Announcer relishes role as voice of Kentucky Derby
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — From his perch with a panoramic view of the world’s most famous racetrack, the new voice of Churchill Downs will sit out one of the most anticipated moments of the tradition-soaked Kentucky Derby.
Larry Collmus will try to tune out “My Old Kentucky Home” while the crowd of 160,000-plus sings along and the thoroughbreds take to the Churchill Downs track. The veteran announcer says it gives him chills, and he wants to avoid being overtaken by emotion.
“I don’t want that feeling that I used to get, because it’s a distraction,” he said. “The last thing I need is that leading up to the race.
“So I’ll introduce ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ but I won’t listen to it.”
Collmus, 47, has called the past three Derbys for millions of people watching on NBC Sports, but this will be the first time his voice will be heard by the thousands at the track for the 140th Kentucky Derby on May 3. The previous track announcer stepped aside last year.
Collmus has three decades of experience and his crisp cadence is familiar to many horse racing fans. He will continue as the race caller for the network on its telecasts of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup.
He is just the third announcer to call the Derby for both the track crowd and millions watching on TV.
“He will take his place on the brief, but very distinguished and accomplished, roster of announcers that have served as the voice of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks,” the race at Churchill for 3-year-old fillies the day before the Derby, said Churchill Downs track President Kevin Flanery.
In his first Derby call for NBC, Collmus excitedly declared that the horse Animal Kingdom was “roaring down the center of the track” en route to victory in 2011.
“It is the most exciting and nerve-wracking two minutes you could ever imagine,” he said.
Collmus honed his announcing skills far from the media glare. He started as an assistant announcer on the racing circuit in his native Maryland. By age 20, he was hired as track announcer at Birmingham Turf Club in Alabama, where he called doubleheader race cards on Saturdays — 10 races in the afternoon and 10 more at night.
During his stint at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts, snow sometimes had to be shoveled off the walkway to the announcer’s booth, he said. He went on to call races for 20 years at Monmouth Park in New Jersey and still serves as track announcer during the winter meet at Gulfstream Park in Florida.
At Churchill, he will be a fixture long after the Derby, calling races during the spring, September and fall meets.
But his first stint here was a short one.
Collmus spent a week calling races in 2008, among a handful of announcers who took turns in what was widely seen as tryouts. The job ultimately went to Mark Johnson, a British announcer.
Churchill Downs spokesman John Asher said the split between Johnson and the track was an amicable one.
Like any track announcer, Collmus hopes he’s calling the race when the Triple Crown drought finally ends. Affirmed was the last horse to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1978.
“The day that that finally happens, to be the guy who gets to call it would be the most incredible thing,” he said.