With the racing year winding down as we near Breeders' Cup, there isn't a lot going on at the moment, and so I thought it would be a good time to take a little handicapping break. Instead of talking about the Woodbine Mile this Saturday (which you should watch), I wanted to bring my readers something unique—a reward, if you will—for hanging with me for the past two and a half years The Call to the Post has been running. I have been very fortunate to travel to eight different race tracks across America this year and be able to get up close and personal with the game's biggest superstars. From Santa Anita to Saratoga, Zenyatta to Rachel, my camera lens has been there to capture both some of the quietest moments and most thrilling at the track. A lot goes on at the races or on the backstretch that I am not able to mention in my regular articles, so I'm taking the opportunity now to share them with you, my faithful readers. Ordered from the beginning of the year to the present, here are my top ten favorites photographs from this year... so far.
I know, technically, Zenyatta's retirement parade at Santa Anita took place in December, but it felt like a whole new year. Anyway, it marked my first time seeing Zenyatta in person since the 10 seconds she passed in front of me while jogging at Churchill Downs in 2009; I thought this would be the last time I ever got to see her on a race track. The fact she was promptly brought out of retirement and raced for another season proves to me that the racing gods do exist.
2. General Quarters
I unintentionally became a General Quarters groupie this year, attending five of his seven races, across three different states. He is a big, beautiful horse, with a kindness in his eyes. You really can’t help but root for him and his connections. Tom McCarthy invited my husband and I into the shedrow on Stephen Foster morning because of a little rain and to ask us about ourselves as he wrapped the colt’s legs. The world would be a better place if more people were like Mr. McCarthy.
3. Like a prize fighter
The dance. More than anything else, the one thing I wanted to get a good shot of was Zenyatta’s trademark pre-race war dance. Once it was announced that Zenyatta would run another season, I vowed to see her race in person at least one time. My chance came at Oaklawn for the Apple Blossom Invitational; without the presence of Rachel Alexandra, the race was purely an exhibition for which the queen would be showered with love by one of the largest crowds ever to assemble at the Hot Springs track. The masses came to see a show, and that’s what Zenyatta gave them. I love the thrilled crowd in the background of this shot. With her head bowed, muscles rippling, her right leg poised in the air, she resembles a Spanish fighting bull. The day still stands as one of my favorite experiences I’ve ever had at the track.
4. American Lion wins the Illinois Derby
This year marked the first time I was able to attend the premiere Kentucky Derby prep race of my home state, the Illinois Derby. American Lion was the perfect subject—he stayed in front the whole way around, riding the rail, and he looked lovely doing it. In all seriousness, this is probably one of my favorite inside rail shots I’ve ever taken. I was able to be close enough that the photo didn’t require any cropping, the lighting was perfect, and it certainly helped American Lion was a big, photogenic colt.
5. To the winner’s circle!
The one consolation I had for not being given credentials to the Kentucky Derby was I was able to get this shot. While all of the credentialed photographers were in the winner’s circle, fawning over Super Saver and preserving the moments following Calvin Borel’s third Kentucky Derby victory, I was the lone photographer who spotted Lisa Borel, the winning jockey’s wife, being carried over the muddy track toward the party in the winner’s circle. I love the colors in this photograph. I’ll never forget how the sun came out during the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” after an entire day of drizzle and dark skies; the light gave everything that wasn’t covered in mud a surreal, Easter-colored appearance. It’s her delicate shoes that do it for me in this shot; there’s not a speck of dirt on them.
6. Blame wins the Stephen Foster
I’ve been a fan of Blame for some time now, but I’d not been able to freely root for him in a race until Stephen Foster day. When I saw him win the Clark, I was hoping Einstein would cap off his career with a victory, but it wasn’t to be. Here, there were other formidable opponents ready to take down the rising star, but he wasn’t about to let that happen. When Battle Plan came roaring down the stretch, I thought he was going to steal the race, but I kept looking back towards Blame. From my perspective, about 15 feet behind the finish line, squatting under the outside rail, it’s difficult to see who is in front until the last jump before the wire in a close race. When I spotted Blame digging into his best stride, I didn’t know if he would make it in time; the wire was getting nearer, and for a few harrowing seconds, I didn’t think Battle Plan would let him get by. But Blame closed like a runaway freight train and passed the leader in the last possible moment. Garrett Gomez pumped up his fist a beat after the wire as if to say, “We made it.” I remember hearing the sound of the whip crack as his fist pumped in the air, and my shutter echoed it with the snap of the photo. One of those perfect moments of symmetry.
