BALTIMORE — Larry Collmus used to say his most exciting time in racing was announcing the fifth race at Pimlico here on Preakness day, 1986. It was heady stuff for a kid of 19, not long out of high school, calling a race for a crowd of 87,652.
But that was easy. The horses in that race all ran in the same direction.
"I heard the crowd sort of murmur," said Collmus, now in his third year as announcer at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, Calif., "and then I saw the horse."
Sporting crowds roar in exultation, or anger. They buzz in anticipation. But when something weird happens, they murmur.
In the third at Golden Gate on April 1 Collmus had been making his call of the eight 3-year-old maiden fillies at the far turn of the six-furlong race. Then, responding to the murmur, he saw the ninth horse. Gold Charm was coming around the clubhouse turn, going the wrong way, riderless.
The field was on course to mayhem at the sixteenth pole, where the contending horses would be at full speed.
There are no training manuals for guidance in such situations. "My first concern was for the jockeys," Collmus said.
He began to speak the Mayday of the race track: "Loose horse!"
He paused. "Yes, Judge?" he said, his mike open. Steward Dennis Nevin had called to him from the judges' stand below. "He said to go ahead," Collmus recalled.
"Riders, watch out," Collmus called. "A loose horse in the stretch. Please watch out. Loose horse in stretch. Pull your horses up. Look out!"
Collmus had seen Gold Charm, coming from the No. 1 stall of the starting gate, duck in, crash into the inside rail and unseat his rider. He did not see Gold Charm regain his feet and, disoriented, run off clockwise.
Tiffany's Gem broke last from the gate, and jockey Ron Warren saw Gold Charm hit the fence. "I looked back and saw him get away from the pony boys (outriders), so I thought there'd be a problem," Warren said later.
The riders apparently didn't hear Collmus, but they saw workers in the infield waving their arms and heard shouts as they made the far turn, so they were riding tentatively at the quarter pole. By then the loose horse was passing the finish line, hugging the rail.
He was a surprise to apprentice jockey William Mahorney Jr., riding 51-1 also-ran Mayfair Drive. "I look up," Mahorney told Collmus later, "and there's this horse."
Apparently, Ricky Frazier, on the lead with Wild Win, was first to see the loose horse. "He angled out about five paths," Collmus recalled. And he lasted by a head over Tiffany's Gem. There was a stewards' inquiry, but no objections. After 13 minutes, Collmus was instructed to announce that the race stood "as is." No one, the stewards decided, had gained unfair advantage.
It would seem that knowing there was a loose horse, as Warren did, or seeing him first, as Frazier did, would be an advantage. But nobody appealed.
Steward Lewis questioned Collmus' "judgment" in suggesting the riders pull up. It was later agreed his action was humanely motivated.
"Lumpy," as Collmus was affectionately known in the Maryland press boxes when he was a chubby kid calling a race a day, is established at the Northern California tracks. He has a difficult drive from Foster City (near Bay Meadows) to Golden Gate at Albany, across the Bay Bridge, and the earthquake made it tougher.
"But it's a great meeting they have here," he said. "Bob Umphrey (once an assistant in the Laurel racing office) is the racing secretary and he puts on a show. We have everything: two miles on the grass, four and a half furlongs on the grass, everything. And the races fill."
On the Sunday when Gold Charm went the wrong way, Golden Gate handled $1,786,393 on track and $1,789,212 at 15 inter-track outlets.