For Mount St. Joe alum Collmus, calling Preakness 'as good as it gets'

May 18, 2011|By Kevin Cowherd

From a perch high above the grandstand, Larry Collmus stares out at the vast expanse of Pimlico Race Course on a rainy and overcast Wednesday and shakes his head softly.

A TV camera is rolling and a handful of microphones and tape recorders are thrust his way for an interview.

This, too, seems to strike him as surreal.

"It's an unbelievable feeling having grown up in this area and all of a sudden you return to a track you haven't worked at in 25 years and here you are calling the Preakness for network television," he says.

Collmus, 46, is the 1984 Mount St. Joseph graduate who'll be calling the 136th Preakness Stakes Saturday for NBC.

He called his first Triple Crown race for the network at the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago at Churchill Downs, pressed into service when veteran announcer Tom Durkin quit the gig suddenly after 13 years.

Durkin said he suffered crippling anxiety attacks for years leading up to the big races. Finally he decided he could no longer handle the constant feelings of panic he likened to "getting hit on the head with a hammer."

But it's a wonder Collmus's head didn't explode when NBC executives came to him in late April and said, in effect: "Durkin's out. Oh, and by the way, you're calling the Kentucky Derby next month."

On the other hand, the network didn't exactly replace Durkin with some rube pretending to call races into a soup spoon at 2 in the morning.

Collmus has been in the business 25 years and is the track announcer at Monmouth Park in New Jersey and Gulfstream Park in Florida.

And calling Triple Crown races is something he dreamed of doing since he was a kid in Ellicott City and watched his first races in Timonium.

"Everybody in this business wants to do this," he says, staring out at the Pimlico track again. "And I'm one of the few lucky guys who has been given the opportunity. To have done it in the place where I grew up, that's as good as it gets."

Still, nothing really prepares you to call a race with the historical breadth and significance of the Kentucky Derby, knowing a nationwide TV audience of some 15 million viewers will be hanging on your every word.

You talk about Maalox Moments. Collmus had a few in the 10 days he spent feverishly cramming for the big race, brushing up on horses' names and jockeys' silks.

On race day, he says, he did a lot of breathing and sitting to try and relax. But when the horses broke from the starting gate, it was show time.

"It was pretty darned cool," he says. "To be honest with you, my concern was getting through 'My Old Kentucky Home' without getting too upset and too emotional. I survived that. And once I got through that, everything was pretty good.

"When they left the starting gate, I felt pretty good. However, I noticed when they were going around the turn, my knees and legs were buckling. There were some nerves involved for sure."

Now someone asked him: "How did it feel with the horses coming down the stretch at Churchill Downs? Was it just another horse race as 20-1 long shot Animal Kingdom pounded out the win?"

Collmus chuckled and shook his head again.

"The Derby is never just another horse race," he said. "It was very, very exciting just trying to stay focused on calling the race without going too crazy. And when they hit the wire and it was over, there was this unbelievable feeling of: 'Wow, it's over! The Kentucky Derby! I've done it!' It was just great."

Now Collmus gets to devote his full attention to the Preakness Stakes, the signature annual sporting event in his hometown.

"I think getting the Derby out of the way is going to help," he says. "But you're still going to be nervous. If you're not nervous, you're not doing your job properly. Because this is the middle jewel of racing's triple Crown, a big, big deal. And you really want to be on edge for a race like this.

"There will be nerves. There's no doubt about that."

It helps, he says, that there are no horses with ridiculously hard names to pronounce in the Preakness field. The trickiest one might be Norman Asbjornson — Collmus carefully pronounces it as Ahs-BORN-son — the home-bred colt trained by Frederick native Chris Groves.

But Norman Asbjornson is a piece of cake compared to the name that causes a train wreck in Collmus's mouth each time he utters it.

"There's one that runs at Monmouth all the time," he says, "and [the name] seems innocent enough, but there's just too many quick syllables: Prestidigitation. And when he's coming down the stretch with three other horses with multi-syllabic names, you're just like: 'Come on, give me a break!'

"Call the horse Sleight of Hand. It means the same thing!"

No, that would be too easy. And where's the fun in that?

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

(Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on V1370 AM Sports.)

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