SARATOGA SPRINGS Somebody has some incredibly big shoes to fill.
In fact, “size 12,” Tom Durkin drily informed us on Wednesday.
That somebody is Larry Collmus, who will step into the Aqueduct announcer’s booth next April and give voice to what he considers the greatest job on the planet.
With Durkin retiring the day before this Saratoga Race Course meet ends, the New York Racing Association really, really needed to get this one right.
And they did so, hiring the man who is widely regarded as the best announcer in the North America not named Tom Durkin.
NYRA introduced Collmus on Wednesday morning after signing him for five years to call Saratoga and the Belmont Park spring and fall meets.
Because Collmus has a contract with Churchill Downs, he’ll finish that out and will take over for assistant track announcer John Imbriale next spring, just in time to call the Wood Memorial.
“It’s an absolutely perfect scenario,” Collmus said. “I get to call Gulfstream in the winter, NYRA the rest of the year and the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup. It can’t get any better than that.”
Collmus became famous beyond racing circles for his hilarious — yet professional — stretch call between My Wife Knows Everything and The Wife Doesn’t Know at Monmouth Park in 2010.
That’s not what defines him, though.
He has a relaxed, precise delivery, and keeps things organized even in the face of chaos. Collmus, who does the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup for NBC, is able to inject excitement and capture the drama of races without trying to be the show, perhaps my biggest pet peeve about announcers, who forget that they’re the narrator, not the main character (I’m looking at you, John Sterling).
Appropriately, NYRA showed Collmus’ call of the 2013 Kentucky Derby, won by Orb, at the introductory press conference.
“The main reason I was proud of that one was because it was a difficult race to call,” Collmus said. “It was a muddy racetrack with 19 horses, and as I told people at the time, as they turned for home, I was 80 percent sure that that horse covered in mud was Orb. I’m sure glad it was him. It would’ve been a disaster if it wasn’t.”
NYRA president Chris Kay said they considered tapes from about 20 candidates, not including “these impromptu auditions, if you will,” at the Derby and Preakness.
They got the number down to five, and Collmus was the man for the job based on his ability and track record. Kay said working around Collmus’ Gulfstream Park work in the winter was beneficial to both sides.
“We’re the only group that goes all year long,” Kay said. “So, to be able to have somebody who has energy and power on a daily basis, I think over time they would get worn out. So we were always looking at it the way we have, in fact, negotiated it. We have a lot of great people. I don’t want any of them to burn out.”
“I did Gulfstream and Hialeah during the winter and up here, two weeks vacation, maybe for 15 years. Yeah, it’s a grind,” Durkin said. “It’s a grind that, 10 years ago, I had to stop on because it was too enervating. I could’ve waltzed through it if I wanted, but if you’re going to put it all on the line every day, you just can’t do it. I can’t do it.”
Durkin said that his job, rightfully, is so coveted because you get to throw superlatives out there, and it doesn’t come across as bombast.
Those words are appropriate and hold true meaning.
“You can’t do that at Cahokia Downs,” he said. “You can’t say ‘unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable … Bob Hanover.’ It doesn’t work that way. The best part about this job is the depth and breadth of the quality of the horses, and the jockeys and the tradition.”
It’s because of that that Collmus found himself choking up a bit just as he began to speak on the dais while sitting next to Kay.
“I wish I hadn’t,” he said later. “I tend to be a very emotional guy. I just am. When you start out as an 18-year-old kid calling your first race, and then you get to here … Saratoga, specifically, is the pinnacle. It’s the mountaintop. And the fact that it’s happened is amazing.”