Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ghostsnapper's excellent Churchill Downs adventure: Part II

As a photographer at any racetrack, you have to learn what the rules are unless you want to get yourself in trouble. Unless there's someone at a track I know and can get the lowdown from, I have to speak with the track photographer, who has the final say on where you can go and what you can shoot. Yes, the track photographer is basically the head honcho, even though he's not your boss.

The track photographer at Churchill Downs is Reed Palmer. I, personally, had never met Reed before, nor knew what he looked like, so for the first few races on Clark day, I stood in the platform in front of the winner's circle and observed what Reed and his assistant was doing, where they were shooting, and how often. I was amazed at exactly how late they would show up to shoot each race; it wasn't until the post parade was over and the horses were entering the starting gate did they take their positions. Also, I noticed neither he nor his assistant ever went behind the inside rail because they were never out before the track was harrowed (as a rule, you are NEVER allowed to cross the main track once it's harrowed).

The funny thing about shooting at Churchill Downs is that there is no gutter or birth between the outside rail and the fans in which it's possible for the photographers to stand and take shots. Therefore, all shots taken on the grandstand side must be while the photographer is standing on the track itself or squatting beneath the outside rail. Reed and his assistant stood right against the rail, as far away from the action as they safely could; this is a welcome difference to how the photographers stand in the middle of the track at Arlington and look like they're going to either spook a horse or get mowed down at the finish line.

Two different races I tried to catch Reed without interrupting his job in the winner's circle, but he was gone in a flash each time the winners retreated. It wasn't until about the fourth race that I finally cornered him in the winner's circle and introduced myself and asked him the rules and about shooting from the inside. I found Reed to be very professional and helpful, and his rules were average enough I wasn't thrown any curve ball criteria. He said I could shoot on the inside, but I had to be about in the middle of the turf course the closer I was to the finish line; he said I could be right on the rail if I was far down, but I didn't have a mega zoom that would be necessary for such a shot. Luckily for me, I had recently acquired a ladder for such occasions.

When I shot the Hollywood Gold Cup, my photog buddy, Bob Mayberger, and I had no ladder to shoot on the inside with, and since the regulations on how far back we had to be from the rail were so strict, we had to create a makeshift platform on which to stand. This resulted in me standing on a bucket and Bob standing on a crumpling plastic crate we found in the storage area behind the tote board (along with an abandoned swan boat, but that was too big to drag out to the turf course). We propped the bucket and crate against each other so we wouldn't fall, and I almost knocked Bob off the crate when Rail Trip pulled away to his first Grade I victory and I leaped off the platform in celebration. Good times...

After I got my rules from Reed, I watched a race from the Press Box. The horses look so small coming around the final turn! I took some pictures of the race to see if I liked the angle; the 2-year-old maiden that won (Drink With Pride) drew clear by about ten lengths and made for an interesting shot all alone at the finish. After that, my very helpful husband trekked out to the car to retrieve my ladder and laptop. Having an "assistant" is very helpful in situations at the track!

Once I had my ladder, I made plans to cross the track after the next race was over when I'd have a harrow-free window. I was on the platform in front of the winner's circle when I was accosted by a security guard who had seen me all day and just got around to asking to see my credentials. Nice.
I was the first person to cross the track that day, and what a naked feeling it is to be the sole person striding across that stretch of holy ground, tromping where the Greats had trod, to duck beneath that wide inside rail to set up camp. There was a pretty large crowd on hand that day, some 20,000 for the Clark, and looking across the track at the grandstand, you feel sort of like Noah about to be swallowed by a gigantic whale.

I practiced shooting from the inside, debating over which side of the rail I should shoot the big race later that afternoon. I wasn't crazy about the position, since I'm a lover in tight close-ups, and my lens just isn't big enough for that kind of shot so far away from the rail. All my shots at Belmont taken from the inside were with the rented 300mm; how I longed for one this day! However, so far the light was much better shooting East, as all the horses were in full light and the shadows weren't a battle. Later in the day, as the sun began to move, I had to keep changing my opinion.

Shooting my first turf race at Churchill was pretty special. Being a spectator, turf races are usually the least exciting because the course is so far away from the grandstands; as a photographer, you've got the closest position in the house next to the jockeys and starters, and are right amongst the action. Race 6 was the first turf race of the day, and I used that race to get a feel for where I wanted to be for the River City Handicap on the turf that afternoon. Since the sun wasn't as appealing shooting toward it (no-brainer), I ended up shooting the River City from the inside turf rail.

I know most of this blog is gushing and gushing about how amazing it was to shoot at Churchill Downs the first time, but you have to understand, there really is no other place in the world that feels so much like hallowed ground to me. So when I first strode into the paddock with credentials, it was truly like walking into a dream. For once, I was on the other side of that white fence, and I was freely going about wherever I wanted as I pleased. I looked at the paddock numbers and thought about the horses who had stood there. It was incredible to be so close, in the realm, really, of such a landmark. If the sport of horse racing is the most beautiful in all the world, Churchill Downs is its cathedral.

