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Rich Strike, the 2022 Kentucky Derby winner, had his name called just two times in the entire race: once during a routine early full-field run-through … and once just before he crossed the finish line for the most unexpected Derby finish in a century.
For all the remarkable elements involved in Saturday’s epic Derby — the horse claimed for $30,000, the last-second entry, the 80-1 long shot victory, the brilliant last-second charge — the finishing call of NBC commentator Larry Collmus was the perfect soundtrack, exultation and disbelief all at once.
“Rich Strike is coming up on the inside!” Collmus called. “Oh my goodness! The — ” and it was here that the horses crossed the finish line — “longest shot has won the Kentucky Derby! Rich Strike has done it! A stunning, unbelievable upset!”
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) May 7, 2022
Calling horse races is an art form, which is why NBC pitches to 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 high-profile job in horse racing: years of experience, weeks of preparation, hours of steadiness, minutes of focus, and seconds of improvisational euphoria all led to a call that will be replayed as long as the Derby runs.
“I would say that was definitely one of my top 10, because of the excitement level at the end of the race,” Collmus said Monday. “I don’t know that I would rank it ahead of American Pharaoh and Justify going for the Triple Crown, but the Kentucky Derby is always such a huge deal.”
Although he calls thousands of races a year, Collmus begins his preparation for the Kentucky Derby weeks ahead of time. He watches Derby prep races to get a sense of the horses that might be running in the race, looking for clues as to their style and race approach. Do they start fast? Are they strong closers? Every data point might be crucial on the first Saturday in May.
Preparation involves “knowing the running styles, the front runners, the horses coming from behind, the post positions. When these horses come onto the track, you want to know them like they’re your best friends.”
About 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’ll use the week leading up to the Derby, until he can tell by sight which horse’s jockey is wearing which color. This, as it would turn out, proved to be a particularly crucial bit of preparation in 2022.
The day before the Derby, a wrinkle: Ethereal Road scratched out of the Derby, opening the door for Rich Strike to enter. That caused a tiny ripple in the betting markets, but none at all for Collmus.
“I had been studying him too,” Collmus says. “He was eligible for the race, so I had him on my flash cards. As soon as Ethereal Road scratched, I threw his flash card in the trash.”
With less than 24 hours before the race, Collmus begins to prepare himself. He’s on display every bit as the horses and riders, after all. So he takes an Ambien to quiet the horses running through his mind, and on the morning of race day, he’ll have a couple cups of coffee to clear out the cobwebs. From there, it’s water and light meals all the way through until post time.
“The absolute toughest part of this job is controlling your nerves,” he says. “This is the most important race of the year. You're calling history. That’s always in the back of your mind. Trying to keep yourself composed is difficult.”
The environment helps. Collmus might have the best seat in all of Churchill Downs: seven stories above the finish line, inside a small booth 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’ll take deep breaths, keeping himself as calm as he possibly can. “I’ve done this 12 times,” he says, “and the nerves don’t ever go away.”
And then they’re off, and all the training and preparation comes into play. Collmus works alone, without a spotter — “too distracting” — and switches back and forth between binoculars and monitors in front of him showing the action.
“For the most part, it’s binoculars,” he says. “You want to depend on your own vision, not depend on what someone else is showing you.”
On Saturday, Collmus did his usual run-through of the entire field — this is the first of the two times he said Rich Strike’s name, while the horse was in 17th place — and then focused on the leaders. As they came into the frontstretch, the race appeared to come into focus.
“When Zandon came up alongside Epicenter, I thought, ‘OK, here we go, these are the two we expected,’” he says.
Collmus’s eyes went to the outside — that’s where challengers most often come from — and he mentioned Simplification, the horse that would go on to finish fourth. Right then, though, another horse came streaking up on the inside. With barely enough time before the race ended, Collmus named Rich Strike for the second and final time.
“Lucky for me, he was the only horse with red and white jockey silks,” Collmus says. “A lot of people thought it was Happy Jack (the horse wearing No. 2), but that jockey was wearing black and yellow.”
Collmus conceded that he was a bit surprised by Rich Strike’s run, but then again, so was the rest of the world.
“I would have liked to pick him up a little earlier,” he says. “He went from nowhere to in front in a hurry. It was pretty exciting the way he did it. It was the kind of moment you don’t even prepare for.”
His job done, Collmus exhaled as the champion awaited roses and the Churchill Downs crowd tried to process what it had just seen. “As soon as the race is over,” he says with a laugh, “I’m ready to dive into beer, wine, whatever.”
Over the course of his career, Collmus estimates he’s called 75,000 races. That’s a whole lot of horse names to get straight, and for that reason, he advocates the philosophy of a “bathtub memory” — fill it up, empty it out, fill it up again.
“On a daily basis, I’ll call 10 races,” he says. “I don’t want any of the races to be in my head for the next race.”
Even so, there are some names that stick with him. One of his most memorable non-Derby calls came during a 2010 race at Monmouth Park. The two top horses carried names that were the perfect contrast: “My Wife Knows Everything” and “The Wife Doesn’t Know.” That led to a race call 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 since 2011. Should Rich Strike win at the Preakness and have a chance at history in the Belmont Stakes, Collmus will be there to relate history for the millions viewing at home. If that happens, he'll have something prepared ahead of time, but otherwise, he'll let the race come to him.
“With American Pharaoh, I knew I was in position for something to happen that hadn’t happened in 30-some years,” he said. “I did think of something I wanted to say. But usually, that’s not the case — there’s too much going on, too many horses to think of catchy phrases. You want to concentrate on getting it right,” even when everything turns upside down.
“Accuracy,” he says, “is Job 1.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee.