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.