Shooting the River City Handicap from the inside was definitely the best choice, even with my disadvantage in lens size; but right after that race was over, the sun moved to where it was baring down on the horses head-on. By the time Race 11 was about to begin at around 4:30pm ET, the horses would be running straight into the sunset when they came roaring toward the finish line.

All Clark day, I was all about Einstein; not just because it was scheduled to be his last race (which changed almost immediately after the race was over), but because he is such a hard-knocking champion, a more diverse horse you'll be hard-pressed to meet. So I spent the rest of the time between races deciding that if this was going to be Einstein's last race, I wanted to get the shot of Helen Pitts-Blasi saddling Einstein for the final time, for poignancy's sake. That meant I wouldn't be able to cross the track and shoot from the inside, but that turned out to be just fine, because the sun would be equal on both sides of the rail now.

For the time before the race and thereafter, I pretty much became Einstein's stalker. I waited for him in the paddock, making sure to get shots of each horse in case that horse would be the upset winner (but for some reason, Blame completely evaded me and I have no shots of him until the post parade), and when Einstein appeared, I, as well as the rest of the photographers, were glued to his every move like the paparazzi watching Brad Pitt skip along the beach. Needless to say, I got the shot of Helen saddling Einstein and then some. There wasn't a clog of congestion in the paddock, which is usually the case during the Derby, so my tunnel vision was generally free from anyone stepping in my way. It helped I wasn't bashful about getting exactly where I needed to be. What is it about the Churchill paddock that does that to me? Hmm.... must be that Louisville air!

After Einstein was saddled, and Helen gave him a lingering pat, I stood on the brink of the grass and followed the horses into the tunnel with my lens. Einstein was the last horse in line, being #14, and I followed his heels through that storied tunnel, and into the sunset washing over that golden track like a road of filigree. The shot I took at the moment Einstein stepped out of the shadows became my favorite of the day. But I'm sentimental like that.

Did I really believe Einstein would win the Clark? Honestly, I thought the odds were so stacked against him, I would've been surprised had he won after such an uncharacteristically poor performance in the Breeders' Cup Classic. After all, he was being saddled with the highest weight at 123 pounds, was in the outside post at #14, and would have to compete on a surface that although he loved, was not generally his favorite. He had lost the Stephen Foster to an unlucky trip, and thanks to his generous size, he had been too big to weave between a tight spot to get better than third.

So when I got into position a little behind the finish line on the grandstand side, squatting beneath that white rail, my heart hoped for Einstein to overcome these odds, but felt he would not be an embarrassment should he not come home a winner in his last race. As the 14-horse field broke, they embarked across that track like a flock of gigantic, powerful birds, and I felt a little intimidated practically lying like a bug on the ground out of harm's way. They thundered past, and I got my first clue that the lighting would be wonderful, and I waited to see where Einstein was in the positioning from the Jumbo-Tron.

As the horses came for home down the long Churchill stretch, I began to jerk in anticipation to get in a comfortable position. I was also trying to see where Einstein was in the herd, and I couldn't see his black face in that sun-drenched pack of horses. As they got nearer, I had to judge when I should start focusing, and by the time the horses were closing in, I had no idea where the black horse was in the standing. It wasn't until the horses came thundering past the finish line did I see Einstein, and my shutter followed him away, in third, but in the money. I didn't know who the winner was; it definitely wasn't the gray, Macho Again, and I didn't recognize the silks.

As I walked back toward the winner's circle, I saw my husband and our friend we met at the Derby, Steve, and they hailed me and were jabbering away about the outcome. I asked them who won, and when they said Blame, I started shrieking. BLAME! This was the horse I'd recently told Bob about, I'd added him to my Equibase virtual stable after seeing what a versatile horse he was, a winner over dirty and Keeneland's abhorrent Polytrack. Blame, a 3-year-old colt, won the Clark Handicap! I was very happy if Einstein couldn't win the Clark, the torch would be passed to an up-and-coming horse not so unlike the great black stallion.
When the horses returned, I was in the winner's circle and did not get to see Einstein unsaddled, but I got plenty of shots of Blame returning. It's surreal being caught up in the chaos of a race's finish. Rajiv Maragh walked by talking to Helen Pitts about how Einstein was "just so big he couldn't get through horses" and a few minutes later, Helen walked by with Bob Baffert, and I was a little star-struck, admittedly, and just smirked and tried not to look starry-eyed.