7. Tuscan Evening
When champion turf mare Tuscan Evening came to Arlington Park to run in the Modesty Handicap, my goal was to get a close-up of her most charming physical trait: her “milk mustache.” The lighting isn’t the best in the paddock, but if you’re lucky, the horse will be walked toward the slanted light and you’ll catch a nice effect. Here I was able to take the shot of Tuscan Evening being led by her groom. When I took it, I immediately liked the intimacy of the photo, how her groom held her close with a sort of knowing, loving smirk his mare was going to win that day. She did win that day. What neither of us knew is that it would be the last time she ever raced. A month later, while shooting a race at Saratoga, a friend told me Tuscan Evening died that morning after a workout. I thought first about the tragedy of losing such a champion horse at the prime of her life, but I also thought about the bond between her and her groom I’d noticed at Arlington. There are so many people behind the scenes of every horse, folks who live and breathe in the hopes of being a part of one good one. The loss of such a champion is more profound than most of us can ever know.
8. The Grand Old Spa
One of my biggest challenges is landscape photography. I admit it, I really need to work in this area. While at Saratoga, I wanted to take a nice grandstand shot with the horses running somewhere along the track, but I couldn’t find a “wow” spot until one race, on a whim, I decided to try a first turn shot. I’d never taken a clubhouse turn shot at Saratoga before, but as this race was being run on the inner turf, I thought it might give me some wiggle room. I couldn’t believe I could fit the height of the grandstand in my frame—I was using my fixed 300mm lens. Because I was using this lens, the horses pop coming around the first turn—and the horse in the lead is actually sharp! I love the unruly runner on the inside of the cavalry charge throwing his head up. I still can’t believe I took this shot. It might be my favorite of all-time.
It may sound strange to some people—okay, most people—when I say that for as long as I’ve admired horse racing photography, I’ve wanted to take pictures of race horses being bathed more than just about anything else. For an explanation, that might take more space than I’m allotted here. Either way, at Saratoga, I was given my very first opportunity to photograph my girl, Rachel Alexandra, being given a bath. The morning light at Saratoga is world-famous. Rachel Alexandra is world-famous. It is no secret I am in love with this filly. She was standing ten feet from me. It was like being in the presence of a goddess. I was so close to her, I could barely fit her face in the frame. And here it was she turned those famous white-ringed eyes at me, a little groggy from sleep, probably wondering why I was getting such a kick watching her take a bath, and her nose only fit in my frame by the tiniest sliver. But I got it, the closest portrait I could take of that famous blaze. I finally had her in front of me, out in the open with no restrictions, after following her over several states just to catch a glimpse of her. Win or lose, she is still that amazing little girl who beat up the older boys, and I am completely smitten by her.
10. Lookin at Lucky wins the Haskell
There’s really nothing exceptional about this photo, I admit. It’s a good, honest win photo with nothing too special about it, as far as horse racing photos go. For sentimental reasons, this picture holds a special place because it was a special race for me to shoot, to say the least. You see, Lucky and I share a bond. As fate would have it, I was there for his maiden race at Hollywood Park in July, 2009. I saw his name in the program, saw the Bob Baffert-Mike Pegram connection and said, “He’s a little Real Quiet!” I knew he would win, and he did. I said to myself, “Kentucky Derby? Dare I let myself dream?” In the back of my mind, I knew this was a horse who would see and accomplish big things. I’ve been following him ever since. After an Eclipse-winning 2-year-old campaign, Lucky began to have bad trip after bad trip, but he would fight on and give his heart in every race. He would never let a bad trip make him look bad. He was the best 3-year-old going into the Kentucky Derby, but his poor fortune hit its peak at this time. Ironically, my life was experiencing some of the same bad trips at the same time. Every time Lucky would win, it would be not just a victory for him, but I felt like he was doing it for me, as well. When he won the Preakness, it was sweet justice he finally clenched the classic victory he deserved. For whatever reason, there were still doubters out there that Lucky was the best 3-year-old in his division, but in the Haskell, he proved it on the track. He won with an effortless explosion, putting on a show all of us believers knew he was capable of. In the Haskell, it was as if all that pent-up talent was unleashed like a bottle rocket.
After the race was over, I crossed the track before the horses came back to be unsaddled to get a better shot, and as anticipated, Lucky looked right at me as he came back toward the winner’s circle. Lucky looking at lucky.
It’s been an unbelievable year.
Fiji: Water of Champions
The Pied Piper of Arlington