Thursday, April 30, 2009

Star of the day: Rachel Alexandra

Today was the last day of the Dawn at the Downs works for Derby and Oaks contenders, and as luck should have it, I finally got the chance to see what I have dubbed the new reigning princess of racing, Rachel Alexandra. I now know what all of Louisville has been buzzing about when they say she's been the most impressive horse working out "period" this week.

Rachel went out for a jog around the track, but was so rank and ready to go, her exercise rider gave her a little breeze so she could burn that excess energy. When I say "rank," don't confuse that with a horse who just isn't settling... Rachel is a filly who can't wait to get going, but looks absolutely happy at the same time. When she's given just a little bit of rein, it's like the clouds open and she is allowed to soar.

With that said, I'm officially in love with this filly.

I wish she had been entered in the Kentucky Derby more than ever, but as that's definitely never going to happen, I'll have to concede with the fact she will probably be the most resounding winner of the Kentucky Oaks in the history of the race. If she isn't, then call me Mike Battaglia. Tomorrow, mark my words, she will be wearing the lillies at the end of an easy run.

I went to the Pegasus Parade this afternoon. I promised I would post a picture of me in my hilarious Derby shirt, and here it is, in its equally hilarious splendor.

Me+Derby= Drunk with delirium.

Funny story about the Pegasus Parade... It started surprisingly moving, with a line of veterans atop some proud draft horses. When the horses began their precise march forward, a squadron of bagpipers behind them began to play "My Old Kentucky Home." It was the equivilent of hearing the national anthem sung by angels while looking at the Statue of Libery. I had tears threatening my eyes.

And then the huge white Pegasus balloon was floated down the street, and I waited with anticipation to see how they'd maneuver it around the stop lights... and then they turned it down the street, and kept moving it off the parade route. Naturally, I ran after it with my camera in tow. The wind was so fierce, slamming parade-goers at around 40mph, the mighty Pegasus was wrestled to the ground because it was just too hard to continue leading it down the street. So I found myself with the perfect photo op of the restrained Pegasus being slooooowly deflated, and you saw what resulted.

After waiting for hours for the start of the parade, I was happy to go find a meal while the rest of the parade marched on, convinced I'd just seen the best part of it, anyway. How can you have a Pegasus Parade without a gigantic inflated Pegasus balloon? It was worth it, anyway.

Tomorrow is the Kentucky Oaks, and I am prepared to brave the downpour, even in my dress. I just wish it would begin raining tonight and get it out of its system so the Oaks itself isn't a torrential downpour like last year. Sprinkling is fine, but hurricane rain and wind... not so fun.

Either way, Rachel will sprout her own Pegasus wings and show us why the new kid in town is the best 3-year-old in the country.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The soon-to-be infamous Woody Allen Moment

If you've seen a Woody Allen movie, you'll know that often times, his films feature some sort of deadpan or uncomfortable humor, where if Allen is starring in the film, he often turns out to look ridiculous; a clown, the object of some cruelly ironic situation. Well today, that was me.

It's been pretty obvious I have been obsessed with seeing Zenyatta this entire trip. It was my goal, my main objective to obtain complete happiness for the trip. I was more excited to see her than any of the Derby contenders, truth me told.

And this morning, when she first appeared on the Churchill track and her picture was put up on the Jumbotron for the spectators to see, I was the first person to see her and shrieked her name. From my unabashed excitement, people seemed to think she was standing right in front of us and began to look left and right. They had not been waiting with baited breath for the past two mornings, scrutinizing each horse that came along to make sure it wasn't Zenyatta.

Besides looking for the tallest horse on the track, I'd been looking for what I call her "paintbrush" stripe. When she began to jog, her way over to us seemed to take an eternity. And when she passed us and gawked, I steadied my camera and took a series of shots with the rapidity of machinegun fire. And when they took her back to the barn, I was so disappointed I wouldn't get to take any close-up shots. Little did I know I would get another chance... and blow it.

Later in the day, I returned to the track and went to the Derby museum. After coming out of the museum, I went to the track to catch a couple of races. I didn't have any real clue what was going on around me.

After watching a maiden starter race, I walked up next to the rail and started taking pictures of horses who were being led back to the barns. It didn't occur to me who these horses were, or why they're being led out of the paddock without saddles on. They were neither mud-streaked, nor tired. I was busy staring at a chestnut with its head hanging unusually low when it happened.
After the chestnut, this big, almost black horse is led square in front of me, and I think to myself, "That horse looks almost like Zenyatta, except its blaze is too big." And then this guy behind me starts taking pictures of the horse with his cell phone and says, "That's Zenyatta!"

And I look at him like he's pulling my leg. I just stand and stare at him and he looks at me and asks, "Do you know who Zenyatta is?"

