forestbird photography: Blog https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog en-us (C) forestbird photography 2018 (forestbird photography) Sun, 29 Jul 2018 22:10:00 GMT Sun, 29 Jul 2018 22:10:00 GMT https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/img/s/v-5/u535103081-o850752996-50.jpg forestbird photography: Blog https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog 120 120 Kat's Eye: My New Kentucky Home https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/7/kats-eye-my-new-kentucky-home The news was delivered on Wednesday afternoon. Triple Crown Champion, Justify, who was being evaluated for swelling in the ankle, was retired. Story after story has been published about the thrilling, but fleeting, four month campaign that will enshrine this chestnut colt in the hearts and minds of race fans. I've read them with interest, and melancholy. While I understand the financial and other issues at stake, Thoroughbred racing needs its heroes, and I wish this one would have kept racing....even a little bit longer.

Summer meets are in full swing at Del Mar and Saratoga, and some wonderfully talented horses are set to face off this evening at Monmouth Park's Haskell Invitational. I look forward to watching one of my favorites, Good Magic, in the Haskell, and I will travel back to my former home base of San Diego for the Pacifica Classic on August 18. But I do have plenty to inspire me closer to home.

In Mid-June - just five weeks ago - I loaded my four-month-old kittens, fifteen-year-old cat and six-year-old German Shepherd into my SUV and drove out of Georgia and into heaven. (Yes, Tennessee was in the middle.) Anyone who knows me has heard me speak of living in Lexington someday, and someday turned out to be June 21. With the help of my family and friends, I've been getting settled and completing some of the many projects that present themselves when moving into a new home. It has been busy, challenging and wonderful.

With the brunt of my homework behind me, on Friday morning I made my first trip as a "local" to Keeneland Race Course, less than 15 minutes from my new home. While the air was not cool, it was far from the sultry mornings we have had recently in the Bluegrass. Immediately at peace, the quiet serenity of the off-season pace at my favorite track settled on me like a shimmering mist as I walked among the barns and toward the track.

A handful of horses were training at an easy pace as the light crept up. I encountered no more than six people in the observation areas at the rail, including a cheerful security guard, a couple of trainers engaged in thoughtful conversation, and two young ladies who were taking selfies - clearly excited to be at Keeneland. 

Outriders and exercise riders alike nodded and smiled to me as the backtracked along the rail, and I noted that a good number of ladies were working horses, a theme that I will dig into as the fall meet approaches. 

Rain spat at me, briefly growing strong enough to drive me toward cover. A mile or two to the West, heavy rain was visible, but there was a distinct line between clear skies and clouds, and it was pushing off to the South and West. Walking toward the barns, even just a couple hundred feet, was all it took to keep me dry.

A lone horse and rider making their way back to the barn, a beautiful and camera-friendly goat, and many empty stalls sat quietly, waiting to be discovered. A far cry from the crush of people and horses that will be on the grounds in just six weeks, when the September yearling sale swings into gear, but small pockets of activity were not hard to find. 

A trio of riders coming in from training, bath time for a pretty chestnut filly, and an impressive-looking, two year old filly, grazing with her handler just outside her barn. The work goes on, at this track and others - tracks big and small, famous and obscure. Every day, they train and bathe and feed, they see veterinarians and farriers and equine dentists. They clean stalls, drag tarps and sweep shed rows. And every year there is a new crop of two-year-olds to pique our interest, and there is the Triple Crown trail that begins the first Saturday in May with the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Every year.

Negatives exist in every industry, and there is plenty written and said about what is wrong with Thoroughbred racing. While I have my personal opinions about some of it, if you've come here for any of that, you'll be wasting your time. I believe that what we focus on expands, and there is so much dedication, care and hard work that I see whenever I step onto the backside of any race track, that I choose to place my focus there.

I was not at Del Mar this weekend to capture images of Justify's well-earned victory lap, and I'm not at Monmouth Park to cheer for Good Magic this afternoon, but I went to Keeneland. The Roman philosopher, Seneca, said, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

They are preparing, here and at tracks around the country. As the opportunities present themselves, here's to an abundance of racing luck in all of their futures.

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/7/kats-eye-my-new-kentucky-home Sun, 29 Jul 2018 15:56:03 GMT
Kat's Eye: Coronation Day https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/6/kats-eye-coronation-day 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.

 

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/6/kats-eye-coronation-day Sun, 10 Jun 2018 20:33:51 GMT
Kat's Eye: New York State of Mind https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/6/kats-eye-new-york-state-of-mind

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.

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/6/kats-eye-new-york-state-of-mind Sat, 09 Jun 2018 11:53:32 GMT
Kat's Eye: Emerging From the Fog https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-emerging-from-the-fog

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.

