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?

1 comment:

  1. Really fine reporting. Your passion comes flying through. A few times in my life I wished I could have done what someone else did. This was one of them. Thanks for the vicarious thrills and thanks for the solid answer you gave my detractor on SP site. VF