Tuesday, April 26, 2011

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.

A yellow school bus pulled up for us and shuttled us to Churchill. It felt so appropriately ghetto for us photographers, who muck up the press boxes with our muddy boots and are always toting heavy equipment around like mules. There is camaraderie in our slovenliness; we were all in this journey together, with the same goal, and so the ride to the track was full of good cheer. All of us on that bus weren’t just photographers, but also fans of the game. From the ashes of sleepiness, the air stoked with shared excitement. I kept looking down at my plastic name badge in awe. I was going to the Breeders' Cup. With credentials. That line from the movie Almost Famous echoed though my mind:  "It's all happening." It really was like a dream. The school bus pulled right up to the fence closest to the paddock, and we could see Churchill workers preparing for the big day as we began to unload our gear off the shuttle. Our little group arrived just in time to see a cart decked with purple and yellow  flower garlands being pushed past the paddock; hints of the glory to come in the morning hours. The little details are what it’s all about.

Goldikova jogging on Thursday at Churchill
The media auixillary room at Churchill is the mysterious white building across from the paddock, and thus we were in the middle of all of the excitement the entire day. We threw all of our equipment in the cavernous room and began to unload cameras, lenses, batteries, memory cards, laptops, you name it. I met with my boss and he explained to me that he wanted to have me be a floater who would use different rented lenses the whole day from different positions; he asked if I had any unique perspectives I'd like to shoot from. I had an hour to try to think up a unique perspective to shoot from at Churchill Downs, and ultimately couldn't figure out an angle that wouldn’t be obscured by fans or one that hadn't been already done to death. While I was in the stands, attempting to scout any unique position, the morning works were still going on. I only just managed to notice I was taking pictures of the great Goldikova as she came charging down the stretch, head low, looking like a restrained battle charger. The jumbo-tron in the infield alerted me to the presence of Zenyatta several minutes later, and I switched lenses and snapped a flip-book of shots of the big mare jogging over the long expanse of dirt. I was one of the only photographers taking pictures from this side of the track, and definitely the only one standing where I was, so I felt like I captured something unique that morning, even though I wouldn't be able to stand there during the races for all the people in my way. I noticed that all of the other people on the track, who usually pay no attention to anything but their own horses, were ogling at Zenyatta as she galloped by; you couldn't help but notice her. It's like trying to ignore an armored tank rolling down a golf course.

After the works were over, all of the photographers were required to attend a meeting in the winner's circle for a run-down of all the rules and regulations for us shooters. This is where we were basically told we'd be lynched if we posted our photos from Friday or Saturday on Flickr, Facebook, or any other site not related to the news outlet we had been credentialed for. This is the reason you won’t see any of my Breeders’ Cup shots in this blog entry. In some ways, I can understand their desire to keep these photos reserved for publications, but as fans can bring in their DSLRs and shoot to their hearts' content without any restrictions, it's sort of laughable. Also, I wondered about the people who missed the meeting who didn’t hear these rules; we didn’t have to sign anything that put our understanding in ink, so someone could really get screwed if they didn’t hear about these restrictions. They threatened we’d never be credentialed to shoot another Breeders' Cup at any track ever again if we broke this rule. Thursday wasn't a blacklisted day of shooting, so some of my photos from that day have been posted to my Flickr photostream.

One of the major points of the photographers’ meeting was to assign our individual spots on the outside rail. On any regular race day, this isn’t necessary, but since there were somewhere around 75 shooters there for the Breeders’ Cup, we had to have our publications duct-taped to the rail to reserve a space for us. This freaked me out. I still didn’t know where I was supposed to shoot the Classic from. The last thing I wanted was to be far away from the action of the biggest race I’d ever see with my own two eyes. I knew it was a very real possibility I could be stuck way out on the final turn, the Clubhouse Turn, or even the roof. To say I was one of the biggest racing fans among the photographers was probably not stretching it much; a lump sat in my gut watching all the good spots get claimed near the finish line. I had never been to a race with that many photographers vying for the same space, so I didn’t know how vicious territorial battles could get. I saw the spots Horsephotos was reserved and saw one spot that I immediately wanted, but as I was the rover, I ended up not having an assigned spot at all. I was basically told to get the shot by any means possible from the location I was assigned. Later, my boss told me the positions he wanted me to shoot from for each race. I would be shooting everywhere from the head-on with the 600mm, the roof, the inside with the 400mm, and from the grandstands. I kind of liked the idea of being the sniper from every position, but the responsibility of being able to get to my location, and then zip back to the media auxiliary room to dump off my memory card made me nervous. I was going to have to bust arse all day long.