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-emerging-from-the-fog Sun, 20 May 2018 13:37:50 GMT
Kat's Eye: When 7am Is Not Early https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-when-7am-is-not-early

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.

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-when-7am-is-not-early Sat, 19 May 2018 09:02:24 GMT
Kat's Eye: Justified! https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-justified

 

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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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-justified Sun, 06 May 2018 14:20:47 GMT
Kat's Eye: The Gift https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-the-gift If you Google "Henry Clay", you'll see pages of results regarding the achievements of a noted politician and statesman, including his role in shaping economic development in his years as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams, from 1825 to 1829.

You get a completely different set of results, simply by adding the word "horse" to the search.

People inside the business of Thoroughbred horse racing, particularly in Kentucky, are aware of the contributions that Clay made to this industry, but as a novice I was without a clue. Until my friend Amy Tremper, who had been living and working in Lexington, Kentucky, mentioned to me her visits to Ashland, the Henry Clay estate. She suggested I connect with the curator there to learn more about a project that he undertakes each spring.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Eric Brooks, Curator and Site Manager at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Mr. Brooks is a warm and thoroughly engaging man. Since February 2002, when he started in this role, in addition to his regular tasks at the estate, he has devoted time to a pedigree search of each Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby contestant. An annual effort for the Estate, the goal is to determine if any of the horses in these races is a descendent of the Thoroughbred bloodlines that were started by Henry Clay.

I generally write narratives or diaries about my experiences at horse tracks around the country, but for this post I did a little research. Volumes have been written about Henry Clay, the Politician; Henry Clay the Planter/Farmer; and Henry Clay the Horseman. This is not to replicate any of that, but to encourage the reader to do the referenced Google search and learn more about this man, and visit Ashland.

It is well-documented, and held dear by those in the Blue Grass State, that Henry Clay is one of the founding fathers of the Thoroughbred breed in the United States. And each year, just prior to the running of the Oaks and the Derby, the Estate confirms that his legacy is alive in the form of the horses entered.

Once the fields for the races have been confirmed and post positions drawn, Mr. Brooks goes back through the pedigree of each horse to see if any are descended from the Clay lines. He told me that the female tail line - tracking back through the dam, grand dam, and on, is how he makes the determination. 

This prompted me to ask - why the dam? Isn't the sire as important, or more so, based on the stud fees for top stallions? It's something that I have heard before - the importance of the mare in breeding, but I wondered about the science.

My own family has been exploring its genealogy, beyond just populating our family tree. Last year my folks had their DNA done, and this Christmas, my brothers and I did, as well. The result for me is that, whatever I got from each parent, it's about 50% of their genetic make-up. For example, my father discovered that he is 46% European Jew, and my result for that part of my heritage is 23%. Likewise, their combined Irish heritage is 20%, and mine is 10%.

My brothers' results are not identical to mine or each other, but follow the same trend.  With regard to physical characteristics, I got my dad's frame - tall and lanky. My brothers got more of our mother's build. My father was a national-class athlete in high school and college, with my brothers also being athletically gifted. I played the cello. 

Similarities and differences. There's no guarantee what you're going to get when offspring are produced, but are there ways to improve the odds, at least when it comes to racehorses?

I asked my friend, Frank Taylor, about the science of horse breeding. Frank is the Vice President of Boarding Operations for Taylor Made Farms, and I've been privileged to hear him speak about all aspects of the industry. When queried about the research, which is fairly minimal and has its detractors, Frank told me that the focus on the mare is just something that horsemen have known for years. "I'd rather have a foal out of a great mare with a so-so stallion, than have one out of a mediocre mare by a top stud." said Taylor. When pressed further, he laughed and replied, "Women run the world, anyway! That's what my wife says."

Back to the Clay lines and the determination of ancestry... In every case, Mr. Brooks is looking for two mares, Magnolia and Margaret Wood.

The cursory understanding that I have of Henry Clay is that he was resoundingly respected as a superb horseman and knowledgeable breeder. So much so, that these two mares - the foundation of the Clay bloodlines - were not purchased by Mr. Clay, but rather, were gifts.

In 1845, Margaret Wood was presented to Clay by Wade Hampton, and Magnolia was a gift from Dr. William Mercer, a friend from New Orleans. These mares are well-chronolcled as the foundation of the Clay bloodlines, having produced champions throughout the years. 

Specifically, Magnolia's granddaughter, Maggie BB, is the most famous. Mr. Brooks informed me that this mare was bred by James B. Clay, Jr., the grandson of Henry Clay, and named for Margaret Burnie Beck, whom James wanted to marry after his service in the Civil War, but had his proposal refused by her father. The mare, Maggie BB, was the dam of many noted lines, including the one that has produced the sole Derby entry from the Clay lines - Free Drop Billy.

