Sunday, December 19, 2010
Today is the first day where you can vote on all of the entries for the contest. You can vote every day through the 25th of December, and the top ten will then go into the final round of voting.
Here is the link to the finalists, where you can vote for your favorite 10: http://tbablogs.com/Photos.php
I was very excited to find several of my friends' photos included in the contest, many of which you will remember from my stories in this blog. :-) Good luck, guys!
I appreciate everyone's support! Happy holidays to everyone this season.
Here are your two favorites from my batch:
Sunday, December 12, 2010
|My entry fom 2009 was well-received, but not enough.|
So this is where you come in. What follows is a set of pictures I think are my best chances for bagging this contest. Honestly, I've seen a ton of photos by my fellow photographers that have blown me out of the water this year, so I'm not expecting to win, but I have a few good pictures that stand a shot, so what the heck? My thinking is that the most sentimental photo is likely to win, as most people judge with their hearts, not a fundamental knowledge of what it takes to capture a knock-out horse racing photograph. (And when it comes to sentimental photos, I think Zenyatta has the edge this year.) With that in mind, you won't find a lot of win shots or photos taken on the physical track in those that I've selected for your consideration. I may be wrong in this idea, so prove me wrong if this is the case by voting for something else.
Without ado, here are five photos I've taken during 2010 that I am considering submitting. I can only submit TWO photos to the TBA contest. Please help me make this difficult decision by voting on your favorite two in the comments below.
|Like a Prizefighter|
|Fiji: Water of Champions|
|The Pied Piper of Arlington|
|To the Winner's Circle! |
(Lisa Borel is carried over a sloppy track to meet husband Calvin Borel after winning the Kentucky Derby.)
|Zenyatta and John Shirreffs|
Monday, November 15, 2010
Seconds after the field broke for the 2010 edition of the Breeders' Cup Classic, track announcer Trevor Denman cried, "Zenyatta is dead last!" The grandstand erupted with an appreciative laugh. The whole stage was set for a show, after all, and most of the 72,739 people watching from the stands weren't just your typical race-goers, they were fans of the starlet, Zenyatta. They knew her usual moves, her typical dramatic run as she always came from the back of the pack to sweep past rivals, giving them a performance to raise their voices to ear-splitting crescendos before snatching victory at the wire. It always seemed like she was saved from being buried near the back of the pack, as if carried on angel wings to win by some miracle of God; because doubtlessly, if there is a God, He, too, must be a Zenyatta fan.
But as Zenyatta found daylight off the final turn and started sailing over that hallowed stretch of ground toward the finish line, goosebumps racing down our arms with every great gobbling stride, we watched the birth of history as a stubborn horse by the name of Blame denied her that miracle. Make no mistake, Blame is not evil incarnate. Zenyatta simply met a freight train she could not run down this day. As they bobbed heads past the wire, Blame saw her and sped away from that behemoth, never knowing that great mare would put him in the history books alongside the names of Upset and Onion, the greatest spoilers of all-time. Zenyatta returned to be unsaddled to a standing ovation for her runner-up effort. Despite the jubilations of winning jockey, Garrett Gomez, Blame only received a smattering of cheers for his victory. Like an ending written by the Coen brothers, it wasn't a finale like everyone expected, but it was a finale none would ever forget.
Featured in W Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and Oprah's O Magazine this fall as one of the top 20 most influential females in the world, the champion racemare was also given a spotlight on 60 Minutes the Sunday before the Breeders' Cup. As it turns out, the public is, in fact, interested in horse racing. With a little renewed attention thanks to Disney's film adaptation of the legendary Secretariat, Zenyatta was given every chance to be a star in the public eye. But this all came too late for a nationwide audience to truly appreciate her.
It's not realistic to think that everyone who witnessed this year's Breeders' Cup is going to rush out to subscribe to TVG or HRTV on their dish, but had this all happened last year, when Zenyatta was going up against males for the first time, think of all the great performances people could've enjoyed. While all save one of her races in her 2010 campaign lacked the crescendo of a match-up versus males, perhaps the grandstands at Oaklawn, Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Hollywood Park would've been standing room only had all this press come before the curtain fell on Zenyatta's career.
