Sunday, December 19, 2010

Let the voting begin!

Thanks to everyone who voted for which pictures I should enter into the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance 2010 photo contest. The overwhelming favorites were "The Pied Piper of Arlington" and "Zenyatta and John Shirreffs."

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:

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.
Since I don't have a photo in contention for an Eclipse Award, pretty much all my hopes are banking on a win in this year's Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance 2010 photo contest. Though this isn't exactly on the same level as far as prestige goes, it's still a venerable contest among pro photographers, as well as amateurs. Last year, I gained quite a few votes (but not enough to clench victory) for my popular picture of Rachel Alexandra winning the Kentucky Oaks, but this year I don't have one stand-out photo that screams "I WILL WIN FOR YOU."

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
Entries for the TBA photo contest are due next Friday, December 17th. I will post my final entries on the blog after I've tallied everyone's vote.Thanks for your help!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Who's to blame?

Originally posted on Smile Politely.

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.

The real tragedy of the 2010 edition of the Breeders' Cup Classic wasn't that Zenyatta lost, but the fact that a public that could've enjoyed the champion for two unbelievable years didn't discover her until her last career race, which, as luck would have it, was the first time she was ever defeated. While a crowd of 72,739 fans packed the grandstands at historic Churchill Downs that Saturday, and millions more tuned in their TVs to watch the coverage on ESPN, the world stopped for three minutes to watch Zenyatta attempt to go out unbeaten with a record of 20-0. But that fairy tale ending just wasn't meant to be.

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.

So much is said about what the horse racing industry is doing wrong. Horses retire too early to build a fan base; horse racing propaganda is limited to the people who already know about the sport and follow it religiously; too many big races are restricted to specialty cable stations; there are many complaints. What unfolded in the press in the days leading up to the Breeders' Cup was a test of what the industry could do when it had every opportunity to seize the public's interest. People discovered Zenyatta, and they loved her. Is it really a surprise? Here we have the most charismatic equine ever to step foot on a racetrack, a female, an undefeated champion, but the nation isn't properly introduced to her until her final bow. It's akin to discovering Paul Newman in Road to Perdition, his last big-screen role; what we see is a glimmer of greatness, but it's too abrupt to get a taste of a performer who is surely respected as one of the greats of all-time. Think of the tragedy of never having seen the actor at his most dazzling in The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; this is the reality of Zenyatta's legacy with the millions of viewers who tuned in to see her for the first time this past Saturday. They were built up about how great she was going into the 2010 Classic, and they witnessed a performance where the mare put her heart on the line, but they didn't get the thrill or the satisfaction that we in the racing world have become accustomed to over the years: they'll never understand the tears that come from seeing the explosive, against-all-odds, last-to-first kick that come as a result of knowing her.

Zenyatta has done everything right. It's the industry that let her and itself down. Before the 2009 Breeders' Cup, racing had its shot to tell the world about our prized mare. Perhaps it doubted her too much. There were a lot of people out there who didn't, after all, think she could beat males that first time. But this year, if all you knew came from Oprah, W, or 60 Minutes, you wouldn't have thought that she could lose coming into the 2010 edition of the Classic. According to statistics, three times the amount of people than last year tuned in to watch Zenyatta go out undefeated at Churchill Downs. Is publicity only earned from a guarantee? Did any of the millions who may have watched Zenyatta for the first time take away how special this mare was, even in defeat?

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

Three Derbies. Two Weeks. Part III: Discovering Zen in Hot Springs

Naturally, the first time I ever heard rumored that the showdown of the century might occur, that Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and the undefeated Breeders’ Cup champion Zenyatta were to finally meet on the track, I was literally shaking with anticipation. And the moment the news broke officially over Twitter, I was on my phone calling up hotels to book reservations for Hot Springs, Arkansas to beat the influx of thousands of people who would be joining me there that April. It was slated to be the biggest race of the modern era.

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"
It was during this time I got to witness Mario give Zenyatta a drink of bottled Fiji water; literally one of the most intimate and wonderful moments I’d ever witnessed on the backstretch. The groom tried to pour the water from the bottle into her mouth, and the mare would tilt her head to the side and let it fall in her mouth. It didn’t look very effective, but made for an endearing moment and great photos. He eventually broke out a pan and let her drink from that when she had trouble drinking the last bit of water.

