Friday, July 11, 2014

A day at the races, county fair style.

Horses break at the 2013 Martinsville Agricultural Fair.
The aroma of corn dogs and funnel cakes wafts through the air as the horses are loaded into the gate. A tall, oversized man in overalls approaches from behind and takes a rope between his hands. As the horses settle into silent coils, the man suddenly jerks on the rope, bringing it down between his knees, and the gates spring open with a bang. All at once, the horses leap into the air. There are only four or five of them, and none of them could give California Chrome a run for his money, but we are a long way from the Kentucky Derby here.


Schwarzkoph leads the field the first time by. Martinsville Agricultural Fair, 2013.
The ground is hard, like packed concrete, and it leaves a dust cloud trailing behind the field as they thunder past the carousel and the open-air grandstand to the whoops and hollers of a small afternoon crowd. There is no room for fickle competition, no place for plodders or tender feet. The track is a bull ring, and the pace is surely erring on suicidal, though no one is keeping time. There are no odds, no wagering, either. People only come to watch, and perhaps claim a t-shirt if their winning pick is pulled out of a Styrofoam cup.  

Horses round the clubhouse turn at the Cumberland County Fair in Greenup.
The leader is tiring now, his legs wobbling after Quarter Horsing to the first turn, and he gives up his advantage to his challengers on the turn for home. By this point, the rest of the horses are more or less cooked in different degrees. Now it’s a jock’s race. Two of them hook up in the lane, one of them wearing the traditional jockey’s garb of white pants and black silks; the other is wearing blue jeans and a motorcycle helmet. You would be able to hear them yelling if the crowd wasn’t on their feet, calling for their charge to come home first. It’s close, and tough to call—the finish line is painted on the concrete stage in the infield—but the man at the microphone consults with the race caller in the bird’s nest at the top of the grandstand, and they come to an agreement. The winner is decreed, and the horse gallops back to have his picture taken with the fair queen.

Bushler and Paddle Wheel Mary hook up at the 2013 Effingham County Fair in Altamont, IL.

All of this makes for quite an exciting day in Martinsville, Illinois. The Illinois County Fair Circuit makes six stops over the course of the summer, beginning in June at McLeansboro and ending in August at Pana. The meet is mainly for state-bred Thoroughbreds, though there’s usually one Quarter Horse race on the card, as well as an all-breed “pony” race, and if you’re lucky, one for mules. The Thoroughbreds can compete in the Old National Road Derby, a tournament of three races, like a county fair Triple Crown. The first leg is at the Martinsville Agricultural Fair, the second at the Clark County Fair in Marshall, and the third is in Greenup at the Cumberland County Fair. The winner of two legs gets a bonus of $600, and if the same horse should win all three, he gets $1,200.

Schwarzkoph, with Carl Dodd up, and Extrella Royal Rap and Noah Cruz round the final turn at the Effingham Co Fair.

If you’re only interested in top-class Thoroughbred racing, this is not the place for you. These horses will never see Churchill Downs, Saratoga, or Santa Anita. Most of the horses are home-bred and home-trained. A couple might be ridden by both. But the fair circuit isn’t about knocking heads with the country’s best horses. It’s about enjoying a small-town summer fair and simply watching the races. (And, God willing, sipping on a lemon shake-up.) There are prizes for the winners, even trophies, but it boils down to the most fundamental, age-old adage:

“My horse is faster than yours.”
“Oh really? Prove it.”


Scenic farms provide the backdrop at the Martinsville Agricultural Fair.
The Martinsville Agricultural Fair races run today, July 11th starting at 1pm. For more dates and times, click on the link below.

Friday, June 13, 2014

This was supposed to be a recap of my trip to the Belmont Stakes, but it turned into something else.

I embarked on a week-long trip to cover the Belmont Stakes and California Chrome’s shot at Triple Crown immortality knowing he was probably going to lose.