As a fun side note, Frank Taylor also told me that Free Drop Billy's name is an homage to owner, Dennis Albaugh's golfing buddy, who has the annoying habit of hitting out of bounds and requesting a free drop. 

During morning training this week, I've captured some images of Free Drop Billy. He has a distinctive blaze and a running style that exudes youthful energy. I find him incredibly fun to watch, and easy to pick up as he gallops in company on the track.

This morning, Free Drop Billy is a long shot, sitting at 30-1 odds, and will be breaking from the inside at pole position #2 - a tough draw in a 20 horse field. The last time a descendent of Magnolia and Maggie BB won the Kentucky Derby was in 1983, when Sunny's Halo became only the second Canadian-bred horse to win the race. After five straight years of the odds-on favorite winning the Kentucky Derby, it would be thrilling to see such an upset this afternoon.

This story, and the manner in which these foundational mares came to Henry Clay, has reminded me of one of my favorite stories from the mini-series, The West, produced by Ken Burns. It is the story of Erskine Wood, who sent his son to live with Chief Joseph, whom he greatly admired. At the end of the younger Wood's time with Joseph, his father expressed the desire to present a gift to the Chief, to thank him for all his son had been taught.

After much quiet contemplation, Joseph asked for a horse, but the junior Wood, thinking that too small a gesture, never told his father, and the two men died. 

Later, Erskine Wood, Jr. said, tearfully, "I did not know what the gift of a horse was."

 

 

 

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-the-gift Sat, 05 May 2018 15:01:46 GMT
Kat's Eye: Kentucky Oaks Day Photos https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-kentucky-oaks-day-photos I'll repost these later, when I've had time to add a narrative....until then, here are photos from Oaks Day.

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-kentucky-oaks-day-photos Sat, 05 May 2018 07:57:58 GMT
Kat's Eye: Alone at the Turn https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-alone-at-the-turn

 

This morning I said "nuts!" to the media parking area at the Kentucky Exposition Center, after determining that it is 4.5 miles from Churchill Downs. Surely a parking spot could be found in one of the neighborhoods close to the stable gate at 6:00am, right? Fortunately, I was correct, and enjoyed the shortest walk from my car to the backside since arriving on Tuesday.

The residents of the area were, however, ready for the crowds about to descend on them. Traffic cones, yellow caution tape, and in some cases - card tables and chairs - kept potential customers from parking before someone was around to collect payment. I don't begrudge these folks making a few bucks. After all, they put up with the frenzy of Derby weekend every year.

Blissfully among the barns, revisited by the salmon-colored sky, I strolled past the media area to say good morning to my friends at the barn of trainer Richard Baltas. My journey was cut short as I crossed paths with my buddy, exercise rider Anna Meah, aboard a trainee headed for the track. I informed her of my location for the day, and began the trek to the grandstand.

Most of the media, including still photographers, gather in the area that is fenced off for them, right on the outside rail on the back stretch. I understand why they camp there - the horses and riders come from the barns behind that position, so you see them coming out and know who is training. I enjoyed being in that position yesterday, but I also like to mix it up.

A thirty minute walk later, after navigating the often confusing maze that makes up the clubhouse and grandstand at Churchill, I arrived at one of my favorite places to take photographs - the quarter pole, where the horses make their final turn into the home stretch. And I found myself, quite literally, alone.

The solitude is one of the reasons I like this spot. There is no one to compete with over position, and no one stands in front of your shot. On race day, horses often begin to make their move around the quarter pole, and I've captured some really dramatic images, which can make up for the fact that I have to miss out on the finish line photo. If I'm emotionally invested in the outcome of the race, it can be a tough trade off, but I love having images that no one else was capturing.

The track was still being groomed in advance of the Oaks and Derby contenders training, so I had plenty of time before I saw any action. What I did see was three very manly men driving John Deere tractors wrapped in pastel shades and adorned with the branding of one of the many sponsors that clamor to this incredible sporting event. The guys looked thrilled.

So, there I stood, by myself. Since I was the only person in the area, and I had my enormous 150-600mm lens on my camera, I caught the attention of many riders - and horses. (I'm always really careful in these situations, as a lone photographer could potentially startle a horse.) 

Horses finally began to come out onto the track, their special saddle cloths letting everyone know their name and their race. The pace today was easier to work with, as it seemed the traffic was light, and those who did come out to train stayed out a shorter amount of time, with most horses passing my position just once.

Odds on favorite - Justify - looked in top form.

Vino Rosso seemed to take a special interest in my position and looked incredibly tuned in to his surroundings, taking everything in.

And here comes my favorite - Good Magic.