That morning I spent shadowing Zenyatta. I watched her walk the shedrow before embarking on the track for a pre-race jog. When I followed her to the track, I found Bob up there, as well as Zenyatta’s personal photographer from California, Charles Pravata. It was like a great West Coast reunion from our Hollywood adventure the previous July. We watched the great mare’s every move; her entrance to the track meant a shower of clicking camera shutters punctuating her every step. And when she was done taking a tour around the golden oval at Oaklawn, we followed her back to her stable. After she took several laps walking through the shedrow, Mario led her to a patch of grass outside her barn, where she was allowed to graze and bathe in the adoration of her public for some time. Here it was that the now famous kitten turned up. Backstretches are often full of feral cats, and Oaklawn was no exception; here this brave tabby cat began to stalk the 17.1-hand horse in the grass. It was all pretty entertaining, to be sure. At one point, Zenyatta turned to face her hunter, lowering her head about a foot from the tabby, and the cat turned tail and shot across the grass to the safety of a barn. He would return to check her out, though, lurking either from behind a herd of bicycles leaning up against the wall next to where the mare was grazing, or gathering enough courage to sniff the hairs of her tail. I’m not sure if the cat found a ticket to a new home after this experience, but there was a lot of talk about “Zenyatta’s cat” and how he may turn up in a house or apartment some day soon. John Shirreffs came out to stand with the now plentiful numbers of press and photographers standing around her grazing patch, and he signed autographs and gave a few people permission to have their pictures taken with her. Thinking it wouldn’t be very professional of me to ask for such a thing, I instead took a couple steps closer than the rest of the crowd and Bob took my picture standing in her presence, which is almost just as good as a posed photograph. I was still plenty giddy to have a shot of me so near this living legend.

Zenyatta and I at Oaklawn

I wanted to wait around and get pictures of Zenyatta being bathed, but I never got to see this while I was at Oaklawn. After all, this was race day for the Apple Blossom, and I had to prepare as a photographer and get my position marked along the rail, as well as hear all the track rules at the appointed time that morning. We bade farewell for now to the Queen and made our way to the infield, where a camper was set up for photographers to transmit photos via Wifi and receive our official vests.

Oaklawn really went to great lengths to make things accommodating to photographers, as well as set up organization that made things work very smoothly. I’d never been to a track so prepared for a media blitz; though I think a lot of people didn’t show up who would’ve been there had Rachel Alexandra made the trip, there was still a large number of photographers on hand. And then there was the enormous number of fans who showed up. It was almost like they were getting ready to watch a Triple Crown race, there were so many people! Hats, buttons, T-shirts, and homemade signs all proclaimed the reason they were here: all to see greatness in the flesh. They came in droves to see the undefeated Zenyatta. Everyone expected to see an exhibition race, and that’s all it amounted to be—a parade for the Queen. Sure, there were other horses in the race, but did anyone know their names? Did anybody give them two looks in the post parade? There may have been a couple other good fillies or mares in that race, but you never would’ve guessed for the people chanting Zenyatta’s name.

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.

The small field was led into the infield to be saddled, a magnificent backdrop for such a tradition (the underground paddock at Oaklawn is like fluorescent basement, and is too cramped and loud for such a big race day); the white blossoms on the trees made for a beautiful picture. It was here that the announcer named the horses in the race, and though I myself didn’t witness it, this was the moment where Zenyatta literally bowed her head when her name was called over the loudspeakers. I saw her connections laughing and was relayed the story by Charles, who of course saw the whole thing and probably had it chronicled with his amazing sense of timing. Just another story to add to her legacy as a performance artist.

As the jockeys were given a leg up, the horses were led onto the track for the post parade before a full grandstand and clambering infield of 44,973 fans. The photographers were lined up in one cluster on the track so that we could get shots of the horses from the best possible spot (Major props again to Oaklawn for this!). Here is where I had my opportunity to get a clear shot of the dance. Though still the perfectionist in me says the picture could be better, for her head isn’t in view quite as much as I’d prefer, I was instantly in love with the perspective I captured of Zenyatta’s head bowed to the crowd cheering for her in the background; her right leg is cocked out, her other legs spread wide, and she looks like a Lipizzaner on parade, or a Spanish fighting bull lunging toward the matador. I call this image “Like a Prizefighter.” It’s still one of my favorite pictures I’ve taken in 2010. I caught her dance before the race that was practically presented for her to display her charisma and class.