Now that Zenyatta has rounded her last field of rivals, has literally danced her last dance, what can the industry take away from the events that elevated Zenyatta's status to world fame? Will it step up to the task of reaching out beyond its already-established fan base and try to bring in new faces? All the public needs is to be exposed to a good story and a good horse. Is that really too great of a task? If not for her record-setting streak of 19 straight wins, I hope that Zenyatta's legacy will be to teach racing how to promote itself and the stars who make it all possible.
Zenyatta has given us the reins, now. What will we do with them?
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
As we all know by now, the Apple Blossom Invitational didn’t turn out to be quite the race of the century, or even the decade; instead, it was nothing more than an exhibition race put on by Queen Zenyatta. But for me personally, it was a highlight of the year.
Though of course I was immensely disappointed Rachel would not come to Arkansas to battle with Zenyatta, I felt like it was the right move for the 4-year-old filly. With her loss in the New Orleans Ladies against Zardana, I felt like her camp was trying to rush her into fitness after an extended layoff from the races, and Rachel needed finely-tuned conditioning if she was going to face the most imposing opponent of her career. And so, I was happy to make the trip to Arkansas to watch what would be my first time seeing the big mare run in person and get a double-whammy weekend with the Arkansas Derby the next day.
So after living it up in New Orleans and zipping up to Chicago, it was on to my third derby in two weeks when I trekked down to Hot Springs for the Apple Blossom Invitational and Arkansas Derby. What made this trip all the more fun was that most of my photographer friends who had also been planning on attending the Race of the Century were keeping their plans in tact to watch Zenyatta run, as well as shoot a key prep for the Kentucky Derby.
My husband and I drove down to Arkansas on Thursday, the day before the Apple Blossom. Once we arrived in the city, I called up my favorite fellow adventuring racing photographer, Bob Mayberger (a.k.a. The Mighty Mayberger). The Mighty was awesome enough to pick up my credentials in the press office at Oaklawn for me when he retrieved his own, and gave me directions to Oaklawn’s backstretch for the next morning. I had not wanted to wait to pick up my credentials from the press office when it opened Friday morning, because that would force me to miss much of the morning action.
Though the Arkansas Derby was that same weekend, nobody was really thinking too much about the youngsters on Friday. Let’s face it, the Queen was in town, and the horse paparazzi can never help but zero in on roving royalty’s every move. When I pulled up to the security guard holding court at the entrance to Oaklawn’s backstretch, I flashed my credential and sheepishly asked if there was any way he could tell me where John Shirreffs was stabling his horses. The man looked at me blankly for a second, and so I asked, “Is there any way you can tell me where I could find Zenyatta?”
(And I must digress to explain how the backstretch security guards normally behave: mostly, they don’t want to tell you anything, as if they were guarding some sacred stone in the Temple of Doom, even though I have a credential and thereby permission to be back there; usually, they act as if they are bestowing upon me some great service if they flash me a map of the barn area (though they would sooner throw me out than let me take a copy of the map or take a picture of it). And if you dare ask what barn a certain horse would be in, they usually produce a Sphinx-like smirk and act like they don’t know. You have to play the game and ask what barn the trainer is stabled in, and then pretend you either don’t care or aren’t sure exactly what horses he trains. Mostly. Every track has its own puzzling rules meant to disgruntle you and keep you from walking around the backstretch.)
And here was where I was first bowled over by Oaklawn. The security guard went “Oohhhh” and he said it in such a way I thought surely now he was going to tell me she wasn’t there, or I didn’t have permission to go see her. Instead, he began to give me detailed instructions on how exactly to get to her barn, and told me I could park right across from her barn. Excuse me? I began to suspect I hadn’t actually woken up that morning, and was actually experiencing some very lucid dream. I thanked him profusely and followed his directions. Sure enough, there was a parking lot nicely laid out next to the grassy slope that ended at the long barn where Zenyatta was stabled. Unbelievable.
