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Kat's Eye: Coronation Day

June 10, 2018  •  1 Comment

The atmosphere was light and festive as I walked through the gates at Belmont Park on Saturday, June 9. A day packed with big races was to be culminated with the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes and a Triple Crown victory for three-year-old colt extraordinaire, Justify, and his pilot, Mike Smith.

I'll admit, I was a bit put off by the foam crowns being offered to fans as they entered the park. Not that I'm superstitious, but I just don't believe in celebrating something until it has happened. As much as I wanted the title for Justify, and especially for Mike, I would have preferred this be saved for after race #11. (And even more so as I walked to the exit 10 hours after entering, seeing all the "crowns" that were discarded on the ground.)

It was early - before 10am - and the park was busy, but not yet packed. The first order of business for me was to acquire a hat to shade my face from the sun during my many trips out to the track for photos. Accompanied by friends who wanted to visit the Secretariat booth, I found the perfect solution in a pale grey hat bearing the name of the champion race horse who still holds the record for the fastest Belmont Stakes at 2:24. When the cashier asked if I wanted a signature, I quickly said yes, as Hall of Fame jockey, Ron Turcotte was seated just to the left of the booth, pen in hand. I'm not really an autograph hound, but I wore my hat proudly the entire day.

During the process of getting an autograph for a friend, my dear friend Amy Tremper leaned forward to hug Mr. Turcotte, and in the process, was "branded" by the Sharpie in his hand. She told me she intended to keep the mark in tact throughout the day - a Triple Crown good luck charm.

 

Since we had arrived at the park over an hour before post time for the first race, we decided to walk around and take in the history of Belmont. As we walked through the levels of the clubhouse and grandstand that bear photos of past racing champions, I told Amy that Belmont is my favorite of the three tracks that host Triple Crown races. Every year, it begins with the Kentucky Derby, and it may continue with a Preakness Stakes victory, but a Triple Crown champion can only be crowned at Belmont Park, and I think they do a great job of maintaining the grounds and the track, as well as the history that adorns the walls.

Prepared for a long day of racing, I slid into my spot, to the left of the path the horses take to the track and right on the rail, to shoot the Ogden Phipps Stakes, which was the third race on a busy undercard, and one of three Breeders' Cup Challenge Series "Win and You're In" contests. Jockey Mike Smith, China Racing Club and trainer Bob Baffert teamed up for an early win with Abel Tasman, earning the four-year-old filly a spot in the Longines Distaff.

Bob and his family watched the race from the middle of the horse path, just to my left, giving me a great angle to capture their take on the race. I loved seeing their reactions, as well as catching Mike saying, "Let's keep it going!" as he was led past me, into the winner's circle.

Afterwards, Mike stopped to speak with turf writers before hurrying off for his next race or interview, and Bob paused for several minutes to speak with fans and sign autographs, before heading back through the tunnel toward the paddock.

Hanging out in the tunnel in between races was a good choice. The late morning sun was bright and it was warming up trackside, while the photo room was also heating up. The tunnel offered welcome shade and a nice breeze. It also put me in front of the lovely Donna Brothers as she prepared for her on-air time with NBC.  

Stepping back to the rail for the fourth race, I watched Florent Geroux take Monomy Girl across the wire in first place to win the Acorn Stakes before retreating once more to the tunnel.

The Brooklyn Invitational was up next, and fan favorite Hoppertunity did not disappoint, coming up on the outside to cross the finish line ahead of second place, War Story and his jockey, Javier Castellano, pictured above as he secured his all-important helmut.

Another win for trainer Baffert, and another trip through the tunnel where he greeted fans. The young man in the photo below told me how he had first met Bob at Belmont in 2002, when his trainee, War Emblem fell short in his Triple Crown bid. As he waited for Bob to finish up with reporters, he shared stories with me of the kindnesses conveyed to him in the past and how he looked forward to saying hello any time Bob was in New York.

The sixth race took us across the main track to the turf course. This morning I can tell you that my trips over "Big Sandy" took their toll on my ankles, but shooting from the turf track is a special treat at Belmont, as the infield is clear of the tents and vendors found at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. There is an inner and an outer turf track, which likely accounts for the glorious condition of the course, as races are run alternately, depending on the distance and rail placement required of the contest.

The Jaipur Invitational, a six furlong sprint and Breeders' Cup Challenge race, saw the greys battling to the finish down the stretch, with reigning champ and current world record holder, Disco Partner, getting the win, to the delight of fans and his jockey, Irad Ortiz. The victory secured a spot for the six year old colt in the Breeders' Cup Turf Spint in November, at Churchill Downs.

