Already the dulcet voice for Thoroughbred racing's biggest days, veteran announcer Larry Collmus will now provide the day-to-day soundtrack for the sport's most storied racetrack.
By Alicia Wincze Hughes
Citing a desire to return to the traditional, Churchill Downs announced Thursday that Collmus has been named the new race caller for the historic Louisville track, taking over the duties from Mark Johnson.
The 47-year-old Collmus becomes just the seventh track announcer in Churchill Downs history. In addition to being the announcer for Gulfstream Park, Collmus will continue as the race caller for NBC Sports on its telecasts of the Triple Crown races and Breeders' Cup World Championships.
Five years ago, Collmus was among the finalists to earn the Churchill Downs job following the death of Luke Kruytbosch in 2008. However, in what was considered a mild upset, British-based Johnson, who has called numerous English classics, was named to the position in January 2009.
Though Johnson nailed his first try in calling the Kentucky Derby, spotting long shot Mine That Bird surging up the rail, his conversational style, particularly between races, was polarizing. Officials with Churchill termed the parting with Johnson as "very amicable" and pointed to Collmus' increasing cross-over appeal among the intangibles that prompted the decision.
"I characterize it as more of a change in focus for us," said John Asher, vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs. "Mark is a wonderful talent, and when he was hired five years ago we were looking to go in a different direction, to kind of change the focus on the announcer's role and enter into more of a commentator's role.
"What you're seeing here is another shift in the on-track and simulcast product and we decided to go back to a more traditional announcer's role. To be able to bring Larry to the Churchill Downs family, he's one of the great announcers in North America. He'd been in the mix for the job before and we're thrilled he's agreed to come aboard."
A native of Maryland, Collmus started his career as an assistant caller at his home state's tracks at the age of 18, with his first on-track call coming in 1985 at Bowie Race Course.
He joined Monmouth Park in 1994 and worked a pair of winter seasons at New York's Aqueduct in 2005 and '06 before he was hired to call the winter meet at Gulfstream Park.
Though Collmus has resigned his duties with Monmouth because of his new position with Churchill, it was his call of an August 2010 race at the New Jersey track that launched him to the national forefront. Collmus' spot-on, humor-ridden description of a stretch duel between a pair of horses named Mywifenoseverything and Thewifedoesntknow went viral and attracted more than one million views on Youtube.
Collmus joined NBC Sports Group in April 2011, describing that moment as "the life-changer for me."
"That totally blew me away. In fact, I thought (NBC) was joking with me at the time (about joining them)," said Collmus when reached between races at Gulfstream Park on Thursday. "That experience working for them is just so spectacular and it was so important for me to be able to continue that. And I think Churchill felt the same way."
Known for his smooth delivery and accuracy without leaning on cliches, Collmus has already called three Kentucky Derbys — not that it means there won't be a new round of butterflies as both the on-track and television voice.
"If you're not going to be nervous calling the Kentucky Derby there is something wrong with you," Collmus laughed. "It's a really high, intense, anxious two minutes because you don't want to go down in history as someone who didn't call the Kentucky Derby very well."
That Collmus has become a high-profile brand recognizable even by casual patrons was not lost on Churchill Downs when officials approached him weeks ago.
"I think Larry is not only a great race caller, but hard core and casual fans are aware of Larry," Asher said. "You have the quality of his calls and his talent but another thing is he's one of the great ambassadors of our sport.
"You go to anyone Larry has worked with before and not only is he a great team member but he's also very comfortable meeting with people and making television and media appearances. I think our community, our fan base ... no one appreciates the Kentucky Derby more than the Bluegrass region and they're going to embrace him."
Churchill Downs track announcers
Larry Collmus Newly hired
Mark Johnson 2009-2013
Luke Kruytbosch 1999-2009
Kurt Becker 1997-1998
Mike Battaglia 1978-1996
Chic Anderson 1961-1977
Gene Schmidt 1940-1960
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.