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.

I quickly glanced through my pictures before I scrambled to the track to take my place in the receiving line of photographers. In my nervousness, I had actually metered for a darker light than there actually was, so the pictures were slightly too light. It was the first time in a race I’d ever been so discombobulated by nerves, I’d over-compensated on metering for darkness; as it turned out later, under exposing gave me more to work with, and I was able to bring up the colors in Photoshop for a much more pleasing effect than if I’d over exposed.

I joined the rest of the photographers, and we all began to take pictures of Zenyatta’s triumphant return toward the grandstand. Having watched all of her stakes races prior, I knew that Mike Smith liked to parade her after a victory for the fans, and so I wasn’t surprised when the jockey began to wave us out of the way so the big mare could get through. Scattering in her presence, Zenyatta parted through the press and jogged along the stretch. Smith raised his helmet to the sky. The jubilant crowd cheered and hollered like crazy; no one moved from their position on the rail—nobody left to cash a ticket, no one ran to beat the rush in the parking lot—everyone stayed to let the magnificence of her soak in. Smith rode her all the way to the end of the grandstands, and there he pumped his hands in celebration in a gesture of, “Raise the roof!” It was as if Zenyatta understood this was her stage, and she basked in the overflowing adoration of her public.

After this final parade, Zenyatta came back to the winner’s circle in the infield, and I felt time slow down as I captured the image of the great racemare with the pink flowers over her shoulders. Zenyatta has the look of timelessness. Around here it was when I was nearly run over her for the second time. Zenyatta has that spell-binding power over people. You tend to lose track of everything else surrounding you, including imminent danger. Not that I would necessarily mind my end coming by the hoofs of a champion race horse, actually; it would be an honor, in a way. Not that I plan on throwing myself under a horse to serve as their red carpet. Just sayin’… Okay, seriously, I wouldn’t do that. Don’t blacklist me, please. I’m not that kind of crazy.

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
It’s sad to say that Arkansas Derby day was a footnote to this story, but what could possibly come close to that Zenyatta experience? Almost nothing, and it’s seven months later as I write this. Arkansas Derby day was highlighted by the Mayberger Handicap, where I took a picture of Bob “running” past the finish line after he set up his remote camera under the rail, a beautiful front-running winner who went on to never find the winner’s circle again, and a trip to McClard’s Barbeque in Hot Springs with my husband and Charles Pravata, involving two hick cowboys in a night I could never do justice in trying to explain the absurdity and hilarity of. On the McClard’s story, all I can say is we offered these two cowboys to join us in our booth for some reason (overall good cheer from the festivities of the Arkansas Derby day, maybe? I’ll never be quite certain), and we discovered that not only were they drunk, they had very strong opinions on a variety of subjects, including Brad Pitt’s wealth, bull ball decorations, and how to eat the ribs at this famous BBQ establishment. “Put down the fork. Pick up the rib…” And here, thank God, I do have photographic evidence. Behold.

Charles has a true
Arkansas experience

The "Mayberger Handicap"
My trip to Arkansas in 2010 is one for the ages, truly. To be surrounded by good friends, a record audience of race fans, and witness a living legend is more than one could ever hope to have all year, let alone in one weekend. I am blessed to be able to be living my dream in photographing the sport I so love and have access to be up close and personal to the excitement, pageantry, and greatness the game offers.

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

How to slaughter a legacy

So you think you can make a crap movie about the greatest race horse of all-time and get away with it? I don't think so.

Originally posted on 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.
 If you are unfamiliar with Secretariat, he was the big red race horse wearing white and blue silks that came onto the scene when America was broken from the Vietnam War and the beginnings of the Watergate scandal; it was this miracle horse, who became the first horse to win the Triple Crown after a 25-year drought, that brought the public together. The year was 1973 when Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, and his mark has been felt each time those races have been run since—no horse has surpassed his track record times in those three races, and no horse has ever displayed the versatility and sheer dominance of him in the history of the sport of kings.

