Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"I shouldn't be here": A Belmont Story. Part VI (Finale)

In my heart, I wanted to see Mine That Bird win the Belmont Stakes. The little bay gelding had proved to be such a tremendous horse in his Kentucky Derby romp, and then his affirmation in the Preakness Stakes when he lost to the monster filly. Finally, for the first time, Mine That Bird was being hailed as the favorite. Finally, he could be rooted for, and had a legitimate chance of winning.
But my head said no. Even though the Belmont was a race made for Mine That Bird, I didn't believe he would pull it off. There were too many factors stacked up against him. For one, his jockey was going into the 1 1/2-mile grueler completely naive; two, he was the most battle-tested of all the horses, who would be coming into the race fresh and ready to run the race of their life. And then there was the fact I believed Summer Bird and Kent Desormeaux would steal the show.
The Thursday before, Bill Nack had predicted Summer Bird would win the Belmont. I really liked the horse since I saw him in person in the Arkansas Derby, and after reading his notes in the Kentucky Derby, I believed he would perform big in the longer race (he had a lot of trouble in Kentucky and rallied strongest of all the horses to finish fifth). And then there came the big orange flag: Kent Desormeaux had won three races in a row on the undercard of the Belmont. That right there is a sign I've come to notice; several times after a favorite is upset in a big race, you can look back and see the clues were laid out all day-long on who was hot. If you begin to see a pattern of a certain jockey on a win streak, put your money on him to steal the the big stakes. Unfortunately, I was too busy to make it to the betting windows.

Being tied to the infield, I could only watch the Jumbo-tron as the contenders of the Belmont Stakes began their parade to the paddock. I knew I'd get great shots of the horses coming back out of the tunnel, however, unlike the Derbies I've been to. The contenders are always shielded by their respective ponies from the roaring grandstands, giving the photographers on the infield side a prestine vantage point of the contenders. I took a spot behind the bush, directly across from the tunnel. My nerves were beginning to build. This was it. The Belmont Stakes was upon us. I was about to photograph my first Triple Crown race.

To make my situation all the more nerve-wracking, I was sort of going on a secret mission, unlike the other photographers I'd befriended who had marked their steps and customary positions. I was going to be hauling a ladder down the turf course with the hopes nobody would stop me, so that I could get the "Smarty Jones shot" in the middle of the stretch. I was afraid someone at the track would try to stop me in the last second, because even though Harold had asked for permission, all of the other photographers I talked to about it said they didn't think I would be allowed to shoot in front of the finish line. (Apparently, the rules are extremely strict that you are not allowed to be in front of the finish line shooting. I was going to be on the turf course, though, so hardly perceptible to spooking any horses so far away) I kept looking to Jim Tyrell, the photographer who'd actually taken that Smarty Jones shot, asking him when he thought it would be a good time to start creeping down the turf course with the ladder. He seemed to think of the situation as a covert op, too, and would shake his head, stealing a glance at me out of the corner of his eye.
While we were waiting, police officers on horseback lined up in behind the finish line. Even though they generally looked friendly and served as great subjects, their presence did nothing to cool my nerves. Standing only about ten feet away from us, they represented Belmont Authority. The last thing I wanted was a policeman on horseback running me down for walking on the turf course. (Not that that would ever happen, this is just my wild imagination making things so much more interesting)
Finally, the Belmont contenders began to parade out of the tunnel. I paid special attention to the top four horses I thought had a fighting chance: Summer Bird, Dunkirk, Charitable Man, and of course, Mine That Bird. Taking pictures of moments like this puts you into a zone, where you know history is on the brink of time, and everything hangs in the balance of "anything can change right here, right now." As I watched Mine That Bird walk past the grandstands with the plucky Calvin Borel on board, I thought about the journey this pair had embarked on over the past five weeks. What a trip in such a short time--from relative obscurity to headliners, and that was not in racing circles, but in the public eye. We place such expectations on these horses and jockeys, but really, we should just be thankful we get to ride on the tails of their shooting stars and witness the history that surrounds them. I watched them ride into the sunset under Belmont's storied grandstands, and smiled.

When I saw Kent Desormeaux on Summer Bird, he exuded everything you wanted to see in a jockey before a big race: he looked cool, exuding confidence, and seemed to be turning things over in his mind while taking it all in. This looked like a jock on a mission of redemption. What a difference this Belmont was from the last, where he was sitting on the potential of a Triple Crown victory in the dominating Big Brown.

Once the horses passed us in their long parade, I saw Jim and he gave me the go-ahead nod. With that, I hauled the small ladder underneath the turf course rail and began to trek down the grass course, a long, long, journey to a pole where I would set up my position. Stealthily, of course.

I was all alone walking down the turf course, separated from any living soul. I felt as if I was tackling new frontiers. The closest people to me were litterally the fans in the grandstands. Being the only person in front of such a crowd is a humbling experience. I kind of felt like I was the soul observer of a great spectacle and was entrusted in documenting it.

I found my spot next to the tall white pole, made certain I would have a clear shot of the horses passing in front of me, and then settled in to being an observer while the horses took that long stroll to the starting gates. Not a moment later, I began to hear the familiar words of "New York, New York" echoing from the grandstands, and I smiled hugely. This was reality hitting me in the face. I imagined what it would be like watching this from TV, and here I was, all alone on the turf course at Belmont, seeing it all in person from a vantage point nobody else had. I started singing along, grinning ear-to-ear, thinking about my own journey to New York and what it meant for me. What a funny video that would've made, had someone seen me all alone standing on a ladder in the turf course singing "New York, New York" to myself!

A few minutes later, a pick-up truck started coasting by the grandstands with a guy standing up in the back, waving around a white towel. He was getting the fans cheering in a huge wave! This was a side of the racing people just don't get to see on TV, when the commercials start playing between the coverage. God, how I love this sport. The grandstands were going crazy with anticipation.

My nerves started to calm as the horses were loaded into the gate. I wouldn't be able to see most of the race. My big moment wasn't until the horses rounded the turn, and then it would be up to me. For now, all I had to do was be a fan. I'm pretty good at being a fan.

I took some pictures of the horses loading, and their pause, and break. The grandstands roared. I whooped. Here it was. The final trip, the swan song. I listened for the rumble of the hoofbeats to disappear into the first turn, and the clamor of the fans to dissipate. From there, I turned around and tried to watch the Jumbo-tron, which was at an angle almost impossible for me to see. Strangely enough, I could actually hear Tom Durkin's race call better out there than either in the grandstands themselves or by the finish line. No one was there to drown out the call, for once.
I couldn't believe that Dunkirk was setting the early pace, and though I couldn't hear how fast they were going, I could hear the surprise in Tom Durkin's voice. I honestly thought the son of Unbridled's Song would be toast early on if he was leading the whole way around. There was no way there'd be a repeat front-running victory of the Belmont like last year, I thought. As the horses journeyed around Big Sandy, and Durnkirk stayed in the lead, I began to wonder if it was possible he could sustain his pace and win. I'd never really thought about Dunkirk winning the Belmont, though I figured he had a good shot at placing.

It was at this point I realized the Belmont Stakes was half over. All the anticipation leading up to this point, the finale of the most exciting five-weeks of my year, was almost at an end. But this was no time to be sentimental.

I turned completely around and saw the horses appear again on the backstretch. They would be coming around the turn in just a few moments. I readied my camera and re-checked my settings and the course I'd be shooting.

As the horses entered the turn, I could hear Tom Durkin cry Mine That Bird's name, and the crowd began to cheer. As far away as I was from watching the action, I knew this must mean he was beginning to make his move. And a few seconds later, I heard the Derby winner's name again, and this time the grandstands roared. I have no real way to explain what this felt like, being on the brunt of 50,000 people's synchronized screams. I began to feel tears burning my eyes. I'd never, ever experienced anything like this before. Even in the Kentucky Derby, nobody really has a favorite, nobody is really all for one horse. Most people don't follow the horses long before the Derby to have a hero among them, but it was a different story at the end of the Triple Crown. Here, in the Belmont stakes, the entire whole was rooting for one horse, and one horse alone. It was almost like a trip back in time, when horse racing was one of the most popular sports, and race horses were the star athletes people revered.
Here the calvary came, hurtling down the stretch. I could see them from a long way off, but they wouldn't be well in my sights until they were at an angle in front of me. I could see Dunkirk, the gray, on the inside fighting on with Charitable Man to his right and Mine That Bird on the far outside. But as they came right into my sights and I began to steadily snap, snap away like the sniper on the grassy knoll, I saw Mine That Bird's short lead being eaten up by the on-coming Summer Bird. It all happened right in front of me.

