Collmus at home at the Kentucky Derby

March, 19, 2014
03/19/14
12:42
AM ET

When Larry Collmus took over the job of calling the Kentucky Derby in 2011, he reached out for advice from track announcers who had previously been the voice of the Run for the Roses.

People like Tom Durkin and Mike Battaglia told him it was like any other race.

Except ... that about 16 million people would be listening and hanging on his every word.

Except ... that he would have to pick out each and every horse in a cluttered field of 20 without skipping a beat.

Except ... that rain and mud could complicate things and turn some horses into identical twins.

Except ... that if he makes a mistake, he would hear about it for the rest of his life.

Yep, just a typical day at the office.

"For me, calling my first Derby was like a mountain climber reaching the top of Mount Everest," Collmus said. "It was an unbelievable experience. It was incredibly exciting, yet it was also nerve-racking.

"

I called the Derby, and I didn't mess it up. It was a feeling I've never had before or after any other race.

" -- Announcer Larry Collmus

"When it was over, there was such a feeling of relief. It was like someone lifted a 1,000-pound gorilla off me. I called the Derby, and I didn't mess it up. It was a feeling I've never had before or after any other race."

On May 3, Collmus will call the Kentucky Derby for the fourth time, this time in a different capacity.

Already the race caller for NBC's coverage of the first leg of the Triple Crown, the 47-year-old native of Baltimore was named Churchill Downs' track announcer in February, turning the booth into his office and the 140th Derby into a home game for him. Not that he'll have been at Churchill for long; Derby Day will mark only his sixth day on the job.

Perhaps a year from now he'll feel more comfortable in his perch high above the racetrack. Yet in calling the Derby, there's never a comfort zone.

"The more you do it, you get experienced at it," said Battaglia, who called the Derby 19 times from 1978 through 1996. "But it's never just another race. There's always the butterflies you feel before every Derby. That doesn't change."

For Collmus, calling a two-minute race like the Derby is a task that takes months of preparation. He said he begins following the year's top 3-year-olds in mid-February and familiarizing himself with them, just in case they happen to be in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

"Calling races at Gulfstream Park helps a great deal," said Collmus, who also serves as the track announcer at the Hallandale, Fla., oval. "About half of the Derby field runs at Gulfstream, which is a big edge for me. Then I'll watch the preps in California, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, New York -- anywhere a Derby horse may run. You want to get to know those horses as far in advance as possible. You don't want to start cramming a few days before the race."

Yet even with that much studying and memorizing, the most experienced race callers can be tossed a curveball by Mother Nature. A downpour turned Churchill Downs' main track into a quagmire for last year's race, and the globs of mud that were kicked back at the closers in the field turned some of the jockeys' bright, distinctive silks into a uniform shade of brown.

It also gave Collmus quite a scare.

In last year's race, the favorite, Orb, was 17th after three-quarters of a mile before making a strong move on the turn that was picked up by Collmus -- except he wasn't 100 percent sure of which mud-covered runner was charging toward the lead.

"There were a few horses in the race with white and red silks like Orb had," Collmus said, "and with the mud on the silks I was only 80 percent sure it was Orb. Yet I was sure enough to say it was him, and thankfully it worked out."

The relief in Collmus' voice as he related that tale comes from knowing what could have happened if he blurted out the wrong name of the horse making a winning move.

Durkin, at 63, is still considered among the gold standard in track announcers. The primary track announcer at the three New York Racing Association tracks since 1990, he called the Derby on NBC from 2001 to 2010 and is known for authoring some of the sport's best and most famous calls in a fabulously successful career that has also included calling the Breeders' Cup from 1984 through 2005.

"

I was disappointed in myself and my failure to deal with the pressure, but I did everything I could. I tried hypnosis, and dieting and exercise, and moderate pharmaceuticals.

" -- Announcer Tom Durkin

Yet in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, Durkin experienced a race caller's nightmare. He didn't see 50-1 shot Mine That Bird making a winning move along the rail and never mentioned him in the stretch run until he was already three lengths clear of the field and drawing off to what a stunned Durkin called "an impossible result."

"People tend to expand on your mistakes better than your success," Durkin said. "But that's human nature. I don't begrudge anyone that."

As human as it may be to err, the 2009 Derby only heighted the intense pressure Durkin already felt every time he called the Derby. He called the race one more time and then, with no qualms or regrets, decided to step down.

"The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports?" For Durkin, the Derby was "a tension convention."

"I just didn't want to deal with the pressure anymore," Durkin said. "I love my day job of calling races and I struggled with the decision, but I finally said to myself 'let it go.'

"I was disappointed in myself and my failure to deal with the pressure, but I did everything I could. I tried hypnosis, and dieting and exercise, and moderate pharmaceuticals. But in the end, I just didn't want to deal with it anymore. Your wealth is your health."

So Durkin walked away, knowing that even though he will be remembered for so many classic calls and unforgettable phrases, one race in 2009 will always be in the background.

"With a race like the Derby," he said, "you have one shot to get it right. If you screw up, when they bury you they give you a granite headstone that says, 'Here lies Tom Durkin. He screwed up the Derby.'"

Battaglia, who lived in the same pressure cooker, was one of Durkin's many friends who supported his decision to steer clear of Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. With a laugh, Durkin said only his accountant second guessed him.

"I believe it would have been easier for me than Tom to deal with that mistake because of our personalities," Battaglia said. "Tom took everything to heart. It really bothered him that he didn't pick up Mine That Bird. He's a perfectionist, while I let things roll off my back. Tom can find faults in calls that are flawless because he wants to be perfect; but you'll never be perfect."

Battaglia had his own scare in 1983 on a dark afternoon while a horse named, ironically enough, Sunny's Halo forged to the front.

"It was getting dark, and I knew Sunny's Halo was on the lead, and I knew who were the two horses right alongside him," said Battaglia, who labeled his first Derby call, the famed Affirmed/Alydar showdown in 1978, as a "baptism under fire." "If someone else had made a move on the turn, I was in big trouble. I would not have known who it was. I was lucky no one else made move until the stretch when I could see better."

It's the residue of that all-too-consuming mix of pressure, nerves and excitement that left Durkin with his biggest regret about all those years and helped him to formulate the most cogent advice he can offer Collmus and anyone who joins that select fraternity of Kentucky Derby race callers.

"I would tell them to try to enjoy it," Durkin said. "I can't honestly say I enjoyed it. I wish I could have enjoyed the experience more. It was just a little too much like work for me."

On May 3, it will be Collmus' turn once again to experience the crucible of pressure built into a two-minute race that will be replayed for decades to come. It will not be a new experience for him -- but nor will any measure of familiarity temper the wild emotions that he has felt the past three years.

"It really doesn't get easier. It's still the Derby. It's still an unbelievable thrill," Collmus said. "There's no way you cannot be nervous about calling it. You'd have to be a robot to be unemotional."

Of course, you would. It's not just any race. It's the Kentucky Derby.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.

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