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
There are moments that are just plain ridiculous. I tried very, very had to overlook some of the blatant atrocities, like filming the Belmont at quaint Keeneland Racecourse, a beautiful boutique racetrack that could fit inside the real Belmont's massive infield. But I cannot forgive the laughable scene of Sweat, Tweedy, and friends dancing around Secretariat as they wash him at the farm to some gospel song on the radio while no one holds on to the horse's lead shank. If you just syndicated a Thoroughbred race horse to stud for $6.08 million dollars, you would want to hold on to that horse with an iron grip. The film doesn't even try to understand the racing industry or what it means for a 2-year-old to win Horse of the Year, or even accurately depict the aura surrounding the Kentucky Derby. You can't tell me that they couldn't have dubbed in three more layers of cheering fans to simulate the raucous, drunken festival that is the first Saturday in May? Clearly, the moviemakers must've scouted the tracks when there were about 5,000 people present, and not on a full-blown gambling-happy, drunken adrenaline rush that is the spirit of the most prestigious race in America. In comparison, the Kentucky Derby as depicted by Disney is a stroll along the promenade, full of appreciative fans golf-clapping the favorite in the post parade. And all of this came before I was truly disappointed in the film.
Secretariat's world record-breaking victory in the Belmont.
The one part of the movie I knew I could not forgive was if the filmmakers screwed up Secretariat's Belmont Stakes victory, which is widely considered one of the all-time greatest performances in all of sports. Not just in horse racing. In all of sports. How is it possible to screw up one of the most impressive, exciting, and emotional events of all-time? Disney must teach a class on it, because they bombed this moment spectacularly. Not only do they butcher Chic Anderson's famous race call, which, for some reason, remained in-tact for the less-memorable Derby and Preakness calls, they made the Belmont Stakes, the climax of the film, a cinematic train wreck. With choppy editing, shaky close-up camera shots, and a fake, un-inspired race call, Disney's version of the Belmont is just another horse race at the movies. There is no emotion. There is no breath-taking scope. There is no drama. It all comes off false, and then the corny evangelical music comes in, and then the filmmakers succeed in making your jaw drop, because you can't believe they just topped their own atrocity. It's like if someone took the Mona Lisa and cut it to pieces and slapped it on the side of a bus so it would be easily accessible to everyone. They took something perfect, beautiful, and legendary, and not only ruined it, but defaced it.

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

A farewell to Rachel Alexandra the Great

The following was the hardest racing-related article I've ever had to write. Thank you, Rachel, for the ride of a lifetime...

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

Three derbies. Two weeks. Part II: Maiden home state derby

Though I’m an Illinois-bred and raised, I had never been to the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Racecourse until this year. Truth be told, I had visited Illinois’s Thoroughbred tracks only a handful of times, as major stakes races just don’t come too often to my home state. The closest track from where I live is also a 5-hour roundtrip drive, so when I go, it has to be a worthwhile day. As my job as a wedding photographer usually falls on weekends, I also get some major stakes days cut from my calendar pretty easily. But this year, the date of April 3rd was open, and gave me the opportunity to have my first Illinois Derby experience.

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

In summation...

Note from Jamie:

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.

1. Perfection

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

Three Derbies. Two weeks. Part I: "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?"

So much happened this past spring, it’s hard to put it all together now. At the time it was all going on, I began to wonder how I was ever able to write a blog during Kentucky Derby week. I came to the conclusion I must not have taken as many photos. I certainly hadn’t gone to as many prep races for the Kentucky Derby before; 2010 was the year of the nomad for me. I traveled by car to Louisiana, back home to Illinois, and then down to Arkansas to photograph three Derbies in a two-week span, accentuated by one of the best times I’ve had as a racing photographer, the day I got to see Zenyatta run.

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

Jamie, meet Zenyatta

Much has happened since opening day at Santa Anita for the winter meet. It was Boxing Day, December 26, and I thought I was going to be looking at the already legendary racemare, the undefeated, uncontested Zenyatta for the very last time.

Opening day was my first trip to Santa Anita Park. That day, I fell hopelessly in love. Many times before I'd bashed the park due to its synthetic track, and though I do not retract those comments, I can never look back at Santa Anita the same way again. California's greatest race place is stained with an imperfect surface on its main track, but the park itself a mecca. I now know why so many people in the industry flock there and never return to the East. It truly is a horseman's paradise. Anyone who's never been can never truly understand the swell of emotions one feels when looking upon the San Gabriel Mountains in the background, and how between these mountains and the grandstands, the track seems to be cupped in a large, nurturing hand, like the ground itself is protecting the history that has been made here.