Summer Bird passed the Derby winner with 200 yards to go, and Mine That Bird was all used up. The Derby winners had moved too soon, but the seasoned Desormeaux, too used to knowing that sting of impatience in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, was ready to pounce at the exact right time. Patience won the race. From my vantage point, I thought that Mine That Bird finished second, and I was shocked that Dunkirk had still enough fight in him to come back and place second, putting the Derby Bird in third. A little disappointed, but a little cocky that I'd been right all along about Desormeaux, I gathered up my ladder and zipped down the turf course to photograph the curtain call of the Triple Crown.

I ditched my ladder near the photographer's platform and zoomed down to a good spot behind the hedge to get pictures of the horses being unsaddled. I could've, and should've walked across the track to the winner's circle at this point, even though I wasn't allowed to step inside of it, I could've gotten a clearer view of Summer Bird had I thought about it earlier. Instead, I got what I think is my most poignant shot of the day: Calvin Borel unsaddling Mine That Bird and giving him a final pat on the rear-end before the Derby winner was led away from the celebration, and out of the spotlight.

I was very happy for Kent Desormeaux. Even though I hold a slight grudge against him for pulling up Big Brown in the Belmont last year, he's always been a jockey I've followed. He rode one of my favorite horses of all-time, Real Quiet, and simply for that bit of nostalgia, I will always have a soft spot for him. When he came bouncing down the track on Summer Bird after winning his first Belmont, I felt the tangible vanquishing of his demons. Finally, Kent had found his redemption, even though it was on a horse most people didn't want to win. I stepped out into the track to take pictures of them walking into the winner's circle, and once the garland of white carnations was draped over the chestnut's shoulders, I found a spot where I could stand on my tip-toes and take pictures of the scene inside the winner's circle. After the customary shot over the matel was taken, Kent looked away from the track photographer and looked right at me.

I don't know what made him look over at me snapping away at him with my huge lens, when there was a regular paparazzi of photographers clamboring to get the shot. It could've been that a video camera was behind me (though I don't remember if there was), or maybe I stood out because of my hat. Perhaps I looked like the photographer most desperate to get the shot, bouncing up and down on my toes to take his picture. Anyway, I got this eerie picture of him looking right at me, and for whatever reason, I felt a little like I could now forgive him for losing the Triple Crown. He now knew what to do to win the Belmont, the big fish, the prize buck. He could still be counted on. He had repented, in a way, for blowing the two biggest races of his life.

What happened afterwards is pretty much a blur. I remember Bud saying his good-byes to me as we crossed the track, and I felt increasingly disappointed the fun was coming to an end. I took my memory cards to Harold, who was furiously transferring pictures in the photo auxillary booth. What I didn't know at the time was that some photographers were following Summer Bird back to the Belmont backstretch, getting great shots of him after the race, and taking home souvenir carnations from the famous garland! I kicked myself a thousand times over since I found this news out, and I very well could've been amongst all the action one last time.

Harold and Co. took a long time transferring pictures, and I got to say some good-byes to the other photographers I met: Bob, Melissa, Sarah, Charles, Jessie, and the rest. I got to take a real break for the first time in a long, grueling while, and also had to return my awesome rented photography equipment to the Nikon RV an hour after the winner's circle photoshoot.

Belmont had become a sort of home to me during that week, and I felt very sad having to say good-bye to it. I'd been able to take in its grandeur during its most prestigious race, see all the excitement I could handle, and been on an emotional rollercoaster all the while. Once I handed in my D3 and 300mm, I was finally able to breathe and look outside of the viewfinder.

What an amazing three days. Three days where I'd crossed the borders of comfort, three days where I felt I was creeping around like a criminal doing things where I was certain someone would catch me and tell me, "Wait a minute, you shouldn't be here!" I'd rubbed elbows with millionaires and press icons, joined a photography "harem," made friends with people I admired, and witnessed history once again. And I'd even done it all without messing up my photography. What was strange to me was the fact I seemed to be better under pressure, having found a zone where I didn't let all the hype and aplomb affect me, and I was able to get everything I needed.

I'm proud of myself. For a first-timer's Belmont, I think I did pretty well. If nothing else, I came away from my Belmont experience having found where I belong. How many people can truly claim that? Here's hoping this is the start of many great things. Hey, if I can make it in New York, I can make it anywhere, right?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Stop the presses!

Stop the presses, hold the phone! What's this I hear, what's this?

Just this morning, my husband woke me up to tell me that Zenyatta's owner, Jerry Moss, wanted his unbeaten race mare to face the dominating Rachel Alexandra sometime this year. I squinted at him and said, "Are you just trying to get me out of bed faster?"

But as the details rolled in, and the news held up to truth, I suddenly felt like William H. Macy's radio personality in the Seabiscuit film.

There are three articles that break down the drama of the rippling effects of Moss saying he wanted to pit Zenyatta against Rachel. Here's the first:

I found this paragraph of particular interest:

Moss added that he shares Jackson's negative view of synthetic racetracks.
"It's just that I'm a Californian, I moved out here from New York a long, long
time ago," he said. "I like the people. This is where I live. This is where I
race mostly."

By making this gesture of putting forth an effort to face the other best horse racing in the country, Moss is looking to give Zenyatta a bigger chance at winning the Eclipse for Horse of the Year, which now seems to be his ultimate goal. But me thinks he's still going to have to do better than that should he want to make a better impression on voters. Remember: Zenyatta has only raced twice this year, while Rachel has raced six times already.

Almost immediately after that article was published, Thoroughbred Times came out with the following article, "Rachel settles in at Saratoga," where this bit of news is stirred up:

Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, did his best to diffuse the debate [of
Zenyatta facing Rachel after Moss's statement] on HRTV Sunday morning,
explaining that the five-year-old Street Cry (Ire) mare will probably race next
in the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap (G2) at Del Mar on August 9 since Rachel
Alexandra is expected to contest a three-year-old race at Saratoga.

So it is Shirreffs who is coming off as the killjoy here. I understand he wants to "do right" by Zenyatta, but is sheltering her really "doing right" by her?

This final article from NTRA.com just published within the last few hours, Clement Hirsch next for Zenyatta, and now it seems the pressure for the Horse of the Year race is being put on Shirreffs:

One blueprint has emerged that would keep the 5-year-old mare in California, and
feature repeat appearances in two stakes she won last year - the Clement Hirsch
Stakes at Del Mar and the Lady's Secret Stakes at Santa Anita - before a
potential start in the BC Classic. Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Zenyatta has
never faced males."Those would be the races unless Mr. Moss felt like we needed
to go to New York," Shirreffs said. "We haven't really discussed the last couple
of races."The Clement Hirsch is appealing to Shirreffs since the race is run as
a stakes this year, and not as a handicap, as in past years.

So he's relenting to the possibility Zenyatta may have to face the boys to prove herself. FINALLY. Yet the note about the Clement Hirsch not being a handicap anymore made me crack up. Of course he'll go for anything that looks easier. Agh.

But the owners of the horse, in the long run, get the final say:

After the Vanity, Moss said he wants Zenyatta to have a different campaign in
the second half of 2009 than she did in 2008."We can't do what we did last
year," he said. "We have to find a bit of a variety. She ships very well and we
wouldn't mind shipping."

Thank you, Mr. Moss. I hope this means that Zenyatta will finally get the competition she needs, and the chance to prove her legacy that she so deserves.

So now the puzzle looks much different than it did last week. What if not only would Zenyatta trek across the country to face the regal Rachel, but she also took on the boys in the Breeders' Cup Classic? I think that would satisfy me as a fan of the sport, and someone who scrutinizes the Eclipse nominees. Does that mean I think she would deserve the Horse of the Year title if she should win both of those races? Not neccessarily. One race against Rachel isn't a gage on anything except for how the conditions of that race turned out, but it will give us a better picture on how these fillies stack up against each other.