 Races seven and eight took us to the main track for the Woody Stephens Stakes and a win for jockey Joel Rosario aboard Still Having Fun, then back to the turf for the Longines Just a Game Stakes. Jockey Irad Ortiz was once again celebrating his win, aboard A Raving Beauty.

With three hours remaining until post time for the Belmont Stakes, I popped into the photo room to take advantage of the services being offered by our friendly Nikon representatives, and had them charge up my back up battery. Both Nikon and Canon send equipment to the big races, where photographers can try out a lens or camera body they've been considering - or pining for. With most everything already checked out, I thanked them for the offer and plan to check out a lens in November for the Breeders' Cup.

Back to the main track for the RunHappy Metropolitan Handicap, a qualifier for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Trainer Steve Asmussen found himself in the winner's circle after another thrilling, head-to-head race down the stretch. Four-year-old colt, Bee Jersey, looked great sporting Breeders' Cup purple on his way out of the winners' circle.

With the break between races nine and ten extended by fifteen minutes, the crowd was treated to a sky diving display, the likes of which made my stomach do flips. I think I heard the announcer say that one of the team members had over 15,000 jumps, so for him it might be like driving a car, but I can't even imagine stepping out of a perfectly good plane in mid-flight. Still, the flips and turns they performed while descending were impressive, as evidenced by the reaction of the crowd. 

As the horses for the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Stakes filed onto the track, I captured an image of jockey Luis Saez rubbing the neck and ears of his mount, Hi Happy, a six-year-old chestnut. You see these types of gestures all the time in horse racing, as jockeys form a bond and partnership with their mounts. This duo finished third, behind Edgar Prado aboard Spring Quality and Javier Castellano, piloting Sadler's Joy along the mile and a quarter race on the turf's inner course. 

With the trophy presentation completed, all that remained was the wait for the post parade and the main event of the day. I chose to stay in my spot on the rail, as it gave me the perfect position to photograph the horses exiting the tunnel and entering the track. Apparently, many of my colleagues felt the same way, and very quickly, the four by five foot area at the end of the horse path was crammed with seven or eight photographers.

About five minutes before the horses were saddled in the paddock, the photography liaison approached the group with a soft chuckle and a shake of his head, asking everyone to take up their assigned positions, leaving me relatively alone in my now-coveted space, with the track photographers.

Soon, Frank Sinatra could be heard through the public address system, belting out "New York, New York", with the capacity crowd of 90,000 singing along, letting us know that it was time to focus on the tunnel from the paddock, as the entrants in the 150th Belmont Stakes strode into view.

Entering the track in post position order meant that Justify and jockey Mike Smith, who drew post position #1, were the first to step into the fading sunlight, followed by the rest of the field. Ten horses and jockeys, in all.

The horses turned right, directly in front of my position, and paraded to the far end of the club house before turning to back track past the grandstand and into the turn. The starting gate was towed into position, and the horses were led into their gates, beginning with Justify.

You'll notice that I don't have a starting gate photo. That's because, just as the gate was opening, the outrider and his horse, who take up a post about half a furlong down the track from the gate, stepped back into my shot. Oh well! He's there to keep everyone safe, and with over 200 credentialed photographers trackside, I'm sure I wasn't alone.

With a swift turn of foot, Justify blazed forward on the rail, clearing the outrider in my viewfinder in mere seconds. If you watch the race replay, you'll see said outrider take off just as the field races past him. With Justify setting the pace, they headed into the clubhouse turn as a fairly compact group, with the exception of the six horse and home town favorite, Gronkowski, several lengths back.

Because Belmont Park has an open infield, watching the action on the backstretch doesn't require the large screens positioned in front of the crowd, but they certainly provide a great perspective. The field held their positions, until a slight move by Vino Rosso as they approached the far turn.

Before I say any more, let me say that I'm a Mike Smith fan. He's genial and generous with his time, to fans, reporters and photographers. He keeps himself in top condition for an incredibly demanding job. And in my opinion, he's one of the smartest jockey's currently racing. Watching Mike guide Justify to victory in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, I saw him use just enough of his horse to ensure a win - saving what he could for the future. Throughout the day around Belmont Park, I heard people talking about the Preakness, with many expressing their concern about the mile and a half Belmont, as they felt Smith ran the horse out, indicating he might be caught at a greater distance. I disagree.

Watch the replay of the Preakness. You'll see Smith keeping Justify's nose a little to the outside through the clubhouse turn, conserving early speed. As they round the final turn, Mike's hands move forward, urging his horse to step out and he goes to the whip. But about twelve strides from the wire, his whip is put away, and five strides from victory, his hands are quiet. Mike knew exactly where the other horses were, and asked only what he needed from Justify to win.