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.

The day was chocked full of events. Opening day would see the unveiling of the brand-new John Henry statue in the paddock, several stakes events, and of course, the farewell ceremony of Zenyatta. And I wanted to be there for it all. Though it is a cliche, I really can't find a better way to explain my demeanor that day: I was like a kid with a $100 bill let loose in a candy store. I picked up my credentials from the press office, after some convincing that yes, my boss had called in over a month ago to confirm, (I'm hoping that when I visit a track after the initial time, people will stop scrutinizing whether or not I've actually had credentials reserved for me. Obviously, I need to visit the track more often.) and after I breathed a breath of fresh air, blessed with the Right to Walk Anywhere, I threw myself headlong into all things Santa Anita and never looked back.

The day was extraordinary--from photographing my favorite jockeys, stepping into the paddock the first time, and witnessing the stars of tomorrow, it was all like some kind of dream come true for me. I got a great shot of Chantal Sutherland winning her first race of the meet, her fist flying in the air like she'd just won a stakes race, and then had to make like a roadrunner and zoom to the paddock to thrust myself in the crowd of media and fans surrounding the John Henry statue. Once you get credentials, you become a little emboldened. I saw a small me-sized window between a John Henry fan and a child and dove into it, crouching so as to not block someone else's view, and I was front row for the whole unveiling. I have a special spot for John Henry, and I think that's one reason I felt like I needed to be up in the middle of all the action, besides my obvious rights to shoot it with my credentials; I used to visit him every year at the Kentucky Horse Park before I was living and breathing horse racing. I got to know him as the "Angry Old Man," and had a healthy respect for him as the retired old pro in the Hall of Champions. He died on my third wedding anniversary, and I felt like I'd lost a family member. Seeing him immortalized in bronze twice since his death (the first being at his grave in the Horse Park) has made me feel even more connected to John. Though I never saw him race, I'll never forget the time I was handed a few hairs from his mane before his appearance at one of the Hall's shows; I followed him (at a safe distance, of course) to the walkway between the barn and the pavilion, and when they called his name, a fire lit in John's eyes and he transformed into a young charger again--he leapt into a trot and entered like the superstar he was.
In the throng of reporters, I found two of my photographer buddies, whom I'd been missing since running all around by myself. Of course Charles Pravata had to make an appearance that day: he's practically Zenyatta's personal photographer! I also ran into Bob Mayberger; it was like the Hollywood Park experience all over again. Bob hadn't been sure he was coming to Santa Anita, but since he's trying to break the record for the most tracks photographed by a single person in one year (at least that's what it seems he's up to), he obviously couldn't afford to miss opening day.

Directly following the John Henry statue unveiling was the California Breeders' Champion Stakes, which was won by Caracortado. I'd never heard of this game little chestnut before, but I was stuck by how excited his connections were when he crossed the finish line well clear of the rest of the field. It was like they'd just won the Santa Anita Derby for how they were celebrating! It's sad, but a reality that many people don't look that excited after their horse wins a race, and there's just something ingenuine about a bunch of people who seem like they're entitled and don't get caught up in the excitement; Caracortado's connections are anything but. I actually took a shot of one member of these connections celebrating, but I don't know his name. I wish I could send him the shot, especially after now that Caracortado looks like he is Kentucky Derby-bound. What a rags to riches story for "Scar Face..." another reason this sport is so great.

My stomach was doing backflips after Caracortado's victory due to the next scheduled event, and I think their celebration helped calm me a little bit. I mean, I was going into the following events with the knowledge that this was to be my absolute last chance to get good pictures of Zenyatta, the living legend. You never see racemares after they're retired, NEVER. If anyone knows how I can get a shot of Rags to Riches or Proud Spell, please let me know, because it seems once they become broodmares, they're out of the picture unless they're entering the auction ring. Images of my Woody Allen moment flashed through my head, and those sad, two shots I had of Zenyatta galloping at Churchill Downs. This was it. The final curtain. After her retirement ceremony, she would be out of the picture for good. Thank God my camera didn't fail me... I think I would've thrown myself onto Hollywood Boulevard if it had.

