Looking at my photos after the races have been run and the outcome is known is telling. Things that caught my eye may lend themselves perfectly to my writing, or become totally irrelevant. It's wonderful when things turn out just as you had hoped.
The April snow that was falling kept me from the track on Saturday morning. Instead I lazily drank coffee, enjoyed pancakes with my incredible AirBnb hosts, and snuggled with my kitten, Grace. Things slowly warmed up and the snow was beginning to melt as I embarked on my short drive to Keeneland, where I found a parking spot in the row assigned to media with ease.
I chatted briefly with the security staff tending the parking area, and thanked them for working to keep everyone safe. The long hours they put in, and the warm and friendly attitude that I encounter every time I speak with one of them, tells me they love what they do.
I sat briefly on a quiet bench next to the walking ring before looking up to see the back of what I was certain was my friend, Amy Tremper. Sure enough, upon approach she was talking with friends with whom she had worked during the fall meet. Regardless of the temperature and the breeze that was adding to the cold, everyone had a smile of their face and greeted me with cheer and good humor. A few minutes later I asked Amy to join me to walk around on the backside.
The fourth race of the day had just been called to post as we walked through the clean and tidy barns that held what would soon be the stars of the day - a filly and a clot heading to Louisville. The sun was beginning to come out, and the quiet was wonderful. I do enjoy the races, don't get me wrong, but the noise and the crowds I prefer to leave behind when I have the opportunity to walk through this peaceful place.
For an hour or so, we ambled around, one of us suggesting a direction, then the other. We found the barn of trainer, Dale Romans and peeked at Free Drop Billy, who was deep into his nap, and his stablemate, Tiz Mischief, both entered in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and hoping for a trip to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville in a month.
We swung by the barn of trainer, Richard Baltas, to see my favorite newlyweds, David and Anna Meah. I met this adorable pair when I was with Team Sherman, during the stellar career of champion, California Chrome. Anna was an exercise rider for Sherman Racing Stables, and David was with Baltas. Over the course of three years, Anna and I became good friends and I miss seeing her smiling face on a regular basis. Married lat year, they now work together.
Anna gave me a hug and we promised to see each other again soon, then Amy and I walk quickly toward the grandstand, to keep me from shedding tears.
As we reached the paddock, entries for the Shakertown Stakes were in the saddling area, and I found the charming duo of Hannah and Kaylee, holding a sign and cheering for their friend, trainer Wesley Ward. When asked, these ladies were proud to pose for a photo as they shouted encouragement to their friend.
And as it turns out, Hannah and Kaylee were good luck charms, as Wesley's trainee, Bound for Nowhere, a four year old bay colt, earned his first graded stakes win in the US.
Next up was the Madison Stakes, for Fillies and Mares four years old and up. The field looked good as they walked the paddock, and I captured some images of my friend, Amy's favorites. I also ran into the Taylor family - Frank and his wife, Kim and daughter, Katie, with his brother Duncan. They are some of the Taylor's in Taylor Made Farms - co-owners of California Chrome, among others, who stands stud on their beautiful farm in Nicholasville, KY.
When asked, Frank and Duncan pointed to their filly, Ms. Locust Point, a pretty chestnut who would be in the fourth position in the starting gate.
Unfortunately, none of these horses finished in the money, as Finley's Lucky Charm took first.
Back in the paddock, the fillies for the Central Bank Ashland Stakes were walking and being saddled, ready for their chance at the points that would take when to the Kentucky Oaks. The sun was shining as they entered the starting gate.
I had walked onto the track with the other credentialed photographers and found a spot near the finish line, where I took a seat in the dirt and waited for the horses to race past me. As they left the gate and cleared my position, they looked as if they were choreographed and moving by design.
As they cleared the final turn, Monomoy Girl, trained by Brad Cox, had a substantial lead and claimed her prize.
Now it was the boy's turn, and I made it back to the receiving barn in time to see the contenders for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes walking the shed row. Good Magic and Free Drop Billy - a couple of stunning chestnut colts, came out of the barn together, and the field walked to the paddock.
As they made their way from the saddling area to the walking ring that is adjacent to the tunnel that takes you to the track, the horses came in numbered order, so that they would be in line and ready for the post parade when they stepped onto the track. I watched as Flameaway, another striking chestnut colt, trained by Mark Casse, stepped forward wearing his post position - #12- and out of sequence.
I stood next to jockey Jose Ortiz, whose mount, Good Magic was wearing #11 - and was noticeably absent. Jose said, "Where is my horse?" I told him I had not seen him come from the saddling area, and the jockey quickly moved to the top of the circle to try to determine what was going on. As we reached the gap that the horses walk through, I could see Good Magic's head above the crowd surrounding him. Within a minute they were in the walking circle and Jose was given a leg up.
As we walked through the tunnel, another photographer remarked that she had not caught the antics in the saddling area. It was then that I had learned that my pick for this race had "gone rodeo", causing his delay in reaching the walking ring. A great photo opportunity aside, I prefer that I missed his stunts, as my heart was already beginning to beat a little faster as the horses were being loaded into the starting gate.
They left the gate cleanly, and Good Magic broke well, but by the time they reached my position, the horses were in a pack. They headed into the first turn, with the sun on the horizon, melting into shadow.
Sitting in the dirt, with the crowd cheering behind me, it was hard to hear the race call. I waited for the roar of the fans, signaling the horses were coming through the final turn and heading for the wire, when I thought I heard the race announcer say that Good Magic had taken the lead. As I raised my camera and watched the rest of the race through my lens, I had to keep my hands from shaking and ruining a good shot, I was so excited at the possibility of the win.
I have to admit that it didn't completely register as the horses ran toward me. I just shot. I did start to smile as the beautiful #11 was clearly on the saddle cloth of the horse in the lead, and when he crossed the finish line I made an internal exclamation of satisfaction.
Quickly I made my way back toward the winners' circle to wait for the horses to run back. Hugo walked Good Magic and Jose in several circles in front of the appreciative crowd, and I had a quick moment to shake hands with owner, Bob Edwards, and congratulate him on a great race. Then Bob and his wife, Kristine, lead their horse and jockey into the winners' circle for photographs.
As the trophy was presented to e5 Racing and Stonestreet Stables, Hugo lead the new champ back onto the track, past the grandstand, and onto the backside where he would spend time in the test barn before returning to his stall for a well deserved supper and some rest. I'm looking forward to seeing him again, and watching him the first Saturday in May in Louisville.
On a side note - while chatting with Bob on Thursday, I shared with him the story of my straw hat. The hat that I wore to training every morning when I was photographing California Chrome. I told him how it got beat up, especially when I had to pack it in my suitcase, after moving to Georgia, whenever I travelled to watch him race. Trainer Art Sherman used to say that it looked like I had slept in it, and begged me to get a new hat, but I told him I would not. Chrome knew that hat, and he would - quite literally - look for it in the crowd. People wonder how I got such gorgeous photos of him - well, he's stunning,of course - but thank the hat.
As the 2016 season rolled on, and Chrome racked up win after win, if I showed up at the barn WITHOUT the hat I would be sent back to my car to get it. Racing luck and the routines that accompany it are not taken lightly. So when I shook Bob Edwards' hand and wished him congratulations, adorned with the knit stocking cap that kept me cozy all day, I jokingly asked, "You're not going to make me wear this hat for every race, are you?" He laughed and said, "I just might!"
If you see me at the Kentucky Derby and wonder why my Derby hat is made of yarn, you'll know why.