Kat's Eye: Getting Around Churchill Downs

May 02, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

(The subtitle of this entry should be "How to get over 10,000 steps before 11am....")

A glorious shade of pink colored the sky this morning as the sun began to rise. I started my 15 minute drive to Churchill Downs at about 6:30am and was pleased with my progress as I reached the temporary media parking area - until I saw how far it was from the stable gate. A brisk ten minute walk later, I was finally gliding through the barns on the backside of Churchill Downs.

The area around the main gap in the track, where horses can enter, was swarming with trainers and owners and spectators - and the media. Since this is just the second time I have photographed the Kentucky Derby - and the first one had me ensconced in the Jockey Room with soon-to-be Triple Crown winning jockey, Victor Espinoza - it took me some time to figure out where the gate was that would allow me access to the rail along the backstretch, where photographers and video cameras were beginning to line up.

The track schedule was a little behind this morning, so the tractors that harrow the surface were just beginning their rounds as I set up camp just off the second turn, as it opens onto the back stretch. Glancing around, I was surrounded by spectators, all anxious for a view of the field of contenders, content that they would be seeing the next Oaks and Derby champions train.

The previously rosy sky had given way to a slight gloom, but just before the horses came out, the light changed, and beautiful, long shadows were cast on the dirt by the rail.

Then the horses began to arrive. One of the first to enter the track via the main gap was Justify, walking with lead pony, Smokey. Race fans will remember that Smokey guided Triple Crown champion, American Pharaoh. I'm guessing that trainer Bob Baffert is hoping the pony may be his lucky charm. Justify is a stunning colt at the walk, and an incredible sight to see him gallop past.

On the track at the same time was my personal favorite, Good Magic. I know that this is a tough field, and there are other talented horses who are favored to win this year's Derby, but I got to spend a little time with Good Magic and his team at Keeneland last month, so he has a special place in my heart. The Edwards family, (The "e" in e5 Racing) trainer Chad Brown, assistant trainer Jose Hernandez and groom Hugo present as a happy group, united in service to their horses. 

Regardless of what the morning line says, I'm on Team Good Magic.  :)  And he looked great today.

To my novice eye, Vino Rosso seemed to really be showing up, calmly galloping his first lap, but turning it on for his second. There are so many gorgeous and talented chestnuts in this race. I really love it!

If I commented on every horse I photographed this morning, I'd be here forever and would never get this published, so I'm going to just share my photos and continue the story of my morning down the page....

With the majority of Derby and Oaks contenders training during the time the track is closed to everyone else, my shutter got a workout as every horse rounding the turn needed to be photographed. It was a nice change as the "big" horses left the track, the media cleared out, and I got to watch my dear friend, Anna Meah, exercise the pretty filly, Gas Station Sushi. The Eight Belles Stakes on Friday will be this filly's next test and I'm super excited to be around to capture photos of her training and racing.

After visiting for a minute with Anna and her wonderful husband, David Meah, at the barn stabling trainer, Richard Baltas' horses - Anna and David's boss - it was time for me to practice shooting with my big lens.

Because I can't be sure where I will be positioned for the big races - we have a photographers' meeting on Friday morning, where spots will be assigned - I brought along a monster 150-600mm lens that weighs as much as my entire camera bag. The range of this lens will ensure that I can get great shots, regardless of where I end up, but it takes some getting used to.

Before long, Anna was on the track with another trainee, and I got a little more comfortable with the weight and zoom action, which are both a bit muddy.

After finding my way back to the barn to visit with Anna a bit longer, I decided to try getting to the grandstand by going around the other direction - to see if it was faster. I saw many visitors walking in from that end of the property, so I thought it might be worth a try.

As it turns out, those visitors were being shuttled over from the main gate, and my one and only attempt at reaching the frontside walking in this direction took about twice as long as the journey through the parking lot. Not a lost cause, however, as I met a friendly barn cat who, I was told, is eighteen. Wow!

I also spotted Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens, quietly getting acquainted with a horse after the track had emptied.

My final stop of the morning was the press center, where I picked up my media parking pass. Starting tomorrow, we park out at the Expo Center and get bussed in, so I'll have to set aside a lot of extra time in the morning.

As I left Churchill Downs, I passed a tour of new race fans being oriented to the grounds and the history of this weekend's contests. I paused for a moment to capture an image of an empty paddock. My, how things will change in the coming days.


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