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.

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