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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing!! Can't wait to hear about the rest :0)