I look forward to Blame's next start; he has a promising career ahead of him, and if he is Einstein's successor, we have a fun road ahead. As for Einstein, since news broke that he will be racing in at least one more start, all I can hope for him is that he remains safe and is kept on the tracks and surfaces he thrives on. The old man deserves to hold his head high and return to the winner's circle.
I'm so thankful to have had the privilege of shooting at Churchill Downs for the first time, and like all great marvels, it is even more beautiful the closer you come to it. If I do get to shoot the Kentucky Derby next year, it will be overwhelming, but in every essence of this storied track, in every breath I take of that Kentucky air, and the red dirt it leaves on my shoes, it will feel of home.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ghostsnapper's excellent Churchill Downs adventure: Part I

I admit that driving down Central Avenue and seeing the twin spires yesterday, I became a little emotional seeing that glorious trademark on the horizon, knowing I would be credentialed at the greatest racetrack in the world for the first time. The sun had yet to peek through the dark morning sky, which was thick with mashed-potato clouds, and the prospects of what lay ahead of me were almost too much to bear. There really is no other way to say it without being cliche: I was like a kid about to be let loose inside the world's biggest candy store.

Though it wasn't the smoothest of entrances for me into the world of a credentialed photographer at Churchill Downs (my credentials were supposed to be left for me at Gate 10, and when the employee at Gate 10 looked at me blankly and waved me inside after I inquired about them, I knew I was in for trouble), I was too enthralled with simply being there to be too bothered by my initial troubles. I arrived at the Downs at 7:40am ET and didn't end up getting my credentials until a certain Mr. Rogers arrived at work for the day, which made me a legitimate credentialed press person at approximately 9:10am ET. So in other words, it was actually a good thing I am a slug in the morning and couldn't pull myself out of bed before 6:00am ET; had I gotten there earlier, I would've had to wait even longer for people to show up to work. I'll make a mental note next time to pick them up the day before I actually want to shoot so I don't have to miss any morning action. I have to add on a side note, that the best view of the entire grounds is probably from the Press Box; there is a balcony that overlooks the track that would quickly become my favorite place to sit in the whole world if I could be a regular there.

Once I was official, I made my way around the backside and entered Gate 5 to the sacred barn area of Churchill Downs. There, I asked the security guard for a map of the barns so I would know where I was going (one of the kind security officers at the entrance had told me I could acquire a map here). The security officer at Gate 5 told me he wasn't allowed to give out maps to the barn area. OK, chalk up another point for Belmont being one of the coolest tracks in America, I thought. At Belmont, they practically give you the key to the park once you're legitimately credentialed. At every other place I'd visited thus far, this is far from the case, and you're often looked at with sidelong glances and met with a certain degree of apprehension. BUT, he did ask me if I was looking for any barn in particular and gladly pointed out where I was going and gave me directions. I looked at the detailed map on his desk and wish I had a camera in my head, or could take a picture of it with my BlackBerry while he wasn't looking, but I didn't, and had to pretend I would remember his directions as I set off to explore Churchill's backstretch.

Of course, I already knew where Rachel Alexandra had been, and I thought, was stabled at Churchill. Being her self-professed stalker, I had researched this and found it in an article online. At the time, I had no reason to believe she was not still at Churchill, for only a few days prior, the Daily Racing Form had reported that she would not be leaving the Downs until the fall meet ended. Since the meet didn't end until Saturday, I thought I had every chance to come face-to-face once again with my wonderhorse. It was almost as if her connections follow me on Twitter and knew I was coming. I didn't know this until hours after I'd circled the Asmussen barn about 10 times and got chased off by someone at Barn 38, but Rachel had been shipped out exactly a half hour before I'd woke up that same morning. Since I was in 007 mode, I thought this Hispanic worker at the Asmussen barn was feeding me lies to throw me off the trail; apparently, "no mas" really does mean "no more."

While Operation Rachel was still alive in my head, I decided to give it a break for the time-being and give Operation Einstein a try. My goal was to get a great portrait of the grand stallion on the backstretch, and I planned on stalking him all morning until I did just that. I will note that I was the only photographer or person of press on the backstretch that morning, oddly enough. I guess the horse paparazzi only converges for Triple Crown races, Breeders' Cup, or Saratoga parties. Being the only photographer on the backstretch that morning made me feel like I owed it to history to record the intimate events before the Clark; it was all up to me. Yes, I think like this all the time. I am aware I'm a bit nutty about this game. But I did get such an opportunity to record history moments after I found Helen Pitts-Blasi's barn.

As I walked down the aisle between barns, I scrutinized the regal horses looking out of their stalls, and when my eyes fell upon the final one, in the stall closest to the barn's office, I was sure I'd found Einstein just that easily. It was a tall black horse without any marking on his face. I was timid at first and asked one of the workers there if they could point out Einstein to me (just to be sure, since the horse had no bridle on). The worker called on someone from the office, who turned out to be the blacksmith, who told me that yes, I was looking at Einstein. Everyone around the Pitts barn was so kind and even seemed to want me to get good pictures of the great horse. After I'd taken a few pictures of Einstein in his stall, the smith said, "I'm going to put on his last shoes here in a moment."