Back at Belmont Park, the horses entered the home stretch. They were more than a sixteenth of a mile from my position, but even at that distance, I could make out the chestnut coat and white blaze, kept clean from wire to wire. With each stride, it was clear that for just the thirteenth time since the inauguration of the Kentucky Derby in 1875 - the first of the annual races, but the last to come into existence - a Triple Crown would be awarded.

The roar of the crowd was deafening as the celebration in the grandstand began a few strides from the wire. And then a flood of people was pouring onto the track. Assistant trainer, Jimmy Barnes, practically leapt into the arms of trainer Baffert, as they slapped each other's backs and proclaimed congratulations. 

Bottles of water were handed to Smith and he quickly emptied them onto the back of Justify's neck, a spot I'm told is critical in helping to cool a horse after such an effort. 

And then, I have to say, God bless Mike Smith. He celebrates big race victories with gratitude, praise, helmut pumps and handfuls of blanket flowers thrown skyward. Knowing what's coming helps to get great shots, but it doesn't make it any less special. 

Horse and rider were guided into the winners' circle for the official photo, against the back drop of tens of thousands of cheering race fans. Barnes was the first to exit the crush of people, the championship blanket of white carnations thrown over his shoulder. 

Then Justify was lead in front of the clubhouse, dressed in a blanket that proclaimed him the newest member in a very exclusive club as Triple Crown champion.  

I finally left my position, stepping onto the track in order to mix some of "Big Sandy" with the Churchill Downs and Pimlico mud that still clung to my boots, and to photograph the kind of celebration that only comes with having captured the most elusive title in all of sport.

After a long day behind the lens, I was happy to find my dear friend, Amy, near the paddock and we made our way to the car and then slowly, to our hotel. On the drive, I got to hear of her experiences throughout the day, the things she saw and the people she met. We were both a bit giddy, enjoying the historic outcome of the day's big race. The experience of a lifetime.

The good news this morning is that the newly minted champ is feeling great and his team sounds eager to race him again. A decision that would truly be....Justified.

 


Kat's Eye: New York State of Mind

June 09, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Aided by the early morning light spilling onto my face, I woke around 4:30am on Friday, June 8, and was greeted by my friend and bunkmate, Amy Tremper, saying, "I'm up!" We were both eager to get to Belmont Park, about 20 minutes from our hotel near La Guardia Airport, to watch training on the main track, in anticipation of Saturday's big race day.

Traffic was light prior to 6am, and we found gate 5 open.

Arriving at a race track to pick up credentials the day before a big race often proves problematic, as the security guards at the gate want you to already HAVE your credentials in order to let you in. After a few minutes of showing them the emails I had received, and my Preakness credential, we were allowed in and found a spot to park.

Our first stop was the press office. The door was open and the lights were on, but no one was there, so we wandered to the press box to take in the amazing view of the track. The only inhabitants of this lofty perch were the stewards. We bid them a good morning and headed back down to track level.

Video cameras were scattered about the clubhouse area, facing the track, as news outlets large and small were poised to capture their version of the run up to the 150th Belmont Stakes, and a possible Triple Crown. Amy and I found a bench near the rail, and I could see the group of race photographers gathered down in the gap where the horses come on and off the track. 

Feeling that there was plenty of time before there was any serious training action, I left my friend for another quick visit to the press office, and this time returned with my credential around my neck. Now able to go wherever I wanted, I walked along the rail, around the outside of the clubhouse turn, to reach the observation area, which was lightly populated. Situated near a spotter for a major news outlet, I was able to hear that Hofburg was coming onto the track from the paddock and got a couple nice shots of him training. 

It was a light morning for the big horses on the main track. Trainer Todd Pletcher sent his two Belmont Stakes contenders - Noble Indy and Vino Rosso - to the training track. Tenfold, trained by Steve Asmussen, was confirmed as having joined them, and I could only imagine that the same went for the other top horses that did not make an appearance on the main track.

Still, there was plenty to see as Belmont based horses filed past me onto the track they call "Big Sandy."  You only truly get a sense for the depth of the track when you have to walk across it to get to the infield, but watching horses hooves disappear up to the canon bone gives even the casual observer clear perspective.

An influx of photographers and the appearance of Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, signaled that Triple Crown contenders, Justify, would soon be making his way to the track. Everyone accompanying this group of spectators filed in and settled outside the rail, on the sandy surface, creating a narrowing alley for horses to walk through as they enter the track to train. 