I got out of the car, expecting it was some sort of trap and I would be ambushed by a Shirreffs-hired S.W.A.T. team. Instead, I walked right up and saw, plain as day, that bright paintbrush-shaped stripe peeking out of a stall. It was Zenyatta. Right there. Easy as pie. And only a few people around. It was like the most wonderful, magical episode of The Twilight Zone ever. What was more, when I approached the barn, I made sure to stand at the far end to begin taking my pictures, behind a tarp that had been shielding light out of half of the barn, so that I wouldn’t be loitering five feet in front of the great racemare. I expected the line would be drawn somewhere around hovering right in front of her face. But then, other reporters and photographers began to show up, and neither the groom, Mario Espinoza, or anyone else shooed them away. It’s like they actually appreciated the media, like they wanted to show her off. I was dumbstruck.
|"Fiji: Water of Champions"|
|Zenyatta and I at Oaklawn|
Oaklawn was prepared for the masses wanting to display their devotion to the champ and sold Zenyatta buttons, as well as remnants of what might’ve been by also offering Rachel Alexandra badges; of course, being the Rachel freak I am, I bought one of each, as well as an Apple Blossom hat and a shot glass. Why can’t every big racing event have such cool merchandise? I marveled at the homemade hats in the grandstands, and the number of fans stuck like flies on a glue-strip to the rail, refusing to budge the entire day until the big race went off. When I wasn’t credentialed, I would do the same thing, but I was usually the only one in my venture—here, everyone was a diehard fan. Everyone wanted a close look at perfection.
The one thing I wanted to capture with my camera was a good shot of Zenyatta’s pre-race dancing ritual. I’d only seen a couple pictures ever that really captured the charisma of the mare before a race and displayed her trademark two-step as she sauntered to the starting gate. One of those I’d begged for Charles to take before a race in California, and he obliged and posted it on Flickr, much to my excitement. But of course, it’s not the same unless it’s your own photo.
Actually taking a shot that embodies this action is extremely tough. You have to time the shot just right, or you won’t be able to tell that she’s in the middle of an unusual motion with her front legs; if you’re a split-second off her stride, she looks like she’s walking oddly, but not really dancing. And we all know she literally dances. As the horses began to make their trip from the backstretch to be saddled in the infield, I grew almost sick with anxiety. It was completely nerve-wracking. I wasn’t sure if it would be my sole opportunity to ever see Zenyatta run in person, and I was putting myself under a lot of pressure to capture every second she was in my line of vision.
When I first caught sight of her being led down the track, I began to tremble. The roar of the grandstand permeated our senses, rattled our bones, and raised the hair on the back of our necks. Goosebumps swept down my arms. And yes, tears, threatened to leak out of my eyes. It’s hard to explain how some experiences are past the point of withholding emotion, but the Apple Blossom embodied this sensation. I was nervous for my own part, I was sick that something would go wrong and Zenyatta wouldn’t win (though the sanity left in my brain would never believe she could lose such a soft race), and then I began to fear I’d become so overwhelmed by emotion I would simply fling my camera away to cheer her down the stretch when the dire moment came. But mostly, I was happy. I’d never heard a crowd so pumped up outside of a Triple Crown race—and this was even more intense for the fact that this audience wasn’t a bunch of drunk people who barely cared about the outcome of the race—the emotion behind the cheers was evident, and it made me think this is what a trip to the track might’ve been like in the Golden Age of racing. Zenyatta, in a sense, had taken us all back to a time when the whole world stopped for two minutes and watched, breath held, a couple of horses battling to a finish line.
My anxiety did not improve much once the race began. The post time for the Apple Blossom had been pushed back for broadcast purposes (when it was still being billed as the Race of the Century), and the shadow of the grandstand cast over the track, which is sort of a dismal condition for photographers who wish to focus on a dark horse. It wasn’t night-dark, but the lack of sun made the light flat on the subjects, making the color not as appealing if the race had been run an hour or so prior, when the golden sunlight would highlight a horse’s dapples and add a gleam in their eyes. And so I nervously metered the track for the abysmal lighting condition, and re-metered during the field’s first time by the stands when the pictures looked a little too dark (unlike some racing photographers, I shoot completely in manual mode).