Thus, I spent the better part of the morning getting hundreds of pictures of Einstein being reshod for the last time in training. I couldn't imagine a much more sentimental moment. Helen Pitts-Blasi herself showed up briefly before the shoeing begun, and I was treated to some funny anecdotes about the big horse while he was having his new sneaks fit. "He's tried mounting everything but that blockade over there," cracked the smith. He went on to joke about filling up a bus of Einstein's connections and heading over to Adena Springs to watch the stallion "break his maiden" at stud. "But you couldn't blink; it'd all be over with before you got to touch your popcorn!" This made me wonder how Einstein handled a race with Zenyatta; maybe he was too distracted by that Amazon mare to run his best in the Breeders' Cup Classic; hmm...

And then I was treated tenfold after the shoes were fit. Maybe it was because I was standing a respectful distance away and genuinely seemed interested in Einstein, snapping hundreds of photos of his hoofs being trimmed and the aluminum being hammered to a perfect shape, or maybe it's just that I was in the right place at the right time. The smith asked if I'd like one of Einstein's horseshoes. I about performed a back-flip. I'm sure my eyes bulged out of my head as I thanked him profusely and took the shining dirt-crusted horseshoe in my hand. Just another bit of evidence as to why I believe people in horse racing are some of the kindest, most gracious people you'll ever meet. The smith took another of Einstein's old horseshoes and nailed it above his stall for good luck. And then, when he was all decked out in new kicks, his handler turned Einstein around in front of me and had him pose for my camera. If I hadn't already been a huge fan of Einstein and his connections, this would've won me over instantly; instead, I was in my own kind of heaven.

After Einstein was put back in his stall, and I heard the smith remark to himself, "This is probably one of the nicest fittings I've ever done on him." It was clear that all of the people involved in this great horse have a lot of affection for him, and he will be missed once he's retired.
After Operation Einstein was completed, I decided to take one more trip around the Asmussen barn before getting a proper breakfast. Of course, Rachel wasn't there, and I couldn't help notice how stall #19, which I had seen her occupy in a photo, was conspicuously empty. I'd pretty much given up Operation Rachel at that point, but I wasn't as disappointed as I could've been; Einstein and his connections had already made my morning a rousing success. A visit to the track kitchen was next.

Like most things about Churchill Downs, the track kitchen is located in such a way as to knock you over with its perfect view of the track. I've never seen another track kitchen like it. The windows in the booths are about a foot away from a fence which separates the outside rail of the track from the building. You can sit and have a meal while watching horses thunder in front of the sprawling grandstands and twin spires in the background. For the first race on Friday's card, I stood on top of a picnic table and took a shot of a field of 2-year-olds flying down the stretch and into the final turn. It's actually one of the most majestic views to be found at the park, second to maybe the Clubhouse turn shot, and the view from the Press Box.

I left the backstretch to go practice credentialed shooting at the track for the first time. Part II to follow with my Clark experience...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic from the best seat in the house

Welcome to a special Thanksgiving edition of Ghostsnapper! The horse racing industry has a lot to be thankful for this year, and how better to celebrate it than reminiscing about what we witnessed in the Breeders' Cup Classic?

One of the all-time perks of being a horse racing photographer is having the honor of watching history unfold from pretty much the best seat in the house. There's nothing quite like standing only a jump behind the finish with your hair actually flying in the wind of horseflesh, being carried in that current of adrenaline and flurry of glory; yes we sometimes even cherish that clod of dirt that gets flung in our lenses.

Thus, while I was watching the party erupt at Santa Anita Park after Zenyatta took the Breeders' Cup Classic, a piece of me ached like a missing limb that I could not be there in person to witness history. And since the technology of time travel has not yet been perfected, and I can't go back and somehow experience that moment first-hand myself, I did the next best thing and contacted some of my fellow photographers who were lucky enough to be at Santa Anita on that glorious day for the sport.

The following are direct testimonials from three extremely talented photographers, whose work has been seen everywhere from Sports Illustrated to Blood-Horse. They are Bud Morton and Bob Mayberger (east coast invaders, from Massachusetts and "New Yawk"), and California consummate, Charles Pravata; all great all-around guys whom I feel lucky to consider friends. I asked them their thoughts of the Breeders' Cup Classic experience, and here are their answers...

Bud Morton: "In two decades of photographing thoroughbred horse racing, I’ve witnessed my share of “would-be historic” race days. Failed Triple Crown attempts, epic matches where the wonder horses finished up the track, hyped and honored horses losing on their big day. The dream never came true.

"This year the dream came true, not once, but twice. I had the privilege to be photographing and attending the winning efforts of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta as they made their historic runs at Saratoga and Santa Anita. As these fine fillies crossed the finish line and marked their places in history, the feeling and response of those in attendance was almost identical. Being on the track gives you a unique perspective and feeling. Waves of applause and goodwill flowed to the winners as they returned, and strangers high-fived each other. Even if you were not a fan of the winner, you rejoiced in their accomplishment and felt great that you were there for it. Having an east coast, “real dirt”, old-school bias, I guess that Rachel’s win in the Woodward was more special for me personally, but to have been able to record both events was something I will never forget."