I was standing with a trainer who is based at Belmont, who registered her surprise at this. The young horses stepping onto the track often have a high-spirited reaction to stepping onto their "playground" and behind the rail - and off it by a bit - is a safer place to be. She stated her hope that someone would move everyone back to safer positions.

 Right about that time, the water tracks showed up, in advance of the tractors that would harrow the track. They managed to push folks back, but they still were bunched up in the gap. As the trucks passed, trainer Baffert stepped onto the surface himself and gave a look of approval at the track's condition.

While we waited for Justify, Free Drop Billy strode past. Then there was a flurry of activity to my right, a long stream of horses and a lot of unublishable photos as spectators clamored for a look at the 2018 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner stepping onto the track. With his pony beside him, they turned right and headed for the back stretch. 

Exercise rider, Humberto Gomez, guided Justify around the final turn and into the lane, striding methodically down the home stretch. He looked light and happy, his tongue poking out of the right side of his mouth as he passed in front of me. As he runs at you, head on, the condition of this equine athlete is clear and remarkable.

As they passed the crowd and eased up, preparing to turn and walk back to the barn, I noticed a man in a wheelchair, just on the outside rail. As the crowd started to disburse, I was able to make out the straw hat and the familiar grin I had seen so many times on TV and in photos. Hall of fame jockey, Ron Turcotte, was about 5 feet away from my position. I quickly ducked under the rail as I saw Bob Baffert stop to chat for a minute.

As soon as Bob stepped away, I approached Mr. Turcotte and shook his hand, thanking him for all he's done for horse racing and for his glorious career. When I returned to my position, the people around me asked who I had been speaking with. I told them it was the jockey for the immortal Secretariat, and they encouraged me to go back over and take a photo with him. Potentially the least flattering picture I have ever had taken, it is one I will cherish and an encounter that made me tear up just a little.

I rejoined Amy just outside the clubhouse, and spotted Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero, Jr. enjoying the morning trackside with a group of friends. Mornings at the track are my favorite time, but Belmont delivered a couple of special surprises on this day.

After a lengthy photographers' meeting, positions were assigned and photo vests distributed. Amy and I headed back to our hotel for a quick lunch, showers and were then back at the track to catch a few races. Setting aside a description of each race, I quite simply enjoyed the beautiful afternoon and the fantastic condition of the turf and main track.

Belmont is ready for its big day. And I think Justify is ready for Belmont.


Kat's Eye: Emerging From the Fog

May 20, 2018  •  1 Comment

With dirt from the track at Churchill Downs still clinging to my boots, I stepped out of my car into a misty morning on Preakness Day. Reaching Pimlico Race Course a little before 10am, traffic was not yet horrible, and navigating to the press annex parking lot was relatively easy. As I gathered my gear and walked to the gate just behind the Stakes Barns, I tried to set aside the fact that it would be a very long day, and stopped to joke with the security guards, who were in great spirits.

After a couple of days of roaming around, I have begun to make sense of the way Pimlico is laid out, and expedited my entry to the building by climbing the exterior stairs to the racing office. Once inside, it took only minutes to reach my destination - a spot being saved for me by friends, giving me the opportunity to work on my photos a little in between races.

Once settled, I stepped outside to survey the track, as horses for the first race were walking over. From my photos, you would be hard pressed to guess that it was late morning, as the grey sky held back all but the slightest precipitation. The air was fresh, and not too cool. 

The first race was a six furlong sprint, observed by a sparse crowd. Finishing a strong second on Beeks was jockey Jorge Vargas, Jr. I met Jorge back at Los Alamitos a couple year ago when he was exercising horses for Sherman Racing and an apprentice jockey, trying to pick up mounts at Southern California tracks. Always a big smile on his face, Jorge was dedicated, but home sick. Since returning to the east coast, and moving to the Maryland tracks, Jorge has done very well, earning the Laurel Park Winter-Spring Meet jockey title. It was fun watching him ride this weekend.

Back out for the second race, the stands were slowly filling up, and with happy patrons. The weather was still holding off, but the word of the day was "scratch." Intended for the turf, this 1 1/16 mile race was moved to the main track. Even a novice, looking at the turf course, could tell it was beat up from the modest action in saw yesterday. Originally a field of twelve, only four horses competed. Not ideal for a decent payout for horseplayers, the tight group made for some nice photos, and once again, Jorge rode his mount to place.

Here's Jorge, riding Clare's Dowery for trainer Kieron Magee. I had the good fortune to sit with Kieron, his wife, Kelly, and their family for a while earlier in the day. Without getting into the details, I'll just say that we had a rousing conversation regarding the British monarchy that I won't soon forget.