When highly-regarded, Mendelssohn, reached the track this morning it was for the first time since leaving quarantine, making him and his stablemates look happy to be enjoying the outdoors. Mendelssohn qualified for the Kentucky Derby with his resounding victory in the UAE Derby on March 31, and had to ship back to the US and be quarantined upon arrival to ensure that he and his entourage were healthy, prior to introducing them to the significant population taking up residence in the barns at Churchill Downs.

As he rounded the track, he called out frequently, which delighted the many fans in attendance.

Throughout the morning I had exercise riders wish me a good day, and call to me playfully to take their photo. I enjoyed hearing the good-natured competitiveness thrown back and forth between colleagues as they raced down the home stretch, pushing to get their horses to open up just a little more and to understand and engage in the contest.

This can be dangerous work. If you've ever ridden a horse within a foot of another rider, you know that things can happen. Now dial that up to eleven - add youth and speed and breeding that is intent on drawing out the competitive spirit in these amazing animals. I am constantly in awe of the men and women who do this work, every day, who smile and laugh as they are doing it.

Tomorrow morning - the clubhouse turn. See you there.

 

 

 

 

 

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-alone-at-the-turn Thu, 03 May 2018 19:42:20 GMT
Kat's Eye: Getting Around Churchill Downs https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-getting-around-churchill-downs

(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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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-getting-around-churchill-downs Wed, 02 May 2018 19:25:41 GMT
Kat's Eye: Start of a Busy Week https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-start-of-a-busy-week

As I get older, I realize that I really don't like driving in the dark.  My depth perception is off and I prefer to see the scenery that I am passing.

Thankfully, the stretch of I-65 North, from Bowling Green to Louisville, Kentucky, was sparsely populated and relatively predictable, given the early hour. Having stopped last night to enjoy dinner with my brother, his wonderful wife and my nephew, I had less than two hours to travel this morning to reach my destination - the twin spires of Churchill Downs.

This is only my second Kentucky Derby - my first being 2015, when I was fortunate to cover my friend Victor Espinoza as he embarked on the possibility of back-to-back Derby wins, and an eventual Triple Crown victory aboard the amazing American Pharaoh. As I walked through the main plaza and the paddock, I remarked to a fellow photographer that they've done a lot of work. Churchill Downs looks much better than I remembered.

As I made my way down to the rail in the winners' circle, the track commentators voices boomed over the public address system, letting the fans who had come out early to watch training know who was on the track - a large video screen in the infield following the horses.

The track at Churchill Downs opens for training at 5:15am. It's dark and quiet and peaceful, and I love it at that time of the morning, but it makes for lousy photos. The track is typically closed each hour for training, so that it can be groomed for the next group, and the hour beginning at 7:15am is reserved for horses entered in the Oaks and Derby races this weekend. While it is not mandatory, most trainers decide to take their big horses to the track at that time in order to avoid the larger crowds that show up to train later.

Due to my stop for coffee before getting on the interstate, I arrived around 7:30am and missed most of the top contenders for the trophies being handed out this weekend. I did catch a few, but I won't comment on each as they are all beautiful, looked great in the morning light, and simply galloped around the track without incident.  A lovely morning. (That their names are emblazoned on their saddle cloths is always appreciated....)

After leaving the training track, I found the credentials office and picked up my badge that will allow me to access the stable areas and to be trackside for the big races on Friday and Saturday. That task complete, I finally made my way to the barns.

In my brief time at Churchill Downs, I can say that the comment I hear most frequently from photographers and journalists is something along the lines of "they don't make it easy for us." This is referencing the path that we take to get from the clubhouse/grandstand to the barns. It's a less than glamorous journey through the parking lot to the closest stable gate, adjacent to Longview Road, should you happen to be familiar with the grounds. It's not convenient.

But once I reached the barns I was even more content as I watched the morning work being done. Horses going out to train, coming back in to get cleaned up, barn chores being done. The backside of a race track is an incredibly busy place, and since the barn area at Churchill Downs is massive, there is a lot going on.

The thing I like most about the barn area at this track is that horses and exercise riders have so many points of access to the track. The main gap, which is the largest and is closest to the service amenities provided for owners and trainers, is swamped with media, waiting for top horses to parade on and off the track. But if you walk deeper into the labyrinth of barns, you see access gaps about every furlong along the back stretch, allowing those who are stabled further out to gain access to the track without having to wade through traffic, or walk further than necessary.

I ambled around the backside for an hour or so, looking for the horses that interest me, and some friends that I know are in for races on Friday. I struck out on that front, but have since gotten the details of when and where to find everyone tomorrow. I'm staying with my niece and her husband, a mere 15 minutes from the track, so arriving on time in the morning should be easy. Especially since the coffee will be ready for me when I wake up.

 

 

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/5/kats-eye-start-of-a-busy-week Tue, 01 May 2018 20:20:13 GMT
Kat's Eye: Days of Grace https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/4/kats-eye-days-of-grace

Love at first sight.

