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.

I drove down on Wednesday, which didn't give me a great amount of time before the Championships began, but it was at least time enough to shoot one full morning of workouts. Thursday morning, after a night of tossing and turning, I woke up before my alarm at some ungoldly hour, my adrenaline carrying me all the way to Churchill Downs, the thought that some other photographer would be getting some shot I was missing spurring me to stay energized. I knew it would be too dark to shoot anything exceptional, but I couldn't stand the thought of the action going on without me being in the middle of it all. When I arrived at Churchill, sure enough, the backstretch was positively teeming with the kind of activity usually reserved for Derby week. Photographers and lucky fans were planted along the outside rail on the backstretch, shutters snapping sleepily in the low light, trying to capture the ambiance of the indigo morning with the surreal spotlights lining the track. There was already a surge of activity going on in the workouts; I could see the royal purple saddlecloths rippling by, the snort of an eager Thoroughbred scatting in cadence to the drumming of his hoofs along the ribbon of his own private dreamland.

I found some familiar faces soon after and immediately felt at ease. There were a slew of photographers I'd never seen before, shooters from newspapers or foreign journalists who had probably never been on Churchill's backstretch, or even witnessed a race there. There were fans back there who didn't even have credentials, as was the case of two older ladies next to me on the rail who had driven an hour to get there that morning and were taking pictures with a point-and-shoot camera. As much as the track felt like my regular stomping grounds, I felt like it had to reimpose my status as a Churchill veteran, because the number of big cameras and professional-looking shooters was a little intimidating. Even though it was the first Breeders' Cup I'd ever been to, I knew this track better than just about any other track I'd ever shot at, and had made it my business to know the grounds inside and out. The only thing I had not been introduced to would soon become my second home, the media auxiliary room.

Thursday morning's works did not disappoint. I got to see every single horse I wanted to see outside of Blame. Only that morning, I had read a rumor on Twitter saying he had a quarter crack and would be scratched from the Breeders' Cup Classic. As I felt Blame was Zenyatta's biggest threat, I was truly concerned about his status in the race, wanting him to be in there to give the champ the biggest test she'd ever faced. His absence on the track worried me, but I found out later he'd gone out first thing in the morning, when only a few other horses had been on the track. I wanted to stalk him on the backstretch to find out the scoop, but the constant stream of Breeders' Cup workers made it impossible to ever leave my spot on the rail. Did I mention it was also freezing? Maybe not technically so by thermometer levels, but it was positively bone-chilling outside. After standing so long on the rail, I almost felt like I was frozen in place, even with all of my layers and gloves on. Standing in amongst all of the people created a wind barrier and was at least 10 degrees warmer than if I'd separated from the pack to go searching for a horse. (I forgot to mention I'd actually made a beeline to the Asmussen barn first thing in one last-ditch effort to see if Rachel Alexandra was still on the grounds. My heart ached at finding her stall empty. She had been spirited away from the track without so much as a peep in the news, I was later to find out. I was now certain I'd never see her again.)

Zenyatta jogs Thursday morning.
The crowd grew thicker on the rail as the morning went on, and around 9:00, when the sun was warming up the dirt into a golden glow, Zenyatta finally stepped out on the track. By then, it was a regular paparazzi event watching her jog from the gap and make a loop around the storied oval. I wanted to move to a better spot for lighting, as a huge shadow was cutting over the track directly in front of me, but there was no finding a better position with this crowd. In fact, you were pretty much lucky if you could move at all at that point, there were so many people elbowing their way in to get a glimpse of the reigning Breeders' Cup champ.

After Zenyatta made her appearance, they opened up training on the turf and allowed the credentialed photographers access to walk across the dirt and take pictures from the outside rail of the turf course. That experience turned out to produce some of my favorite workout photos, as the sun was creating a gorgeous morning scene, and the angle of the horses rounding the turf head-on into the backstretch was a new one for me. Here we were privileged to see the winner of the Arc de Triomphe, Workforce, as well as several other superstar and inspiring grass horses, including Paco Boy, The Usual Q.T., California Flag, Beethoven, and Shared Account. (Goldikova and Midday had already taken a jog over the dirt earlier.) During the grass training is when Shared Account reared up on the dirt course on her way over to the turf; she dumped her rider and proceeded to run in a circle before a few people on horseback close by were able to calm her down and catch her. Even though I later heard that some of the European connections were grumbling around about the American "cowboy methods" of catching a loose horse, I found the moment to be spell-binding. Three horsemen closed in on Shared Account slowly from each side, and she quieted down as she seemed to understand they wanted to help. One of these riders happened to be Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. It filled me with appreciation for our sport, witnessing the raw instincts of true horsemen snap into place, calling upon the utmost calm to quell the fears of a spooked horse.

The Euros were also laughing at how The Usual Q.T.
runs with his tail up in the air. They weren't
laughing anymore after the BC Mile.
After the works were over, I got together with some of my favorite members of the horse paparazzi and had a late lunch at Lynn's Paradise Cafe on Barret Avenue. I highly enjoyed the funky atmosphere of the place, and the food was great--but the company made the experience, naturally. By this time, we had caught up with the fashionably late Mighty Mayberger, who had rolled into the parking lot at Churchill just as we were leaving, and we happily peer-pressured him into joining us even though he would've rather gotten a taste of Churchill decked out in royal purple. I told him he had plenty of time for that later. Word had gotten around that Zenyatta would be schooling between races two and three, so we all made sure to zip back to the track as soon as we'd stuffed ourselves with omelets, black bean soup, and sweet potato fries.

