Sunday, March 13, 2016

Favorite Photos of 2015

For me, 2015 was about moments, days, and memories that will last a lifetime. I hadn't shot this many races since 2010, that crazy year I photographed three Derbies in three weeks, traveled to Saratoga and Monmouth for the first time, and was credentialed for my first Breeders' Cup. All the material I had to comb through made this blog a daunting task, and accounts for its ridiculous tardiness. Yet my favorites photos from 2015 don't sparkle with variety. Most, you can imagine, involve a particular horse. I would apologize for that if the horse was anything but the first Triple Crown winner in thirty-seven years.

So here, in chronological order, are my ten favorite photos from 2015, without apologies.

Silver Charm at Old Friends

As I talked about in my last post, two major things happened in 2015 that brought my racing life full circle. The first of those was finally getting to meet Silver Charm. I'd waited for this moment for eighteen years, not knowing if it would ever happen. I will forever be thankful to his wonderful owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis, for making sure Silver Charm was brought back to the States following his stud duties in Japan. Old Friends is the perfect place for the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion to enjoy retirement, and I know there he's in good hands.

Lovely Maria and Kerwin Clark win the Kentucky Oaks
I wasn't going to include this one on my list due to its imperfections, but kept coming back to it. This year, I really got into the idea of documenting backgrounds. I love I got one of Churchill's historic gables here with the winner of the Kentucky Oaks, a race that doesn't get as much national attention, but has been run 141 times. Along with the Derby, it's America's oldest sporting tradition. In his 40-year career, jockey Kerwin Clark had never won a Grade I race before taking the Ashland with Lovely Maria. Here, he's wiping away tears before having his picture taken in front of the twin spires. The emotional resonance of the moment overrides the slightly skewed framing, which I couldn't correct without cropping off something important. It's the story that wins in the end, which is what matters most of all when photographing these events.

American Pharoah and Victor Espinoza in the winner's circle following the Kentucky Derby.

The Kentucky Derby winner's circle is not for the faint of heart. Credentialed photographers are given different colored vests that grant access to different areas, and getting a winner's circle vest is a privilege. It's also the first hurdle in the struggle to capture the iconic image of the Derby winner wearing the garland of roses. The winner's circle vest puts you directly in Derby ground zero with about fifty other photographers who are all vying for the same shot. You would think that would make it easy. But what you're contending with is a waning sun, roughly a hundred people who have popped out of nowhere and are bent on getting in front of you, all while you're stranded without a ladder while the navy is trying to corral you into a holding pen with a rope, while the NBC crew blocks literally everything. There is a lot of yelling going on, because half the people are celebrating and half are on a deadline and just need the photo to be set up while precious minutes are ticking away. The roses are gently laid upon the withers of the horse and are there for all of 60 seconds. Then hurryquicktakethephotobeforeitsalloveraaaaaaaaaaaghhhhhhh. Then the horse is led away, and you can finally breathe and stop hitting the person ducking beneath you with your long lens. Commence playing "We Are the Champions" and shouting, "I'm the king of the wooooooorld!" because that's what it feels like once you check your card and see you captured a clean shot.

Fast Times at the Cumberland County Fair.
If pressed, I would say this is my favorite photo from 2015. Taken with a remote camera at the Cumberland County Fair in Greenup, Illinois, I placed the camera at the edge of the grass to get the small field tearing around the first turn. Notice the fence on the right side of the photo. That's where the rail ends, meaning the horses could've run right over my camera if they veered off course. The same goes for any human standing in the way. Things are a bit simpler at these county fair races, and I love them dearly. Here's hoping the tradition continues this year.

American Pharoah, the newly minted Triple Crown winner.
I didn't get to see American Pharoah again until he blazed into the history books and struck us all dumb with his easy sweep of the Triple Crown, considered one of the toughest tasks to win in all of sports. The husband and I drove to Oceanport, New Jersey three days early to await the star horse's arrival at Monmouth Park the Wednesday before the Haskell. My goal was to get a nice portrait of Pharoah on the backstretch, since I never got one while at Churchill and hadn't been able to attend Stephen Foster night for his homecoming parade. We were the first ones by his barn and waited in the sun for about two hours before he showed up with a police escort and his name emblazoned across the van. Talk about showing up in style! Pharoah stood outside the barn only briefly and got a quick bath before being led into the shed row, where he stopped and posed for his admirers. We stayed for Pharoah's first look at the track the following morning, then jumped in the car and headed back to Saratoga to shoot the Jim Dandy Stakes.