I look back at the gleaming horse, whose huge shoulders are turned toward me now, and I'm just dumbstruck she's four feet away from me and I'm just standing there, completely unprepared. I rip off my lenscap and snap a few pictures, but it's too late. She's turned her head away from me, getting a little anxious as a tractor is revved up and begins moving down the track, and I've missed the best photo opportunity of Zenyatta I'll probably ever have. I'm shell-shocked. I can't form the words to tell this man next to me what just happened. Do I know Zenyatta? That's like asking, do you know your current occupation? I've written at length about this mare. I've read every article on her I could ever find. I know her life story. I've stared at pictures of her for hours, enviously toiling over beautiful shots I wish I could've taken, planning the spectacular images I could create of her if ONLY I could see her in person myself!

And here is my moment, gone forever, placed in the palm of my hand only for me to daze out at the worst possible second and not realize this is the best horse in racing walking right in front of me, and I'm hesitating to take her picture.

This is what they must mean by epic failure.

The worst part is, I find out Zenyatta had been schooling in the paddock while I was watching a bunch of maiden races. That is the part that hurts the most. The guy tells me she was just standing there, looking around and taking everything in, herself looking like a picture. I missed my opportunity not just in a sad, fleeting moment, but in an epic, grandslam sort of way that makes you want to throw yourself under the feet of the stampeding horses.

We'll see if tomorrow the Woody Allen-ness continues, or if I'm given a merciful second chance to see her again.

Well, the image of her will forever be ingrained in my mind, but it will be synonymous with the ironic thought, "Yeah, that horse resembles her. But its stripe is too wide."

A beautiful Derby morning

I always thought if I saw the Derby contenders working out beforehand, I'd have a better idea of how to handicap. That's the idea, right? You see the horses who are beginning to really dapple out, the ones who are shaping up in peak condition, and generally what they look like in person. Well, this all has really just ended up confusing me more. I never considered horses like Mr. Hot Stuff, or even General Quarters seriously (even though he's got such a heartwarming story), but after seeing them today, my exotics are opening up.

Steve Haskin wrote an article yesterday about how General Quaters has this undefinable "look" about him, and after the sky opened up today and shed some light on the situation, I got the same idea. Yesterday I thought GQ looked extremely focused in his work. He wasn't gawking at the spectators or strutting like Mr. Hot Stuff today; but there is a quiet confidence about him that's hard to deny. Is GQ this year's Giacomo? I know word around Louisville says that idea has been summed up about Chocolate Candy, but from the brief look I got at Candy today, I wasn't as impressed as everyone else. Of course, he wasn't doing anything but a jog.

The post position draw was closed to the public this year, so we had to watch it from the Churchill Downs teleprompter... on silent. Thanks, CDI. Somehow, lipreading commentary of post position draws isn't very titillating. But we got the idea.

It was during this time, on the rolling news ticker at the bottom of the screen, that we learned Win Willy had been taken out of contention at the last possible moment because of a hairline fracture in his left foreleg. I wasn't a big fan of Willy since he upset my Old boy in the Rebel, but at least he had some credentials to him. More than say, half of the new field. I mean, come on... Atomic Rain? Mine that Bird? Flying Private? Nowhere to Hide? These are all just speedbumps to get in the way of the more talented horses. I wonder if the track comes up wet, which there is a chance of with this week's showers, if some of these horses will scratch? I guess since it's the Derby, and everyone wants a piece of that $2 million purse, that idea is the longest shot of the day.

The highlight of the day was finally seeing Zenyatta grace the Churchill track. After watching a star-filled track of joggers, including Friesan Fire with Larry Jones in the irons, Chocolate Candy, Pioneerof the Nile, Musket Man, Papa Clem, Mr. Hot Stuff, General Quarters, Mine that Bird, Justwhistledixie, and Join in the Dance, the dark bay mare took a long jog and showed the young 'uns what a race horse looked like. The funny thing was how long she gawked at the spectators in the grandstands as she took her one pass by. She looked phenomenal, with a dappled coat, long, effortless strides, and that curious expression.
I longed for her to come back around, but she was walked back to the barn after her stroll over the sealed track. She came out around 9:15am, when the workouts were nearly all over with. I was so happy to have the sun out to take the shots; I'm worried what the rest of the week will bring us for weather. I'm also really curious as to what her connections will do if the track should come up sloppy for Friday, which it's calling for. She's never run over a wet track. I think, if she's to be truly tested, Zenyatta needs to face conditions she's not accustomed to add a new dimension to her greatness.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What a day in Louisville

After the this morning's works, when we were searching the track for the possible presence of Square Eddie, I discovered he has succumbed to the latest Derby trend: bailing off the trail at the last possible moment. It seems this slacker sensibility is catching, because Indian Blessing, the champion 4-year-old mare we saw working today, is not going into the Humana Distaff, after all.