Then came the moment of truth. Watching the big screen in the infield, I watched as Zenyatta began to circle the field on the turn and pass the other fillies one by one. She was simply gliding by them, as if rounding horses in a workout. A lump hardened my throat. Tears began to sting my eyes. There is a rare devotion born from the ability to trust special horses as they come into view for the first time around the final turn. It’s the trust that they will always pull through for you, that they will find a way to win; it’s something precious, almost sacred, and only the greatest horses can pull it off time and time again. Zenyatta has never lost. She is the sole horse who can pull off the amazing feat of never disappointing… in a very real way, she is always there for you. How many things can you count on in your life to always come through for you? So rare and precious a gift, the gratitude for this is difficult to hold back if you really, truly appreciate it. Time and time again, I’ve witnessed my champions fail. All horses get beaten if they run long enough. Except Zenyatta. Thus, the tears.
The crowd was deafening, and my whole body shook. It was apparent she was going to win by daylight. This made shooting easier, but still I’d lost my sanity somewhere during the race. I pointed my lens on her on the stretch, focused, and the camera trembled along with me as I snapped the shutter CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH. Zenyatta breezed through the stretch to an ovation of admirers, winning easily. I exhaled, letting the anxiety release. The champion had done it yet again, and I hadn’t tossed my camera or thrown up from nerves.
After the races, the horse paparazzi journeyed back to our transmitting trailer and we began the task of submitting our photos to the world. Naturally, I had connection problems for whatever reason and didn’t get my pictures uploaded until after some of the other photographers had already submitted their first batch. I don’t always have the best luck in these situations (though the next day, I was so prepared I was one of the first to submit my photos, and was rewarded with a cover on NTRA with my Arkansas Derby picture), as I’d just demonstrated at Hawthorne the week before. After I transmitted my photos and packed up, I made one last stop by Zenyatta’s barn in case they were giving her a bath. I could’ve parked closer, but then I wouldn’t be a very good horse stalker, would I?
Lo and behold, there was Mario grazing the still undefeated champion in that same patch of grass outside of her stable. I stood and admired her some more, then finally built up the courage to ask if someone could take a picture of me next to her, since there were very few people around, and they’d all had their pictures taken with her just then. Mario didn’t mind, and I walked next to Zenyatta. Like some sort of bad joke, the picture of me standing next to Zenyatta, with her head raised and posed, turned out to be a close-up of my feet in the dark. I’m not joking. Because of the darkness, and the fact I had my telephoto zoom lens on my camera, the picture-taker couldn’t focus and ended up with the poorest excuse for a snapshot possible. BUT… as I was standing next to her, I reached out and dared to touch her great shoulder with my hand, and I felt her kitten-soft, velvety hide on my fingertips. She stomped her hoof. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, even if I have no photographic evidence of the moment. I left the backstretch at Oaklawn that day walking on air.
|Line of David wins the Arkansas Derby|
|Charles has a true |
|The "Mayberger Handicap"|
Thus ended my marathon, three derbies in two weeks, with one Apple Blossom for good measure. It was a prelude to a stellar year, but the single greatest stretch I would experience until the summer, long after the dust settled from the Triple Crown races. But that’s for another blog.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Originally posted on smilepolitely.com. Posted in ARTS to Film by Jamie Newell on Friday, October 8, 2010 at 4:00 pm
I've been holding a grudge against Seabiscuit for several years. After all, he got a movie deal before the great Secretariat, and if any race horse deserved a movie made about him, it's Secretariat. "Big Red" was the greatest race horse of all time; surely anybody with half a brain could see the potential in a great biopic, right? I should've been careful what I wished for. Now I'm holding a grudge against Seabiscuit because he got the better film treatment.
