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.

Like the previous day, I was assigned to wander to different locations to shoot each race. I had a list written up of every stakes, what lens I would use, and where I would shoot the finish from. I was fairly worn out from toting around the hulking 600mm lens on Friday, so I was numbing myself up with Advil and adrenaline to be able to carry through Saturday’s card. I won’t go over every race, but there were a few moments I wanted to mention before getting to the big show.

The game plan
I couldn’t even believe it was time for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile when the race popped up in slot 7 on the card. In most respects, there were three races on Saturday everyone was most buzzing about—this, the Mile, and the Classic. A young champion was going to be crowned this day. New blood; next year’s hope. With Uncle Mo and Boys at Tosconova, it seemed we were ready to have a great race on our hands. I barely had time to get excited about it. Before I got a chance to even glance much at the program, the horses were saddled and parading in front of me. I was nestled under the outside rail between the finish and the Clubhouse Turn, and shooting with the 400mm lens. The 400 is a little too cumbersome for me, I’ve found. It’s heavy and requires a monopod to hold and aim with, much like the 600, only it won’t kill me if I drop it and it lands on me. Neither lens is easy to pan with a moving subject; but this probably has a lot to do with the way I shoot. This was the reason why I missed Uncle Mo the first time the horses ran by me; he was parked outside and behind a group of six passing the finish for the firs time, and I couldn’t pan quickly enough to see him settling closer when the horses rounded the Clubhouse Turn.

But when the horses came rounding that famous final turn and the challengers began to fall away from Uncle Mo, my jaw dropped. “Oh wow,” I said to no one in particular as he began to draw away. It was the most impressive race of the day thus far, and it was a laugher for Mo. He proved himself to be the real deal on the stage it mattered most. I started shooting a little too early then paused, and missed Johnny V looking over his shoulder to see where the rest of the horses had gone. Funny enough, though, I did get Ramon Dominguez, on Boys at Tosconova in second place, looking over his shoulder, as he had also drawn away from the rest of the field, though well behind the dominant Mo.

I got a great shot of owner Mike Repole hugging Todd Pletcher, the both of them laughing while Mike high-fives John Velazquez. What Pletcher lacks in showing emotion, Mike made up for it ten-fold, his jubilation completely infectious in the moment. You couldn’t help but be happy for people who acted so excited and full of emotion; this is the kind of good stuff that you miss most of the time on simulcast TV.

The next race—Holy Bull-oney!—was the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and the return of the 2-time Breeders’ Cup Mile champion, Goldikova. For this race, I had to shoot from the roof. It was a kind of torture being so far away from this marquee event—I’m decidedly spoiled and want to be right up in the face of the champions every chance I get—but the high angle on the turf was a unique perspective.

Proviso wins the Diana at Saratoga
Only in a blue moon do I place a bet, but in this race, I felt like there was being a crime committed and I had to take advantage of it. One of America’s great turf mares, Proviso, was going off at ridiculously generous odds, so I placed a wager on her in the press room before the event. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see Goldikova make history—but I had a soft spot for Proviso; the last time I’d seen her in person, she was winning the Diana at Saratoga, and the shot I took of her in the race was one of my favorites from that trip.

When I got up to the roof, I found that I wasn’t alone, for once. A man and a woman were soaking in the great view from the ledge and taking pictures of themselves in front of the twin spires, which were off  and below to our left. As it turns out, these two weren’t even members of the press, which you would need to be in order to get up there in the first place; they had on wristbands from the day before, and some security guard somewhere along the line had just waved them by when he didn’t recognize the color of the band. These two fans had managed to sneak up to the greatest view in the house on racing’s biggest day. They asked me to take their picture in front of the spires, and I complied without hesitation. What a story they would have to tell. I didn’t get their names, only their faces, but that’s the best kind of mystery. Probably thinking they had pushed their luck as far as it was going to go, they left before the Breeders’ Cup Mile, hand in hand. Soon after they left, a couple other members of the press joined me near the ledge. I didn’t mention the fans to them.

