How the memorable race call went
Rich Strike, the winner of the 2022 Kentucky Derby, only had his name called twice in the entire race: once during a routine open-field course … and once just before crossing the finish line for the Derby’s most unexpected arrival in a century.
For all the remarkable elements involved in Saturday’s Derby epic – the horse claimed for $30,000, the last-second entry, the 80-1 victory, the brilliant last-second charge – the commentator’s final call from NBC Larry Collmus was the perfect soundtrack, elation and disbelief all rolled into one.
“Rich Strike is coming inside!” Collmus called. “Oh my God! The –” and this is where the horses crossed the finish line – “longest stroke won the Kentucky Derby! Rich Strike did it! Stunning, amazing knockdown!
Calling horse races is an art form, which is why NBC offers Collmus and doesn’t rely on one of its regular play-by-play announcers to parachute in and make the call. Saturday demonstrated exactly why Collmus has the most prominent job in horse racing: years of experience, weeks of preparation, hours of stability, minutes of focus and seconds of improvisational euphoria have all gone leads to a call that will be replayed as long as the Derby races.
“I would say it was definitely one of my top 10, because of the level of excitement at the end of the race,” Collmus said Monday. “I don’t know if I would rank it ahead of American Pharaoh and Justified for the Triple Crown, but the Kentucky Derby is still a big deal.”
Although he calls thousands of races a year, Collmus begins his preparation for the Kentucky Derby weeks in advance. He watches Derby prep races to get an idea of which horses might enter the race, looking for clues about their style and approach to racing. Do they start fast? Are they powerful closers? Every data point can be crucial on the first Saturday in May.
Preparation consists of “knowing the running styles, the leading runners, the horses coming from behind, the post positions. When these horses hit the track, you want to get to know them as if they were your best friends.
Around 10 days before the race, Churchill Downs will send Collmus a PDF of all the jockey silks – the distinctive colors and patterns – for each horse. He prints them all out to create a set of flash cards he will use the week before the Derby, until he can tell by sight which horse jockey is wearing which color. This, in the end, turned out to be a particularly crucial preparation in 2022.
The day before the Derby, a wrinkle: Ethereal Road pulled out of the Derby, opening the door for Rich Strike to enter. This caused a small ripple in the betting markets, but not at all for Collmus.
“I had studied it too,” says Collmus. “He was eligible for the race, so I had him on my flashcards. As soon as Ethereal Road scratched, I threw his flashcard in the trash.
Less than 24 hours from the race, Collmus begins to prepare. He is on display as horses and riders, after all. So he takes an Ambien to calm the horses that cross his mind, and on race day morning he’ll have a few cups of coffee to clear the cobwebs. From there it’s water and light meals until tee time.
“The hardest part of this job is controlling your nerves,” he says. “It’s the most important race of the year. You call the story. It’s always in the back of your mind. Trying to stay calm is difficult.
The environment helps. Collmus has perhaps the best seat in all of Churchill Downs: seven floors above the finish line, inside a small cabin behind thick glass. He’s armed with binoculars, monitors, headphones that block out most – but not all – of the noise of 147,000 people screaming as one.
In the minutes before the race, he breathes deeply, remaining as calm as possible. “I’ve done it 12 times,” he says, “and the nerves never go away.”
And then they’re off, and all the training and preparation kicks in. Collmus works alone, without an observer – “too distracting” – and alternates between the binoculars and the monitors in front of him showing the action.
“Most of them are twins,” he says. “You want to depend on your own vision, not depend on what someone else shows you.”
On Saturday, Collmus made his usual course of the whole field – this was the first of two times he mentioned Rich Strike’s name, when the horse was in 17th place – then focused on the leaders. As they entered the straight, the race seemed to concentrate.
“When Zandon came along alongside Epicenter, I thought, ‘OK, here we are, these are the two we’ve been waiting for,'” he says.
Collmus’ eyes turned outward – that’s where challengers most often come from – and he mentioned Simplification, the horse that would finish fourth. Just then, however, another horse came inside. With barely enough time before the end of the race, Collmus nominated Rich Strike for the second and final time.
“Fortunately for me, he was the only horse with red and white jockey bristles,” Collmus says. “A lot of people thought it was Happy Jack (the horse with the number 2), but this jockey was wearing black and yellow.”
Collmus conceded he was a bit surprised by Rich Strike’s run, but then again, so was the rest of the world.
“I wish I had picked him up a little earlier,” he said. “He went from nowhere to front in a hurry. It was quite exciting the way he did it. It was the kind of moment you don’t even prepare for.
His job done, Collmus expired as the champion waited for roses and the Churchill Downs crowd tried to process what they had just seen. “As soon as the race is over,” he laughs, “I’m ready to dive into beer, wine, whatever.”
During his career, Collmus estimates that he called 75,000 runs. That’s a lot of horse names to clear up, and for that reason he advocates the philosophy of a “bathtub memory” – fill it, empty it, fill it again.
“On a daily basis, I’ll call 10 runs,” he said. “I don’t want any of the races to be in my head for the next race.”
Despite everything, some names remain faithful to him. One of his most memorable non-Derby calls came during a 2010 race at Monmouth Park. The two best horses had names that contrasted perfectly: “My wife knows everything” and “The wife does not know”. This led to a racing cry that sounded like a nervous husband’s internal monologue:
Winner? “My wife knows everything”, of course.
Collmus will be on the mic for the next two phases of the Triple Crown, as he has done since 2011. If Rich Strike wins at the Preakness and has a shot at history in the Belmont Stakes, Collmus will be there to tell the story for the million home viewing. If that happens, he’ll have something prepared ahead of time, but if not, he’ll let the race come to him.
“With American Pharaoh, I knew I was in a position for something to happen that hadn’t happened in about 30 years,” he said. “I thought of something I wanted to say. But usually that’s not the case – there’s too much going on, too much horsepower to think of catchy phrases. You want to focus on getting it right “, even when everything changes.
“Precision,” he says, “is job 1.”
Jay Busbee is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee.