Rich Strike, winner of the 2022 Kentucky Derbyhis name was called just twice in the entire race: once during a routine early pass in the full field… and once just before he crossed the finish line for the most unexpected Derby finish of a century.
For all the notable elements of Saturday’s epic Derby — a horse asking for $30,000, a last-second entry, an 80-1 distance win, a great last-second charge — NBC commentator Larry Collmus’ closing call was the perfect soundtrack. , jubilation and disbelief all at once.
“Rich Strike is coming from within!” Collmus called. “For God’s sake! — ” and it was here that the horses crossed the finish line — “the longest shot won the Kentucky Derby! Rich Strike did it! A stunning, incredible upset!”
Calling horse races is an art form, which is why NBC is offering Collmus and not relying on one of its regular play-by-play announcers to parachute in and make the call. Saturday showed exactly why Collmus has the most storied job in horse racing: years of experience, weeks of preparation, hours of calm, minutes of focus and seconds of improvisational euphoria, all leading up to a call that will be replayed for as long as the Derby runs.
“I’d say it 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 put it ahead of American Pharaoh and Justify going for the Triple Crown, but the Kentucky Derby is always such a huge deal.
Even though he calls thousands of races a year, Collmus starts preparing for the Kentucky Derby weeks in advance. He watches Derby prep races to get an idea of the horses who might run in the race and looks for clues about their style and racing approach. Do they start fast? Are they strong fellows? Every data point could be key on the first Saturday in May.
Preparation includes “knowing running styles, front runners, horses coming from behind, post positions. When these horses come to the track, you want to know them as if they were your best friends.”
About 10 days before the race, Churchill Downs sends Collmus a PDF of all the jockey silks — the signature colors and patterns — for each horse. He prints them all out to make a set of flash cards to use the week before the Derby until he can tell by sight which jockey is wearing which color. This, as it turned out, turned out to be a particularly crucial preparatory step in 2022.
The day before the Derby, a Wrinkle: Ethereal Path crawled out of the Derby and opened the door for Rich Strike to enter. This caused a small ripple in the betting markets, but none for Collmus.
“I studied him, too,” says Collmus. “He was eligible for the race, so I had him on the cards. As soon as the Ethereal Road was scratched, I threw his flash card in the trash.’
With less than 24 hours before the race, Collmus begins to prepare. After all, it is exposed every bit as much as horses and riders. So he takes Ambien to quiet the horses running in his mind and has a few cups of coffee the morning of the race to clear away the cobwebs. From there it’s water and snacks until post time.
“The absolute hardest part of this job is controlling your nerves,” he says. “It’s the most important race of the year. You’re calling history. That’s always in the back of your mind. Trying to stay calm is tough.”
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 and headphones that block out most — but not all — of the noise of 147,000 people shouting as one.
In the minutes before the race, he takes a deep breath and stays as calm as he can. “I’ve done it 12 times,” he says, “and the nerves never go away.”
And then they’re gone and it’s time for all the training and preparation. Collmus works alone, without an observer – “too distracting” – switching back and forth between the telescope and the monitors in front of him showing the action.
“It’s a telescope for the most part,” he says. “You want to rely on your own vision, not what someone else is showing you.”
On Saturday, Collmus made his usual pass through the field – the first of two times he said Rich Strike’s name while the horse was in 17th place – before setting his sights on the leaders. As they got to the front, the race seemed to come into focus.
“When Zandon appeared next to Epicenter, I thought, ‘Okay, here it is, these are the two we were expecting,'” he says.
Collmus’ eyes darted outside—that’s where the challengers most often come from—and he mentioned Simplification, a horse who would finish fourth. At that moment, however, another horse rushed in. With barely enough time left in the race, Collmus named Rich Strike for the second and final time.
“I was lucky, he was the only horse with red and white silks,” says Collmus. “A lot of people thought it was Happy Jack (the number 2 horse) but the jockey was wearing black and yellow.”
Collmus admitted he was a little surprised by Rich Strike’s escape, but then again so was the rest of the world.
“I’d like to pick him up a little earlier,” he says. “He rushed forward from nowhere. It was quite exciting how he did it. They were moments you don’t even prepare for.”
After his work, Collmus exhaled as the champion awaited the roses and the Churchill Downs crowd struggled to process what they had just seen. “Once 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 has racked up 75,000 races. That’s a lot of horse names, to be clear, which is why he espouses a “bathtub memory” philosophy – fill it, empty it, fill it again.
“On a daily basis, I call 10 races,” he says. “I don’t want any of the races to be in my head for the next race.
Nevertheless, there are some names that stick to it. One of his most memorable calls outside of the Derby came during the 2010 race at Monmouth Park. The two best horses had names that were a perfect contrast: “My Wife Knows Everything” and “Wife Doesn’t.” This led to a racial rant that sounded like the inner monologue of a nervous husband:
Winner? “My wife knows everything,” of course.
Collmus will be at the microphone for the next two legs of the Triple Crown, as he has been since 2011. If Rich Strike wins the Preakness and has a shot at history in the Belmont Stakes, Collmus will be there to tell the history for millions watching at home. If that happens, he’ll have something prepared in advance, but otherwise he’ll let the race take its turn.
“With American Pharaoh, I knew I was in a position to make something happen that hadn’t happened in 30 years,” he said. “I thought of something I wanted to say. But that’s usually not the case – there’s just too much going on, too many horses to come up with catchphrases. You want to focus 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 [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee.