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.

The post parade came so close to us squatting beneath the outside rail, the horses were breathing down our necks. It was impossible not to be a fan in those moments, with so many champion shadows passing over you. I took my last photos of these horses before they made their way to what would be, for some, the last gate they’d ever break from. Your heart swells up really big in your chest when your favorite horse passes you by that close on the way to the starting gate. Especially in a race like this. In one of the last pictures I took of Zenyatta before the race, she is looking off in the direction of the sunset, and Rajiv Maragh, on Musket Man in the background, is looking over his shoulder at her; Zenyatta fills up the frame.

I had to move further down the stretch after the post parade, because I was apparently too close to another shooter on the team. I looked up and saw the packed rail from here to no-man’s land and thought I was going to faint dead on the track from stress. But then I found the two photographers I had squeezed between for the Juvenile and Dirt Mile and they graciously let me reclaim that same spot. It pays to make friends. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Once I was safe in my spot, I debated and retested my camera settings like crazy until the last possible moment, not sure whether to sacrifice shutter speed over ISO or vice versa. Did I mention I am a control freak and only shoot manually? (Cue the crazed artist laughter.) No, really, manual is the only way to go in a tough lighting situation like this. Truth be told, I felt like I’d been granted a small miracle that night, because the Classic turned out to be the best race I ever shot.

My nerves were standing on their toes and screaming once the distant sound of the bell rang and the crowd erupted to the start of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. What surprised me was that I could actually hear the voice of track announcer Trevor Denman calling parts of the race above the roaring grandstands. I clearly heard him say moments after the break, “…and Zenyatta is dead last!” as the crowd responded with a huge guffaw.

It’s a long way down that stretch from where the horses start to the Clubhouse Turn, so I saved the buffer on my camera and started shooting just when First Dude came leading the cavalry charge past the finish for the first time. I lingered my focus to the back of the pack and picked up Zenyatta running clear at the back of the field. I became instantly concerned when I saw exactly how far back she was from the rest of the horses; it was almost like Mike Smith couldn’t get her going after them, as if she were struggling over that not-exactly-fast track. She wasn’t getting much dirt in the face, because she was that far behind the rest of the field making their way into the first turn; I have pictures of Zenyatta being pelted with dirt at Oaklawn, and this was nowhere near as much kick-back. She looked hopelessly far back at that point, and I started to grow desperate for Mike to get her closer. The horses were bunched into two groups, with First Dude leading a small band of speed horses on the lead, with a gap of about seven lengths separating the closers; Zenyatta was trailing off that pack, so she was a total of about twenty lengths from First Dude. She hadn’t been that far from the lead horse in some time—in fact, in her most recent races, Mike had been trying to keep her a little closer so she didn’t have so much work to do at the end. This spelled all kinds of trouble for the big mare. I admit, I was becoming furious with her jockey as the race played out.

I watched all of the race that I could on the Jumbo-Tron, and I saw Blame separating from the rest of the field, with Zenyatta only just beginning to get up close to him. I really thought for a minute, as I’m sure so many of those 70,000 fans did, that Zenyatta would once again make it there only by the grace of God. But then, the impossible happened.

Both horses crossed under that single beam of light, and both horses were in focus in my lens, but one was slightly in front of the other… and it wasn’t Zenyatta. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Having practiced a sharp eye for the best-moving horse, I kept my focus trained on Blame. Zenyatta never once passed a hair in front of him, not even in the gallop out. I got the “jubilation shot,” but it wasn’t on jockey I’d expected. In my best-lit shot, Mike Smith’s head is down, as if hanging in agony as the two horses cross the finish line. Even though Zenyatta never accelerated enough to pass Blame, I couldn’t help but feel Smith had given her too much ground to make up, too much to overcome in a race where the conditions were stacked against her.

And then, as the flurry of horseflesh passed and the last of the dirt fell back to earth,  I clearly heard Trevor Denman’s voice echo, “Zenyatta… second.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. What I had just witnessed. That wasn’t supposed to happen. When I lowered my camera from my face, all I could say over and over was, “Oh my God.” I searched the faces of the photographers around me. I was the only one gaping around like a buffoon, but the gravity of the moment was settling over me like a lead blanket. I turned and studied the crowd, something I never do. I searched their faces as I walked toward the winner’s circle. I took in the towering lights illuminating the scene of stunned fans, listened to the murmurs and hum of surprise. But even when the order of finish was final, and a clear 2 was put up next to Zenyatta’s name on the big screen, I didn’t see anyone crying or going postal. In fact, people looked a lot happier than I ever expected to see. Maybe some of them fainted, or cleared out, because I didn’t see any people clad in turquoise and pink waving a threatening program at anyone else or crying foul.

I didn’t even know what to feel, myself. As I passed the grooms and connections readying to collect their losing horses, my eyes caught Mario Espinoza’s, and I gave him a sympathetic glance. And he laughed. Like it was nothing.

That jarred me; I hadn’t expected that, either. Mario had never collected Zenyatta and helped unsaddle her in front of the grandstands next to the rest of the losers before. It was a very sad sight, even though he had walked over to her with a twinkle in his eye. I guess to him, she still ran her race, and that was all that mattered. Maybe Zenyatta was now too big for such trivial matters as the outcome of a race. Maybe he was just happy to get her back, sound. Maybe she proved she was just another horse now, and he could relax.

The sprig from Garret Gomez's flower bouquet
I made my way back to the firing squad of horse paparazzi and found myself kneeling in the dirt next to the Mighty Mayberger to shoot the gallop back of Blame. I can’t even remember if we said much to each other besides, “I can’t believe what just happened.” Bob and I ended up sitting in the middle of the track beneath the twin spires as the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic paraded in front of us, and Garret Gomez dropped yellow flower petals over us like party confetti. I grabbed a sprig of thistle from the dirt and stuck it in my pocket. Gomez was jubilant. I can’t remember ever seeing him smile so much. I felt badly so few people were cheering Blame’s coronation and entry into the winner’s circle. Blame was a great horse. And this was his moment. I was happy for him. And I also felt guilty, being his good luck charm. I’d probably just inadvertently made a lot of people unhappy.

I paused before walking through the tunnel to the auxiliary room and looked up at the spires and the purple sky. I tried to take it all in. My brain was empty; no thoughts ran through my mind. All I could do was soak it in. I wanted to observe more. I felt that was all I could do to make sense of what I’d just seen. 

A press conference immediately followed the Classic inside the media auxiliary room. John Shirreffs and Mike Smith were there to take questions; the mood in the room was as if someone had died. Zenyatta’s jockey, still wearing those famous teal and pink silks, was sitting up on that stage with tears in his eyes. Even the eager reporters looked hesitant to make him speak. While Shirreffs just looked disappointed, and a bit angry, maybe, it was obvious Smith was crushed. Maybe rightly so—only he would know for sure—the jockey was blaming himself for the big mare’s first loss. The snapping of camera shutters seemed as loud as sledgehammers between questions. I took two shots of Smith. He is pounding his fist on the table in front of him. I couldn’t take anymore after that.

I disappeared for a while after I gave my memory card to the team and got in trouble for it later. I wanted to be around people who understood the gravity of what had just gone down. There was no one to talk to in the media auxiliary room; all the other photographers were busy working on their photos, and my team was busy uploading all of ours. All of the reporters had abandoned ship. I left the building and all of my camera equipment behind, then made my way to the press box. I told someone I was going to find some better food. (This was partially the truth. I was convinced the food in the photographer’s room was last year’s leftovers warmed up.) When I got to the press box, I checked the buffet and found it had been picked over like a flock of vultures had dropped on top of it. Next, I searched for anybody I knew, but I didn’t see anyone at first. I listened to the babble of the turf writers for answers. I wasn’t sure what the question was, actually. It was like I was looking for the Dalai Lama to pop up and tell me what kind of lesson could be wrought from watching a previously undefeated horse lose her last race.

I think I was also looking for like-minded people—someone else who was trapped in this fog of disbelief. I watched the entire replay of the race for the first time just standing in the aisle of the press room, looking like a lost, starving disciple. And then someone found me. It was Joe Nevills, the @MIbredclaimer and penman of racing articles far and wide, from Thoroughbred Times to Arabian Finish Line. He looked a little lost, too. I didn’t recognize him in a suit at first; he was usually seen wearing a baseball hat.

Joe told me he had boxed Blame in a bet, but felt guilty cashing the ticket. Then he got over it and tried to cash the ticket, but the window in the press box had closed and he would have to wait until the next day to claim his winnings. He said it must be bad karma for betting against the big mare.

We watched the race again. I must’ve watched or listened to it in pieces twenty times that night. The reality of it just lay on the surface, refusing to sink in no matter how many times it replayed. I walked back toward the media auxiliary room and passed the empty paddock. Fans were still lingering, and some were posing with the bronze Breeders’ Cup statue and taking pictures inside the stalls, reveling in the access never granted to the public. Discarded programs, tickets, cups, tip sheets, cigarette butts, and other bits of debris decorated the cobbled pavement in the wake of that overflowing crowd. Their cheers were still ringing in my ears. That spine-tingling trumpet call resonated in my bones. This was the dust of history; Ground Zero of an event never to be eclipsed.

I wandered through it like a ghost, searching for something I would never find.

1 comment:

  1. A Rule of Thumb: If I am wearing a suit, I probably feel lost, regardless of the situation.

    The racing gods were angry that night, that I am sure. In retrospect, it probably had something to do with the whole Life at Ten mess.

    These recaps are great (as are your shots of cajun country, BTW). You've nailed it all perfectly. Will an "epic morning after" post be far behind?