All I know is, suddenly the clouds are parting, pigs are flying, and I'm counting the days to this possible match-up. I can already hear the jet engines of Zenyatta's plane flying to New York on a journey to destiny. But will Rachel meet her? Stay tuned...

Friday, June 26, 2009

The great virtual match race

Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra have been dominating on opposite sides of the country, and now they will finally face off.

One is a five-year-old Eclipse-winning champion, unbeaten in 10 lifetime starts.

The other is a nationwide sensation after defeating the colts in the Preakness Stakes, a monster 3-year-0ld filly many say is the best since Ruffian.

The race...

...just happens to be at two separate tracks.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rachel's new website

Have you seen Rachel Alexandra's new website over at NYRA.com, Rachel's Sandbox? The blog is being written by my new acquaintance, Jenny Kellner, who dishes about Rachel's arrival at Belmont, the buzz on the backside, and the lead-up to the Mother Goose Stakes. With videos, pictures, and up-t0-date information, this is the next-best thing to being at the track Saturday to see the great filly run in the Grade I Mother Goose Stakes.

If you're lucky enough to attend this race, know that there's a Rachel bracelet giveaway when the doors open, and women get in free. I wish I could get my hands on one of those bracelets!

Zenyatta is racing Saturday, as well. Unfortunately, it's in a different state. She'll be going for her second Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park. My article about the "virtual match race" will be linked here tomorrow.

Monday, June 22, 2009

"I shouldn't be here": A Belmont Story. Part V

Standing as a spectator for an entire race card on the rail, I begin to feel the hours creeping up on me, the sun beating down on me, the hours slipping away into the hooffalls as the sun peaks in the sky, then recedes over the grandstands. Sadly, I'm usually ready for the big stakes to happen so much, that I can be numb by the time the race finally happens, and the anticipation has become soaked like a wet spongue with no suction to spare.

On the other side of the rail, beyond the finish line and behind the scenes, the day moves lickety-split with little time for breathing, or whiling away the hours by studying the sun's movement or the weirdos around me. The Belmont Stakes came upon me so fast on Saturday, I barely had time to become nervous about it.

The day started out with one last breakfast at the Morning Line on Belmont's backside. By then, the waitress was greeting us with a smile, having become familiar with us over this three-day period. I saw Nick Zito and Edgar Prado in the eatery before we were off for the last time.

My husband and I walked through the main entrance of Belmont and the beautiful park behind the gates. The park was filled with picnic tables already bustling with race goers, and musicians stood next to the winding sidewalk and warmed up the merriment; a man walked by us with a six-foot submarine sandwhich over his arm; a group of soldiers in uniform laughed and walked in line toward the grandstands; so many sights and sounds warmed up this spectacular Belmont day. Most of all, I was relieved by the sun in the sky and the lack of rain for the first day on this trip.

We found an empty spot right on the rail and close to the finish line where my husband could set up camp. Even though NYRA's website said no folding chairs were allowed, here we found several people camped out in their own chairs. Bob quickly remedied this situation by going back to the car and getting the camping chair he'd brought as a provision. After he was set up, I went to my "station," the auxillary photo booth, next to the tunnel to meet up with my fellow photographers.

In my head, I was already planning what I wanted to accomplish today. I wanted to plot out the best places to take picture from, and I was gung-ho about getting great shots on the turf course for the first time. I've always had less interest in turf races more because they're so hard to see from behind the main track than the dirt races with that rail in the way. Plus, I admit my binocular vision is severely lacking (that's remedied by my zoom lenses, where I can see clear as a bell), and now I could be right up where the action was.

The photographers were being provided with free boxed lunches, water, and soda, and many were already staking their claims and grabbing their provential water bottles. I took one look at the box lunches, which would be sitting in the room the entire day without refrigeration, and said "no thanks." Sbarro again for me. I didn't mind. I'm a picky eater anyway. I did help myself to the apple and cookie, however.

The honcho of Horsephotos, Harold Roth, was in the booth with his wife setting up his computer equipment to transfer photos once the races started. Lauren was also there, and we talked about where we would be assigned during the big race. Lauren was going to use a 600mm lens and be on the grandstand side of the finish line, a really sweet spot. Being new to the scene, I expected I might get a less-than-desirable spot on the totem pole, since Harold said he wanted to put me in a "unique position" that no one else would have.

After a couple of the early races were over, Harold, Lauren, Melissa (Boo_Boo_Kitty from Flickr), and I walked across the track to the turf course and walked up the long stretch of grass where Curlin had tried the surface only the year before. I admit I got a little too excited when I found a tiny patch of mushrooms growing in two spots of the turf course. This is the kind of insider's view you only get if you're in amongst a handful of lucky people, and I was now one of them. I wondered if there were any superstitions about a horse stepping on a mushroom.

Harold showed me a few different angles he'd had in mind for us to shoot from. The option I immediately thought would be the best situation for me was what Harold called "the Smarty Jones shot," an angle a photographer had gotten in 2004, when Smarty Jones was in the lead in the middle of the stretch, with the grandstands cheering in the background. I only had two concerns: one, the rail would be right in the middle of the horses, and two, what if the winner wasn't in front at this point? Harold predicted the race would "be won by this point," and though I thought he was thinking whistfully, since this is the sport of horse racing, I chewed on that becoming my spot. Throughout the day, I considered other "unique" positions to shoot from, but I wanted to be as close to the finish line as possible, and as close to the horses as possible, and didn't want to shoot from the grandstands for an overhead shot, since I'd finally been credentialed for the first time and therefore wanted to shoot like somebody who was. The other shot I had an interest in was the backstretch shot, a capture of the field heading into the massive final turn, but I knew well the leader wouldn't be in front at that point, since Mine That Bird was a late-runner, and I doubted any horse was going to get away with a Da' Tara move this year.
Bud came up to me early in the day and invited me to a 'turn pahty' (that's "party" for those of you who live outside of New Jersey) during Race 7, if I wanted to attend. Race 7 was the first Grade I race of the day, the Just A Game Stakes on the turf. Of course, I was game. But because I'd never taken pictures on the turf before, I cheated with a little practice during Race 5, an allowance on the widener turf to judge how close I wanted to be for later. Out there, so far away from everything else, the moment becomes quite intimate with the race. Getting close to the final turn, I couldn't help gaze over at the dirt track with the trees shading the background and picture the fleeting image of Secretariat rounding the turn in his legendary Belmont performance, lengthening his margin between he and Sham...

"Secretariat is widening now... he is moving like a tremendous machine!
Secretariat by ten, Secretariat by twelve lengths on the turn. Sham is
dropping back, it look like they'll catch him today..."

Being so close to that place where history happened made me a little emotional, but it wouldn't be the last time that day I was brought to tears.
The first stakes race on the card was the Grade II True North Handicap, featuring the comeback of former sprint champion Benny the Bull. To look at his past performances is nothing short of impressive. Before he was brought out of retirement, Benny had gone out on a five-race win streak, and I was hoping for good things. But as I didn't have a Racing Form on me, just a pocket-sized program of the races stuffed into my Shoot Sac, I overlooked the 6-year-old Fabulous Strike. Taking my position behind the inside rail on Bud's step (generously donated to me once again), I got a great photo of Fabulous Strike turning into top gear as he put away Benny to win. Great performances by those two. It was the first time I was on the inside rail on a fast track with graded stakes competition, and let me tell you... if you think it's loud when horses come rumbling down the stretch to the finish, it ain't nothing like being two feet away from them as they're barrelling headlong straight past you! My sweet Jesus, does it give your heart pause! And given the fact Fabulous Strike tied the stakes record with this performance, you can imagine how fast they were going.

When Race 7 came around, the Just A Game Stakes, I headed out with Bud and Ms. Sarah K. Andrew herself to the long Belmont turn. The two of these seasoned veterans stood up next to the pole while I kneeled in the grass and shot over the shallow outer rail. It occurred to me that if a horse should decide it wanted to go to the outside rail or do something crazy at that moment, I could get into some hot water, and made plans on how to roll out of the way if neccesary. Thankfully, I didn't have to worry about it. We yucked it up waiting for the horses to appear (it seemed to take forever when you can't see anything that's going on in No Man's Land), and then did our thing when the field finally came to us, loving every minute of that close-range thunder passing us by, that flash of horse shoes flying by. Being as it was a turf race, we doubted we had the winner in our sights with the head-on shots, but we all managed to get Diamondrella making her move at the moment it was seemingly being decided. I'd just photographed my first Grade I race with credentials, and it was on Belmont's turn. Not bad.

