Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Breeders' Cup Saturday: Lost in the Afterglow (Part 2 of 2)

I admit I was looking forward to seeing Zenyatta put to the test. This was uncharted territory for the mare, and something I had been beating my drum about ever since she won the Ladies’ Classic. More than anything, I had wanted to see her run on dirt against the boys. I had even gone so far as to play devil’s advocate and hope it would rain to see her put to the ultimate test—the mare had never seen an off track in her life. And here the track was, a strange wet mix of cold dirt. It had been watered almost too much, in my opinion. I had mud sloshing up my pants. I saw on the tote board that it was rated as “fast,” but personally, it didn’t feel fast to me as I strode over it to my spot. Churchill’s dirt is a thick clay-like dirt, and when it’s wet and properly dried out, it doesn’t have puddles quite like it did this night. There was no sun to dry it up; the chilly November air kept the dirt hard and muddy. But what do I know? I’m just here to take pictures.

Kent Desormeaux demonstrates a great jubilation shot (AP)
I found a to-die-for spot on the rail, almost exactly where I would squat if there were only four other photographers, and not a hundred, on a smaller stakes day at Churchill. It would be a perfect place to take the “jubilation shot” I had been assigned to. In what seemed like no time at all, the post parade began for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was the single most bone-chilling call to the post I’d ever heard on trumpet; not for a minor key or an ode to Halloween, but for what it meant was about to go down. This was it. This was the moment we’d all come to witness. For us photographers, this was do or die. We had complete and utter darkness to work with, with one single beam of light draped over the finish line—and only when they crossed at the finish, mind you—as our sweet shot. On TV, the lights look all awesome and glorious at night. I can tell you in actuality, it is a photographer’s worst nightmare. The light emanating from the newly-installed lights at Churchill are great for the human eye, but they’re not enough for a camera trying to freeze the rapid motion of a horse running balls-out down a racetrack.  Cameras also have a difficult time focusing on things they can’t properly see in the dark, which makes night photography even more fun. So here is basically what you have in a night race: two, maybe three frames (if you’re lucky) that are actually well-lit at the finish line. The rest is a complete crapshoot that can only be saved from the miracle of Photoshop or if you’re trying to do a side-pan shot so the horse looks blurry to artistically show motion.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Breeders' Cup Saturday: Showtime (Part 1 of 2)

Some things need to marinate in you for quite some time before you’re able to adequately put your observations into words. At the track, it can be especially difficult for a photographer to let all of the surroundings and gravity of history soak in, because we’re hyper-focused on the action and getting the shots we need for an assignment. It’s also easier to just let our pictures tell the tale; sometimes, there are no just words to describe what it truly feels like to be within the eye of the universe.

Night racing at Churchill Downs
While the undercard races (meaning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, Sprint, Turf Sprint, Juvenile, Mile, Dirt Mile, and Turf) all seemed to rush by in a blur for me that championship Saturday, I was able to force time to slow down for the big show long enough to catalog every moment in my memory. It’s taken me a while to want to share these thoughts and reflections, because that night, I witnessed what I believe to be one of the all-time greatest races in modern history, and being in the presence of such an overwhelming event is humbling. It also feels a little sacred, to be honest. I am so lucky to have been a part of it.

My Breeders' Cup Experience: Friday Kick-Off

This is how we roll at the Downs.
Friday morning started off with a scramble for a parking pass. Around 6am, I finally texted my boss and asked if he had an extra press parking pass, as the night before, I had come to discover I had no alternative than to take the shuttle over to Churchill from Papa John's Stadium. The lady who had given me my credentials at the Galt House had failed to tell me it was necessary to have a press parking pass to actually park with the rest of the media. (Churchill doesn’t actually have a lot for press on the grounds.) One would’ve assumed this would’ve led to her give me a parking pass out of necessity, but that wasn’t the case. She had been much more concerned about whether or not I would be attending the boot-stompin’ jamboree that night. (Which I ended up skipping after she got me tickets.) Thankfully, my boss did happen to have an extra parking pass, and so I wouldn’t be forced to schlep my gear all the way from the fan parking at Papa John’s on foot.*

*For those of you who know what Derby parking is like, it’s exactly the same for the Breeders’ Cup. All the neighborhood lawns are open for business, but I bypass that tradition in favor of actually being able to jet out of Churchill at a decent hour after the dust is settled.