It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving when I walked into the PetSmart in Conyers, Georgia, and the fluffy gray and white kitten caught my eye. A local rescue was hosting an adoption day, and I immediately knew that I wanted to take her home with me. She was in the arms of a 10-year-old girl, who was gazing at her adoringly, and I casually asked the girl if she was adopting the kitten. "We're thinking about it." was her reply.

She continued holding and petting the kitten, and I went back out into the store to ask the rescue director if they had any more. I had already filled out my paperwork and was approved to adopt, and so she informed me that I would be first in line for that kitten, who they called Amber. But I quickly shook my head. I would never do that to a child.

As I looked around, it seemed that every kitten in the rescue was being clutched by a child. A sweet scene, to be sure, and one that reminded me that at 53, I needed to park my disappointment. Though my heart was heavy from a recent loss, I was certainly capable of managing my emotions.

Just as I was about to leave, I saw the girl who had been holding "Amber" walking away with her parents. I approached them and asked if they had decided against adopting, and the girl's mother assured me that they had never intended to go home with a kitten. Too much work.

Minutes later, after paying the adoption fee, I was driving home with this 4-month-old fuzz ball, who was calm and relaxed in her carrier the entire drive. She just looked at me with soft, amber eyes. I took her into the coziest room in the house - the master bathroom, with its heated floors - and we got to know each other. Sitting on the floor with her, I received head butts and snuggles, when she wasn't playing with my shoe laces.

Petite and elegant, I named her Grace. She was quickly comfortable with her surroundings and the other pets in the house, and spent hours rolling around next to me, making "air biscuits" and purring so loudly that it could be heard in the next room.

Daily I was greeted with her sweet, chirping mew. She stole balls of yarn from my knitting basket and tackled her older brother, Mickey, with the girlful glee of a baby. As pretty a kitten poster-girl as I have ever seen, she insisted I clean out the litter box for her each morning. She had standards. Every day I smiled and laughed because of her.

Grace was an excellent traveler and went with me daily on my outings, riding in her carrier without a complaint, as long as the door was left open. She liked having options, but would circle around, rub her head on my hand, and return to the comfort of her carrier. She made the trip with my brother's family to my parent's home in Michigan for Christmas. Five hours from Covington, GA to Bowling Green, KY, and another seven hours the following day to Stevensville.

I loved having her with me, and she seemed happy to explore new places and meet new people.

Sadly for me, my days with her were limited to 139. After three weeks of the best care available, two blood transfusions, and several days in the ICU, on Friday, April 13 - at less than 9 months old - I gave her back to God.

I am grateful for all of our days - most good and a few not, because of her illness. I am grateful for the surprisingly good day that we had that Thursday - I set her up with a perch in the front window, so that she could look outside and feel the breeze. I am grateful for the peace that washed over me as I held her when she transitioned. Peace that she gave me. I only wish that her life had been long. A rare blood cancer made that impossible.

I know that she is waiting for me on the other side. The God I believe in would not put these wonderful creatures on Earth, only to keep them from us in paradise. I imagine her telling me, "Mama, don't be sad. I'm whole and healthy, running through fields of daisies and chasing fireflies. And I can see you! Love another kitten, Mama. And another. And another. I'll be so happy to see all of you when you get here."

Yesterday I looked up the definition of grace...

noun.

1. Simple elegance or refinement of movement

2. (in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the forgiveness of sinners and the bestowal of blessings

verb

1. do honor or credit to - someone or something - by one's presence.

I named her Grace. And she was.

Our last full day together, resting in the window perch I made for her, using the sofa table.

Just prior to receiving her diagnosis - myeloid leukemia - she was still benefitting from her last transfusion, looking and acting like "herself".

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/4/kats-eye-days-of-grace Tue, 17 Apr 2018 13:59:32 GMT
Kat's Eye: Hat's Off to Good Magic https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/4/kats-eye-hat-s-off-to-good-magic 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.

 

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/4/kats-eye-hat-s-off-to-good-magic Sun, 08 Apr 2018 13:08:00 GMT
Kat's Eye: My Happy Place https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/4/kats-eye-my-happy-place

Everyone faces adversity and challenge in their life, but we all have a defense mechanism. When things are too complicated or chaotic, we go to a place - mentally or physically - that brings us peace.

Things can get pretty frenetic in my life. Six dogs, horses and chickens, a kitten with leukemia and a large, old farmhouse. Not to mention the family visits I long for and the traffic in Atlanta, my current home base, that I abhor. Lexington, Kentucky does it for me. Keeneland is my "happy place".