I got to try out different positions throughout the day and see where my eye took me. I tried the step from the day before, the gutter in front of the finish line, the turn for the grass races, and even behind the tote board. The thing which most cramped up my game plans was the rule the photographes were told the previous day: you were absolutely not allowed to cross the track once the track had been harrowed. This meant that if you wanted to transfer your pictures between races, you had to haul some serious tail to the photo auxillary room and not tarry around in the meantime. If you went to the bathroom, for instance, it most likely meant you weren't going to make it back over the other side of the track in time. I found this out the hard way for the Woody Stephens Stakes, which was dominated by a fire-breathing Munnings.

It took me a long time to walk back to the grandstands after the Just A Game, and I took a quick break afterwards. But the second I stepped onto the track to go back over to the infield, some track official whistled at me not to cross. So, I ended up taking photos from the gutter, but I ended up with a couple of great shots. Unfortunately, they look almost identical to the track photographer's, Adam Coglianese. He got a full-body shot of Munnings crossing the finish, while I got a close-up instead. That made all the difference! I was starting to get the hang of this professional racing photography; that means, I was becoming addicted. There's no going back to being just a casual photographer once you've tasted the freedom of being able to take a shot from whichever angle you want. I knew this would happen.

After the Woody Stephens, I sprinted over to transfer my pictures and returned faster than you can say Speedy Gonzalez. There was no way I was missing the next stakes from the inside rail, the Grade I Acorn. The big filly race was my second-most anticipated race of the day. I was hoping to see Justwhistledixie stretch out her five-race winning streak to six, since she missed the Kentucky Oaks with a bruised foot. I was also hoping to see Four Gifts become a more stable contender, since she tends to win sporadically. And then there was also Gabby's Golden Gal, the poor Baffert trainee who'd been seemingly bulldozed by Rachel Alexandra in the Oaks and scared into submission. The race unfolded much differently than I'd anticipated, but Gabby put in a stellar performance. This is what happens when the fillies aren't bullied by Big Bad Rachel: they show us how special they can be when given a fighting chance.

This shot I took of Gabby's Golden Gal (again, from Bud's step... I think he's going to will it to me!) is one of my favorite race pictures I've ever taken. The combonation of the exact capture of composition, with the clarity and the colors just made me ecstatic. Ah, if only they all could be so crisp!
After the race, it was clear Gabby was over-heated, and her connections gathered around her to douse her with a bucket of water. The poor girl never made it into the winner's circle. It touched me how so caring her people were for her after that big effort. She was so hot, she started to drink from the bucket with which they were wetting her down. I couldn't help but think how good this performance by Gabby made Rachel Alexandra look. If Rachel's main competition in the Oaks had turned out to be Dixie, Gabby had just turned her away.

For the Grade I Woodford Reserve Manhattan, I spotted Bud walking across the inner turf course to the tote board. I learn quickly, you could say. Thusly, I followed him. Here I found a slew of my other Flickr-ites, including Charles Pravata, Sarah, and Melissa shooting from the inside rail. Here, our little party turned into a gaggle of snipers. While Charles, Sarah, and Melissa took the grassy knoll next to the scoreboard, I stood with Bud and Adam Coglianese on this trailer holding up the tote board. It was a sight, alright. The whole thing felt like such an event for me, another first in a series. Here I was taking my first photos behind the finish line of a turf race. "Heaven, I'm in Heaven..."
It was another one of those races that taught me it's not always cool to have the 300mm lens. Luckily, I took a safety shot of the winner, Gio Ponti, on the outside near the finish line, but I had my focus set on the inside horse because it was so close. If I'd been using my 70-200mm zoom like Bud is using in the above picture, I would've gotten both horses in the frame. Well, it's not like it'll be every day I'll be toting around a 300mm bazooka. But it's good to know, anyway.
The big race was forty-five minutes away. I knew I had a little time, but not much. The Belmont trophy had already been carried to the winner's circle, and people were beginning to buzz with anticipation. Soon, the horses would be led into the paddock to be saddled. The moment of truth was closing in on us. I sprinted back to the photo auxillary booth, weaved my way through the thick bystanders to nab a couple bucks from my husband, and bought a Snickers bar to stave off my starvation. Then, with over 30 minutes until the race, I zipped back over the track to secure my safety.
There I stayed put, resting in the grass for one of the first times that day, and was able to let everything really sink in. This was it. It was happening.
The last leg of the Triple Crown was moments away.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"I shouldn't be here": A Belmont Story. Part IV

The last two races on Friday were the Hill Prince Stakes and the Brooklyn Handicap, both graded races, where the former of the two was downgraded in status after being taken off the turf. I was looking forward to seeing Affirmatif live up to his hype, but I wasn't sure how well he would perform on not only a dirt track for the first time, but in the river of slop the Big Sandy had become by post time. All during the post parade and the race, rain pelted down and can be seen in my photos like some sort of hovering translucent snow. It made for some great photographs, don't get me wrong, but it was not a fun condition to shoot in.

Unfortunately for Affirmatif, he was destined for second place, putting in a good effort against a colt that had run previously on the dirt and had been targeted toward his first turf start. Maybe his connections better rethink their gameplan. Here's my photo of Despite The Odds roaring down the sloppy track of Belmont with the sparse grandstands in the background. I found it depressing so few people were at the track on Belmont Eve. It's nothing like Churchill Downs the entire week of the Kentucky Derby. And I'm not blaming it on the rain. It's possible fewer people were in town because there was no Triple Crown on the line, but I'd be willing to bet Derby week is just some other kind of animal you don't see anywhere else. (All the more reason, I keep telling myself, why I should just move to Louisville...)

The Brooklyn Handicap also produced an upset, in a horse that beat only one other in his last time out: Eldaafer. This is what happens in the slop sometimes; the additional distance of 1 1/2-miles probably contributed to this wild card factor, too. I was hoping to see Fierce Wind make a comeback, after showing promise as a three-year-old and having been laid off for ten months after the Florida Derby, but he hadn't won since March of this year and didn't show up again here at Belmont. The horse I actually thought might win was Barrier Reef, but he was scratched before the race. Unless I'm paying attention to the post parade, sometimes I don't notice a horse never made it into the race until it's all over and done with. You kind of lose track of things when you're shuttling behind the scenes.

Anyway, the excitement of the connections was contagious in the winner's circle. You can't help but get carried away by other people's enthusiasm when their horse wins a big stakes race like this. My favorite shot of the day came when one of the connections of Eldaafer, a lady who might've been an owner, grabbed jockey Jorge Chavez and kissed him on the cheek. Someone stepped right in my line of vision for the kiss, but the shot I got afterwards turned out pretty comical, like she was some over-exuberant aunt grabbing her nephew's face for a big smooch. All in all, it was a productive day at the races for me.

While I was off getting muddy and wet, with water soaking my jeans almost up to my knees (I wish I was exaggerating), my husband ventured up in the press elevator to pick up a couple of press party invitations Jenny was saving for us. He came back with the news that although the party invites said to dress "casual," he asked Jenny what would be appropriate to wear and she had replied, "Don't dress up or anything. Just don't wear jeans."

Hmm... I don't know what "casual" means in most circles, but jeans definitely is my idea of casual. And since we had not packed our bags to New York with the knowledge we'd be attending any sort of soiree, we decided a quick trip to the mall was in order to look appropriate. In record time, we dropped off our muddy clothes at the hotel, then found the mall (thanks to our Internet access on our BlackBerries), zoomed inside, tried on clothes, and walked out in spanking-new outfits suitable for "casual" fare.

The party was at the posh Garden City Hotel, probably the fanciest hotel in the area, in the trendy Ultra Lounge. We walked in looking like we actually belonged, for once, and didn't immediately recognize a soul. That ended up being just fine, because I was starving, and they had a spread fit for a king while I looked around for Bill or Jenny.