I sat out a couple of races, which is when the British monarchy came up, to wait for the first stakes race of the day. In doing so, however, I missed seeing Jorge race to win on Square Shooter in the fourth.

I went out early for the BMW James W. Murphy Stakes, in time to catch a few photos of the post parade. While attendance was still light, the crowd in the grandstand, the seats furthest from the finish line, seemed healthy. With three horses scratched, the field of six provided me the opportunity to create some great imagery.

Next up was an Allowance race, sponsored by LifeBridge Health. Odds on and name favorite, Uncle Mojo, was guided home by two-time Eclipse Award winning jockey, John Velazquez

The Maker's Mark Dixie Stakes saw its field narrowed to four horses, half the field scratching as the contest was moved from the turf to the dirt. The horses ran together for most of the race, with the top three finishing without the anticipated coating of mud, thanks to their positioning.

The Chick Lang Stakes was the eighth race with a post time of 2:45pm and spectators were visibly filling all areas of the stands, pressing toward the rail for a look at the contenders. I remained on my perch, just above the winners circle and to the left of the finish line. The rain was still holding off, though the sky was a little darker. The track remained wet, lending a strong visual as Mitole, piloted by Ricardo Santana, Jr., skipped across the finish line. 

The stakes race that followed, the Gallorette Stakes, would be run on the turf, which was all the worse for wear from the previous day's races. But a stakes race has the surface as one of the conditions of the race, and so it cannot be rescheduled to the dirt, as claiming and allowances races had been for the day.

As the crowd continued to build, the groundskeepers meticulously tended to the turf course as the horses made their way to the starting gate. 

I typically adore turf races, even more so if I have better access and can be positioned on the infield, and not twenty yards away with a rail in the middle of my shot. But turf races can be some of the best photos, with divots flying and the horses and jockeys' silks against a lush green course, charging past race fans in the infield tents.

Moving back to the dirt track, a MATCH Series race, the Maryland Sprint Stakes was next to run. MATCH is the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championship series, which spans a five month period, beginning with Preakness weekend. Owners and trainers earn points based on participation and order of finish in MATCH series races, with lucrative bonuses paid out to points leaders as the series wraps up.

Switzerland with Ricardo Santana, Jr. up, started things off strong for owner Woodford Racing LLC and trainer Steve Asmussen.

By the time the horses left the gate in the eleventh race, The Very One Stakes, the sky was turning ominous and spectators stayed back under the overhanging upper deck, in case of a sudden shower.

The Very One, also a MATCH Series race, was moved off the turf, due to the poor condition of the course. As I stated earlier, stakes races have specific conditions, which may also include the position of the rail. Moving a stakes race from the turf to the dirt risks the downgrading of that stakes race by the American Graded Stakes Committee. There is a long and complicated explanation of the importance of this type of ruling. In brief, just know that, once downgraded, the win is no longer seen as a graded stakes win for horse and team.

Regardless of the impact, the course was deemed unsuitable for racing. For safety of horses and riders, the move was made, and Girls Know Best brought home the win for trainer Eddie Kenneally and his co-owner, Brian Chenvert.

By the twelfth race, the grey sky had melted into a growing fog that had engulfed the far turn. Looking like something out of Steven King's The Mist, a large portion of the grandstand population, once visible, was now devoured by grey.

Trainer Steve Asmussen awaits the start of the Sir Barton Stakes.

The field for the Sir Barton Stakes left the starting gate cleanly and passed the stands before heading into the clubhouse turn, kicking up mud as they went. As they came around the far turn and into the home stretch, it was Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith, aboard the eight horse, Ax Man, in the lead. With three or four lengths to his favor, Smith kept his whip tucked away and hand rode his mount to victory for trainer, Bob Baffert, and owners, Patti and Hal Earnhardt.

 The hour plus that leads to a major stakes race, like the Preakness Stakes, is the hardest part of an already long day. For many race fans in attendance, it's the only race they step outside to watch. The stands fill up as they have not for other races, security is tighter, and getting into position to get good photos becomes even more of a challenge.

Photographers who had been shooting from other positions all day found my cozy little nest as they were pushed out by the close connections to owners and trainers filling up the rail in the winners' circle. The owners boxes, just above me, would be brimming with teams contending for this title, and the fire marshall was present to ensure the capacity crown would have a path cleared, in case of emergency.