"Is this thing gonna eat me?"
I won’t go over the details of every individual race, because I feel I’m already pushing this Breeders’ Cup blog-nanza by making each entry over 2,000 words. So here are some highlights of the day from my point of view…

…I shot my first Breeders’ Cup race, ironically enough, from the grandstands. I found a space in the first balcony level where some nice fans let me squeeze in and shoot the race. It wasn’t exactly thrilled with the outcome of my shots, but it’s always fun mingling with people who are already drunk at 4 in the afternoon. They always want me to take their picture, even though they never ask for my information so they can see it later. A lot of people were dressed like the Queen of England up there, but unfortunately, I didn’t get to rub any royal elbows. It wasn’t until I was delivering my card that I heard about the fracas with Calvin Borel in the now-infamous jockey fight. My husband was apparently at arm’s length for the whole thing. I couldn’t believe he didn’t get a picture of it.

On the far right, looking like I'm manning a small ship.
…I shot the Filly and Mare Sprint, the Juvenile Fillies, and the Filly and Mare Turf with Big Bertha, the 600mm lens. The F&M Sprint was the first time I ever used the 600, and I was nervous because I’d never practiced with it before. I didn’t do such a bad job for that race, but I improved with it later. For night racing, the rocket launcher is pretty sweet. I was proud of my shot of Awesome Feather suspended in the beam of light, the rest of the field shrouded in distant shadow behind her. The F&M Turf was incredibly hard to shoot, because my camera couldn’t focus until the horses were close to the beam of light. Thankfully, Shared Account wasn’t running from the far outside and I got both her and Midday in focus. I swear Midday won it from my angle. That’s the biggest drawback of shooting with a fixed 600mm lens—if it’s a close race, it’s almost impossible to tell who’s in front.

…I completely botched the Ladies’ Classic. Bombed. The worst race I’ve ever shot in my life. I was told to use the 400mm from the roof, and I just couldn’t pan well with it—it was too heavy for me. I was also terrified I was going to drop it on the crowd below. That huge lens would most certainly kill a small army if I dropped it on them. My buffer ran out as the field came for home, as I misjudged the length of that stretch from above, and I didn’t even get a good shot of Unrivaled Belle in front of the beam. It was just as well; Rachel should’ve been there winning it. I was nearly sick over my shots from that race and didn’t want to touch the roof the next day—or the 400. But that vow was short-lived on both counts.

I was so sore after my first day of Breeders’ Cup shooting, I didn’t know how I was going to do another day of it. I probably hadn’t been carrying my 600 properly and was killing my shoulders. I was chomping Ibuprofen like Tic-Tacs. I thought they were going to have to hook up my arms to a couple of slings and have a team of mules drag me back to my hotel. When I left the auxiliary room, I found myself leaving with the same motley crew of photographer friends. We found a white shuttle and climbed aboard and found ourselves with some turf writers and other media people. It turns out we’d gotten on the wrong bus, and it had to turn around and take us back to the track, much to the chagrin of the starving writers on board. Sorry, guys. By the time our school bus picked us up and got us back to the Papa John’s parking lot, the hour was late. So late, we watched as a man on a golf cart locked us in and zipped away, oblivious to the living people staggering on sore legs to their vehicles. Our cars piled up at the locked gate and someone jumped out of their truck and cried, “What is this happy horseshit!” Then there was some curb-jumping and somehow, we all got out of there without having to break the gate down. There may have been some bolt cutters involved. I can’t rightly recall.

All in all, a fantastic first day of the Breeders’ Cup. But the big show was still to come the next day. 

**All photos, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of Bob Newell.

1 comment:

  1. Careful!

    That thing on your shoulder is something the Third Battalion uses.