Did I mention I like party food? There was bruschetta, and toppings galore to stack your own hord'vors, and all kinds of meat, dips, fruit, and unidentifiable nibblings that tasted amazing. They also had this cheesy macaroni that was out of this world, plus lamb and roast beef. And there was an open bar. Since I had been delicately chastized for not drinking the night before in Bill's presence, I decided I'd better attempt to drink something. I decided to try an Old Fashioned, in honor of one my favorite three-year-olds of that year. Turns out, I prefer watching the horse to tasting the drink. Bourbon is definitely not for me. To save me from holding a drink I wouldn't touch the rest of the night, my husband went to the bar and asked for a "girly drink with little alcohol," and was presented with a coconut rum fruity concoction that was almost as good as the Lillies on Oaks day. At least I made the attempt.

One of the first people we recognized at the party was Mine That Bird's trainer, Chip Wooley. We were immediately crying "unfair," because he was dressed almost exactly as he does on race day, with a black cowboy hat, jeans, and a jacket. I guess his idea of casual is the same as ours. He looked as if he was having the time of his life, grinning from ear to ear, just seeming on top of the world. People were coming up to him and congratulating him left and right, and so we did the same. He was so friendly. Bob talked to him a little bit about New Mexico, and I hovered on the fringe of the conversation, though I couldn't hear most of it. They had a live singer (who thought he was Billy Joel) and very loud music blasting in the room, which made conversation pretty difficult.

We also saw D. Wayne Lukas at the party, as well as jockey Stewart Elliott (from Smarty Jones fame), who was sporting a white motorcycle jacket that was driving a harem of girls wild. Being the socially awkward artist that I am, I let Bob do most of the talking while I took everything in and stuffed my face with party food.

We finally found Bill Nack and Jenny about a half hour into the party. When I showed Bill my drink, he actually hugged me. Chalk it up as my good deed for the day. A lot of small talk and mingling ensued, as well as an incident where the chef serving the lamb gave Bill a dirty look for dipping his slice of meat into the gravy (in his defense, he hadn't bitten into it prior to the dipping); we also spent a good amount of time talking with a writer for the Daily Racing Form, and spying on the writer of the Indian Charlie rag. In the background, a widescreen TV played each Belmont Stakes ever recorded in history over the screen, from start to finish. When the conversations started to die down, I wished I could've heard the racing calls. Races just aren't the same without racing calls.

Overall, the night was definitely exciting, but I'm more into the intimate nights out where you can actually hear the person next to you talking. It was just another experience I never thought I'd have, crashing a press party with a slew of big-name trainers, owners, jockeys, and press. Just another moment of this crazy Belmont week where I kept feeling someone was going to turn to me and say, "Wait a minute, you don't belong here." It was strange; in a way, I felt like I didn't belong there, but in a very real way, it felt like I was around my people, that I had, in fact, become one of them.

The older I get, the more narrow my focus becomes on where I belong in this world. Something about the world of Thoroughbred racing is very familiar to me, a place where I can feel at home, no matter how extraordinary the circumstances. I didn't grow up around horses in the flesh, or even attend my first race until I was in the twilight years of my teens, but racing is something you don't have to experience in person for it to get under your skin. It's about appreciating that common love, and I've found that people from all ranks are grateful to you for being a part of it all, whether it's a horse owner, a bettor, or another photographer. It's one of the unsaid wonderful things about this sport, that love and camaraderie.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"I shouldn't be here": A Belmont Story. Part III

Friday morning, I pretty much knew the routine and where the key places were on the backside, though I would've gotten lost had you asked me how to get to Pletcher's barn. On this day, I actually got to see Mine That Bird working out, as well as Mr. Hot Stuff again. I arrived at the main track in time to see Dunkirk coming off from his jog, and snapped my first real shots of him since the blurry sniper shot the previous day. I also ran into Lauren, who also takes pictures for Horsephotos, and had been there earlier to give me the scoop on who was where and what had already taken place. It pays to have informants if you're a photographer. I started deeming us large groups of soaked shutterbugs the "horse paparazzi," as each time a Belmont contender passed, you could hear the rapid machine-gun fire of shutters snapping away.

Unfortunately, I completely missed big contenders like Summer Bird and Charitable Man both mornings. I later discovered I missed Summer Bird's morning jog while I was taking my second shoot of Mine That Bird getting a bath. The backside is such a big place, it's easy to miss things.

After eating breakfast at the Morning Line, the track kitchen, I took some more pictures and then made my first venture across the track before Belmont officially opened. I walked over the turf courses and made my way to the flag pole, where a horseshoe-shaped hedge hugs the grave of the legendary filly, Ruffian. As the rain pelted her headstone, polishing it into a fine gloss, I pushed away the tall grass obscuring the inscription. I had never noticed the road in the middle of the infield before, where the van had journeyed to the middle of the track to lay her to rest. Standing there in that spot, everything came into sharp focus: the fateful match race on the backstretch, the funeral procession, her lonesome night burial. It's suiting she be laid to rest there, looking over the grandstands where she garnered her fame and earned her name in the annals of history.

After I paid my respects to Ruffian, I got ready for the mandatory photographer's meeting in the auxilary photography room at Belmont. Lauren opted out, being a seasoned race photog, but I went so I'd have a good foundation of what was going on.

There, I met with some of the other Horsephotos gang, as well as some of my Flickr contacts I'd never met in person before. It's funny how the Internet can create a reputation for you, good or bad. I admit, I was a little unsure if it was a good thing or a bad thing when I told Bud Morton (a.k.a. budmeister 26.2) that I was Flickr's "Creepy Coyote" and was met with this reaction: "You're Creepy Coyote! Hey, she's Creepy Coyote!"

The photographer's meeting gave me little insight, except for instruct me on how remote cameras were set up. For those of you who aren't aware, a remote camera is a camera that's set up beneath the inside railing near the finish line, and is set to get those amazing shots of the winner running past the grandstands like the ones you see with the Twin Spires in the background for the Kentucky Derby. Turns out, getting one of those great shots is a crapshoot. While you can end up with killer photos, you have to have the luck the horse is in just the right spot running past the camera; you can get a close-up of a flank flying by you as easily as a full shot of the winner in frame. In other words, you're not guaranteed to get anything worth keeping on your memory card. Plus, the photographers have to keep adjusting the ISO and aperature when the light changes throughout the day to make sure they aren't getting nothing but a silhouette. I didn't use a remote, but I found this interesting, nonetheless.

One of the greatest things about being a credentialed photographer, and a Nikon user, is that I got to rent free equipment from the Nikon RV for two days. Talk about living it up! At that point, I only had my Nikon D200 and my 70-200mm lens (which is a great professional lens, but doesn't quite get as close as I'd like sometimes). My camera body, however, wasn't really meant to be pro-grade. Imagine how my mouth watered when I got to rent a Nikon D3, a mammoth pro-grade body, as well as a 300mm telephoto lens. The 300mm is what I used to get my shot of Rachel Alexandra in the Oaks, a heavy beast with beautiful results. Carrying around a mammoth like the 300 gives you a little ego boost, sort of like a guy with a big gun. I call it the "bazooka." I didn't use my D200 or 70-200mm the rest of the trip.

I ended up forming some friendships over Friday's soggy shoot, and shot from areas I'd never before shot from. From walking in the paddock, I became chums with a photographer named Bob. Unfortunately, I didn't get his last name, nor whom he shot for, but he was a very nice guy and later let me use his spare camera rain jacket when the rain really started coming down. (I'd gotten a black Hefty bag and a rubber band to cover my equipment from the Nikon RV, and it just wasn't cutting it as a cover.) When I later watched the races on TV, I noticed Bob several times walking around the winner's circle with his silver hair, khaki vest, and green shirt. If anybody knows who I'm talking about, please let me know his full name!

But of all the photographers I met this day, or the entire weekend, no one matched the character that is Bud Morton. The first time I walked over that river that Big Sandy became in the deluge to shoot from the infield, Bud called out to me, "This is where the real photographers are!" Bud had marked a step on the green step-platform that was his territory, the step that he most liked to shoot from, and not only did he let me use that step about five times over the Friday-Saturday period, he showed me the ropes and gave me tips on how to use some of the perplexing features on my alien D3. You could say he took me under his wing, as I was as green as could be and readily admitted it. By the end of Friday, he introduced me as the newest member of his "harem," as the other photographers joked about his closest buddies being women. My husband, Bob, said he could hear out little troupe cutting it up behind the finish line the entire day and missed being a part of the fun.

