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...


  1. I've just come to realize that you're one of the Flickr photographers that I admire.

    It's a small world. ;-)

  2. Yes, it is! Thanks for being a fan of my work. :)

  3. Good writing. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed my Google News Reader..