Being a person who lives and breathes both horse racing and movies, I went into this film with a unique perspective. Fully aware that Hollywood usually screws up a perfectly good story, I was willing to forgive a reasonable amount of factual errors or glossing-over of facts so long as they captured the magic of the true story. With Secretariat being my favorite race horse of all-time (and widely worshipped as a god by the general populous in the sport), I knew I would have to go into the film particularly restrained if I was going to hope to enjoy it.
|The big red horse that captivated a nation.|
Directed by Randall Wallace, Disney's Secretariat follows the story of his owner, Penny Tweedy, who broke the walls down in a man's world and ended up saving the farm thanks to her steadfast belief in the superhorse. Diane Lane stars as Ms. Tweedy, and is only mildly convincing in this role as the strong woman who carried the burdens of her parents' failing breeding farm. Lane plays the role with a breeziness, despite Tweedy's hardships, but her strength is too Disney-fied to feel like this woman could put men in their places, as the real Penny did. Disney's Secretariat feels more like a Lifetime made-for-TV movie than a feature film. Even the mighty John Malkovich, who portrays a flamboyant version of Secretariat's trainer, Lucien Laurin, can't mix things up enough for it to feel very exciting, and that's saying a lot, given both the material they had to work with and the always-entertaining Malkovich. Otto Thorwarth plays Ron Turcotte, Secretariat's jockey, but he doesn't have enough lines or screen time for the audience to really get much out of his character, which is just as well, because the lines that come out of Diane Lane tend to border on plain cheesy. The best performance is delivered by Nelsan Ellis, who pulls off a quietly engaging performance as Red's groom, Eddie Sweat, and actually has some chemistry with the horse actors.
The film is worth watching if you want an introduction to the sport of horse racing and the legendary Secretariat, but for those industry insiders and fans of Big Red, the movie fails miserably as a tribute to our greatest king. If you fall within the first bracket, and are curious about the real Secretariat after watching the movie, pick up Bill Nack's book: Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. It's telling that the film was supposed to be based on Nack's book, but this acknowledgment was downgraded in the credits as merely "suggested by the story by Bill Nack;" the movie certainly feels like a major downgrade from the real thing. If you're a fan of horse racing, watching Disney's Secretariat is like hearing your favorite song through a monotone speaker; it sounds familiar, but all of the song's power and punch have been reduced to a distant echo.
|Diane Lane and John Malkovich in Disney's Secretariat|
|Secretariat's world record-breaking victory in the Belmont.|
The best portrayal of the three big races in Disney's Secretariat is the Preakness, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. This is because they let you watch the actual, real-life 1973 Preakness footage originally broadcast on CBS without any horrible interjections. We are treated with seeing the real Big Red on the silver screen, and nothing is more precious than that. For anyone who knows horses, it also becomes quite clear that all the other horse actors they previously used to depict Secretariat in the film would've been Big Red's waterboys in real life. You just can't duplicate perfection, not even in the movies. He was that big, and that beautiful—something no Hollywood movie could ever replicate. I only wish it had been the Belmont footage, and not the Preakness, that had been used in the film, because then I may have walked away with some shred of joy after watching Disney's adaptation of the "impossible true story." Instead, I rushed home and pulled up the historic races on YouTube to exorcise the past two hours from my memory.
In other words, I'm ready for the remake.
For the love of God, click here to watch all of Secretariat's actual races
Sunday, October 10, 2010
The first time I ever saw Rachel Alexandra was on April 30, 2009 at Churchill Downs. It was Thursday morning, the day before the Kentucky Oaks. It took less than 30 seconds for her to convince me I was looking at a creature unlike anything I'd ever seen with my own two eyes.
I'd been waiting with my husband and Steve, a new friend we met at the morning works, on the landing at the winner's circle. I was giddy with anticipation in the hopes of getting my first glimpse of Zenyatta, and Steve, a Churchill regular and great racing fan, kept telling us, "I can't wait until you see Rachel." And that morning, the big track screen in the infield announced her arrival for one last jog before the Oaks, and we drew in our breath as she came circling around that hallowed bend toward us. Words fail me when I try to accurately describe that moment, so I can only throw out similes and metaphors in the hopes of relating what it was really like to be there on that morning and see her.
Please click here to read the rest of my article.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Having a little less than a week to settle back at home from our trip in New Orleans, my husband decided he didn’t want to participate in my derby marathon and sat out the trip to Hawthorne. Never turning down the chance to see major stakes action when I can help it, I tossed my step ladder and camera equipment into the trunk of Perri, my Toyota Solara, and made the 2 ½-hour trek up to Hawthorne. This also marked my first solo trip to a race track.