Far, far away, we watched the contenders of the Mile parade in front of the grandstands and warm up on their way to the starting gate. The sunlight was just beginning to move so that the horses wouldn’t be in complete shadow from my angle. And then they were off, and I lost sight of Goldikova going into the first turn, though I knew she wasn’t near the lead. The TV coverage was actually much more exciting than my view from up top in the first half of the race—but then the game mare came absolutely flying down the stretch, from out of the clouds, moving like no horse I’d ever seen before. Her strides—she was like a rabbit streaking out of the brush! The rest of the horses fainted in her wake. The sound of the crowd swelled beneath me, and goose bumps flushed my arms. Goldikova had just become the first three-peat winner of a Breeders’ Cup race. I was so excited, I ran off the roof and started my descent to ground level, when it hit me I had forgotten to wait for the gallop back. I zipped off the elevator and found my way to the grandstands, where I somehow weaseled my way between a cluster of fans on the second level. A bit smashed and impressed by my 300mm lens, they no quarrels about letting me get between them to take photos of Goldikova’s coronation. (Ah, the kindness of inebriated strangers!) Over a few heads, I managed to get my shots of Goldi’s parade beneath the garland of yellow and purple flowers; my shutter took in Olivier Peslier’s triumphant raising of the French flag and a confetti of golden petals. It wasn’t until afterwards I heard about the famous scene of Goldikova’s exercise rider running down the track during the stretch run and celebrating his mare’s victory; if only I had known to anticipate it beforehand! Ah, well, that’s why we have ESPN.

Well, my Proviso finished off the board, in the worst placing of her career, but no embarrassment to be behind the likes of Goldikova, Gio Ponti, Paco Boy, and the like. This is why I don’t bet on horses—my favor must surely curse them. I didn’t bet on the Breeders’ Cup Classic, not even for a souvenir ticket. It was probably more for lack of time than superstition, because after the Dirt Mile was over and Big Drama was cheered home, I grabbed my 300mm and didn’t come back to the media auxiliary room until dust had settled over the Classic. I had been assigned to shoot the BC Turf from the roof, and had to worry about two things: being able to get down to a spot on the outside rail following the BC Turf for the Classic, and having a memory card with enough space on it to last me through the Classic.

Me with "Big Bertha," the 600mm
We were supposed to use a fresh memory card for every race, but I didn’t have enough to do this and had been reusing cards after my team had loaded up my pictures. The card I had in my camera for the Turf was my largest card—16 GB. I convinced my boss my shots from the roof during the Turf weren’t going to be the most coveted shots from our team, (as no one ever uses roof shots for headline photos unless something really weird happens) so I was free to shoot and run. And run I did.

I admit, my BC Turf roof shots turned out beautifully. The sun was waning over the grandstands, making the colors pop in autumn splendor—the grass was a ring of emerald, and as the horses charged into the sunset, their hides shone like polished gold. Even the hedge was dappled in opalescent shadows. If only the Classic had been run under such beautiful light. With the utmost patience, I waited for the winner to gallop back and perform the victory parade in front of the line of horse paparazzi. I even got a few nice shots of this moment—then, when I was satisfied, I booked it downstairs like Speedy-freakin’-Gonzalez on crack.

Why was I in such a dire hurry, you might be wondering? Two main reasons: One, the photographers were all designated spots with duct tape on the outside rail. I had no such spot, yet I was still supposed to find a place to wedge myself in and take the “jubilation shot”—that pose where the jockey is standing up in his stirrups, fist in the air in triumph after the finish. This was my assignment, and I was certain that all friendliness between photographers would go out the window once it was post time for the big show. I knew I had one slim chance of slipping in between two photographers I’d become friendly with during the Juvenile and the Dirt Mile—two people who didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t have my name on the rail, and were courteous enough to let me invade their space. That spot was my one chance at diving into position without having to be shuffled far, far down the Clubhouse Turn and into no-man’s land. I feared no-man’s land like the devil fears Jesus riding an ice storm through the gates of Hell.  

But I couldn’t get to my spot when I busted tail to get down to the hallowed ground that awaited me. The contenders for the Classic were already on their way up the track to enter the tunnel to be saddled in the paddock. I made it just-in-time to find a place in the firing squad of photographers lined up across the track to welcome them. By that time, it had gotten dark. The sun was setting, and only a surreal bruise of light hung on the horizon. It was up to the garish yellow spotlights to illuminate this tense scene before us.

