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.