From the shower to the nation, Collums' voice has carried a long way

Baltimore native takes over as NBC's Triple Crown announcer starting with the Kentucky Derby

May 06, 2011|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Su

From the start, Larry Collmus had a one-track mind. A race announcer, he would be.

As a kid, he would watch the horses run at Timonium, then rush home to Ellicott City and re-create what he'd seen and heard.

"Some people sing in the shower," said Sally LaHart, Collmus' sister. "Larry would call races in there."

In high school, Collmus amused friends by recollecting races that had been run the day before.

"At lunch, we would hand Larry the morning paper and egg him on," said Jim Schwartz, a classmate at Mount St. Joseph. "He would pick, say, the sixth race at Pimlico, study the chart and call it, from post to post, in an announcer's voice, reconstructing the whole thing in his mind."

Twenty-six years later, Collmus is NBC's new voice of the Triple Crown, and Schwartz is head football coach of the Detroit Lions.

"We're probably the only two people from St. Joe who've taken what we love most and done it for a living," Schwartz said.

"Larry really found his calling — pun intended."

When the horses take off in the Kentucky Derby Saturday, Collmus, 44, will be calling the first leg of the Triple Crown for the first time. He replaces announcer Tom Durkin, who stepped down last week after 13 years in the NBC booth, citing performance anxiety.

The network chose Collmus for his "great set of pipes, great knowedge of the sport and 25 years of experience," said Fred Gaudelli, producer of the Triple Crown for NBC. "There's a saying in our business: Does he have a big voice? Does he give it a big feel? I think Larry's voice will cut through the noise of 150,000 people (at Churchill Downs) and all the sounds that go with it."

Never mind that Collmus has never called a race with more than 14 entrants, Gaudelli said. Nineteen horses are set to run in the Derby.

"It (the large field) is a delicate weave. Your eyes are forced to move wider than ever before. But Larry has it clearly mapped out," his producer said. "And while I'd expect him to have butterflies, he's really self-assured. Nerves won't cause him to not call the race that he wants to call."

For his part, Collmus said he is ready to narrate the Run for the Roses.

"I know the silks and markings of every horse in the race like the back of my hand, and I can say Mucho Macho Man. It's like studying for finals," he said. "You'd have to be a robot to not be nervous, but I've called about 50,000 races, including some at Churchill, Pimlico and Belmont, so I think I'll be OK."

Still, the thought of what he's set to do is staggering.

"This is what I've dreamed about doing," Collmus said. "Being the TV caller for the Triple Crown is beyond belief."

It's a job for which he is well prepared, those who know him said.

The son of a sound system engineer, Collmus tagged along when his father worked the Timonium Fairgrounds in summer. By 13, the boy was hooked on horses.

"Larry quickly became enamoured with the people, the track and the whole racing atmosphere," said Bob Collmus, his older brother. "From that point on, it was a love affair."

He soon moved on to other tracks (Pimlico, Laurel and Bowie), where the jockey-sized kid lingered in the shadows, doing odd jobs and basking in the gritty culture of the sport.

"I took to it immediately," Collmus said. "It just felt right."

He bought binoculars and a small tape recorder, sat in a quiet corner of the press box and began calling the races live, as if on the air. He then played the tapes, over and over, in his bedroom in the basement of the family's home on Ligon Road, sculpting the style that is his today.

"I must have called 500 races into that tape recorder before I did one with a microphone," he said.

His passion for racing grew. On days when Maryland tracks were dark, Collmus and his friends piled into his grey Oldsmobile Omega and drove 65 miles to Charles Town, W.Va. to hang out with the nags, the railbirds and the announcers.

"We ruined that car, going back and forth to that track," said Ken Beck, a friend since high school. "Charles Town was cheap, bad racing, but Larry embraced it. When each race was over, he'd critique what he'd seen, and if the announcer had made a mistake, Larry would redo it."

Maryland race officials took note and made Collmus a back-up announcer. Only 18, he broke his maiden at Bowie in June, 1985.

"Nervous? My binoculars were shaking," he said. "I kept thinking, 'Don't mess this up, don't mess this up.' "

He didn't.Tiara's Flame won the third race that day, with Alberto Delgado aboard. King Leatherbury was trainer.

"All were good old Maryland folks," Collmus said. "That's how it started."

Two days later, he blew his first race.

"There were two horses with near-identical colors going at it, and I had them mixed up all the way to the wire," he said. "Afterward, I told (Bowie public relations director) Chick Lang, Jr..that I was sorry I'd messed up."

Lang looked up and said, "You didn't say the f-word, did you?"

Collmus shook his head.

"Then you did fine."

Collmus relaxed.

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