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. 

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe you were standing so casually next to Zenyatta. Why did you ever leave the area!