I was there for Blame's triumphant Steven Foster.
First in line was Haynesfield. Poor Haynesfield. Then came my man, The Road, my horse Romeo, his tongue tied and forelock sticking up like a mohawk in all his studly cheekiness. It was his last race. My gut clenched. It wasn’t fair all of these great horses had to bow out in one final bout against each other. I didn’t want to see any of them lose. There was only one first place, one second, one third… and so many of them didn’t deserve anything but a finishing in the top three. Then came Etched, Paddy O’ Prado, Fly Down, First Dude, Pleasant Prince (Pleasant who?), then Blame. Ah, Blame, that dark, venerable challenger. I looked at him with a wary gaze. It had only been three months since he had vanquished my Road when I was sure my big horse couldn’t be beaten. He had been defeated in his last race, but I didn’t believe Blame was so vulnerable as the Jockey Club Gold Cup made him look—Churchill was his track. And unfortunately, I seemed to be Blame’s good-luck charm. Flashback to the 2009 Clark Handicap, where Blame defeated Einstein in his career bow; then to the Stephen Foster, where Blame won when all seemed hopeless; then to Saratoga, in that crazy Whitney—I had been present for all of Blame’s major conquests. I liked Blame, most definitely, but I knew he was going to be the missile that put Zenyatta to the test.

Lucky fan for life.
Right after Blame came my boy Lucky. Oh, poor Lucky! Hard-knocking 3-year-old thrown to the wolves! I wish he’d skipped this grudge match and would be saved for the Dubai World Cup, for a 4-year-old campaign. He could dominate in 2011 with no one to challenge him in the older horse division. He would be swallowed up alive here. The Japanese horse, Espoir City, followed (didn’t have a prayer), then poor Musket Man. I loved Musket Man; he never dodged a fight, was all in every battle. But he was up against it here.

The cheers from the crowd escalated—all 70,000-odd fans let out a roar when the big mare came into view. No person who claimed to be a fan of horse racing could help but feel the gut tighten when she came up the track, her head bobbing, feet parading, dragging her groom toward the tunnel—a picture of sheer magnificence. The electricity in the air was taut as a wire, waiting to burst. Every one of those bystanders in the crowd had come to see Zenyatta’s show, whether they had bet on her or not. And though she was being heralded as the Queen stepping up to reclaim her throne, nobody knew for certain how this dance would end. Mario swung her out from the line of the rest of the contenders, and this gave us a perfect line of sight without all of the Zentourage in the way. With this clear picture of her marching toward the tunnel—and she did march—the moment she raised her front legs and began to paw the ground, performing her pre-war dance, my eyes began to tear up and my heart began to ricochet in my chest.

She passed by so closely, I could’ve reached out and touched her. The swarm of people pressing against us and encircling the great flared beast was overwhelming. I was drawn after her like a fish caught up in the current of a great ship as she two-stepped into that fateful tunnel, her purple robe billowing in tune with her prizefighter prance.

When she swept down the tunnel with loads of little people following after her, I snapped out of my trance and bolted down the track with the rest of us riffraff not lucky enough to be granted special paddock-access. This is when I started to mentally slam on the breaks and let myself take in the scene around me.

Zenyatta's 16th victory
I don’t think in my lifetime I’ll ever again see anything close to it. This is where words fail me. There was something about the purple sky and the mustard-colored lights, those fans pressing up against the rail with their Zenyatta signs and homemade outfits, the anticipation prickling the air in the final moments before it all came crashing down into one breath; it would all culminate in a matter of seconds—one swirling hurricane of unified emotion. The past two days of carnival and chaos, the past three years of following this undefeated horse on a cavalcade of glory… it was all leading up to these three minutes. We were sitting in the axis of the universe, and it was all about to rise into a history-making crescendo. But what would the outcome be?


  1. Really enjoyed this. Post more often Jamie!

  2. Great post Jamie, I really relived the Breeder's Cup experience all over again...particularly with Zenyatta! Thanks, Mary Alice (Cinelit)