For most of the race's entrants, paddock and saddling tasks were handled on the turf course, converted to the paddock to allow as many close connections as possible to participate. (As a side note, the paddock at Pimlico is by far the most cramped I've ever experienced. Indoors and adjacent to the steps up to the jockeys' room, it leaves little room for extra team members. The move outside is necessary for this big race. And thankfully, the weather cooperated.)

The noise from the infield and the size of the crowd made hearing the call for "riders up" impossible. As the jockeys guided their horses through their final warm ups, a flood of people came across the bridge from the infield and poured up the steps into the owners' boxes. 

The fog was so thick now that the starting gate was completely obfuscated. It was only the voice of the track announcer that let us know the horses were loaded, and then racing. It seemed like a full ten seconds, or more, before the eery shadow of the field ran through the shroud of fog and into full view.

As they passed my position for the first time, Justify and Good Magic were setting the pace as they splashed down the stretch, before disappearing again into the clubhouse turn.

Watching the jumbo-trons in the infield, I could barely make out the outline of the horses as they traveled the back stretch and had to strain to hear the announcer's call as Good Magic made a move on the far turn, and Justify battled back. Coming down to the wire, jockey Smith asked for just enough from his horse to cross the finish line in first place, securing the second jewel in the Triple Crown.

Through it all, the crowd went crazy, witnessing the power and intelligence of this amazing racehorse. As Smith and his mount walked back through the fog, I could see the look of elation on Mike's face, as he pumped his helmet in the air and waived to the crowd.

For the third time in just five years, the Belmont Stakes will bring with it the possibility of a Triple Crown champion. Justify's win in the Preakness sealed the deal for me, with my notification of the approval of my press credentials coming through via email, just prior to the race. 

My boots, with a layer of Pimlico Race Course mud now joining that from Churchill Downs, will go with me. We'll add a layer from the track they call Big Sandy, and hope to carry racing luck into the history books.


Kat's Eye: When 7am Is Not Early

May 19, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

The Dunkin' Donuts directly adjacent to my budget accommodations ensured that my Friday started out right - with an excellent cup of coffee. I was anticipating a photographers' meeting at Pimlico Race Course at 8:30am, so I made the 20 minute drive before 7am, to give me time to get my bearings and my credentials and parking pass. 

I knew I was getting close to the track when I saw a big field filling up with cars, and then I was sitting in a long line of vehicles, slowly advancing toward the sable gate. When it was my turn, I told the security guards that I just needed to run up to the press box to get my credentials. Initially, I was told that I would have to go back out to the grass lot I had passed about a half a mile back. "If you had been here early...." It was 7am.

But that's how things go on the first day of a big race weekend. Security is tighter, parking is more challenging, and the place is buzzing with activity before sunrise. Without any expectation of the outcome, I pleaded my case - it would take me five minutes to run up to retrieve my credentials, which included my parking pass for the press annex lot. Fortunately, I was waved over to a spot where I parked my rental car, and then ran through the puddles to climb the steps to the racing office.

As I walked down a short hallway, I found myself on the mezzanine, overlooking the concourse. Down another, longer passageway, I reached the elevator that took me to the 4th level and the press box. I was thrilled that one of the first people I ran into was Joan Lawrence, with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. I met Joan four years ago, on my very first outing with Sherman Racing Stables and then three-year old Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion, California Chrome, for the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing.

Joan informed me that the credentials would be available in about 10 minutes as they were still locked up in an office, and she was waiting for the key. Wanting to keep my word to the security guards downstairs, I went back to my car to explain the delay. When I offered to move, I was waived off.  "No need. We've got you."

I waited by my car for a few minutes, chatting with one of the men who was kind enough to help me, when the sound of multiple horses approaching was clearly indicated by hooves hitting pavement. I turned to see handlers walking with two and three Clydesdales in tow. Marching calmly around the parking lot to stretch their legs, with cars driving by and noise of all sorts, these noble giants never flinched or pulled on their lead ropes. A testament to training and preparation for the conditions under which they perform on a regular basis.

After snapping these photos, I ran back up to the press box, collected my credentials, and moved my car from its temporary position, turning onto Winner Avenue. The entrance to the press annex parking lot was just a short drive - not even a quarter mile. I was waived in by some very friendly workers, and found a spot on a grassy patch, avoiding the mud for the time being.

At 9:30am the photographers gathered in the paddock for instructions, distribution of photo vests and the assignment of positions on the track. The photography coordinator approached me before the meeting got started and quietly said he would not be able to give me a vest, that would have allowed me to get onto the track to shoot. Modestly disappointed, I simply responded, "OK". He then told me that I would have to shoot from the stands. 

