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!

1 comment:

  1. Great story Jamie. We in our little burg are fortunate to have your eyes to see these great events through. VF