Neither rain nor snow nor that other stuff can stop Larry Collmus from calling a horse race — though fog, like that which shrouded last month’s Preakness, comes close. And don’t wish for sunshine for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, said Collmus, a Howard County native and NBC’s race-caller for the Triple Crown.
At Belmont Park, on a bright day, “the sun sets directly behind the horses as they turn for home,” Collmus said. “Not only do I get the sun in my face, but all of the colors get washed out. In 2013, while turning for home, Oxbow, Orb and Palace Malice were running 1-2-3 — and when they straightened out in the stretch, all of their silks turned completely black. Luckily, I’d taken a mental picture before it happened and knew who they were, but if another horse had come up, it would have been a guessing game.
“So I tell people, ‘Let the Belmont Stakes be a cloudy day.’ The sun, at that track, is not good for me.”
Collmus, 51, is still taking kudos for his call of the Preakness on May 19. Never mind the dense fog — shades of a John Carpenter movie — that blanketed Pimlico Race Course; Collmus cut through the mist with aplomb to keep viewers and horsemen apprised of the action.
“Larry never got frazzled; he can handle any conditions,” said Rob Hyland, coordinating producer of NBC’s racing coverage. “That’s the beauty and genius of, in my opinion, the best race-caller in the business.”
After the race, Bob Baffert, trainer of winning horse Justify, sent Collmus a text.
“Another great call,” Baffert wrote. “It’s like you’re conducting a symphony. You have gone to the lead as the best of all time.”
Not bad for a guy from Mount Saint Joseph who wears one of his school colors (a purple tie) to the track.
“I was happy to survive the weather,” Collmus said. “I had very little vision with my [Canon 15x50 image stabilization] binoculars, only for the start and the stretch, so I used the TV monitors about 90 percent.”
Even so, he said, “there was a period, on the far turn, when there were no good shots. So I killed a few seconds until the horses came back into view.
“Normally, I’ll say, ‘three-quarters [of a mile] in 1:11.42,’ ” he said. “Instead, I slowed it down and said, ‘They’ve run three-quarters of a mile in 1 minute, 11.42 seconds,’ to let them slug it out for a bit until I could see them again.”
It’s a ploy he has used before.
“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Collmus said. “Dead air just isn’t a good idea.”
The track announcer for the New York Racing Association, he has been calling races since 1985, starting at Bowie Race Track. In 33 years, he said, this year’s Preakness ranks near the top for worst weather conditions because of its importance.
“The pressure of calling a Triple Crown race is tremendous,” he said. “But when that fog rolled in at Pimlico, I really felt less pressure. I thought, ‘Well, no one else can see, either, so who’s going to knock you if they don’t even know what’s going on?’ It’s almost like you can have a little more fun with it.”
As Justify raced to the finish, Collmus thundered, “Not even the fog could stop him!”
“The words just came out,” he said. “I’m not even sure it made sense, but people seemed to like it.”
His words resonated with the public. Tee shirts bearing Collmus’ shout-out are available online.
Some of his most memorable race calls are fog-related, such as one at Monmouth Park (N.J.) in 2003: “Rumor has it that they’re at the gate.”
And another one, at Monmouth in 2008: "The field continues down the backstretch and Smithwick and Twisted Heart, they're going at it up front! Deep Run Doon is right there, Riding Shotgun just behind them! And it's quite a scramble! I just made all that up, I can't see anything! Sounded good, though.”
Sometimes, Collmus said, his remarks evoke chuckles from the crowd.
In 1992, while peering through the soupy mix during a race at Suffolk Downs (Mass.), he mused: At certain points along the track, why not mimic different announcers, as if an all-star cast were calling the race to help him out? The railbirds ate it up.
“The worst scenario is a heavy rain, or fog, that’s just bad enough that it becomes very difficult to see, but isn’t bad enough that it’s impossible to see,” Collmus said. “When it’s impossible to see, that’s when you can have fun.”
Seldom are races cancelled for fog, he said, “unless the track stewards can’t see any camera shots and it’s not safe to run.”
One horse whose races he never called: a champion colt named Lost In The Fog.
His eye vision, Collmus said, is “pretty good for distance. I had LASIK surgery about 15 years ago, which helped a lot. At a Red Sox game, in Boston, I was checking the out-of-town scoreboard and thought, ‘Does that say 6-5 or 8-6?’ When my friend handed me his glasses, I could see it, so I had the operation. I only wear glasses for reading.”
His race calling, colleagues said, is 20-20.