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.

1 comment:

  1. Wow,Jamie, what an experience. I am so sorry that this happened of course and that you had to be, in effect, the only witness. Sometime when we talk I will tell you about my bad track experience. Like the great times, it is just something you can't ever forget. Hang in there, VF