Reflecting on gratitude for even being here, and truly excellent parking, I wandered around the clubhouse area to determine where I might position myself, and remain behind the fence that separates the spectators from the track, finding a number of good options. 

Rain was falling, gently and intermittently. I was well prepared, given the weather conditions just two weeks prior, for the Kentucky Derby. Sporting my $4 yellow rain jacket, I explored the interior levels of the stands to find the spot where I would be meeting friends around post time for the first race.

The grandstands at every track are different, and a little bit the same - they all have their own special arrangement of staircases and passageways that won't get you where you want to go. Because admission prices vary, depending on the location of your seat and the amenities offered, it can be challenging to find a way to get from one section of the stands to another. My journey seemed to keep me from finding the second level, where my friends would be hanging out in between races. As it turns out, I thought the second level was the first level, and had landed there several times before exploring a little further and finding our meeting spot.

Friends arrived just as horses were being called to the post for the first race, and I headed out to the platform and the bottom of the rows of seats in that section to take in the action.

The first race turned into a thriller, with the 7-2 favorite just clipping his closest rival at the wire. And the rain continued to fall.

The second race, intended for the turf, was moved to the main track, due to the wet conditions. At a mile and a sixteenth, the starting gate was positioned so that the horses would pass a portion of the stands twice. The first time past, silks and saddle towels were free of mud.

As the horses cleared the final turn and headed down the home stretch, every single one of them were affected by the conditions and covered in mud as they ran to the wire.

Just as the horses were reaching the gate for the third race, a 6 furlong sprint, the rain started coming down harder, keeping most spectators inside.  As in each race prior on this day, the odds on favorite came home first.

The fourth race was run on the turf, as scheduled. When conditions are as wet as those experienced in Baltimore over the past few days, the grass can get pretty beat up with each contest. As the racers rounded the clubhouse turn, turf flying, you could see just how much damage could be done over the course of a day.

The fifth race was the first stakes race of the day, a five furlong sprint. Because of the distance and the fact that was a sprint, the horses out front were relatively  clean as they reached the wire.

I sat out the next race, but was back to see Happy Like a Fool reach the wire first in the Adena Springs Miss Preakness Stakes, a six furlong test.

The next stakes races was the Pimlico Special, after which the stands were clear, due to the weather.

NBC commentator, Donna Brothers, did her pre-race stand up just below my position, under the protection of an umbrella. The rain let up slightly as the horses in the Jim McKay Turf Sprint left the gate, bringing some spectators out to the rail on the main track.

After what had felt like a very long day, the fillies for the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes began arriving, walking from the barns on the backside, along the outer rail, as a trio of tractors sealed the track. 

As soon as Red Ruby, a sharp grey filly, crossed the wire, I was packing up to head out.  Three races remained on the schedule, so I had little difficulty making my way to my car and getting quickly back to my hotel for a little dinner and some much needed sleep.

Rain is forecast for the Preakness Stakes. We'll soon see if it brings with it racing luck for the Kentucky Derby champion.


Kat's Eye: Justified!

May 06, 2018  •  2 Comments

 

A rainy Derby Day meant a few things - foul weather gear, plastic to protect my cameras, and a capacity crowd that was taking its time to get to Churchill Downs. Early in the day, the weather reports were indicating that the showers that had been intermittent would let up, so I took advantage of that, and the fact that race fans would be trickling in to Churchill Downs, to arrive a little past noon.

The parking gods sent an angel to me the day prior, and I was blessed with a parking pass that gave me access to the backside yard. Far superior accommodations to the media lot, which would have required a 30 minute bus ride from the Kentucky Expo Center. I pulled into a tidy spot next to barn #37, put on my bright yellow rain jacket and covered my cameras to protect them from the rain, and headed for the stable gate that would take me to the infield tunnel.

Rain was causing everyone who would have been crowding the paddock to see horses prior to the races to huddle under any overhang they could find, making my journey to the media center challenging. But that was nothing compared to what I experienced when I went out to the rail for MY first race of the day. 

The media center is a large facility, with hundreds of cubicled work spaces, a separate "quiet" room for writers, it's own bar and giant TV screens. To get to the track, you have to walk through the wagering area to a gate that leads you into the tunnel, where outriders are waiting with their ponies and horses pass through in both directions, either entering or leaving the paddock. There is a small alcove, with a gentlemen's rest room awkwardly placed, making the area a little tight on a normal race day. The rain meant fans were hanging off the fences that keep them out of said tunnel, and clogging the one avenue photographers have to get to their assigned positions.