And so, with the aftertaste of spicy gumbo still in my throat, I bundled up for a windy day at the Chicago track and made it sometime in the middle of the card without getting lost. Yes, I count it a small victory every time I can navigate my way to Chicago without getting lost, even though I lived there for two years.
It was quickly brought to my attention that I was going to be assigned the inside spot for the derby, much to my glee. That time of day, the light on the outside is downright atrocious due to backlighting, so I lucked out. I set up my step ladder behind the finish line and adjusted it a couple races prior to the big one so that I could test the best shooting position.
I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario than what I had in the Illinois Derby. There couldn’t have been a more beautiful horse with a better running style for this race, truly. It was as if American Lion was showboating for me.
The track photographer and I were the only people shooting from behind the rail on the turf course, and I was the only one boosted with a ladder. When the horses broke for the derby, American Lion shot straight to the lead and didn’t let go. He was perfect for us photographers because if for some reason we messed up the finish, we had the opportunity to get the photo of him in front and crossing the finish line from the start of the race. But I didn’t mess up the finish, and the picture ended up being one of my favorites of the year. The lighting was phenomenal, with just enough hitting the eye that you can see a warm, round iris looking home; the framing was just perfect, as well, and I was close enough I didn’t have to crop it at all. A dream run for American Lion and me.
After the race, I hung outside the winner’s circle to photograph the horses coming back to be unsaddled. Trainer Eoin Harty was pretty excited about the win, as was jockey David Flores. The jockey practically jumped on Harty after the pictures and embraced him. American Lion certainly looked like the real deal, with a convincing win on the dirt after an all-synthetics campaign prior to that; he was now elevated in my Kentucky Derby standings. I gave Harty a thumbs-up after the winner’s circle pictures were taken (complete with Flores mugging with the garland of flowers and trophy), and he smiled at me. That was the split-second before Backtalk nearly ran me over. Stupid photographer, not watching where she was going!
Overall, a short, but memorable Illinois Derby. Finally, I felt like a real Illinois railbird. All I had to do was check the Arlington Million off my list, and I would be certified. But first, onward to the weekend I was looking forward to more than the Kentucky Derby itself: Arkansas Derby weekend. For the first time, I would witness the living legend run past me and feel the knot-in-the-throat exhilaration of her presence on a race day. Finally, after all this time, I was to witness the spectacle of Zenyatta.
Monday, October 4, 2010
I've neglected this blog something awful this year, which is a shame, because so many good things have happened, and I've witnessed so many amazing races. I apologize for being away for so long and want to thank my readers (if, indeed you're still there) for checking back on me. I will try to fill in some blanks and keep a more current blog running, even if that means cutting back on how much I write. While I embark on this process to update what needs to be filled in, here is an overview of my favorite moments from my year so far...
Portraits of a year
Originally posted in SPORTS to The Call To The Post by Jamie Newell on Friday, September 17, 2010 at 3:00 pm
With the racing year winding down as we near Breeders' Cup, there isn't a lot going on at the moment, and so I thought it would be a good time to take a little handicapping break. Instead of talking about the Woodbine Mile this Saturday (which you should watch), I wanted to bring my readers something unique—a reward, if you will—for hanging with me for the past two and a half years The Call to the Post has been running. I have been very fortunate to travel to eight different race tracks across America this year and be able to get up close and personal with the game's biggest superstars. From Santa Anita to Saratoga, Zenyatta to Rachel, my camera lens has been there to capture both some of the quietest moments and most thrilling at the track. A lot goes on at the races or on the backstretch that I am not able to mention in my regular articles, so I'm taking the opportunity now to share them with you, my faithful readers. Ordered from the beginning of the year to the present, here are my top ten favorites photographs from this year... so far.
I know, technically, Zenyatta's retirement parade at Santa Anita took place in December, but it felt like a whole new year. Anyway, it marked my first time seeing Zenyatta in person since the 10 seconds she passed in front of me while jogging at Churchill Downs in 2009; I thought this would be the last time I ever got to see her on a race track. The fact she was promptly brought out of retirement and raced for another season proves to me that the racing gods do exist.
