As we all know by now, the Apple Blossom Invitational didn’t turn out to be quite the race of the century, or even the decade; instead, it was nothing more than an exhibition race put on by Queen Zenyatta. But for me personally, it was a highlight of the year.
Though of course I was immensely disappointed Rachel would not come to Arkansas to battle with Zenyatta, I felt like it was the right move for the 4-year-old filly. With her loss in the New Orleans Ladies against Zardana, I felt like her camp was trying to rush her into fitness after an extended layoff from the races, and Rachel needed finely-tuned conditioning if she was going to face the most imposing opponent of her career. And so, I was happy to make the trip to Arkansas to watch what would be my first time seeing the big mare run in person and get a double-whammy weekend with the Arkansas Derby the next day.
So after living it up in New Orleans and zipping up to Chicago, it was on to my third derby in two weeks when I trekked down to Hot Springs for the Apple Blossom Invitational and Arkansas Derby. What made this trip all the more fun was that most of my photographer friends who had also been planning on attending the Race of the Century were keeping their plans in tact to watch Zenyatta run, as well as shoot a key prep for the Kentucky Derby.
My husband and I drove down to Arkansas on Thursday, the day before the Apple Blossom. Once we arrived in the city, I called up my favorite fellow adventuring racing photographer, Bob Mayberger (a.k.a. The Mighty Mayberger). The Mighty was awesome enough to pick up my credentials in the press office at Oaklawn for me when he retrieved his own, and gave me directions to Oaklawn’s backstretch for the next morning. I had not wanted to wait to pick up my credentials from the press office when it opened Friday morning, because that would force me to miss much of the morning action.
Though the Arkansas Derby was that same weekend, nobody was really thinking too much about the youngsters on Friday. Let’s face it, the Queen was in town, and the horse paparazzi can never help but zero in on roving royalty’s every move. When I pulled up to the security guard holding court at the entrance to Oaklawn’s backstretch, I flashed my credential and sheepishly asked if there was any way he could tell me where John Shirreffs was stabling his horses. The man looked at me blankly for a second, and so I asked, “Is there any way you can tell me where I could find Zenyatta?”
(And I must digress to explain how the backstretch security guards normally behave: mostly, they don’t want to tell you anything, as if they were guarding some sacred stone in the Temple of Doom, even though I have a credential and thereby permission to be back there; usually, they act as if they are bestowing upon me some great service if they flash me a map of the barn area (though they would sooner throw me out than let me take a copy of the map or take a picture of it). And if you dare ask what barn a certain horse would be in, they usually produce a Sphinx-like smirk and act like they don’t know. You have to play the game and ask what barn the trainer is stabled in, and then pretend you either don’t care or aren’t sure exactly what horses he trains. Mostly. Every track has its own puzzling rules meant to disgruntle you and keep you from walking around the backstretch.)
And here was where I was first bowled over by Oaklawn. The security guard went “Oohhhh” and he said it in such a way I thought surely now he was going to tell me she wasn’t there, or I didn’t have permission to go see her. Instead, he began to give me detailed instructions on how exactly to get to her barn, and told me I could park right across from her barn. Excuse me? I began to suspect I hadn’t actually woken up that morning, and was actually experiencing some very lucid dream. I thanked him profusely and followed his directions. Sure enough, there was a parking lot nicely laid out next to the grassy slope that ended at the long barn where Zenyatta was stabled. Unbelievable.
I got out of the car, expecting it was some sort of trap and I would be ambushed by a Shirreffs-hired S.W.A.T. team. Instead, I walked right up and saw, plain as day, that bright paintbrush-shaped stripe peeking out of a stall. It was Zenyatta. Right there. Easy as pie. And only a few people around. It was like the most wonderful, magical episode of The Twilight Zone ever. What was more, when I approached the barn, I made sure to stand at the far end to begin taking my pictures, behind a tarp that had been shielding light out of half of the barn, so that I wouldn’t be loitering five feet in front of the great racemare. I expected the line would be drawn somewhere around hovering right in front of her face. But then, other reporters and photographers began to show up, and neither the groom, Mario Espinoza, or anyone else shooed them away. It’s like they actually appreciated the media, like they wanted to show her off. I was dumbstruck.
|"Fiji: Water of Champions"|
|Zenyatta and I at Oaklawn|
Oaklawn was prepared for the masses wanting to display their devotion to the champ and sold Zenyatta buttons, as well as remnants of what might’ve been by also offering Rachel Alexandra badges; of course, being the Rachel freak I am, I bought one of each, as well as an Apple Blossom hat and a shot glass. Why can’t every big racing event have such cool merchandise? I marveled at the homemade hats in the grandstands, and the number of fans stuck like flies on a glue-strip to the rail, refusing to budge the entire day until the big race went off. When I wasn’t credentialed, I would do the same thing, but I was usually the only one in my venture—here, everyone was a diehard fan. Everyone wanted a close look at perfection.
The one thing I wanted to capture with my camera was a good shot of Zenyatta’s pre-race dancing ritual. I’d only seen a couple pictures ever that really captured the charisma of the mare before a race and displayed her trademark two-step as she sauntered to the starting gate. One of those I’d begged for Charles to take before a race in California, and he obliged and posted it on Flickr, much to my excitement. But of course, it’s not the same unless it’s your own photo.