Bob Mayberger: "I still haven't fully digested the Breeders' Cup and all of the visual delights that it gave us. Santa Anita is a GORGEOUS venue and, but for the controversy surrounding its synthetic track, worthy of being a permanent host to the Breeders' Cup. Sometimes when you are shooting a race you can get so caught up in the mechanics of what you are doing that you almost forget to actually WATCH the races as they are being run. That is true for many races, but thankfully there are still some horses whose star power is so strong that they cannot be forgotten or ignored when they are on the track. They simply DEMAND your attention. Zenyatta and Rachel are two such horses. Big Brown was another. You are constantly aware of their position during a race, almost to the exclusion of all others. They have IT (whatever that is), and it is wonderful and magical. I cannot believe that all 58,000 in attendance for the Breeders' Cup Classic were not staring at Zenyatta for the entire race.

"And lucky that they were, for that move that she made coming out of the final turn on the inside rail, and then bursting to her right before straightening out in the middle of the track for her final sprint, was the kind of image that will stay with me forever. To have such disappointment when she appeared blocked by traffic turn into jubilation within a matter of seconds made the entire two days worthwhile. Those are the type of moments that you hope to be able to experience first-hand a few times in your life if you are lucky.

"What I think made Zenyatta's last to first dash all the more remarkable, however, was that she was never reputed to be a horse who possessed a quick turn of foot. Her physical size is not conducive to such a move in traffic and I still marvel as I watch the replay of the Classic how she was able to change course and dart between horses as she did without clipping heels with any of her rivals. But then again, I guess the truly great ones always keep a little in reserve and save their best for last!"

Charles Pravata: "During the week leading up to the Breeders' Cup, I kept hearing "I don't know..." or 'I don't think she can do it, etc." Doubt was in the air. I was hearing this stuff from trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, turf writers, photographers, all of racing's insiders. Surprisingly, by the time Saturday came, I found myself doubting her, too. In the end, I don't think I or most other people doubted her at all. I think we were all just preparing ourselves for the disappointment we would have felt had she lost.

"[But] she didn't lose. Instead, she made history, and everyone in that building walked out of there with a smile on their face. How often does an entire racing audience leave the track feeling great about what just happened? Hardly ever. When I heard Trevor Denman say "She's starting to pick them off now..." I knew it was over. In my mind, Zenyatta was either going to beat every horse on that track or none of them at all. It was just a question of whether or not she would fire. After the buffer on my camera ran out, shortly after she crossed the wire, I pumped my fist in the air three or four times exclaiming "YEAH!!! YEAAAAHHHHH!" I gave a hug to my photographer friends Sarah K.A. and T.J. who shot the race right next to me. The three of us were in a little cluster, on our ladders, just past the wire on the turf course. I also apologized to them for letting loose after she had won. I normally don't cheer, but, this was a special occasion. When I made my way back on to the main track, the first people I saw coming towards me were fellow California photographers Bill M., Tom B., Duane L., and Shig K. Without even thinking we all just started hugging each other. I think it was special for us because she was "our horse;" us left coast photographers, with our fair-weather horses, and all-weather tracks. Zenyatta had been our girl for a while now, and when she crossed the wire in front, we all won. The joy and camaraderie we all felt when we came together on that track will be a lasting memory.

"The icing on the cake was that my dad was in attendance to witness Zenyatta's historic run. It was his first and last time seeing the mare in person, being that he lives on the east coast. A lifelong football coach and avid sports fan, he's been in attendance for the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup, NCAA Football National Championship, NCAA Final Four, and the list goes on. He said of Zenyatta's race: "I've never seen anything like it." He couldn't get over how much it meant to everyone in attendance, and the fact that there were people crying all around him. Not to mention the eruption that engulfed the grandstand when Mike Smith swung her out and got clear. He knew he had been witness to one of the all-time great horses and all-time great moments in sports."

Amen to that. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Einstein: Living up to brilliance

Originally published at

The day of the 2009 Kentucky Derby, I was glued to the rail at Churchill Downs and shaking my head at this 8-year-old girl standing next to me who had been hitting the long shots all day like some kind of pint-sized prophet. She had garnered a small crowd, a fan base that grew with each remarkable pick; in three straight undercard races, this girl picked long shot winners with her own scientific method: the color of the horse's saddle cloth. Each time she won, the surrounding crowd would go into hysterics; her dad lifted her up on his shoulders and people began to beg the little girl for her next pick. I had to comfort myself in knowing that since she was only picking the winners of maiden claiming and allowance races, it would only be a matter of time before my knowledge of horseflesh would eventually win out in the end (thankfully, she didn't pick Mine That Bird for the Derby later on, or I'm sure my head would've exploded). Admittedly, I'm terrible at picking anything but stakes horses because I don't follow the contenders.

