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.