When I arrived at the press parking lot at Papa John's Stadium, who should I find but my motley crew of photog friends heaving their gear out of an SUV and waiting for the shuttle. This sight was an instant relief. I was sure I'd be the only one missing the works that morning, but it seems everyone else had had their fill of works the day before. We were all in survival mode now.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Breeders' Cup experience: Thursday shenanigans

After getting my hopes up about the Kentucky Derby, only to have them shot down, I didn't want to get excited about the Breeders' Cup. It was sort of devastating, to be told your lifelong dream-come-true is going to happen, only to find out a week before you leave on the trip that actually, there was a mistake and there wasn't enough credentials for you. (Yes, this actually happened to me.) So all the while I drove down to Louisville, I kept expecting to get a text message or a phone call breaking the news to me in the ninth hour that I wouldn't be credentialed to shoot the Breeders' Cup World Championships after all. I was almost expecting it, all the way up till I went to the Galt House Hotel to pick up my press credentials. It wasn't until I looked down at my name printed on the thick plastic card did I finally feel the pressure release and let myself believe that it really was going to happen. I was seriously about to shoot the biggest two days in racing I'd ever witnessed in my life. What was more, I was going to have a front-row seat to one of the single greatest races of my generation: the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic, where the great Zenyatta would make her career bow.

That being said, I had prepared a little by creating a “Horse Racing Playlist” on my iPod, which consisted mostly of songs I pictured Zenyatta war-dancing to in the Classic, as well as songs that would dramatically illustrate the pounding hoofs of the field turning for home, and the angelic chorus that would sound as the big mare began to unwind her devastating late kick. So I guess a little part of me did want to believe in miracles. Thankfully, I wasn’t denied mine this time around. This playlist was my constant background music the entire Breeders' Cup, pumping me up each morning and preparing me for the the final showdown at the end of it all. By the time I was shooting the races, "Kashmir" was ingrained in my radiohead on a constant loop.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Meet my new boy, Tapizar

Official photo finish of the 2010 Travers
In December 2009, I was lucky enough to have TVG running in the background on a cold, shut-in kind of day when I happened to witness the debut of a 2-year-old at Aqueduct named Afleet Express. I was immediately impressed by his sheer talent to overcome a rollercoaster of a trip to rally from last and breeze past his rivals while still acting green in the stretch. This was a big ball of potential, and I hung on his every workout and race thereafter. If you followed horse racing in 2010, you will know then how I was rewarded with the ultimate pay-off for my loyalty: Afleet Express hung on to win the Grade I Travers by a nose to Fly Down that summer. It was one of the highlights of my year, to say the least--I was screaming like a flaming banshee, my shrieks piercing the windows of my living room and alerting the neighborhood to what they likely thought was my murder. My vocal cords were practically shredded by the time the horses galloped back from that race. I hadn't bet on that race (as I bet maybe twice a year, and only if I happen to be at the track), but I still had my $2 win ticket from my trip to Saratoga when I saw him run in the Jim Dandy, proof of my devotion.

Monday, January 10, 2011


I'm sure most of you have heard my news by now, but in case you haven't...

I won the 2010 TBA photo contest!

What's a bigger surprise, Thoroughbred Times actually wrote up a short article about it. You can read it here.

Go here to see my page where I thanked practically everyone outside of my dog and cat (But they actually deserve to be thanked for keeping me sane, so thanks, kids!). I hope I didn't blather on too much. I really was humbled by the voting. And thanks to the readers of this blog, who helped me pick out what photo to submit! You guys obviously have great taste. :-)

The Pied Piper of Arlington