One of the moment we were laughing over was a shot I took of Bud with his jacket pulled over his head. With my 300mm being such a zoom lens, I couldn't get anything but his head in frame, and he looks like a steely-eyed Moses staring off into the distance. We joked he had appeared to miraculously part the waters of Big Sandy. What a great time at the races with this little family of photographers, and it only got better on Belmont day.

Even though Friday marked the first day of stakes of the weekend, I spent most of the day as a learning platform, since I'd never shot from behind the finish line before. I thought it would be easier, but let me tell you... it's no simple task shooting a horse running almost straight at you at 30mph and getting him in sharp focus. I had a much easier time capturing horses running by me than right at me; it really takes some practice. My first try on Bud's step I really lost the focus and had to be shown a feature on my camera that finds the focus if the subject moves off the target. This is after already knowing about the "tracking focus." I had no idea there were two separate focusing features I'd have to use to get these shots. I now have a new respect for these shots taken from the inside rail... not only do you have to contend with the crazy focusing and the potential of outside horses ambushing the shot, there's the finish line pole in your way, and you acutally lose the horses at one point, and have to be on guard once they zoom past you. In essence, you only have a few seconds to anticpate where the horses are going to appear and have to latch onto them in only a split-second's time. No wonder Bud said this is where the 'real photographers' shoot from!

To compensate for my misses those first few tries behind the finish line, I made sure to take plenty of paddock and post-race pictures of the horses galloping out and returning to be unsaddled. Here's when I got a lot of good "mud-shots," jockeys and horses returning from the fray covered in mud. Though it's filthy and oppressive, I find it romantic to see the result of a hard race with dirt and mud covering the faces of these subjects. These athletes work so hard, and are so under-appreciated in the realm of sports; to me, the mud and dirt symbolize the mark of toil and triumph. You don't get the concrete proof like that with the synthetic tracks. Just another reason why California racing is inferior to the East Coast, in my humble opinion.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Call me Ms Bad Luck this weekend

It was not a good day to be a horse out of my Equibase virtual stable this weekend. Absolutely none of my horses won this weekend, and of those, all but one was a favorite. I guess this serves as a reminder of two things: one, why I shouldn't be a bettor, and two, horses don't run on paper.

What was so shocking was how badly some of these all-star horses were beaten. As for Music Note's dismal performance in the Ogden Phipps, finishing a career-worst fifth place, there really was no rally, which I don't ever remember seeing from this filly. My first thought was I hope she wasn't injured, because a flat performance is a far cry from this game horse's usual self.

And then the Stephen Foster! I was screaming my head off once again for Einstein, but this time in vain, as not only did the big horse stumble at the start, he was boxed in for most of the race, kept having holes shut on him, and was too big to thread through them when they did open. He made a big rally when he was able to bully is way through a hole at the last possible moment, but it was too late in the last furlong of the stretch, and he finished third--THIRD--behind (of all horses) Macho Again and Asiatic Boy. Now, I've liked Macho Again in the past, but this horse is very inconsistent and, in my book, is not Grade I material. I wish it'd been at least a better credentialed horse to beat Einstein if it had to happen. I don't think the best horse won in this race, however, as Einstein was just the victim of a terrible trip. I don't have any blame for Julien Leparoux, as he did everything he possibly could to keep the big horse out of trouble and put him in the positions he needed to be in.

And then there was the Californian, with my two boys, Rail Trip and Mr. Napper Tandy entered to run. Once he had Ball Four put away, I thought at least Rail Trip would be back in the winner's circle, but the longshot Informed snatched away the lead in the final strides and dashed those thoughts. At least he stayed for second money. Meanwhile, my poor Mr. Napper Tandy must've been kaput from his huge effort in the San Franciscan, and finished next to last. I still love you, boy!

And then today's race with Indian Blessing was a complete shocker. Of all horses to turn in a limp handshake of a performance, I didn't think it would be her. In her first start since running second in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen, Indian Blessing finished fourth behind a field that normally wouldn't dare to lick her heels. The ungraded Desert Stormer Stakes was Indian Blessing's first race at Hollywood Park, and her trainer, Bob Baffert, quipped immediately after the race that it would be her last. This should put into focus how hard it is to come back from the long trip to Dubai and put in such a hard performance. Curlin came back in virtually the same amount of time last year when he won the Dubai World Cup and then won the Stephen Foster. Each year, I think I will gain a greater respect for that amazing champion.

Probably the most thrilling race of the weekend had to be Miss Isella's harrowing surge to victory under Calvin Borel in the Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs. In a patented rail-hugging ride, Borel guided Miss Isella alongside one of the leaders, Distinctive Dixie with Jesus Castanon aboard. Isella was well beside him when Castanon tried to shut Borel out, throwing Miss Isella into the rail. In a feat of sheer bravery and athleticism, Miss Isella didn't let the scare intimidate her and shot out of that tight spot to then dogfight with Swift Temper before eventually taking the Fleur de Lis by 3/4 of a length. (Oh yeah, this was a race that I was sure Santa Teresita would stroll home in, I should mention.) Count Isella the newest member of my barn, but after this weekend's luck, that could be curse in desguise.

In a twist of irony, one of the horses I kicked out of my barn this year turned in the performance of a lifetime when denying Kip Devile his comeback in the Grade III Poker Stakes. Sailor's Cap came back after a 6 1/2-month layoff to draw away from the rest of the field. Favorite Kip Devile finished (what else?) a dismal fourth, having no excuses while being the clear early leader. Unfortunately for Kip, I doubt this bad luck is a product of being a horse I favored. In his last start, the $5 million Dubai Duty Free, Kip finished tenth place after a year steadily declining in performance. Dare I say it's time to either give this guy a long break, or consider retirement?

If I don't turn in the Bemont Part III blog tomorrow, I give you all persmission to hunt me down and hog-tie me to my computer so that I may do so. That's another way of saying I shall not fail you this time.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Stephen Foster, et. all interlude

As my previous Belmont blog took an unprecedented three hours to write, it's been a slow-going to get all of the next one written down. I wanted to take a moment out to mention the big races today in the meantime.

It was exactly one year ago I saw Curlin race in person for the first and only time in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, something I'll never forget as long as I live. The images of his coat shining like living gold, his diehard fans clambering in the grandstands, and the moment he started making his move around the final turn will be etched in my memory as fragments only a champion could leave in his wake. Curlin's presence would hang heavy over the racetrack today if I had gone to see it; once you see a horse like him in person, it's hard to shake off the impression he leaves on you. I feel I was lucky to be in such a horse's presence, to see him at the pinnacle of his career, immediately after his seven-length romp in the Dubai World Cup.

But I digress, Curlin isn't racing in today's Stephen Foster. Today, a horse Curlin beat in last year's renewal will be attempting his own bid at greatness: the versatile Einstein will try to become the first horse in history to win three consecutive Grade I races on three different surfaces. The triple started with his win in the Santa Anita Handicap, which is a mother of a race in itself. Then he went to Churchill Downs, where I saw him win a thriller in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic against a game Cowboy Cal in the Kentucky Derby undercard.

Few horses can transfer their dominance to different surfaces, and for Einstein to do it on three is remarkable. He won the Clark Handicap over the dirt at Churchill last November against Commentator and a furious Delightful Kiss, so he has been hailed as the favorite in this year's Foster. With Curlin out of the picture, Einstein has little standing in his way to history.

A second race I'm chomping at the bit over is the Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park, where Rail Trip (previously undefeated before Ball Four broke his five-race win streak) will be pit against some heavy competition. Not only is Ball Four back to gloat, but my personal favorite horse, Mr. Napper Tandy, is also entered to run. The five-year-old Mr. Napper Tandy has finished second 11 times in 22 starts and finally won a race in his last outing, the Grade II San Francisco Mile over the turf. A veteran of graded stakes competition, don't count out this war horse against the likes of Awesome Gem, Mast Track, and Dakota Phone; the Californian will be run over the main track.

Today also marks the day of Music Note's four-year-old debut. She's running in the Grade I Ogden Phipps Handicap at Belmont against stablemate Seventh Street and Seattle Smooth, who's won her last three races. Music Note was probably last year's second-best three-year-old filly from the summer to fall season. Though in her last start she ran third, it was in the Ladies' Classic, and only Zenyatta and Cocoa Beach were in front of her. When she wasn't being tested by the valiant Proud Spell, every other race she coasted through last year. Expect to see big things from her today in the Phipps.

