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.