Actually taking a shot that embodies this action is extremely tough. You have to time the shot just right, or you won’t be able to tell that she’s in the middle of an unusual motion with her front legs; if you’re a split-second off her stride, she looks like she’s walking oddly, but not really dancing. And we all know she literally dances. As the horses began to make their trip from the backstretch to be saddled in the infield, I grew almost sick with anxiety. It was completely nerve-wracking. I wasn’t sure if it would be my sole opportunity to ever see Zenyatta run in person, and I was putting myself under a lot of pressure to capture every second she was in my line of vision.
When I first caught sight of her being led down the track, I began to tremble. The roar of the grandstand permeated our senses, rattled our bones, and raised the hair on the back of our necks. Goosebumps swept down my arms. And yes, tears, threatened to leak out of my eyes. It’s hard to explain how some experiences are past the point of withholding emotion, but the Apple Blossom embodied this sensation. I was nervous for my own part, I was sick that something would go wrong and Zenyatta wouldn’t win (though the sanity left in my brain would never believe she could lose such a soft race), and then I began to fear I’d become so overwhelmed by emotion I would simply fling my camera away to cheer her down the stretch when the dire moment came. But mostly, I was happy. I’d never heard a crowd so pumped up outside of a Triple Crown race—and this was even more intense for the fact that this audience wasn’t a bunch of drunk people who barely cared about the outcome of the race—the emotion behind the cheers was evident, and it made me think this is what a trip to the track might’ve been like in the Golden Age of racing. Zenyatta, in a sense, had taken us all back to a time when the whole world stopped for two minutes and watched, breath held, a couple of horses battling to a finish line.
My anxiety did not improve much once the race began. The post time for the Apple Blossom had been pushed back for broadcast purposes (when it was still being billed as the Race of the Century), and the shadow of the grandstand cast over the track, which is sort of a dismal condition for photographers who wish to focus on a dark horse. It wasn’t night-dark, but the lack of sun made the light flat on the subjects, making the color not as appealing if the race had been run an hour or so prior, when the golden sunlight would highlight a horse’s dapples and add a gleam in their eyes. And so I nervously metered the track for the abysmal lighting condition, and re-metered during the field’s first time by the stands when the pictures looked a little too dark (unlike some racing photographers, I shoot completely in manual mode).
Then came the moment of truth. Watching the big screen in the infield, I watched as Zenyatta began to circle the field on the turn and pass the other fillies one by one. She was simply gliding by them, as if rounding horses in a workout. A lump hardened my throat. Tears began to sting my eyes. There is a rare devotion born from the ability to trust special horses as they come into view for the first time around the final turn. It’s the trust that they will always pull through for you, that they will find a way to win; it’s something precious, almost sacred, and only the greatest horses can pull it off time and time again. Zenyatta has never lost. She is the sole horse who can pull off the amazing feat of never disappointing… in a very real way, she is always there for you. How many things can you count on in your life to always come through for you? So rare and precious a gift, the gratitude for this is difficult to hold back if you really, truly appreciate it. Time and time again, I’ve witnessed my champions fail. All horses get beaten if they run long enough. Except Zenyatta. Thus, the tears.
The crowd was deafening, and my whole body shook. It was apparent she was going to win by daylight. This made shooting easier, but still I’d lost my sanity somewhere during the race. I pointed my lens on her on the stretch, focused, and the camera trembled along with me as I snapped the shutter CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH. Zenyatta breezed through the stretch to an ovation of admirers, winning easily. I exhaled, letting the anxiety release. The champion had done it yet again, and I hadn’t tossed my camera or thrown up from nerves.
After the races, the horse paparazzi journeyed back to our transmitting trailer and we began the task of submitting our photos to the world. Naturally, I had connection problems for whatever reason and didn’t get my pictures uploaded until after some of the other photographers had already submitted their first batch. I don’t always have the best luck in these situations (though the next day, I was so prepared I was one of the first to submit my photos, and was rewarded with a cover on NTRA with my Arkansas Derby picture), as I’d just demonstrated at Hawthorne the week before. After I transmitted my photos and packed up, I made one last stop by Zenyatta’s barn in case they were giving her a bath. I could’ve parked closer, but then I wouldn’t be a very good horse stalker, would I?
Lo and behold, there was Mario grazing the still undefeated champion in that same patch of grass outside of her stable. I stood and admired her some more, then finally built up the courage to ask if someone could take a picture of me next to her, since there were very few people around, and they’d all had their pictures taken with her just then. Mario didn’t mind, and I walked next to Zenyatta. Like some sort of bad joke, the picture of me standing next to Zenyatta, with her head raised and posed, turned out to be a close-up of my feet in the dark. I’m not joking. Because of the darkness, and the fact I had my telephoto zoom lens on my camera, the picture-taker couldn’t focus and ended up with the poorest excuse for a snapshot possible. BUT… as I was standing next to her, I reached out and dared to touch her great shoulder with my hand, and I felt her kitten-soft, velvety hide on my fingertips. She stomped her hoof. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, even if I have no photographic evidence of the moment. I left the backstretch at Oaklawn that day walking on air.
|Line of David wins the Arkansas Derby|
|Charles has a true |
|The "Mayberger Handicap"|
Thus ended my marathon, three derbies in two weeks, with one Apple Blossom for good measure. It was a prelude to a stellar year, but the single greatest stretch I would experience until the summer, long after the dust settled from the Triple Crown races. But that’s for another blog.