Unfortunately for me, I will be watching all of these races taped, because I've got a long day of work ahead of me. I hope all of you enjoy the exciting races today, and if you're going to the track, be sure to bring your camera.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Kent Desormeaux wins his first Belmont... on the wrong #@&* horse!

My latest article in my weekly column, "The Call to the Post" is up one day early. In it, I give my long-awaited Belmont Stakes/Triple Crown wrap-up and discuss the Borel angle of the race.

Tomorrow I will have Friday's installation of my "I shouldn't be here." Belmont saga.

Is the suspense killing you?!

If you haven't already, you might want to check out my Flickr photostream, where I'm posting the best photos from my Belmont experience.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"I shouldn't be here": A Belmont Story. Part II

It took me a few hours to upload all of my shots back at the hotel, and to dry off from the morning rain and mud. Once I returned to Belmont, I put my press credentials to use for the first time during racing hours.
The last time I'd been to Belmont Park, I was seventeen or eighteen years old. It was the first time I'd ever stepped foot on a Thoroughbred racetrack, and when you could say I broke my maiden by watching my first live race. I distinctly remember the first time I took in the immensity of Belmont's 1 1/2-mile oval, which was nothing short of the same breathtaking awe one experiences upon seeing the Grand Canyon. This was the site of the most famous race in history, where the mighty Secretariat blew away his competition by a jaw-dropping 31 lengths to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. I envisioned his ghost jogging around the final turn, Chic Anderson's timeless words echoing in my head, "Secretariat is widening now, he is moving like a tremendous machine!"

I didn't get to see much but turf races that first day, but I was there long enough to get into trouble. Gawking at the paddock, nobody stopped me as I meandered up to the Secretariat statue and snapped away with my Canon automatic, and only when I began to walk through the tunnel next to the parading horses and got a dirty look from a groom did I realize I was probably not supposed to be there. I still can't believe nobody ever kicked me out.

I had very much the same feeling as I walked past the security and into the paddock with my press credentials, only this time, I had a renewed respect for it all. It amazes me how only five or six years can make you forget. Yes, I remembered the enormity of the track, but I had forgotten how gorgeous Belmont is. I see it on TV every year, but to be there, among the archways of ivy, and in the presence of the historic paddock, is to be transported to another time. It may be 2009, but it may as well have been 1969 (in 1968, the first grandstand was demolished and rebuilt into what stands today). Maybe I was too young to appreciate it all, or possibly it was too much to take in at once, but the sheer green of Belmont is overwhelming and even nurturing to the soul.

I took pictures inside the paddock of horses being saddled and taken down the tunnel to race, and for the first time, stepped into the winner's circle and into what I call "the gutter" to take a finish line photo. Honestly, I had no idea where I was going, or if what I was doing was against the rules. I pretty muched looked at what other people were doing and followed their lead. There weren't many photographers present on the Thursday before the Belmont Stakes, and not many people at the track, in general. It was still raining in a steady mist, just enough to make you soggy and annoyed (But really, it was hard to be in anything but bliss and awe in the position I was in--I hardly noticed how wet I really got). Standing in front of the fence separating the fans from the track was pretty amazing, even though it was just a maiden claiming race. It was like easing into a lifestyle you had in a former life, simple and practiced without having to think much about it.

After the race was over, and I'd gotten my feet wet both figuratively and literally, I decided to finally give Bill Nack a call. I had no idea what I was calling him for, exactly, but since he'd given me his cell phone number and had been so friendly, why not try to meet up with the living turf legend? Maybe I could at least offer to buy him a drink, now that we were finally in the same town.

He answered my call almost suspiciously at first, "Who is this?" and when I told him who I was, he actually chuckled! Maybe he didn't even know what he was going to do with me exactly, but he said he was working and I should call him back in an hour. I got some food in me in the meantime (ahh lovely reheated Sbarro pizza, how you save me), and after the hour was up, I called him and he said he'd meet me downstairs where I was, in the paddock.

That's pretty much when my trip shot off into the stratosphere of "what the hell is going on, and how did I get into this situation?"

Bill came down and greeted me like an old friend, and walked down into the heart of the paddock with me to check out the Secretariat statue. The statue had been involved in a freak accident only a week before when a horse got loose and somehow ran into it. Reportedly, only the base had been damaged, and Bill began inspecting it for any hints of trauma, as if checking over a precious Mercedes after an accident. The traditional blanket of carnations in honor of the Belmont Stakes was covering the base of the statue, so there was really no telling if any damage was visible. And then, almost comically, Bill asked if I'd take his picture in front of it. I'd been secretly trying to figure out how to take this shot without him realizing it all during his inspection, and gladly obliged.

I don't really remember what we chatted about during that time, I was and always am so humbled to be around him, I'm sure whatever I said was little more than small talk. I'm pretty much worthless in conversation with most people, I admit. I have no knack for sociability; I'm your patented mumbling writer/artist-type.

Anyhow, inexplicably, Bill decided I was worthy of a tour of his stomping grounds, and swept me up into the elevator marked "PRESS ONLY." He proceeded to take me up to the press box, which is located at the topmost part of the grandstand, where I was blown away by the posh view of the sprawling track. He then began introducing me to every other person in the room, from Dan Liebman, the editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse magazine, to Tim Layden, the Sports Illustrated writer who penned the recent cover story of Mine That Bird's Kentucky Derby victory, "Did that really happen?" What made me really feel humbled is that he introduced me to Liebman as "An up-and-coming equine photographer" and had him give me his business card to submit my pictures to. While I didn't know the first thing to say to Liebman, except for "Thank you, I love your magazine" (LAME, I know), I found some sort of words to put together to gush to Layden over his article.

Bill showed me what he called his favorite thing in the press box, a complete collection of American Racing Manuals. Inside each is a complete racing record of all the noteworthy horses, Eclipse winners, you have it. I told him that's what I needed to answer The Blood-Horse's And They're Off! trivia question about Carry Back (which I guessed right, but didn't win the drawing of, thankyouverymuch). Bill is fascinated with statistics and numbers, a regular fiend of trivia. Go figure, if you've read his Bible on Secretariat, that's a given.

I asked him when would be a good time to cross the track to see Ruffian's grave in the infield, and he directed me to go before the races started tomorrow. I could tell he respected the fact I wanted to see it up close, but this day, he didn't seem like he wanted to revisit her story much. He did reveal to me the press box was where he watched Secretariat's Belmont, and how after the race was over, he was running down the stairs, shouting to one of Big Red's naysayers, "I told you he could go over a mile and a quarter!" What a view that must've been of those long 31-lengths; the best view in the house, really.

We were up in the press box for hours, watching races proceed beneath us and talking, among other things, about the historical fiction Civil War book he wanted to write, Barack Obama's mark on Washington D.C., and how he wished the person who instigated torture to P.O.W's would be revealed. This is the sort of conversation that crops up once you run out of horse racing anecdotes. Bill Nack has a lot of convictions about politics, and a good head on his shoulders when speaking about it. He also admitted he was often yelled at by his wife for throwing things at the TV, like when Bush and Co. said they probably made a mistake for invading Iraq.

On our way out of the press box, Bill introduced me to Jenny Kellner, an award-winning journalist and media specialist for NYRA. Though they never said how many years they've been friends, it's clear Bill and Jenny are very close. Bill said if we're not busy, we should join them for drinks at Waterzooi, a restaurant famous for mussels. How could I refuse?

After a hug and a kiss from Bill, I left Belmont Park that day feeling like I'd walked into some strange alien body, and it was all a dream. It was about to get a lot more surreal that night, when "some people getting together" ended up being an intimate dinner with Bill, Jenny, her husband, my husband, and I, sharing mussels, mozzerella, and a mousse over talk about the business, Cormac McCarthy, the AP, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hunter S. Thompson.

