the people — the different characters at the track. I may have been 15, but I felt like I fit right in.”
And so, as every adolescent hopes to find a place in which they belong, young Larry found a home among the personalities, as unique as they are endearing, which are so characteristic of the sport we have come to know as Thoroughbred Racing.
When he wasn’t at the racetrack, he could be found in front of his television, watching race replay shows on ESPN. The more he watched, the more Larry took note of the announcers’ styles of speaking, and how very unique and individualized each one’s was. It was then that he thought, “I think I can do that.”
Once it was clear to him which role he wanted to play in the sport of racing, he began honing his skills at local Maryland racetracks with the help of friendly staff members who set aside a special place just for Larry to practice calling races, and it was Chick Lang — General Manager of Maryland Tracks, who gave the budding announcer his first big break. “He heard me practicing my race calls and said, ‘We think you’re ready.’”
Ready, he was. Bowie Racetrack, now just a ghost of its former self, having been transformed into a training track after closing in 1985, would serve as the venue for the christening of a career that would take the young race caller to heights unimaginable.
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On June 5 1985, Larry Collmus would step into the announcer’s box for the very first time — it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
He describes to me this race he called more than three decades ago, as if it were just yesterday. I can hear the wonder in his voice — I can imagine the stars in his eyes as he recalls the way it felt…“The winning horse was trained by King Leatherbury, who is now in the Racing Hall of Fame. I was nervous as can be — my binoculars were shaking. I’m not sure how I got through it, but I did.”
Flash forward nearly three decades. As the track announcer at Gulfstream Park, Larry’s career only progressed. Just as he had spoken of announcers he grew up listening to, he himself developed a unique style of engaging spectators, both informative and thrilling.
In 2011, he would receive a call from NBC Sports, which would catapult him to heights even he had never imagined for himself. Standing in the announcer’s booth, Larry answered the phone, entirely unaware that he would soon be asked to call the greatest series in Horse Racing.
“They said they wanted to talk to me about calling the Triple Crown. My first response was, ‘That’s Tom Durkin’s Job.’”
Yes, it was Tom Durkin’s job, but producers would then inform Larry that Durkin would be stepping down, leaving the door open to a world of possibility. Just days later, he found himself on a plane to Manhattan, to meet with NBC. It didn’t take but a few hours after his departure, for NBC to call and offer him the job.
“Receiving that call was the thrill of a lifetime — just knowing you’re going to get to be THAT guy who gets to call the Triple Crown on television. Then, it sunk in a couple of days later, that I actually had to do it.”
And so Larry called his first Kentucky Derby, and Triple Crown series, in the Spring of 2011. He describes the experience as a nerve-wracking, heart pounding, palms sweating two minutes, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
As many of us did, he too began to see capturing the Triple Crown as a nearly all too insurmountable feat. Having been announcing the series for NBC for five years when a strapping bay son of Pioneerof the Nile came along in 2015, Larry was prepared for yet another year without a Triple Crown winner. He found himself silently imagining what may keep American Pharoah from winning the Belmont Stakes, just as so many had failed to win before him. As he always does in the big races, he jotted down on a piece of paper, a few possible outcomes, and what he may like to say should they come to pass.
But, as you know, American Pharoah went to the lead early in the race, and never looked back. As Frosted, who would go on to win 2016’s Met Mile in record-smashing time in what Larry calls the best performance he has ever seen, looked to make a move at the head of the stretch, American Pharoah dug in, and kicked away. He remembers thinking, “It’s happening.”
It sure was. American Pharoah came roaring down the stretch at “Big Sandy”, in front of millions around the world, and rained Triple Crown Glory over a sport which was afraid it may never see a Triple Crown winner, again. As he neared the finish line, Larry exclaimed in words that will never be forgotten —
“The thirty-seven year wait is over… American Pharoah is FINALLY the one.”
He recalls his first moments after the finish—
“It all came out exactly as I wanted it to. It was the greatest moment of my career — by a mile. Or a mile and a half, actually,” he jokes.
So, what were the first words he spoke after calling the first Triple Crown winner in thirty seven years? Well, let’s just say his celebratory exclamation was not appropriate for any of the three cameras he found were turned to him, immediately following American Pharoah’s victory.
“I was overcome by everything. After realizing the cameras were there, I just ran into a corner, and started bawling. I emerged thirty seconds later, and started banging on the windows — just banging out of sheer glee. It was pure insanity.”
After calling the first Triple Crown winning run in thirty-seven years, Larry returned to his binoculars and microphone to call the final two races on Belmont’s card. He remembers finding humor in realizing the career high he had just met, moments before going on air to call two allowance races, as the sun began to set on Belmont Park, and the drought that had haunted it for more than three decades.
But that’s the thing about his job. Whether it’s an Allowance Optional Claiming race on a Thursday afternoon or the Belmont Stakes, Larry is there for the big ones that we will speak of for years to come, as well as the little ones which we won’t think of beyond today — because for him, it’s not simply about the races that will be replayed on YouTube for as long as YouTube exists. It’s about the day in, day out love of racing — of being, himself, one of those characters that draws passerbys into the Sport of Kings — the same kind that drew him to racing long ago.
For Larry Collmus, it’s a life he had dreamed of — a life he had imagined — but never a life he takes for granted. He considers himself a lucky man — a man whose life and career serendipitously fell into place after years of dedicated, unparalleled work.
While he remembers thinking, after American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win, “I can’t imagine ever beating this,” I can only hope for more Triple Crown winners, and more record-breaking performances, narrated by the most recognized voice in Horse Racing…
…the voice heard ‘round the world.
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