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.

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