I arrived just as dawn was breaking on the first Friday in April, to meet my friend, Amy Tremper and to explore the barns. I met Amy a couple of years ago, on the "Chrome Trail", as we both supported and cheered for champion California Chrome in the final year of his racing career, and became fast friends.  She and her husband, Steve, have been in Lexington for over a year, and I was excited to get to have some time with her.

Keeneland's spring meet has a reputation for being unpredictable. Two years ago, I stood in the rain. This morning I faced relatively moderate conditions that made my extra layers obsolete by mid-morning. While colder than my home in central Georgia, it was quite pleasant.

My primary goal this morning was to find the barn housing trainer, Chad Brown, and to make an introduction to the 2-1 favorite for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, Good Magic. But first, we stood at the rail and watched horses train.

While waiting for the new sun to warm us, we met up with friends - Jennifer and her son, Cassius. I met Jenn in July 2015 when I jumped in the cab that she and her sister were directing toward Belmont Park, just a day before Victor Espinoza and American Pharoah made history by winning the Triple Crown - a feat only eleven horses and jockeys before them had accomplished. We had a wonderful time at the Belmont Stakes and met up again at the 2016 Breeders Cup at Santa Anita.

The backside and training are some of my favorite parts of the entire Thoroughbred racing experience, so I walked Jenn and her son through the barn area and over to a spot where they could see the practice track. At Keeneland, it is something that stands on its own.

Amy and I also met up with a friend of hers who had some goats in their stable. Goats are kept by horsemen as companions to their typically high-strung trainees as they tend to calm the horses. While I appreciate that immensely, I adore the antics.

To watch a baby goat is pure joy. They press their face toward you, bray sweetly, and begin gymnastics if they don't receive the right level of attention. When I heard there were baby goats nearby, I made a beeline.

With Amy's help (peeling me away from the baby goats) we quickly found Chad Brown's barn, and it was busy. The trainer was sending horses to the track to work and giving instructions to their riders, including top jockey Javier Castellano.

As they walked to the track, I stayed back to chat with the groom preparing Good Magic for his turn. I introduced myself and he said his name was Hugo. (great name!) We chatted about the stunning chestnut in his care, with Hugo telling me that Magic is ticklish and does not care for being brushed or cleaned up. At just three years old and still a baby - though a powerful one - I saw him flinch and wiggle while his groom brushed him out. Moderate fidgeting that showed his feelings about the process, being tempered by his training to be still. 

While the grooms were preparing the group of horses that would walk to the track with Good Magic, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to his trainer and his owner. "Mr. Brown, I'm Kat Palma." was met with a handshake and a slight shake of his head as he offered, "Chad."  Bob Edwards warm smile would tell even the casual observer that he loves it here. As we chatted, he confirmed that with me as we agreed that this is the best part of the racing business - the barns and the preparation. Both men were genial and welcoming, hopeful for the opportunity to travel to Louisville following this race.

Within minutes, the horses were walking the circle outside their shed row, and then we were headed to the paddock for some schooling, Good Magic in the lead. He walked calmly and didn't seem to pay much attention to all the activity around him, as Keeneland staff were readying the grounds for the crowds that would come the next day.

I stayed slightly behind Chad as he gave direction to his team. Magic was focused the entire time, noticing me only once, then going about his business. He stood calmly in the saddling area as the other horses in his group passed by a couple of times, then walked out ahead of them to the walking ring adjacent to the tunnel that leads to the track.

Once they stepped onto the dirt, Good Magic's exercise rider turned left to back track and I briefly lost sight of him as they blended in with a group of horses standing in the chute area at the far end of the track. While we waited for him to gallop out, I had a nice conversation with a member of the Keeneland security staff and met a friend of Amy's who is an outrider. Both happy in their work and their love for this place.

I was mildly surprised that as soon as Good Magic began to come toward us, I picked him up. Each time he passed my position - to the left of the winners' circle, I had no trouble spotting him as he rounded the turn and came down the home stretch. He looks to be in great shape and I'm hopeful that the outcome of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes adds points in his favor to secure Good Magic a trip to the Kentucky Derby.

Leaving the track, Chad's group of trainees headed back to the barn to cool out, get cleaned up and have some breakfast. I parted company with them, thanking Bob and looking forward to the race, I walked to the Welcome Center to pick up my press credentials, and drove reluctantly from Keeneland. (I could stay all day, as the hight changes every few minutes, revealing something else of extreme beauty.)

The remainder of my day was spent with my niece, Samantha, and her boyfriend, Dan. They have a small apartment in a great area in central Lexington and are seriously thinking about getting into the real estate market. Chatting about their jobs and travel carried on for longer than I had expected. By the time I finally arrived at the lovely accommodations I had booked through AIrbnb, picked up a yummy dinner from Good Foods cooperative (a recommendation from my hosts that I give two big thumbs up!) and sat down to edit photos and write, this girl was flat out exhausted.