Here's one of my shots of Indian Blessing, since we won't get to see her at the Downs on Friday. And here is one of my shots of I Want Revenge working. It still has yet to sink into me I saw the favorite for the Kentucky Derby working this morning. It's been a surreal experience, for certain. Everywhere you look, the Derby is being advertised. I'm not exaggerating. On a Wal-Greens sign, they boasted 2 Derby glasses for $5 (which is a good deal), gas stations have banners that read "Derby it up!", and even a stripper joint's sign read "Welcome Derby fans." The Kentucky Derby truly does take over the city of Louisville the week before the first Saturday in May. I mean, I've always heard this before, but I didn't realize how far that arm stretch around the city and painted the town DERBY. The word isn't even used to describe a race here, it's more like a state of being; it's become a whole different animal than in any other town I've been to. In short: where have you been all of my life, Louisville? We belong together! Your town symbol is even the fleur de lis, like New Orleans! Clearly, this is some sort of sign I'm meant to live here.

I went back to the track for a few races this afternoon and was given a free pass by a Churchill employee who wishes to remain annonymous, and officially got what the scene Upstairs is all about. I have turned my nose up at the prospect of sitting upstairs until today. You're far away from everything, who cares if you can see more of the track! Well... it's easy to throw tomatoes at something you've never experienced before. The track call is turned up to an ear-splitting volume when the horses enter the stretch, the fans start screaming like banshees, and you can really see the margin of victory like you can't as well on the floor level. The fact you can actually make out the words of the race call is pretty special, since that's one of my favorite parts of the sport.

... must... not... give.... in! There's still nothing like leaning on the rail and feeling the rumble of the stampede pass you by. At least I now know what all the fuss is about.

I took some pictures of non-racing since there were no stakes on the card to get excited about. One of my favorites is of the just-unveiled Barbaro statue at the main entrance. The inscription on the back of the statue about made me cry. It's a quote by Eric Liddell:

"I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure."

There couldn't be a more beautifully moving tribute to this valiant champion.

I also took what I consider a hilarious picture of Julien Leparoux, a.k.a My Boyfriend, in the paddock on his way to a race he seemed to realize he wasn't going to win. At least, that's what his face tells me. What do you think?
All in all, it was one of those beautiful little days at the races. When I got back on the shuttle to take me back to my car at the looooong end of the parking lot, a patron sitting in the front was honking on his harmonica. As the racing fans were trickling out of Churchill Downs, the harmonica began to hum, "My Old Kentucky Home." Everyone was smiling. It was a great day, and it's going to be a great week. It's only Tuesday, and the party is just getting started.
I bought what I think is the most hilarious Derby-related shirt I've ever seen today. Just wait. There will be pictures of an equally hilarious me wearing it to come in the following days...

Tuesday morning with Talamo

Arrived at Churchill Downs this morning a little after 7:00am for the Dawn at the Downs. Just in time to see Musket Man and General Quarters jogging around the track. I barely saw Musket Man pass us by, but managed to snap some pictures. Not happy about how dark it was. The cloud coverage made for almost impossible lighting, and as track personnel were chastizing anyone for using flash on their cameras, I had a hard time taking decent shots, even with my ISO set at 1600. Papa Clem came out a little later and jogged around, not super impressive, and so too with the 3rd place finisher in the Arkansas Derby, Summer Bird. After the break came the new Derby favorite, I Want Revenge. Talk about timing, because as soon as he left the track, the rain began.

I Want Revenge worked impressively under Joe Talamo, effortlessly gliding over Churchill's surface. I see that he turned in the fastest work of the day at 47.2 over four furlongs.

All of the Derby contenders were marked by yellow saddle towels that bore their name. The Oaks contenders wore pink saddle cloths that showed thier name, too. Only Nan and Justwhistledixie worked out on the Oaks side of things today, but they weren't out very long to get a feel how they were handling the track. Yesterday, Rachel Alexandra turned in a blazing workout that made everyone think she'd win the Kentucky Derby, let alone the Oaks. A cool Louisvillian I talked to, Steve, said that Alexandra came around the turn with an impressive turn of foot, like she was just toying. Calvin Borel was reported to never even move on her during her work. I really wish she was in the Derby; by the sound of it, she'd give the boys a workout.

The rain put a damper on not only the fans trying to catch a glimpse of the horses, but also Zenyatta's workout. Word was she was supposed to work out today, but either this was speculation or it was cancelled due to the damp track. It hadn't become what I would call sloppy by 9:30am, but it was definitely getting muddy along the rail. I hope I get to see her tomorrow morning. I was all hyped up to see her, even more so than the Derby hopefuls!

