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 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.
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.|
|"You taste good, Mario."|
|Uncle Mo and Quality Road: The Changing of the Guard|
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.