A much needed good night's sleep and a couple of cups of coffee this morning, and I'm ready to get rolling. I'll start on the backside when I arrive at Keeneland and check in on some of the other contenders for Derby and Oaks points. With light snow in the forecast and a high of 42' by 4pm, I'll be dressed to impress :P.

 

 

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/4/kats-eye-my-happy-place Sat, 07 Apr 2018 13:49:48 GMT
Kat's Eye: A Cold Afternoon at Laurel Park https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/3/kats-eye-a-cold-afternoon-at-laurel-park

 

Though the weather on St. Patrick’s Day promised to remain overcast with temperatures in the 40s, I was thrilled to be heading to Laurel Park, in Laurel, Maryland, with my good friend, Matt Smoot, at the wheel.

Matt and his wife, Courtney, have a beautiful farm in Northern Virginia, where I have been enjoying their hospitality for a few days.  Courtney opted to stay behind to work her horses, as the blustery winds of the past few days had calmed.

This was my introductory visit to Laurel, and our first stop was the barn on the backside where Matt’s race horses are stabled, in the care and training of Hugh McMahon. Matt and his racing partner have worked with Hugh for over a decade, and I enjoyed sitting back and listening to them discuss how their horses were training, while I casually took photos.

With some racing business out of the way, we found a quiet spot from which to operate for the afternoon. This was Matt’s home track when he was growing up, and he shared stories about his first trips to the track with his beloved step-father, his education in handicapping and the first horses he raced as an owner.

My visit to see my dear friends was planned just a week ago, when Matt was considering entering his best horse in a stakes race. While that decision went another direct, I was still anxious to see my friends and get back to the track for some real racing.

My rapt attention to Matt’s fascinating stories was shaken by the call to the post for the first race. I grabbed my camera, leaving my down jacket behind, and stopped out to the rail as the post parade completed and the horses headed for the starting gate, positioned in the chute for the 7 furlong sprint.

To my delight, a young jockey I had met back in California, Jorge Vargas, had mounts in 8 of the 11 races on the card. Jorge was represented by Sherman family friend, Mark North, and was around the barn at Los Alamitos a couple years ago, training horses and picking up a few mounts for races at Santa Anita and Del Mar.

My recollection was that being so far from family was difficult, and once he returned to the east coast, he found his place and was doing very well. I enjoyed watching Jorge's mount run third and second in the first two races of the afternoon. 

That's Jorge, on the 6 horse in the second race of the day.

While waiting at the rail for races to begin, I chatted with spectators and regular visitors to the track, who pointed out a pair of Bald Eagles perched on a sign in the infield. Throughout the afternoon, photographers tried to get close to the impressive birds, only to have them fly off as soon as a camera was raised to capture a shot.

As the afternoon unfolded, we enjoyed the performances of each group of jockeys and equine athletes, awaiting the walk over and paddock appearance of Hugh's trainee, Up Hill Battle. The 6 horse in the sixth race - The Conniver Stakes. (For Maryland Bred or Sired horses.)

I had enjoyed to warmth of the clubhouse right up to post time for the first five races of the day, but with Hugh racing in the sixth, I perched on the wall separating the paddock from fans and watched as the team readied their horse for the race.

As generally happens for me, once the horses exit the paddock and parade in front of the fans, time stands still. When I have my eye on a horse, or have some special connections through friends that cause me to pull for a good trip, The time from paddock to starting gate seems like eons.

It being St. Patrick's Day, outriders had dressed their ponies in festive shades of green - to ward off pinches that would certainly cause a problem for the ponies.

As the horses entered the starting gate - it began to snow.

Any race where horses and riders finish sound is a good race. That's what you say when the team you are pulling for doesn't quite make it onto the marquee that lists the top four horses in each race. This was the case with The Conniver Stakes on March 17, 2018.

Still, I was grateful for safe trips, new connections, and good friends. Even if the weather turned cold and wet, driving us from the track after the sixth race.

Matt and I stopped at the grocery store on our way back to the farm, allowing me to pick up the supplies to make linguine and clams for my friends - part of my repayment for their lovely company and comfy accomodations.

My next stop for horse racing will be the Blue Grass Stakes on the opening weekend of Keeneland's spring meet. I hope to see some great performances as colts and fillies qualify for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. I hope you'll join me!

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My blog and visits to horse parks across the county are completely self-funded. If you enjoy my travels and the stories and photos that come with them, please consider supporting me with a donation of any amount at 

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/3/kats-eye-a-cold-afternoon-at-laurel-park Mon, 19 Mar 2018 15:27:36 GMT
Kat's Eye: Time to Get Back to Work! https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/3/kats-eye-time-to-get-back-to-work

Spring is easing its way into my home in central Georgia, with the first Monday in March showing up on the cooler side, which was welcome to me.