Pardon my rationalism (or pessimism, as some may see it). But as much as I love that flashy chestnut with the big white blaze and four white stockings, there was little to convince me that out of all of the last three decades’ attempts at Triple Crowns, this would be the one. That he was more worthy than Real Quiet, more tenacious than Silver Charm, more favored than Funny Cide or Smarty Jones, or luckier than Spectacular Bid.

See, this may be the Chinese Year of the Horse, but it has been far from a banner year for horse racing. More equine casualties have rocked 2014 than its fair share, from the valiant Breeders’ Cup champion St Nicholas Abbey to most recently, Derby wiseguy horse Intense Holiday. And although this year’s Kentucky Derby felt like some kind of golden miracle when the favorite pulled away to a decisive win, and the Preakness was akin to outlasting a relay race of foes, I knew too well the challenge that lay before him in the Belmont. Indeed, so did we all.

Deep down, I felt Chrome’s hourglass of good fortune had drained its final sands. You can only have so much of it, and win streaks usually only last with careful handling.

But let me be clear. Some people think the dates of the Triple Crown’s three races need to be moved to make the feat more attainable. I scoff at this, because changing it won’t make it any easier. Sure, more time in between races will give the Derby winner a longer break and more time to prepare, but it will also give the competition more time to regroup. The Triple Crown is about a single horse being at a level above the competition and being fit with divine providence. The thing about horses is they can only maintain their peak, not to mention luck, for so long. Some may peak early, before the Derby, and when the rest of their crop catch up, they level out in mediocrity. Some horses might not run in the Derby because it’s too early for them to run against heavy competition, so they wait for the Belmont in June.

The variables being thrown at a single race horse are infinite. When it comes down to it, the Triple Crown isn’t meant to be easy. Horses aren’t machines. Well, there might have been one, but even Secretariat lost a few during his legendary campaign; everyone seems to forget he finished third in his last start before the Derby. For Chrome and his record, it was simply time for his streak to end.

And you know what? That’s fine. Because he’s done enough. He’s done more than we can rightly ask for.

Horses are miraculous creatures. They carry our hopes, they emulate our dreams, they give everything they have for us. But with this gift comes a price. This sport of ours is about the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Woe be the person who gives a horse their heart, because they will shatter it. Every single time. It might not be on the track. It could be the day they retire. Or they day they draw their last breath on a rolling green hill some thirty years after they’ve crossed their last finish line. But it will happen.

Yet we keep coming back. Because those who know what it’s like to have your heart carried by a horse knows no greater thrill. At the end of the day, it’s about them doing for us what we cannot. Whether it be an underdog winning against the odds, or maintaining a perfect record, or simply clenching that one day in your life when everything goes exactly right. It’s adoring the creature that fights her guts out, that refuses to give up, even if she misses. If only we could be just like them.

I love California Chrome even more after the Belmont Stakes. For one thing, he’s the first Triple Crown hopeful to finish the race since Smarty Jones in 2004, and lost by only 1 ¾ lengths. He ran every race, and gave us everything he had, even with a gouged foot. In a sense, he’s a throwback horse for simply doing that much. His incredible blue collar story notwithstanding, California Chrome is a dream horse. It’s been a privilege to pin my hopes to his saddle and be a part of the ride. If we are lucky enough to see him race again, I’ll be first in line to lend him my patchwork heart. And when he eventually breaks it again, I won’t adore him any less.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Favorite Photos from 2013

Okay, so I have a reasonable excuse for why this post is so tardy. Until last week, I didn't actually have all of my racing photos from 2013 edited. That's right--there were pictures from an entire race day that had never seen the light of day until just now. I do apologize to the masses starving for my photos from the Cumberland County Fair. Being a professional photographer can sometimes mean putting "fun" photos on the back-burner for months at a time.

I shot more races than usual last year, mostly due to the fact I discovered Thoroughbred racing at local Illinois county fairs. These small-time races made for a ton of fun, and I came away with a deep affection for the fair circuit. So much so, don't be surprised if they get their own post as a preview for this summer.

Anyway! Without further ado, here's a look back at my favorite racing pictures from 2013. It was a pretty good year.