But when the field began to parade for the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, I confess a ghost of a sneer crossed my face when I glanced at the tiny prophet. Am I so sinister? Well, maybe I was a little jealous this kid who knew nothing about horses was picking 60% or better on the undercard races, but I also knew this: because she didn't follow the stakes horses like I did, there was no way in hell she was picking the winner of this race based solely on the color of his saddle cloth. After all, she was picking against Einstein.

Like a fine wine, the striking black horse named Einstein has only grown better with age. He is a 7-year-old horse, a stallion, and as hard-knocking as they come; aptly named, Einstein has shown brilliance on all surfaces, from turf and dirt to the tricky synthetics. It hardly needs explanation how rare a horse he is to be able to handle all these surfaces ambidextrously; while most horses need to be coddled and kept to one surface, perish the thought if the ground should turn up imperfect, Einstein has handled them all and is always right there when it counts. He is simply a horse who knows how to win; Einstein has found victory coming from dead last, sitting mid-pack, off the pace, and on the lead—there is essentially nothing this horse can't do. The past two years, he has finished in the money more than 70% of the time. While he has his quirks, like any mortal, he has battled obstacles few horses could come back from and persevered, a champion to the end.

The first time Einstein tried a dirt surface was in his fifth start; the track was a sealed slop at Gulfstream. He romped by seven lengths, winning in front-running fashion after he had raced each of his previous races from dead last. He won his first stakes race in the Grade I Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Stakes on February 25, 2006. Einstein was four years old.

While it hardly seems plausible Einstein could ever be considered an underdog, one only has to look at his towering stablemate to understand how this versatile horse started out as "second best." The time was brief, but the impression was lasting. Trainer Helen Pitts had two promising horses in her barn in the beginning 2007—Einstein and this chestnut 3-year-old colt named Curlin. After Curlin's maiden race, where he romped by a commanding 12 ¾ lengths, the majority interest in the chestnut was privately sold to Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables in a partnership with Satish Sanan, and he was moved to trainer Steve Asmussen's barn to prep for the Kentucky Derby. With Curlin's tremendous prospects no longer her concern, Pitts was left without a chance at having her first contender for the Kentucky Derby, and was eventually forced to watch the colt win the next two Eclipse Awards for Horse of the Year. Einstein was her consolation, but he has hardly turned out to be a feeble prize.

Imagine the devastation Ms. Pitts had to endure when on May 19, 2007, Einstein ran headlong into tragedy while Curlin emerged as the winner of the second leg of the Triple Crown with the Preakness Stakes. On the undercard for the Preakness, Einstein was entered in the Dixie Stakes at Pimlico and unseated jockey Robby Albarado when the horse tripped and fell over Mending Fences, the front-running horse who broke down on the backstretch. Though Einstein was not badly injured in the Dixie, and picked himself up and finished the race riderless, he sustained a bruised splint bone and did not race again for eight months.

Einstein returned to winning form in his comeback race, a one-mile allowance on turf at Gulfstream, but failed to impress in his next start, when he finished sixth in the Grade I Donn Handicap. But after the Donn, he would do no worse than second place in his next five starts, winning his second Gulfstream Park Turf Stakes, as well as his first Woodford Reserve Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs; in the Grade I Stephen Foster on dirt, he finished second to Curlin.
And then came what seemed like a no-brainer to the Einstein camp, to run him in the prestigious Grade I Arlington Million. But the race was over for the black horse the moment he stumbled badly coming out of the gate, and the soft Arlington turf course didn't provide him with the kick he needed, letting him do no better than fifth. But after a breather, Einstein returned to Churchill Downs and the dirt, and defeated the champion Commentator in his first stakes victory on the surface in the Grade II Clark Handicap.

Einstein has proven to have certain races that just elude him; one is the Donn Handicap, another is the Stephen Foster, and the last is the Arlington Million. I don't think there is or will ever be another horse that can claim that. He fared better in the 2009 renewal of the Donn, finishing 3rd, but finished fifth again in his second try at the Million. But Einstein was saving himself for a more historic feat when he flew to California and conquered the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap his first time over a synthetic surface. Not only was the Santa Anita Handicap his richest win to date, he made Helen Pitts the first woman trainer ever to win the classic race.

Though I hadn't been at the track when I watched Einstein win the Santa Anita Handicap, I was screaming almost equally as loud as that day at Churchill Downs when Einstein began to unwind that long stride and he began to duke it out with the talented Cowboy Cal in the Woodford Reserve Turf. There he was, Einstein, the Comeback Kid, the Man of Many Faces, showing us all he had, starting to smoke like a rocket ready for blast-off. You can bet that 8-year-old prophet next to me on the rail was initiated into what it was really like to root for a horse when Einstein came flying past the wire in a flurry of flared nostrils and shredded grass, becoming the first horse ever to repeat victories in that Grade I test. It's one thing to bet on a horse, another to really love one.