Please click here to read the rest of this article.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
It all started in New Orleans—the Crescent City, my obsession and far-away respite from home. The food, the atmosphere, the sights—there’s nothing like it. Every spring I travel to this beloved place, and this year, my husband’s spring break just happened to land squarely in the week of the Louisiana Derby. Talk about luck… while the experience itself wasn’t marked with shenanigans of fellow photographer friends, it was simply that: an experience.
On the drive down to New Orleans, I read the book Black Gold, by Marguerite Henry. I read most of Henry’s books as a kid, but never this one, for whatever reason. Knowing that the 1924 Kentucky Derby winner was laid to rest in the infield of Fair Grounds, I knew I had to brush up on his story before I visited the place. I read the book in about three hours, and having that story permanently embedded in my heart as I crossed the track for the first time made the trip all that much more special. Henry’s words lived in my mind as I saw the horses fly past the infield of palms and brightly-colored flowers, and looked down from the view high in the press box to see Black Gold and Pan Zareta’s graves in the infield. I imagined the boy, Jaydee, riding the streetcar to Fair Grounds to jog horses on this very sight, and that devastating moment of heart as Black Gold broke down on the track, and determinedly finished the race on three legs.
The big Oaks-Derby weekend at Fair Grounds marked my first outing with my brand-new lens, a fixed 300mm I bought used from Adorama. Holy cow, do I love this lens! The close-ups I was able to get of the horses in the paddock and on the track were so crisp and detailed, all but making my 70-200mm a mere back-up lens. The only drawback is the f4 limit, making it difficult to shoot in low-light situations. As we were blessed with two fine, sunny days at the track after they’d been getting some of the worst weather Fair Grounds had ever seen, I was able to get some great shots. Fair Grounds race course is actually positioned in such a way that the lighting in the afternoon is always trickier than other tracks. Instead of running into the light at Churchill Downs, or at an angle like at Oaklawn, the light shines from directly behind the horses as they run toward the finish line. This is difficult for anyone trying to take a remote shot, as the horses would be little more than two silhouettes with a bright background. I haven’t yet learned the trade of remote photography, but the shadows were difficult to master that weekend, even so. Additionally, the track was strict on photographer access to the inside thanks to some photog breaking a rule only a few weeks prior. Because I was credentialed through a major company, I was able to cross the track to photograph the races on the turf, though I felt I shouldn’t push my luck by wanting to shoot on the inside for the dirt races.
At that time, I had reinstated Operation Rachel, since she was currently stabled at Fair Grounds and had just begun regular workouts over the track. As I had been assigned to photograph Yate’s Black Cat, a horse that was racing in a turf stakes on the Louisiana Derby undercard, I made an excuse to get on the backstretch to photograph Yate’s, hoping to be able to also see Rachel. The backstretch at Fair Grounds isn’t particularly aesthetic to look at from a photographer’s standpoint. The stables are enclosed barns that make it impossible to see any of the horses within, which meant there was no way I was going to be able to see Rachel, unless she happened to be walking between barns when I was back there. An extremely nice worker led us to Dale Romans’s barn so I could photograph Yate’s, and who should be in the stall next to him, but the Fair Grounds Oaks winner, Quiet Temper. While the filly was pretty docile, yet curious, Yate’s was a total ham, yucking it up for me with each click of my shutter. He smiled, he yawned, he stuck out his tongue, he did everything but put on a dog and pony show. Needless to say, he won me over with his charm and good looks. It was only too bad that I had not been prepared to go inside of an enclosed barn, and had my low-light lens on my less powerful camera body while taking the shots. The man who had taken us to the barn must’ve appreciated our enthusiasm for horses, because he sent us off with two souvenir Fair Grounds hats before we went to the races Saturday. The back of the hat read, fittingly, The Grindstone Stakes (wait for it…).