"Ooh. That's the spot."

Monday, March 25, 2013

Favorite photos from 2012

Why does it feel like 2012 lingered on a month or two past its welcome? I guess that's just a symptom of winter, and me not going on a trip over the break. So while this post may technically be "late" in the realm of year-end lists, it is coming two full months earlier than last year's tragically tardy summary of 2011. Perspective, people.

2012 was hot and cold, and definitely an earth-shaker for me thanks to a sudden decision to move to a new town. While the spring granted me the excitement of a new favorite horse in Union Rags, the post-Triple Crown trail was less stellar than years past. Since I moved in July, even further away from any racetrack, I had a fairly good excuse for being more disconnected. (Side note: I truly envy every one of you who live closer than 3 hours away from a track. Be grateful for what you have.) Also, I put a stipulation in the event of this move, I would get to see the 11-time world champion Kelly Slater surf in person--and it totally worked and made up for the lack of races I got to see in the surrounding months. (I'm still feeling the effects of that trip, in fact.)

So, because I like to keep a record of things, here's a list of my favorite shots I took during the 2012 racing calendar. (And maybe a bonus Kelly Slater shot because it totally qualifies according to the criteria in my head.)

"So are you guys comin, or what?"

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

And the Wowie goes to...

Congratulations to Natalie Voss of Lexington, Kentucky, for winning my camera phone photo contest with her picture of a race horse on the track at Keeneland. I received several great entries this year, making the judging incredibly difficult on my end, but it came down to the degree of difficulty in using a camera phone to capture a horse in motion. Not only does Natalie's picture capture a horse in a fully-extended trot with perfect sharpness, her photo also displayed the simple beauty of a race horse going to the post under a striking blue sky. This is the kind of picture that just makes you want to hop in the car and go to the track.

Here is Natalie's winning entry:


Here's what the photographer had to say about her photo:
"I had never been on the turn at Keeneland like this before, and was lamenting that I hadn't brought my point and shoot camera to try to capture how beautiful the colors were that day. I was pleased and a little surprised that they came through so well on my cell phone."
Thanks to everyone who participated in my photo contest! There are a lot of great phone-wielding photographers out there, and you made judging this contest extremely challenging. I'm only sorry I didn't have more calendars to give away!

Follow Natalie on Twitter at @flysofree. Congratulations, Natalie! 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Return of the "Wowies!"


Last year, I held a camera phone photo contest which was lovingly dubbed by some Twitter friends as "The Wowies." I received a number of great entries and thought the contest was successful enough to try it again this year. Because I'm lazy, and because it seemed to work smoothly, I'm keeping the same rules as last year. The only change is that the contest is now open to everyone, no matter where you live in the world! Here's the scoop:

Horsephotos.com puts out a racing calendar every year, and as I am one of their photographers, I get a complimentary calendar for my contributions. Since I get extra calendars, I thought it would only be appropriate to give one away as a thank-you to my followers on social media. (My mom got the other free calendar, or I'd give away more than one. Sorry.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

At long last, my epic Trestles blog

Unlike in horse racing, you don't get too many chances to see ASP events come to America. With my window to witness the greatest surfer of all time closing fast, I had but a few chances to see Kelly Slater this year without having to cross an ocean. My first choice was to see him compete at Trestles.

The San Clemente Pier
Considered a holy place for surfers, Trestles is located at San Onofre State Beach in San Clemente, California. Ironic my first encounter with surfers was in San Clemente, watching amateurs flounder near the pier, when one of the best surf spots in America was just a couple miles down the beach. While there are several great surf spots along this stretch of sand, the best and most consistent wave is at Lower Trestles, or as those in the know call it, Lowers.

The thing about Lowers? It just happens to be one of Kelly Slater's favorite playgrounds. Before going into the 2012 Hurley Pro, Kelly had won the world tour event at Lowers five times before, more than any other professional surfer. If Kelly is King of Surfing, Lower Trestles would be his kingdom. So, yeah, the first place I got to see Kelly Slater surf in person was at his home away from home.