11/24/2008 1:00AM

Long ago, he heard the calling


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - This reporter happened to be in the cramped press box of the old Bowie Race Course in Maryland on a June weekday in 1985 when 18-year-old Larry Collmus stepped into the announcer's booth to call a race for the first time.

"My binoculars were shaking," Collmus recalled last week at Churchill Downs, where he was the fourth of five men to audition for the open race-calling position. Tiara's Flame, with Alberto Delgado riding for King Leatherbury, was the winner of that Bowie race.

Tiara's Flame was not the only winner to emerge. Nearly a quarter-century later, Collmus, 42, is established as one of the top racing announcers in the United States after calling tens of thousands of races in a career that has taken him to virtually every corner of the country. His first full-time stint was at the old Birmingham Race Course in Alabama in 1987, after which he went on to call at a variety of tracks, including Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows in Northern California. Collmus currently is employed as the caller at Gulfstream Park, Monmouth Park, and Suffolk Downs.

His calls Wednesday through Sunday at Churchill were as reliable as a Hoover vacuum. Collmus has a soothing rhythm and unfailing accuracy that comes tinged with just the right amounts of excitement and seriousness, depending on the situation.

"I like him the best by far," said Tim Gardner, a Churchill horseplayer for 42 years. "Maybe it's because I'm already familiar with his work at other tracks, but he gets into this rhythm that I really like. He's got a smooth voice and a cadence that's just right."

Collmus said he thought his week at Churchill went well, although he said he "felt maybe a step slow" when adjusting to new surroundings on Wednesday. Otherwise, he kept nailing his calls, such as in the River City Handicap on Saturday, and his professionalism and experience showed through in the last race Thursday, when he didn't skip a beat despite near-darkness and snow flurries that made for very poor visibility.

Few people have brought such single-mindedness to their jobs. Even as a teen, Collmus would kill time and elicit laughs in the Maryland press boxes by mimicking some of his favorite callers, all of whom have since died or retired: Costy Caras, Ross Morton, Bob Weems, Jack Salter, Tony Bentley, Jack Lamar, Marshall Cassidy, and Dick Woolley.

"Ever since I was 17, I knew I wanted to be an announcer," he said.

Collmus followed Bobby Neuman (Oct. 26 to Nov. 2), Travis Stone (Nov. 5-9), and Michael Wrona (Nov. 11-16) in trying out for the position that came open when Luke Kruytbosch died unexpectedly in July. British race-caller Mark Johnson will close out the audition process when handling the final four-day stretch of the fall meet, Wednesday through Saturday.

Churchill officials have said they intend to name the permanent replacement before the end of the year. They continue to solicit feedback at announcer@kyderby.com.