After our eventful morning on the backstretch with Yate’s and Quiet Temper, my husband and I made our way to our favorite restaurant in all of New Orleans, Liuzza’s At The Track. Liuzza’s has hands-down the best gumbo in town. I will fight to the death to defend it to any naysayers. Talk about a perfect day—the best gumbo I’ve ever had, coupled with a day of spectacular horse racing, and all within blocks of each other! Liuzza’s walls are bedecked on the inside by photos of Fair Grounds and winner’s circle shots. Behind the bar, old racing glasses reflect in the mirrors, while neon signs glow against a stack of Daily Racing Forms on the counter. It is my perfect image of what a restaurant near the race track should be like. So far, I’ve discovered nothing like it in America. Liuzza’s is the quintessential stop for race fans before a day at the track.
The Louisiana Derby itself was a race I hadn’t thought much would come out of, to be honest. There was no stand-out horse in the field, though I was rooting for the Lecomte Stakes winner, Ron the Greek. I appreciated his stunning late-kick in the Lecomte, and thought the Risen Star wasn’t fast enough to compliment his running style. With Discreetly Mine also in the field, I expected one of those two horses to win, but when Mission Impazible came charging late to win the Louisiana Derby, it was another cry of, “Of course, the other Pletcher horse!”
The minute Mission Impazible returned to the winner’s circle, a jazz band struck up a celebratory tune, and the party broke out. Talk about feeling like you were in living in a moment from the past. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of tradition at race tracks, and Fair Grounds knows how to make you feel like you are not at just any track, but a New Orleans race track. They serve a mixture of Cajun and Creole food at the track on Derby day (Bugs, anybody?), and the jazz band makes the atmosphere all the more party-like. They know how to make the races fun in New Orleans. The only thing I found missing was the crowd didn’t cheer that much for the horses; I’ve noticed each track has a different sort of audience. Even though they did know how to celebrate when the winner was crowned with a garland of flowers, they didn’t get too excitable for the races, for the most part. It seems that in all places, New Orleanians would know how to holler, but it seems this is not as much a part of the Louisiana tradition.
After the Louisiana Derby, I made the determined decision to sneak into the infield and pay my respects to Black Gold and Pan Zareta. The only other stakes on the card was the Grindstone Stakes, which is ironically on the turf, and not on the dirt. Grindstone holds a special place in my heart as being the very first winner of the Kentucky Derby I ever picked to win, so I gave myself more freedom when it came to shooting that race. Between the Louisiana Derby and the Grindstone, I walked down to the 16th pole on the infield to visit the graves. Sadly, they are not bedecked with much for memorials, and the rose bushes planted in front of the graves are old and dried up. Unlike the book illustrates, no trace of a bronze saddle rises out of the memorial for the 1924 Derby winner, though his name remains on the concrete monument. They are spaced about 15 feet from each other, Black Gold the closer to the finish line. I wish I’d been able to carry a flower or something to the graves to pretty them up a little, but all I had to lay on their graves was my respects. If I lived in New Orleans, I think I’d take it upon myself to make those sites look more respectable. Black Gold and Pan Zareta deserve as much.
Being so close the 16th pole, I was able to shoot the break of the Grindstone Stakes. Then, as the horses flew down the turf, I jogged with my equipment to the finish line and was able to beat the horses there to shoot the finish from the inside. I got the honor of saying I was the sole photographer to shoot that race from the inside; it’s one moment nobody else in the world will have but me. That’s a rare thing to be able to claim in a stakes race.
Saying good-bye to New Orleans is always one of the most heart-wrenching things I have to do, but at least I was able to leave Louisiana knowing I had even more to look forward to in Illinois and Arkansas. At that point, I didn’t know if I was going to feel up to making the drive to Chicago. As it turned out, the Louisiana Derby only served to whet my appetite for more live racing action.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
The first thing I did upon entering the gates at Santa Anita was rush to that darkened doorway, past the bettors, food vendors, and TVs, toward the grandstand apron outside. I felt my heart lift out of the winter doldrums as I looked upon that view for the first time: the track, the turf, the palm trees, the hills and trees, the mountains--paradise.
I got one last poignant shot of Zenyatta walking out of my life forever as her farewell ceremony came to a close. Her trainer, John Shirreffs, watched her being led off the track one last time to the cheer of the grandstands. I couldn't have planned a more storied shot. Imagine how sad this photo would be if Zenyatta wasn't un-retired a little less than a month later!!