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...
"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."
"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."