Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Favorite Photos of 2014

While I didn't make it to as many races as I preferred in 2014, I had the privilege of witnessing plenty of history on the track. 2014 marked the first time I was credentialed for both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in the same year. It was my fourth credentialed Derby, my second Belmont Stakes, and a return to the place where it all began for me professionally. While not everything went as planned, I was still so fortunate to capture many memorable moments. A few of which might be my best.

Without further ado, here are ten of my favorite shots from my year at the races in chronological order.

Kentucky Oaks Victors: Untapable and Rosie Napravnik
I really couldn't have asked for a luckier moment than the one I got after Rosie guided Untapable to a stellar victory in the Kentucky Oaks. Assigned to the winner's circle, which was held in the traditional brick enclosure attached to the grandstand, I found myself unable to actually fit inside for the swarm of press and connections after the race. (A symptom of too many passes, too little room. Can we go back to the grass next year?) As the lilies were draped over the filly's shoulders, I found a tiny window between a couple photographer's legs and dove in for a low, wide shot. Rosie looked right at me as Untapable picked those elegant hoofs between the crowd. One of my most memorable moments of the year is seeing those feet inches from my own as the Oaks winner strode into the winner's circle.

Appropriate Attire Required
Derby Day is a grand madness, a swirling mass of mayhem that must be embraced for its many-faceted stories. It's impossible to take in everything, but I have disciplined myself to seek out at least one moment each year that encapsulates this spirit. This one was only a few steps from the press area. A single race fan pitched a picnic blanket in the corner next to the entryway for the Jockey Club Suites and surrounded himself with an array of libations. He lined this makeshift nest with empty Derby glasses, eight-packs of soda, kettle corn, and racing programs like an apocalyptic survivalist. Above him reads a sign: "Appropriate Attire Required." If this isn't Derby, I don't know what is.

California Chrome Wins the Kentucky Derby
If there's anything I learned this year, it's never take a win shot for granted. You never know what you're going to get at the finish line, and Victor Espinoza helped make this shot an instant favorite. Really, what more could you ask for in a Kentucky Derby photo? The jockey is actually celebrating, and the winner is resplendent. I'm just grateful I didn't find a way to mess up this perfect moment. I also have a frame where all four of Chrome's feet are off the ground, but I prefer the full-out stride.  

Commissioner Shakes It Like a Polaroid
Walking from one side of Belmont's backstretch to the other with camera equipment in tow made me feel like Sam carrying Frodo up Mount Doom to dispose of a certain ring. So when I found a barn that lo and behold, actually had Belmont contenders out and about that you could adequately see, I felt like I hit the jackpot. As it happened, Pletcher's string was being bathed in the most gorgeous lighting. I was so enamored with it, another of my favorite shots was taken in the exact same spot in that short window, Princess of Sylmar.

Princess of Sylmar
 The 2013 Kentucky Oaks winner was one of many stars I got to see during my trip to New York. Is there anything as pretty as a champion filly on a spring morning?

It's Chrome's World. We're All Just Living In It.
Make no mistake, I traveled to New York with the hopes I would see something that's never been accomplished in my lifetime. I wanted to see a horse win the Triple Crown. Even though I was well aware the odds were stacked against Chrome, it had been my dream to witness a Triple Crown attempt in person. I'm not going to lie; I had a exhausting, stressful trip. I didn't sleep the first night at all, and I don't function without sleep. Chrome went out at a punishing hour each morning before most of the other Belmont contenders (save Tonalist), and it did me in. Over the course of a few days, I shot pretty much the same galloping pictures as everybody else. But the morning before the Belmont, I heard Chrome was schooling in the paddock, and took off to the chute to see if I could get anything on his return. I missed him inside the paddock, and the horse paparazzi were parked outside the tunnel like they were waiting for a hoofed Leonardo DiCaprio. Again I found myself with nowhere else to go, so I ducked in a wedge between long lenses and shot from below. When finally the big horse came out of the paddock, he stood at the mouth of the tunnel and surveyed the task before him. Shutters snapped frantically, but he took everything in stride as his exercise rider smiled and patted him on his coppery neck. Chrome eyeballed me as they took off onto the track. This was the shot that made all those tortured mornings worth it for me, just a portrait of the golden boy with an impossible task hovering overhead.

Tonalist Before the Belmont
I had the worst luck I've ever had as a photographer on Belmont Day. Due to equipment malfunction, my camera failed to write the images I was shooting onto my memory card for several races, including the Belmont Stakes. Later, I found out the contacts on my rental equipment were dirty. I was pretty much in shambles by the end of the day. I'd carried two cameras with me all day long, so it was not a total loss. Just the end of the races! For this shot, I put myself in a specific location at the edge of the tunnel to get a picture of California Chrome walking onto the track for his date with destiny. Unfortunately, his handlers blocked him, and the shot didn't turn out as I'd envisioned. It did, however, work for the eventual spoiler, Tonalist. Take a look at Joel Rosario giving the thumbs-up. He knew what was about to go down. Too bad the rest of us didn't.

I have this thing where I want to make every horse portrait look like an oil painting, because any horse naturally lends itself to the medium. They're just freaking gorgeous animals. Add sweat, grit, and flared nostrils, and you have yourself a portrait of the equine heart. After winning the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs, Tapiture threw me a look before he stepped out of the winner's circle. What a beautiful boy.

The Living Carousel
One of my new favorite things is to shoot the county fair races. To be honest, they're kind of hairy, but they make for some fantastic subject matter. This was the first race I shot at the Clark County Fair in the small town of Marshall, Illinois. Here I was standing on the grass at the clubhouse turn, and the number four decided to take flight. He proceeded to charge onto the grass just past me before he rounded back out onto the track. Behind us (I was standing next to the ambulance crew) was a shallow fence and a street, so everyone felt pretty lucky to stay out of his path.

El Kabeir Wins the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes
Because I rarely get a chance to practice with my remote camera, I still get excited anytime something comes out of it. I only use one, so I have a single chance to make it work. I got a new camera this year, so I now put my Nikon D700 under the rail for remotes, and the quality is a jump up from years past. This race took place on Clark Handicap Day in November, under the frosty lights. I still can't believe I didn't cut off El Kabeir on the inside. Thanks for being just one path off the rail, buddy. Good luck to you in 2015!

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