There will be a ton of attention on this year’s Belmont Stakes as Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify will look to capture a Triple Crown.
USA TODAY Sports
When the producer for NBC’s Triple Crown coverage suggested putting a camera in the announcer’s booth in 2012, Larry Collmus had a natural question: Why?
“I thought, who in the heck would want to see me when they could watch the race?” said Collmus, who had just taken over for Tom Durkin calling the Triple Crown for a national television audience.
Though track announcers have long been part of the fabric of the sport, narrating historic moments in ways that become inseparable from the races themselves, they tend to be anonymous aside from their voices, plying a trade we observe only by sound.
But if Justify wins the Triple Crown on Saturday, the viral Twitter moment from the Belmont Stakes is just as likely to be supplied by Collmus as the horse himself.
“He puts every single ounce of energy, thought and creativity into his calls,” said NBC Sports’ Rob Hyland, who came up with the idea to put a camera on Collmus. “As a curious sports fan, I always wanted to see what it looked like. It’s great television.”
That was especially true in this year’s Preakness, when Collmus had to deal with foggy conditions that essentially made it impossible for him to see the horses once they reached the first turn. And it was also true at the Belmont in 2015, when he put down his binoculars, balled his fists and raised his left arm into the air as he called the words that will always be associated with the 12th Triple Crown winner: “At the 16th pole … And here it is! The 37-year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!”
And Collmus will be ever thankful for that, not just because the horse put his voice into history but because he won easily enough that Collmus, who had formulated an idea of what he thought he wanted to say in case American Pharoah won, didn’t have to rush the words or prioritize the drama of a stretch duel while ignoring the significance of the moment.
It was then, and remains now, a perfectly-executed call that will be replayed for generations, made better by the video of Collmus celebrating pumping his fists in relief and joy.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect race call,” Collmus said. “There’s always things you could have said, but to be honest I was pretty happy with how it came out considering what was on the line, what was at stake.
“The other thing I was happy about that I talked myself into over and over all week long is the fact is the race is a mile and a half, so don’t get too excited too early. There’s a long way to go, and just like a jockey that has to hold the horse back and wait until the right time to let loose, I had to do the same thing.”
Even though Collmus said he’ll feel the same pressure Saturday calling Justify’s Triple Crown bid as he did three years ago, odds are he’s up to the task.
Though the 51-year-old announcer has been familiar to hard-core racing fans since the mid-1990s when he became the voice of Monmouth Park in New Jersey, he was a relative unknown nationally with big shoes to fill when Durkin stepped aside in 2011, citing performance anxiety he had battled for years.
Up until that point, Collmus’ biggest brush with fame came in the seventh race at Monmouth on Aug. 22, 2010, which would have been otherwise forgotten if not for the presence of a horse named “My Wife Knows Everything” and another named “The Wife Doesn’t Know,” who waged a dramatic duel to the finish.
“Into the final furlong. My Wife Knows Everything. The Wife Doesn’t Know. They’re 1-2! Of course they are! My Wife Knows Everything in front. To the outside, The Wife Doesn’t Know. My Wife Knows Everything. The Wife Doesn’t Know! My Wife Knows Everything more than the Wife Doesn’t Know! Whew!”
Hyland said that call helped draw NBC’s ears to Collmus when it went searching for a Durkin replacement, and since then he’s delivered the same kind of high-energy performance that showcases his natural flair for storytelling, drama and pacing.
“There’s such a genuine tone to his call,” Hyland said. “He’s got a strong, powerful voice and he sits in on all of our production meetings because he wants to understand how the entire narrative is being constructed in every horse race we televise, and he weaves that narrative in understanding what the audience has learned. He has all of that at his disposal, and depending on the outcome of the race he can script his gallop out to enhance the viewers’ experience based on his knowledge. He’s truly unique in how he weaves the storytelling.”
This year’s Preakness may be a story unlike any other in his career.
About 90 minutes before the race, a week’s worth of rain lifted, leaving behind a fog that essentially blocked out any view of the backstretch. That created a significant challenge for Collmus, who calls races in a traditional manner, using high-powered binoculars to follow the action.
As NBC’s video shows, once the horses passed through the stretch the first time, Collmus had to rely on television monitors in front of him. But even then, the horses sort of disappeared for a few seconds nearing the stretch run, causing Collmus to stall for a beat when he said, “As they round the far turn … in the fog at Pimlico!” Then, when they emerged again, there was a bit of an optical illusion as NBC used a camera angle from behind the horses, making it look like like Justify was pulling away from the field. Instead, he was about to be in a fight down to the wire.
But when Justify crossed the wire first, Collmus’ left hand punched through the air as he exclaimed, “Justify! He’s unstoppable!” not just because he might have the opportunity to call a second Triple Crown winner but because he had finished off a thoroughly challenging call without incident.
“For me it’s interesting to see these reactions I’m doing that I don’t even know that I’m doing until after I see them,” he said. “It’s become a little bit of a fun thing for everybody. You want to deliver the call that you want to come out, and when it’s over there’s this feeling of relief and I think that fist pump, which I don’t even know I’m doing, comes out and that and the fact we’re looking at a Triple Crown possibility definitely came into my head as well.”
Now Collmus knows the spotlight will be on him once again to deliver eloquent words that will live in history should Justify get the job done. And thanks to NBC putting a camera in his booth, the emotions behind the microphone will also be part of the story.