By the time we returned to Churchill Downs, racing had already gotten under way. I had to pick up my candy before I started the day, however. I was renting a Nikon D3 body from NPS in the media axillary room, as well as an 18-55mm zoom lens; as I was not used to the hummingbird-happy shutter on the D3, I was a little too excited about how many frames per second I could capture versus my D700. Not a moment after I picked up my rental equipment, someone told me that Zenyatta had entered the paddock.

It still feels weird, even after all of my experience with credentials, having permission to enter the famous paddock at Churchill Downs without someone stopping me. I keep thinking that any moment, some security guard is going to say to me, "You're having way more fun than is allowed here. Take a hike." These sentiments must stem from my memories of the Kentucky Derby and fighting my way through the swarm of drunken fans to catch a glimpse of Curlin parading there in 2008. Now, I'm actually legitimate. So instead of running up to the fence to try to catch my shot from between bombastic Derby hats, I'm now opening the gate and striding down the walking ring to join the rest of the press on the grass island--where I have come to believe I belong.

It was as if Elvis was in the paddock.

Zenyatta was hidden at this point to the left.
Being the Churchill veteran, I am aware of the taboos of where to stand in the paddock. Generally, you want to make sure you get the hell out of the horses' way and mind the activity that is going on around you. My rule of thumb is to respect the horsemen and stay as invisible as possible. Exactly the opposite was going on here. A huge group of photographers planted themselves right in the walking path across from the schooling stall, and I was kind of mortified at first and hung back on the grass island. Unfortunately for me, my view was completely blocked because there were these two policemen loitering around Zenyatta the entire time, almost smug about blocking our shots. Begrudgingly, I joined the paparazzi mob, jumping in low to the ground so as to not be in anyone's way. One of the truest Codes of the Photographers is that there is safety in numbers, so if I was going to be in trouble, at least I wouldn't be singled out for doing anything differently than the rest of the group; the other most trusted Code of the Photographers is that if Barbara Livingston is doing it, it must be O.K. As she was standing in the middle of the group, I figured everyone else had gotten the same idea and had generally attempted to stick close to her. My bold move seemed to give courage to other photographers and  members of the press, and before we knew it, it was a regular red carpet smackdown trying to get the shot without someone's elbow in your eyeball.

"You taste good, Mario."
Here's where I took a little over 500 pictures of Zenyatta. Some may say this would be a bit overzealous, but those who would say so probably aren't perfectionists aiming for the professional, quintessential Zenyatta portrait. Also, I still wasn't used to the hair-trigger of my D3, and had not had time to change the settings before I'd shoved a memory card in my camera and flew into the paddock. There was a lot of activity going on around Zenyatta, and I wanted to capture the complete scene of chaos surrounding this docile mare and her friend, Mario. All the while we were fawning over the reigning Breeders' Cup champ, other Breeders' Cup contenders schooled in the paddock, including Jaycito, Harmonious, and Awesome Gem. I took a total of about 15 shots of them, respectively. Pathetic, I know.

I missed most of the races that day, because soon after Zenyatta left the paddock, who should come waltzing in but my man, Quality Road. Nevermind the fact that the unbeaten favorite for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was entering, too. I was a total Road groupie and had little time for juveniles. Unfortunately, Quality Road looked like a cross between a sumo and a punk rocker with this huge cowlick on his foretop, and he kept grinning at me like a beaver over his lead shank. This did not make for the most poised, regal picture. I took a few shots of Uncle Mo, but I was obviously distracted in trying to take an aesthetic shot of Quality Road, because the pictures I have of Mo only amount to a handful. After the schoolers finally left the paddock, I began to shoot the actual races going on.

Uncle Mo and Quality Road: The Changing of the Guard

What happened next I can only attribute to the cold finally getting the better of me. I decided to go warm up in the press box, thereby shooting the next race from the balcony there. In the race was a 2-year-old colt I had been following who had yet to break his maiden: Tapizar. Though he did not win this maiden special, I am still kicking myself for not getting a decent shot of him in the post parade. Every picture I have of Tapizar is from a bird's eye view. I rooted for him all the way, but he ran fourth that day after running wide the entire race.

The only big race on the card that day was the Grade III River City Handicap, which had been moved from Clark Day. I was rooting for a repeat victory for Rahystrada, but it wasn't meant to be. Battle of Hastings, with Joel Rosario up, stole the show, and thus ended our last bit of normality before the tidal wave that is the Breeders' Cup fell upon us.

A lot of my photographer and press friends were attending the Breeders' Cup welcome party at the Yum! Center, but as Toby Keith was providing the entertainment, and I was running on very little sleep, I decided to sit out the hootenanny ho-down. I simply don't function at 100% when I am running on anything less than 8 hours of sleep, and I would turn out to be grateful for the break the next day, which would turn out to be the single most grueling day I'd ever experienced at the track.


  1. These are great memories, Jamie. I was not there but feel a lot that I was. Thanks.

  2. Wonderful post, made me feel like I was almost there at times!

  3. Very nicely done. Brings back a lot of fond memories. Times I'll definitely never forget.

    I've found myself to be the exact opposite when it comes to listening to music before working the races. At the Derby last year, I blasted KISS on my way from the hotel to Churchill Downs and often found myself way too hyped up when it got down to business. For the Breeders' Cup, I listened to a bunch of podcasts and came to the track much cooler. I'd like to think that reflected in the work I produced, as well.

  4. Thanks, guys.

    Joe, can you really get "too" hyped up for a big race day? :-) Music is like a drug for me, and I use it for many purposes--both to calm down and get pumped up. On race days, I like to get the ol' adrenaline pumping because I'm usually so tired from lack of sleep. haha! It actually does help!