In among all the horses working out, we also saw Indian Blessing breezing. She wasn't designated in any way, except she was wearing Bob Baffert's blue and yellow saddle cloth. I just saw this bay filly who looked very familiar and started snapping shots at her, and damn, did she look good over Churchill's dirt. When I pulled my e-mail up just a second ago, my suspicions were confirmed we were looking at Indian Blessing. Good thing I went for my gut instinct. :)

After the works, I headed over to Wagner's, where it took about an hour to get my food. I usually love the place for its horse racing wall of fame and history, but I get cranky when I'm not fed on time. This serendipitously led to me sitting directly across from Joe Talamo, who came in during my incredibly long wait for food. I resisted the urge to have him sign the cover of my DRF and write "This horse is going down." (Pioneerof the Nile is on the cover) But I wished him good luck on my way out.

I love being in Louisville during Derby week... it's all happening!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Final thoughts before hitting the road

I'm feeling particularly bummed right now about the loss of Quality Road from Derby contention. If you haven't heard by now, the son of Elusive Quality has been battling with quarter cracks much like Big Brown last year, and we were led to believe his "weren't as bad" as Brownie's. But when one of the recently patched quarter cracks was found to have bled a little after today's workout, the connections of the Florida Derby winner decided to sideline him until he's 100% healed.

First Old Fashioned, now Quality Road. Both horses were in my top five and had been #1 on my list at some point of the year. I had just made the decision to favor Road in the Derby last week, after I got "a feeling" about him, much like I did about Papa Clem before the Arkansas Derby. So it goes in the horse racing biz.

I liked Road so much because of his running style, the ease in which he fended off Dunkirk in the Florida Derby, and because of his pedigree. There wasn't much going against him but those darn quarter cracks. And so now, I'm back to the horse I waffled off of in favor of Road, I Want Revenge. I did hear that Friesan Fire had a sizzling workout today, and since these pre-Derby workouts will tell us so much about the performance come race day, I can't wait to see these horses in action. Apparently, General Quarters didn't look very comfortable on the Churchill track the other day. I wouldn't be surprised if he finished somewhere at the back of the pack come the first Saturday in May, but he's got such a wonderful story, you'd be one cold soul not to want to root for him just a little.

A ray of light in the weekend for me was watching the San Francisco Mile. I've been following Mr. Napper Tandy for a little over a year, since I heard and instantly fell in love with his name during a race I happened to flip through on TVG one day. I don't know what it is about it, maybe the fact it's Neil Gaiman-esque, but the name stuck in my head like a wad of bubble gum to a desk. He lost that day, and lost every race thereafter until Saturday. The thing I admire so much about this horse is how he's entered in all of the big stakes races against all of the best horses, and somehow, he almost always manages to eak out in the money. According to an article in Blood-Horse, Mr. Napper Tandy had been on a 10-race losing streak. He has finished in 2nd place in 11 of his 22 starts. I am in love with this horse. You would've thought I was cheering on a horse with the Triple Crown on the line the way I was screaming my head off and bouncing on the couch, flailing my arms air-jockey style. (You can air-guitar, so why not air-jockey?)

I didn't make a dime from Mr. Napper Tandy winning the San Francisco Mile, but his win made my day. I can't wait to see him in his next start. He seemed to really like the turf, but with the California tracks, the synthetics also cater to his late-finishing style. It probably helped he wasn't going up against a Well Armed or a Cowboy Cal this time around.

Now if only Mostacolli Mort could get himself a win.

And a one, and a two...

This is the inaugrual post of Ghostsnapper, a blog from the backstretch photographer's point of view. I've been writing a weekly turf column, "The Call to the Post," over at but still need more space to spew out all of my thoughts pertaining to the ponies. Today, my first batch of photos went up at If you're searching for Old Fashioned or Papa Clem, mine will be some of the first to pop up (the latest are listed first). As I've only just been admitted to the Horse Photos fold, I have yet to shoot a race "professionally," but will document my first days of that here. I'm sure to be scared shitless once that day comes. Until then, which will be in the coming months, I will be documenting the races I attend as a fan, and tune into when I'm not snapping away at those heart-pounding moments in the flesh.

Tonight, I'm leaving for Louisville in preparation to the Derby Festival. I'll be attending the all of the workouts that I can, try to squeeze in that crowd to witness the Derby post position draw, and gawk at the Pegasus Parade. I've got tickets to both the Oaks and the Derby and am leaping in my skin at the prospect of seeing Zenyatta in the Louisville Handicap on the Oaks undercard.

It's gonna be a wild week. But this is the Derby, and the two go hand-in-hand.