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.


  1. Hey I loved your article...i'm a huge Einstein fan as well...he's like our Sunday Silence.

    Keep up the good work?

  2. Thanks so much! (I like your user name)

    It sounds like we'll get to see him in at least one more race. I'm crossing my fingers he comes back to winning form, the Clark was just too many obstacles to overcome (post position, high weight). Next time...