The highlight of the night was Bill's precise recitation of the last page of The Great Gatsby while we sat around the half moon-shaped table and ogled in reverie. You see moments like this in the movies and say to yourself, "Nobody does that. That never happens in real life." By God, it does when you're surrounded by award-winning authors who knew legends of literature. Hunter S. Thompson actually typed out Gatsby's novel to learn how to form beautiful sentences. Bill told us a story about Hunter's sense of humor, how he found ridiculousness, black comedy in moments that were supposed to be serious and foundation-shaking; he also told us about the mounds of drugs he would take and barely seem affected by them. Of course, Hunter opperated on drugs, so it's possible nobody ever knew what he was like when he was off them.

I found out that Jenny was the person who was looking to buy my picture of Curlin I took in last year's Stephen Foster. Strange how things come full circle. At the time, I had been credentialed by nobody and had no idea what to tell the intern who asked me how much I wanted for the photo to run in an ad in the Daily Racing Form. In desperation, I had contacted Charles Pravata, a photographer I have deep respect for I knew through Flickr. He told me he would charge no less than $200 for three-day usage in print, so that's what I asked for. Obviously, that price was too high for NYRA. Jenny said their going rate for one photo is $100. Damn. The sad thing is, I'd told the intern I'd negotiate, but being an intern, the kid obviously didn't know what that meant and the deal never happened. Jenny and Bill exchanged a glance at this. In this moment, I suddenly felt like in a way, I belonged.

The night ended late for me, who was barely getting by on my measely four hours sleep, but I could've stayed for hours more with that great conversation. I discovered Bill likes wine, and one of his rules for drinking is to never drink alone, or while he's working. He was disapproving of my un-alcoholic beverage that night, but he was gentlemanly about it and didn't pressure me about it. They gave me a second chance to redeem my faux pas the next night: Jenny invited us to the press party on Belmont eve.

I found myself once more asking myself the phrase that would become the mantra of the trip, "How did I get here?"

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Breaking News

This is such disappointing news. The little gray put in such a tremendous effort in the Belmont Stakes. He deserves to get a victory, he's been pit against so many monsters, he's barely been able to win a thing. The linked article from Thoroughbred Times says he's expected to return to racing in the fall.

I'll believe that when I see it.

Some good news: did you notice that Quality Road worked out on Monday? He worked 3 furlongs at Belmont in 38:83, breezing on a fast track. Let's hope he returns to racing soon and doesn't have any more Big Brown issues.

Monday, June 8, 2009

"I shouldn't be here": A Belmont Story. Part I

The whirlwind that was my half-week Belmont stint was marked by countless times where I found myself thinking, "I shouldn't be here." From plodding through the hallowed backstretch and over the historic track, to rubbing elbows with Eclipse-winning trainers and writers, "surreal" is the most fitting superlative I can come up with to describe my account in one word.

It all started out exactly as it would come to end: completely exhausted and strung-out. I arrived in New York City after midnight Thursday morning, and my head didn't hit the pillow until after 1:00am. Those who know me personally will attest to the fact I don't usually see the other side of 8:00am, and that if I don't get at least 8 hours of sleep, I'm nearly useless. This entire trip, my sleeping habits were of some other type of creature unbeknownst to me. I think it's known as an "early riser," or more appropriately, a rooster. Either way, I have yet to alter my state of being from rooster-ness to "Normal" mode.

Thursday morning, I woke up at 6:00am ET sharp (that's 5:00am CT, my time zone) and got ready to take pictures on Belmont's backside. The only thing in the world that could've gotten me out of bed after only four hours of sleep would be watching world-class race horses getting baths and jogging in the wee morning hours. So off I went, with my trusty camera and bazooka zoom in tow.

Belmont Park was only about twelve blocks away from my hotel, the Howard Johnson. Discovering this made me so happy, I thought I might cry. Oh yes, being on the verge of tears is also a trait I have when I'm rolling on very little sleep. Fear not, there was remarkably no crying on this day, and after all its "wow" factors, I believe I deserve a pat on the back for such an effort.

I picked up my credentials (I can't tell you how special I felt to be "officially credentialed" by the nice security guard who pulled out my press pass) at the front building by Gate 6, the entrance to the stabling area. Not knowing what to do with my car, I left it at the building and went on foot. It had started raining early in the morning, and the ground was full of mud and vast water puddles. So much for my spanking-new hiking shoes. At least I came prepared with a good raincoat. Just as I was leaving the building, Mine That Bird's trainer, Chip Wooley, hobbled by on his crutches and got into a black limosine out of the park. I didn't think about it at the time, but he was probably going into the city to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange with Calvin Borel.

Thus began the surreal aspect of this trip. I was now officially a part of this scene, whether I recognized it or not.

The Kentucky Derby winner's barn is practically the first barn from the entrance. Immediately, I came upon a throng of reporters and photographers waiting outside for Mine That Bird. I was star-struck when I recognized award-winning photographer Barbara Livingston standing among the photographers, as well as the award-winning turf writer and senior correspondent for Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin.

Part of me expected everyone to turn around and say, "Who are you, and what are you doing here?" But nobody did, of course, because they were all waiting for the Bird to make an appearance, and nobody really recognizes anybody in the photography world unless they've met you before or seen pictures of you.

I fell right in with the other shooters, as natural as anything I've ever felt. By this I mean I knew exactly what shots I wanted, and where I should stand, and how close I should get. I was a little giddy, finding myself laughing aloud when all the shutters would start clacking at the same time, when the Bird would stick his tongue out or put on an "eagle face." We're all looking for the same thing, after all: timelessness, a sense of awe about this underdog Derby winner, and something to make people smile. He's such a likeable fellow, taking endearing shots of him was a piece of cake.
I first saw Mine That Bird walking inside the shedrow with his groom. Each time he would pass the window at the end of the barn, he would stop and look out of it. He and his groom obviously have a special relationship. When they next led the gelding out of the stable and gave him a bath, the little smile on the groom's face was telltale. They've come such a long way together. Here they were, at the Belmont Stakes, with a gaggle of media surrounding their every move, hanging off every breath, and snapping away at every pose the Bird was making.

After Mine That Bird was taken back to his stall, the procession of photographers moved. They seemed to have an idea of where they were going, so I followed. I ended up walking right past D. Wayne Lukas grazing Flying Private outside of his stable.. Steve Haskin was talking to the trainer. It ocurred to me it would be wise to follow the seasoned turfwriters. They seem to have a radar for what's going on at what time.

I got a little lost after that, taking pictures of the backstretch roosters and cats strutting in front of the passing horses. A list of all the Belmont contenders and their barn numbers was included in my press packet, but there was no map, and to a newcomer like me, the backstretch was a positive maze. I attempted in vain to find Dunkirk, Charitable Man, and Summer Bird, but only managed to take a blurry, grainy picture of Dunkirk walking the Pletcher shedrow reminiscent of that famous Bigfoot image. Dunkirk never came out of the barn, proving once again to be my elusive target (I missed him every day during Derby week).

Deciding I'd better find some people who seemed to know their way around, I made my way through the muck and puddles to the training track, the center of activity. There I found a slew of photographers waiting for someone, and a few minutes later, Mr. Hot Stuff came walking down the tree-lined path to step onto the track for a gallop. Edgar Prado, who was riding him in the Belmont, came to observe his workout and leaned on the rail as the horses jogged by.

I noticed Mr. Hot Stuff didn't look as regal as he had the week of the Kentucky Derby. He wasn't strutting like a stud, though he still retained that Black Beauty-gorgeousness he showed off at Churchill. I overheard Barbara Livingston mention she noticed the same thing. "Maybe he's finally turned into a race horse," she laughed.

We followed Mr. Hot Stuff back to his stable and watched him get a bath. Here's where I went berzerk taking photos. He's simply too photogenic to resist! Also, unlike the area around Mine That Bird, where guard rails kept everyone at a distance, we could walk right up to the black half-brother of Colonel John. Everyone was respectful of him, and Eoin Harty showed up to observe the scene.

The training hours were pretty much over by the time we'd finished shooting pictures of Mr. Hot Stuff. Training stopped at 10:00am-ish.
Soaking wet, mud-streaked, and needing to upload my pictures to Horsephotos, I took one quick walk around the Belmont paddock and reacquainted myself with the place. I would have much more time to learn all of its pathways later. Not only did I have to upload my photos, I had promised I would call turfwriter Bill Nack once I got into town. I went back to the hotel and prepared myself for what would be an eventful rest of the day.