She arrived like a mirage. While Santa Anita's grandstands played "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" by The Police, she entered the track from the backstretch; as a wave of applause and cheers greeted her, she became larger and larger. I was standing in the middle of the track in front of the winner's circle, and I think my heart was pounding so hard it almost popped out of my throat. Zenyatta was about to come right %^$@*&! in front of me. I gathered my wits and began to shoot like a crazed member of the paparazzi. She came jogging past me once, then turned around at the end of the grandstands and came back again; she turned around and came back toward me once more, then into the winner's circle, which I traversed like a spider monkey and somehow was able to perch right in the center of the ledge overlooking it so I could get her in the place she had visited after her greatest triumphs. I had her, and I had her again and again... Finally, finally; it was almost as good as being able to see her race. There was no pressure, she was so accessible. I couldn't have asked for anything more. When Mike Smith took a leg up on her exercise saddle, I saw the transformation take place that Charles had always spoken to me about. She thought she was going to race. I saw her muscle up and start her Spanish walk, so fitting we should see Zenyatta, who danced like a fighter before a big match, on Boxing Day. I couldn't help tearing up. This was going to be the last time she ever danced that dance on a race track. It became so tragic all of a sudden, and I wanted to whirl around and scream, "Why the hell are you retiring this horse! Look at her!" I'd barely seen a fit race horse look like she did on that day when she was supposedly being wound down from training. She looked like she could race that day. Mike was all smiles. Before they went into the winner's circle (I know, I'm back-tracking), I knew a Moment in Time when I saw one, and though a slew of photographers were in my way, I quickly jutted my way through legs and fell to my knee, where I took the shot I knew would capture that moment and her career: Zenyatta and Mike Smith, "Perfection." From low on the ground, looking up, she looked larger-than-life, which is a perfect analogy for an unbeaten freak like this mare. There is a feeling you get when you take a shot like that. It's sort of like I could die the next day and it would be okay, because I'd just captured something so special that would never happen again, and I was lucky enough to get it. I'd only ever felt that way once, and that was my photo of Rachel Alexandra winning the Kentucky Oaks, something I don't know if I could ever have been lucky enough to shoot the same way again. I saved my "Perfection" shot in five different places that night so if anything happend to my camera or my memory card or the computer, I would still have it, if nothing else, when I got home. I don't know if it'll ever be published, because of the events which happened only a month later, but that photo will forever be one of my all-time favorite pictures I've ever taken. And there was a pantleg in the frame before I cropped it out. This is why you should never be afraid to take risks if the vision is there.

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!!

I took my first plane flight ever to be at Santa Anita on opening day, and I'd still never change my experience knowing what I do now for a million dollars. To see something so special as this once-in-a-lifetime superhorse is to feel fulfilled, and I was able to make my peace of never having a decent experience with her in the two years I'd followed her. Now that she will race again, I feel like Zenyatta is finally going to be able to have the sort of campaign she has deserved for so long, and was cheated out of. Her Breeders' Cup Classic race proved how special she really is, and after she was finally able to prove what I'd thought all along, I can't wait to see what 2010 has in store for her.
And now the Apple Blossom awaits... but that's another blog.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reaping the detriments

I still have yet to post about one of the best days I've had as a photographer at the track, which was my experience at Santa Anita, and here I am about to tell about the exact opposite of that day. Last Friday was the worst experience I've had at the track as a photographer. I've been neglecting this blog due to a constant floundering in my seasonal defective disorder, and not really feeling much like writing. I do apologize for that, for there has been a lot worth talking about in racing right now.

But, this takes precedence. I've witnessed breakdowns before, but the situation has never been quite like this. I was alone, and close, and the incident was as bad as you can imagine.

I went to my home state track of Hawthorne Race Course for the first time. There was no stakes race to anticipate, I just really wanted to get out of the house and visit a track that I figured I ought to see, since it was the closest one in proximity to my residence. I called in for credentials and made the trip. I discovered the inside rail was particularly low to the ground compared to other tracks, which meant I had to practically roll underneath it on my knees to walk on the turf course. That was fun. Also, Hawthorne reminds me a lot of Aqueduct, except Hawthorne's finish line is nicer in proximity to the grandstand apron, in that you can actually stand across from it as a spectator. The finish line itself is hilarious--there IS none. It is designated by a smattering of ads from the Daily Racing Form and TVG, etc., and the photo finish box on the opposite side. There is no pole that says, "Hey jock! Here's the wire, don't pull up too quick!" I frankly don't know how they don't have mishaps.