Texas Red holds off Frosted to win the Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

It's nearly impossible to choose a single photo from my trip to Saratoga and claim it as my favorite. Somehow, this was as memorable and fun as my last visit in 2010. I got to hang out with some of my favorite members of the horse racing paparazzi in what I consider racing paradise, had great weather (despite one bizarre tornado threat), and shot off my first remotes at the historic track. If I could stay for any race meet anywhere in the world, it would be at the Spa. They even have good food! (Still thinking about that Shake Shack meal after the Jim Dandy, and the tasty salads from Greenhouse Salads, who came to know me by the end of my trip.) Anyway, you never know how remotes are going to turn out, so I was stoked to get a meaningful stakes race with that iconic gabled roof in the background. Thanks to Texas Red and Frosted for not skimming the rail and giving me a nice postcard-perfect frame.

Bill Murray hands a fan a glass of champagne before the Haskell at Monmouth Park.
 My love for movies rivals my love for horse racing, so I practically lost my mind when I found out comedy legend Bill Murray was going to call "rider's up" for the Haskell. I mean, this is what they mean by worlds colliding. Haskell day was one of the highlights of my year. The day began by startling a roomful of bettors with my wild cheers as I watched Rachel's Valentina crush in her debut and only got better from there. It was another reunion of horse racing's best folk, and I got to hang out with several of my favorite people over the course of the day. Determined to get a photo of Bill Murray, I chickened out when I had the opportunity to meet him, but was satisfied with getting photos of the actor being his very Murray self in the paddock with fans. American Pharoah's jaw-dropping performance afterwards was the cherry on top of a perfect day at the races.

The Pizza Man wins the Arlington Million.
Arlington Million Day 2015 will go down in infamy as one of the most miserable rainy days I've ever endured at the track. You might look at this photo and assume I'm joking. I assure you, I'm not. The forecast did not call for rain, so nobody prepared with a raincoat or rain boots. By the end of the day, I could not have been more soaked if I'd jumped in a swimming pool. I don't know how my drenched equipment managed to survive. I didn't bother unbagging my remote camera until the deluge passed. Nobody had any reason to believe it would, but just before the headlining race, the storm rolled over and the day transformed. It was as if the sun came out to watch The Pizza Man, our hometown hero, beat an international field on Arlington's biggest day. As the Illinois-bred came charging down the stretch, the crowd went ballistic. Jockey Florent Geroux's face shows it best in this shot. What a horse. What a day.

Got Lucky wins the Spinster Stakes over Untapable and Yahilwa.
I was hindered by yet another quagmire the opening weekend of Keeneland's fall meet. Fortunately, it cleared up for Sunday. The Spinster was slated as the race of the Kentucky Oaks winners, as Untapable was running against Lovely Maria. In the end, Got Lucky upset them all with a furious finish on the outside. This was my trial and error weekend in preparation for the Breeders' Cup, and I was very happy to finally figure out how to balance the harsh light shooting on the outside. (You can view my hand-held shot here.) I have to favor this remote photo, though, as all three finishers are spread out on the track with Keeneland's grandstand in the background. If you're noticing a pattern here, it's clear I'm a sucker for those sprawling grandstand shots.

American Pharoah wins the first Grand Slam of racing, capping off his career in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Where do I begin with this race? Culminating a year of feats we never thought we'd witness, American Pharoah carried us all to dizzying heights and made us believe our traditions were held for a reason. He then went on to forge a legacy of his own, winning the Breeders' Cup Classic, which became racing's first Grand Slam. As he blazed into the twilight, leaving behind a legacy that may never be matched, it was impossible to not be torn with bittersweet emotion. Swept into this wild ride since May, we were left staggering and stunned after it was all over and Keeneland's grandstand cheered their champion one last time. I don't know how I managed to see through my viewfinder for the tears, and when the race was over, I remember not even caring if the shot turned out. But it did, and was published over at, so I'm kind of happy it worked out.

Click here to see my 2015 Flickr album.

1 comment:

  1. Particularly love the American Pharoah profile picture. He has such a beautiful profile, especially the over the shoulder shots. Lovely......