Though Einstein was denied his opportunity to emulate Lava Man and be a Grade I winner on three different surfaces when he tried the Stephen Foster again, finishing a hard-luck third to Macho Again after stumbling at the start and being boxed in and checked in the stretch, he never failed to display class and heart. He finished second in the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar to Baffert-trained Richard's Kid as a prep race for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

But the Breeders' Cup Classic was just not meant to be for Einstein. While the race provided a number of obstacles for the champion, number one being the dominatrix Zenyatta, Einstein's scheduled last race disappointed his connections so much that they decided to give him one last shot at glory. The site of this race will be Churchill Downs, the place where Einstein has proven so dominant, winning beneath the twin spires on both turf and dirt. How fitting it will be that Einstein takes his career bow at the track he has dominated with such authority.

Perhaps his most bitter career defeat was in the 2009 Stephen Foster, where Einstein never really got the opportunity to run. He will get the chance to take on the horse that beat him, Macho Again, when he enters the gates on Black Friday. Though he will never be secured a second opportunity at a Grade I dirt race if this be his final start, it would be with sweet revenge if he should show the gray horse what an unchecked, un-boxed Einstein can do over the Churchill dirt. For whatever reason, Einstein has fallen in love with the dirt at Churchill more than any other track, and it has been good to him.

Einstein has given Helen Pitts a great ride, carrying her to victory on both sides of the continent, cementing her name, as well as his own, into the record books. To be given the opportunity to watch this 7-year-old horse compete at the top of his game, when he could’ve been retired to the breeding shed years ago is an honor, and win or lose in the Clark Handicap, Einstein will go down in history as one of the few horses who ever lived up to his lofty name. Dirt or turf, synthetic or slop, he has met each test with the same heart and determination, and that in itself is more than you could ever hope for in a single horse. Einstein may not be able to boast the kind of streaks like the Curlins and Zenyattas of the world, but that only makes him more relatable to us humans; perhaps the lesson he has taught us is more invaluable, too: that we can rise from the ashes of defeat to achieve what was once merely a pipedream.

See updated information of the Clark, including post positions, at

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hail the Conquering Hero

Originally posted in my column at

We will never see another horse like Zenyatta; she is the kind of horse that impresses not only in her heart-stopping stretch drives, but as an individual, pawing at the ground post-race like a Spanish fighting bull ready to charge the cape-wielding matador. If anyone had any doubts as to the extent of her greatness, as to whether or not she deserves to be ranked in the pantheon of the all-time Greats of the sport, their doubts were shattered to oblivion this past Saturday when the undefeated mare was tested against the most decorated field in Breeders' Cup Classic history. Zenyatta had every right to lose this day, and still she was able to pull herself together and push her talents to new heights, turning away this class field and embarrassing them and anyone who had dared to doubt her brilliance. Zenyatta not only became the first female horse to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, she won the hearts of everyone who was lucky enough to witness her amazing display of athleticism, turning her enemies to allies, her naysayers to her biggest flatterers.

And how fitting is it that Zenyatta be named after a classic rock 'n roll album? The mare prances and struts like a rock star; she is in essence a horse with the soul of Robert Plant, combined with the brilliance of Jimi Hendrix. It is not just Zenyatta's thrilling running style that makes her exciting to watch, but her swagger and savoir fare, dancing to each bout like a boxer on her toes, nostrils flared, mane tossing, neck bowed and bulging. Her girth alone imposes the average horse, and coupled with her reputation, it's surprising more challengers didn't try to flee the gate once they saw they were going up against Goliath incarnate. For any one of these traits, a horse should be coveted, but for a single horse to bare them all makes Zenyatta a living legend.

While Zenyatta's career has been marked by seemingly effortless victories, and most would agree she could've beaten any female in her sleep, the Breeders' Cup Classic should've proven the undoing for this great mare. Her season thus far had developed as nothing more than a less-impressive repeat of last year's same string of races, minus the Apple Blossom, and many wondered if Zenyatta had peaked and would have her unbeaten streak snapped in a test against classy males. In the 2009 edition of the Clement L. Hirsche Stakes at Del Mar, the big race mare won only by the smallest of margins, and it wasn't clear whether her regular rider, Mike Smith, had reacted too late or Zenyatta's brilliance was beginning to fade; but her return to form in the Lady's Secret proved she wasn't done yet.

Mercifully, Jerry and Ann Moss decided to take a chance with their undefeated mare and enter her in the Breeders' Cup Classic when the challenge was already shaping up to be a race for the ages, with the decision being entrusted to Mike Smith, who ultimately seemed to have the last word. It was all or nothing; Zenyatta would either prove her class against some of the best horses in the world, or she would succumb to the pressures of facing the toughest test she'd yet have to face. But she saw their challenge and called it.

Zenyatta walked into the history books the same way she pranced into every race prior, two-stepping and pawing the dirt, bowing her neck and putting on a parade for the fans packed ten-deep just to catch a glimpse of her. She would not be outshone by any Kentucky Derby or Belmont winner, or even an Arlington Million or a Queen Elizabeth II winner; going off as the overwhelming favorite, the crowd had come to see the California Colossus battle the rest in the biggest race of the year.