Anyway, I decided to hoof it around the turn and take some stock photos of horses running around that area. Even though it was a grossly polluted-looking day, and the Chicago skyline was diluted by brown smog, it was still an interesting background to the horses, so I captured the scene and plotted practicing turn shots. I don't get a lot of practice with turn shots, because there usually isn't a good place to stand, and because the track is usually too wide for my maximum 200mm focal length to frame a good photo. Hawthorne's dirt track isn't too wide, so I found a shack meant for outriders and other track people to stake out in during the races, and waited in the fifth for my opportunity to shoot my first outside rail turn shot. It didn't go as planned.

I had my shot planned out perfectly. I had plenty of time between races to stand there and frame it, adjust for lighting and shutter, all that good stuff, while I waited for the horses to be saddled, paraded, and walked over to the starting gate on the other side. Frankly, I got bored in between races with no one to shoot the shit with. And so when the race actually started, it came upon me pretty quickly. The track is so quiet at Hawthorne, you don't notice the horses are coming until they're practically on top of you. On top of that strange silence, I was far away from the grandstands, and was the sole person within a half mile at the turn besides the riding jockeys.

So there I stood in my little shack, lens trained on the field turning for home, shutter snapping away, when all of a sudden, a horse does a somersault just like Go For Wand, stirring a cloud of dust in the air, rolling over her jockey and tossing him into the middle of the track as the rest of the horses leave them behind.

The dust cleared. It was just me, a motionless jockey, and a horse on her knees with two irreparable front legs.

I can't put into words how utterly worthless I felt being the closest able-bodied person to that scene, and unable to do anything about it. As a human being, my immediate reaction was the need to run to the fallen jockey's side and see if he was alright. But of course he wasn't alright. He wasn't moving a muscle. I was paralyzed by the thought that I could approach him and find him dead. And that horse, that poor doomed horse... I couldn't bare getting any closer to that pathetic creature reduced to two legs, nose resting in the dirt. I wanted so badly to help, but knew there was nothing I could do at all. I knew well that you don't move a person who has potentially broken his neck or back, which this jockey had clearly done one or both of. Had I left my shack to approach them, I probably would've been yelled at by track personnel once they arrived, and for some reason, I feared in the back of my mind someone would blame me for the incident. I was the only person there to see it happen. I guess it was the child-like "I didn't do it" syndrome. I don't mean for this to sound at all like a joke, but my mind was going through a roller coaster of emotions, and I didn't know how best to react. So I waited.

The ambulance arrived within what felt like several minutes, but it was probably less than that. I know it felt like an eternity between the time the rest of the horses found home and help arrived at the turn. The jockey still hadn't moved a muscle by the time they were at the scene and hauled him off on a stretcher, leaving the fallen creature to her fate. I had hope the jockey would be okay when the ambulance arrived. Something about the quickness of their movements told me he would be saved. But I knew there would be no salvation for the filly. At first glance, I thought maybe, maybe there would be a sliver of hope she was just in shock... but then, of course, I saw what was left of her broken foreleg flop between her knees, and I knew. Like an unforgivable sin, there is no other sentence for a flaw like that. I prayed that needle would find her quick and save her from suffering, and the wait for that was probably more excruciating.

I waited with her for several minutes after an outrider and a track official arrived at the scene. The horse ambulance, that telltale green van, seemed to take forever. I didn't wait to see them load her. I couldn't bare it. I saw a man administer something, maybe it was a tranquilizer, maybe it was mercy, to her neck, but she did not fall. As if out of pride, she stood on her two good legs till the end. The man with the needle shoved her body with his own, but she refused to lay down, and she could not pick up her forelegs; they remained two traitorous limp weights, curving her into a macabre bow to the dirt for which she had been borne.

I finally left my post. I dare not watch her fall.

The Daily Racing Form summed up this event like this.

Hawthorne is not a particularly bad track. It's not bad at all, really. There was no cruel circumstance behind what happened; it was just one of those random events that comes and goes like the wind. The filly had only run three previous races and had never been out of the money. She wasn't overraced, unfit, or badly bred. She was just fast, lightly-boned, and unlucky.

I just happened to go for the first time on a day where something tragic happened. I know I will never be able to look at that turn the same way again, but like that jockey (who will ride again), I have to get back up on that proverbial horse and ride, because this is what I love.

