The art of announcing the Kentucky Derby
We like to think everyone knows what The Kentucky Derby is—if not, it’s a pretty big horse race that kicks off the Triple Crown. But there is far more that goes into the races than fancy hats and betting on a random horse from the roster solely based on its neat-sounding name. NBC Sports voice of the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Larry Collmus walked us through what it’s like to announce one of the most prestigious horse races in the world. Not to mention all the other races he covers throughout the rest of the calendar year. Over some sips of Rabbit Hole Bourbon, Larry took us down to the track, giving us an inside look at the Triple Crown and the world of horse racing. And they’re off.
Set the scene for us: It’s the morning of the Derby and you just got to the track. Walk us through your day as an announcer.
Larry Collmus: I usually get to Churchill Downs at 8 a.m. for some early meetings located behind the grandstands. We go over what’s going to be on the show which helps me prepare for the race later in the day. After that, I head upstairs—level 7, for officials only—to where I’ll call the race. One of the best views of the Kentucky Derby.
The Kentucky Derby isn’t the only race of the day, so I’ll call a couple of other races to get myself warmed up with a little bit of practice. As the race approaches, that’s when the palms start to get sweaty, the binoculars get a little shaky and I’m pacing back and forth. But for good reason. It’s the biggest horse race there is and I’m the one calling it. 150,000 people are at Churchill Downs watching live and there are twenty-million people watching on TV. Quite the audience. Really adds to the nervous energy.
The horses start approaching the gate and that’s when I start taking deep breaths and talking to myself. Gotta give myself a pep talk.
Bourbon and the races go hand-in-hand. Favorite way to enjoy it surrounding the Derby?
LC: Bourbon is part of the whole experience of Derby week and being in Kentucky. I like to relax after work leading up to the race and bourbon is always that relaxing factor. I love a couple of glasses of bourbon and Rabbit Hole is delicious. I’m drinking it right now.
Travis Stone, a fellow race announcer and I have a joke going. He has to call the races after the Derby, but by that point I’m already at the bar drinking bourbon watching as he is still calling.
Bourbon is always a major factor when you get to Kentucky. I enjoy it wherever I go.
How did you originally get into announcing horse races? Were you always interested in this sport particularly?
LC: My father used to install the sound system at the Maryland State Fair where I grew up and they had a horse race there so I would go with him and I would work for him in the summer when I was around 16 years old. But it turns out I am mechanically incompetent, so my job was to make sure the sound was loud enough for the races. So pretty much I would go to the press box and hang out. That’s when I fell in love with horse racing. And not just the racing itself, but the characters involved, all the people, everything. And I knew I wanted to do something in the industry. I just felt like I fit in.
I used to imitate the announcers up in that press box and someone mentioned to me I should start practicing more—so I did. And one day the general manager at Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore (home of The Preakness) heard me and said, “Let’s get him started.” I called my first race at 18 years old. I didn’t even have an inkling that one day I would be the voice of the Triple Crown.
A lot of names and numbers all running extremely fast around the track—how do you prepare for the Derby? Flashcards, cheat sheets, notes on your palm?
LC: Time to prepare varies from race to race, but in the case of the Kentucky Derby, the process starts months before, probably around early January. I start watching all the Derby prep races around the country and familiarize myself with the horses. Each week you get a better idea of who will actually be running in the Derby.
Then, about ten days before the race I get sent an outline of the Jockey silks and I make those into index cards and start quizzing myself several times a day, repeating the names in my head.
Generally, there are about ten races a day, and not only do you have to remember the horses’ names, you also have to be able to forget them because, in half an hour, you have a whole new set of horses that will be running the track. We like to call it bathtub memory—fill it up, then empty it out. But you have to memorize the horses and know who they are so you never have to look away while they’re racing.
But the Kentucky Derby is different from any other race in the country. Every other race usually has no more than 12 horses, but 20 horses run in the Derby. It’s the only race of the year where I’m calling that many horses and I’m under that kind of pressure.
Describe to us the energy of Churchill Downs and Louisville leading up to the Derby.
LC: Derby Week is just wild. The electricity in the city is hopping. There is so much going on, so many parties but I can’t go to any of them because I have to prepare myself for this race. But I enjoy going out to different restaurants and trying different bourbons as a way to relax through the madness. It’s such a great experience. Louisville is a great town even outside of Derby Week. I lived there for a year in 2014. Great eats and a ton of things to do. It’s a really neat city.
It’s Derby day. What’s your hat look like?
LC: I’m not a hat person. I’ve never worn a hat, but as I continue to lose my hair I might have to. Usually I go for a nice Derby-themed tie to go with my suit. One I have is covered in mint juleps.
The day before the Derby is Kentucky Oaks and you have to wear pink. This is a race for three-year-old female horses instead of males and they incorporate breast cancer awareness into the event. That’s when I bring out the pink tie. It’s a big pink out.
If you had to explain the Triple Crown to an eight-year-old, how would you do so?
LC: The Triple Crown. There are three important races in the spring—The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness Stakes and The Belmont Stakes—and they are all within a five-week span. The goal is to win all three. But what makes it exciting is that only Thoroughbreds that are three years old are allowed to run in the Kentucky Derby, meaning each horse only gets to run the Kentucky Derby once in its life. They only get one shot.
It’s so rare for a horse to win all three races of the Triple Crown, it didn’t happen for 37 years. That is until American Pharoah won in 2015. Everyone was crying tears of joy on this day because they were so happy. That was a really amazing race to call.
I got to meet American Pharoah after I called him and he was such a neat horse. They all have different personalities, but he was very personable and so aware. He would recognize the cameras and pose for them, know when to turn his head and where to look, he knew the drill.