Scripted like a Hollywood movie, the drama before the race equaled the heart-palpitating finish. A chorus of gasps could be heard from the crowd as Zenyatta refused to enter the starting gate. Never having had a history of bad gate behavior, tensions rose as the heavy favorite was backed out and a flock of starters attempted to guide the giant mare back inside the start. Whether it was her proximity to males, her wide girth making her claustrophobic, or the sound of the helicopter overhead making her anxious, the sight of the usually collected superhorse balking at the start was enough to create a contagious spike in blood pressure in the Santa Anita grandstands.

After Zenyatta was urged inside the gate and Mike Smith remounted her saddle, a second event stalled the $5 million-dollar race. The nervous Quality Road, record-setting winner for the Amsterdam Stakes and a brilliant Florida Derby, also refused to go into the starting gate, and as he was blindfolded and urged inside, the sound of the choppers covering the race sent him into a frenzy. Never before had a Breeders' Cup race begun with such a frightening gate scene: the multiple million-dollar horse reared up in the starting gate while blindfolded, bucked and kicked open the gate, and almost got away from the starters as the rest of the field stood locked in their respective post positions. To make matters on the other horses worse, after the gates had been shaken by the delinquent Road, and the talented bay was backed out of the gates and scratched from the race, each horse that had been standing quietly in their posts was also taken out. Mentally, this was a disaster for these creatures of habit. While horses are schooled in the mornings to overcome such adversities as gate issues, breaking habit tends to confuse them and can work up a horse to run more aggressively than he normally would, or cause them not to break well at all.

The latter was the case for Zenyatta. While she has a patented gate break, slow and trailing at the back of the field, when the Classic was finally able to start and the horses were free to burst in a flurry of hoofs and screaming jockeys, the great mare hesitated. For a split-second, an eternity in horse racing, Zenyatta was standing still as the rest of the horses were sprinting away from her. Mike Smith told Blood-Horse, "We got her back in the gate, and she was standing so still I didn't want to move her. But I was a little worried when the gates opened she wouldn't move period, and she didn't. I thought, 'Oh God, no, not today.'"

But Zenyatta did eventually pick up her feet and begin to track the rest of the horses, falling at the back of the 13-horse field behind the last horse, Derby winner Mine That Bird, who also has a penchant for lagging dead last in a field before making a late-closing kick. For all intensive purposes, the start of the Classic was a complete disaster for Zenyatta. After breaking late, she began running on the wrong lead and was tossing her head. Her previous races had proven she may need to be a little closer to horses when coming from off the pace, but here she was running a $5-million dollar race of the year dead last and giving the lead horses more than a ten-length head start.

But the picture looked rosier for Zenyatta when Mine That Bird finally began to trail her; the race was beginning to take the shape Smith had imagined all along. The great mare was now running comfortably, and she was working into a good rhythm. The Classic began to mirror all the other races she had run before, just letting the rest of the field have their run while she waited patiently on their heels.

But as the field turned for home, the horses began to stack six wide at the final turn, and Mike Smith made the move that reminded us just why he is a Hall of Fame jockey. Instead of steering the big mare on the outside, as the team had become accustomed to in nearly every race before, the jockey took her in between horses in tight quarters to keep her from losing ground. "Zenyatta, if she wins this, she'll be a superhorse...," Trevor Denman called grimly to the crowd of 58,854 rapt fans. Masterfully, masterfully, Smith took her upon the backside of Summer Bird, the East Coast classics winner, and then the unsung Euro, Twice Over, and as she swung outside of that great blanket of champion horseflesh, California sunshine washed over her. California sunshine is to Zenyatta as spinach is to Popeye the Sailor Man. Finally, the stretch was all hers, and Zenyatta was allowed to stretch her great invisible wings; her immense stride unleashed with the force of a bomb blowing the rest of the competition to smithereens.

"Thisisun-be-lievable! Zenyatta, what a performance! One we'll never forget! Looked impossible!" Denman called breathlessly.

Just like in her thirteen previous races, she coasted to victory with ears pricking, galloping out without so much as a sweat. How fitting it was she returned home in her final race to the roar of Santa Anita's grandstands, the hallowed old race place that stands as the capitol for California racing. She ruled over the state with an unequaled authority, and cast down those world invaders who dared to challenger her on her home turf.

Jimi Hendrix, Robert Plant, eat your heart out. While rock stars may send us to dizzying heights of musical ecstasy, Zenyatta is the impossible package. She is undeniably brilliant; she is an untested, invincible champion that will live on in all the hearts and minds of those who were lucky enough to be alive to see her. And just like these immortal rock stars, her brilliance will be remembered far after she's gone. Zenyatta will be around for as long as we let horses do what they were born to do; she will be the phantom turning for home and circling the others with her Earth-gobbling stride, and will live in the warm, enriching breath of each California sunrise.