I get to see a lot of triumphs at the track. I am privileged to see many fantastic feats of athleticism, strokes of luck, shines of brilliance; but with reaping the benefits of my job, I must also reap the detriments. Love is, after all, give and take.

Friday, January 29, 2010

All aboard the Afleet Express bandwagon!

Originally published in
The Sunshine Millions kicks off a weekend of competition between the sunniest places in America, California and Florida. Sadly, none of these races are graded, which means you probably won't find the type of competition you would in, say, a normal graded stakes race in California. This is one reason why I won't attempt to handicap these races; that, and I've already caught Derby fever. Forgive me, my immune system is vulnerable to this rampant disease; in fact, it might be fair warning to just assume this column will be full of mostly Derby screeches and false starts until the big preps are finally underway. So until that time comes in April, I give you... an allowance race to look forward to.

This Saturday, race number two at Gulfstream Park may just mark the coming out party of a certain 3-year-old I've had earmarked since December, when, by chance, I caught his maiden race at Aqueduct. You will not find his name on most early Derby contender lists, because he has only raced once. But this colt, more than most in his crop, is packed with plenty of intrigue to keep him in mind when dreaming of roses in May.

Afleet Express is by Afleet Alex, valiant winner of the 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Not since Alysheba's Derby in 1987 had there been a more harrowing moment in Triple Crown history, with the an outcome nothing short of miraculous—at the top of the stretch in the Preakness, Afleet Alex fell to his knees when the horse in front of him blew the turn and cut into his lane, nearly sending jockey Jeremy Rose out of his saddle; yet somehow, the team managed to pick up their stride and win the classic race by five lengths. And in the Belmont Stakes, Afleet Alex went on to win the 1 ½-mile test by a condescending 7 lengths, leaving the horse racing world to wonder what might've been had the colt a better trip in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished an unlucky third to the longshot, Giacomo. If nothing else, the son of Afleet Alex certainly has the genes to make him something special; but his first time out has shown that Junior might just have a shine of his daddy in him.

On an early December day at Aqueduct, with a track deemed "muddy," the bay colt made his career debut; but an off track was far from this young colt's biggest woes. Afleet Express broke from the third position, and hardly two jumps out of the gate, the colt was checked hard by two other contenders, causing him to rear up and fall back five lengths from the bulk of the field. There he lagged until the middle of the turn, when he began to catch up to the rest of the horses. At the top of the stretch, with jockey John Velazquez working on him already, a victory seemed impossible, as the colt was lugging out and stalling in his bid to catch the leaders. Afleet Express was running greenly, ogling at the other horses with his head up in the air.

But by the time they reached the quarter pole, Afleet Express began to pick off the rest of the horses, and in one sweeping move, found a rhythm with just enough time to blow past them and win by a length and a half. Once the big, leggy colt approached the wire, he seemed to figure out just what was expected of him, and started a nice, fluid stride. Though he has only raced at a distance of six furlongs, his long stride indicates he will take to two turns just like his papa did.

Afleet Express's first start may not have been a show-stopper, but it hints at a well of talent inside this green colt. While the rest of the field broke cleanly and had no real excuses for losing, 'Express had every reason to lose, and ran away with victory when it appeared he had no idea what he was doing. Now, imagine what this same colt could do if he had nobody checking him and had a little more maturity under his belt—if talent is the only thing that got him to a 1 ½-length victory, focus will make his winning margin stretch far beyond his competition. I can only see bright things ahead once Afleet Express gets more experience.

Afleet Express will be running at 6 furlongs again this Saturday in a $48,000 allowance test at Gulfstream. John Velazquez will also be back in the saddle. Though there is a 30% chance of thunderstorms on Saturday, the rain isn't supposed to start until after 3:00pm local time, and so Afleet Express will likely get his first taste of racing on a fast dirt track. He will be facing a field of six others, and may go off as the second-choice favorite to General Maximus. General Maximus has also had only one start to his career, a 4-length win in July at Belmont Park over the dirt; he is returning to the races for the first time after having a bone chip removed from his ankle.

Gulfstream Park is the perfect spot to take in promising new Kentucky Derby prospects. Whether or not Afleet Express shines like a new locomotive in his first start as a 3-year-old, there are plenty of opportunities for him to prove himself, as well as for other 3-year-olds to make their mark on this trail to Kentucky.