Because of the extra time it took to get to the rail, the horses for the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile were already parading in front of the growing crowd. The rain was light, but steady at this point, and the area I was relegated to shoot from - the regular winners circle - was not too crowded. The horses left the gate as soon as they were all loaded, and passed the grandstand once before heading into the back stretch.

As they came past me the second time, the eventual winner of the race, Proctor's Ledge, was moving into the lead.

As the race completed, the rain started coming down harder, sending me through the tunnel and back into the media center, where some new friends were saving a place for me to hang out in between races. And hang out, I did. 

The rain was coming down hard for races 8 and 9, and a flash flood warning was issued for the area surrounding Churchill Downs. I decided to wait for the big races before venturing out into the elements again, so it was race 10 - the Pat Day Mile - that coaxed me back into my rain gear and out to the rail.

A one mile race on the dirt, the Pat Day Mile starts as far back in the chute as possible, requiring the horses to make just one turn before heading down the home stretch. A 39-1 long shot, aptly named Funny Duck, galloped through the mud to victory and the delight of many a bettor at Churchill.

Javier Castellano and Victor Espinoza after the 10th race.

Honestly, I LOVED shooting this race. As we marched through puddles and back into the media center, I was on the heels of Daily Racing Form and Eclipse award winning photographer, Barbara Livingston. I laughed out loud and remarked, "That was fun!" She looked at me sideways as if to say, "You're weird." No matter - it was a blast.

The minutes between races were growing as we approached the main event, so once again I had time to relax and get geared up to go back out into the deluge for the Old Forester Turf Classic. Bouyed by the energy I still carried from the previous race, I stood in the driving rain and captured images of Yoshida, causing an upset and taking the prize.

Upon my return to my spot in the media center I was informed that my new friend, Don, had hit a superfecta for close to $900 on the Turf Classic, and was ordered back out into the rain to ensure racing luck.

With over an hour until post time for the 144th Kentucky Derby, I shed my rain jacket and took a seat. When I saw on the TV monitors that the horses were beginning to come over to the paddock with close to 40 minutes remaining until they would enter the starting gate, I decided to get ahead of the crowd and moved toward my assigned position.

When I reached the narrow passage to the tunnel gate, it was jammed. Race fans, many who had clearly been over served, were hanging from the fencing, and photographers were stacked five deep, trying to get to our only point of access. When we were finally allowed through the gate, it was a short journey to the end of the tunnel, where once again we stopped, staying out of the pouring rain for as long as possible.

At the edge of the track, positioned between the outside rail and the fence that holds back spectators, I waited as the horses made their post parade and the crowd sang "My Old Kentucky Home." People flooded onto the track, crowding the spaces against the outside rail. While we waited for the horses to be loaded into the starting gate, I practiced the angles that I would have to use, holding my camera in the air with the help of my mono-pod, to get over thee mass of people in front of me, holding their smartphones aloft.

With all the horses in the gate, they stood for just a second, and then they were off.  As they passed my position the first time, the slop of the track flying from their hooves, the odds-on favorite, Justify, was piloted to a great position by Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith. Rounding the clubhouse turn, I was forced to watch the race develop on the backstretch via the infield jumbo-trons, as tents and concessions blocked the view.

As they cleared the quarter pole, it looked as if Good Magic was beginning to make his move to challenge Justify. But as he was coming on, Smith found another gear for his horse, pulling away slightly with each stride to reach the wire first - and spotless.

The mayhem that erupts on the track after the field has crossed the finish line is difficult to describe. If you've ever been in a mosh pit at a rainy music festival, you may find a point of reference. Photos of the team and jockey celebrating their win were certainly and artfully captured by people with better position than mine, but I did catch my friend, Drayden Van Dyke, whose mount, Distilled Regard, had rounded out the superfecta, just behind third place, Audible.

While the presentation of the trophy and infield celebration continued, I walked through the infield tunnel to have a look around, before returning for the 13th race. My friends with Team Baltas had a horse entered, and I took some photos of that contest, relatively unimpeded, while soggy race fans slogged to the exits.

As the journey became more manageable, I walked through the parking lot toward the stable gate. Leaving the grounds was the easiest thing I had done all day, thanks to my parking angel, and just like that, my second Kentucky Derby was in the books. 

Throughout the day, conversations and complaints about the rain were commonplace. While working in these conditions is challenging, it's also rewarding, and makes for great stories and photos. No one ever laughs and recounts the big races that were run in perfect weather - it's the storm stories that we will all be retelling for days, and at next year's Derby. My feet stayed dry, I love the images I was able to capture, and everyone made it safely back to the barn.

Just 363 days until the 145th Kentucky Derby.  

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