It’s been three years since I moved East of Atlanta from Southern California, and winter has changed too quickly to summer two out of three years since I became a resident.

I’m a fan of spring. It’s my favorite season. I love how everything is new and how the days get longer as the world is reborn.  Trees and flowers bud and bloom, and I’m reminded of what is possible.

I’ve watched Kentucky Derby prep races with significant interest, and stood in my living room to urge on my favorite in last weekend’s Fountain of Youth Stakes. (Good Magic was third, coming on down the homestretch and running well, in my opinion, after a four month layoff.)

In truth, I miss the track. I miss the barns on the backside and the workouts and the anticipation of race days.  

It’s been a little over a year since the remarkable chestnut stallion who monopolized my lens for three years retired to the rolling green pastures of Taylor Made Farms in Nicholasville, Kentucky. I miss my friends - the team at Sherman Racing Stables and the “support staff” who traveled to be at every race they could manage. And I miss that gorgeous champion, California Chrome.

My last trip with Chrome and his team was the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at the end of January, 2017, at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida. My experience with Team Sherman and California Chrome was serendipitous. My initial impulse was to just walk away and accept that it had been an ordained moment that could never be recreated.

I still believe that, and feel certain that my tenure with this team will likely never be eclipsed….but I’ve got an itch.

Lexington, Kentucky calls to me. 

In early January of 2017, and again in September, my friends at Taylor Made invited me to work the Thoroughbred sales at Keeneland. The work was incredibly challenging, and the weather in January was daunting, but being around the horses made it all worthwhile. I encourage everyone I know who is a horse lover to visit Lexington, and to experience a sale at Keeneland at least once in their lifetime.

This past October, my family made their annual pilgrimage to Lexington. My older brother and his family moved to Kentucky more than twenty years ago, and going to the races at Keeneland is a family-favorite outing. Without press credentials or a team to follow, I was a general spectator, and it was fun. I enjoyed the afternoon with my family, strolled out to the rail for each post parade, watched Eclipse Award winning owner/breeder Ken Ramsey walk his triumphant colt into the winners' circle, and saw three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey, Calvin Borel, at work.

Keeneland is a special place, and the track lends itself to exceptional photography opportunities without the need for the special access that a press pass provides.  I enjoyed my time as a “civilian” and loved the images I captured.  But it left me wanting more…

It’s time to get back to work. 

The Blue Grass Stakes will run opening weekend of Keeneland’s spring meet, on April 7. I’ll be in attendance, taking photographs and writing about the experience. If everything works out, I should have a “warm up” at Laurel Park next weekend with four stakes racing on March 17. 

Let me know which horses you like, and come along for the ride.

 

Watching Ken Ramsey walk his winning horse into the winners' circle was a special treat!

 

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/3/kats-eye-time-to-get-back-to-work Tue, 06 Mar 2018 13:47:53 GMT
Chrome Diaries: The Last Waltz https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2017/2/chrome-diaries-the-last-waltz

All week long, the mood outside barn #2 on the backside of Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida was light.  Each morning, close connections of champion race horse California Chrome gathered to share coffee and pastries, and to laugh and chat about past experiences and the upcoming Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Saturday, January 28.

The morning of the race, it was no different.  Though the crowd was smaller, for most barns it would have seemed unimaginable to have so many people arrive prior to 5am to stand in the dark while their favorite horse had his pre-race jog.  But Chrome’s connections are devoted, and this was the last time they would have this opportunity.

To be honest, I almost skipped it, as I have the past couple of races.  The morning of a race can be a little tense compared to other mornings, so I have opted to reduce the crowd by one and get some sleep to carry me through the long day.

But my friend and travel companion, Margaret Luckett, insisted I should not miss it, and she was right.  When it was time to jog, I fell in line just behind groom Raul Rodriquez and assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, as they led Chrome to the track, with exercise rider, Dihigi Gladney aboard.

 

Chrome jogged and had his bath before going back into his stall, and by 8am Margaret and I were back at our condo.  A few hours to rest and get ready to go back to the barn.

Shortly after 1pm we packed up some beach chairs and a cooler that were available at the condo and drove back to Gulfstream.  Traffic into the parking lot was already building when we were exiting in the morning, and now it was looking pretty full.  But thank goodness for our media passes and the wonderful security team at Gulfstream who had become familiar with us over the previous few days.  We drove cleanly onto the backside and joined our friends to wait.

As many of you know by now, this is my favorite part of Thoroughbred horse racing.  While it could be incredibly stressful, marking the time until a race, I enjoy being at the barn with the team.  There are always stories and a lot of laughter, and I get some of my best photos of the anticipation and preparation for the race.

The routine at Gulfstream does not include a visit to the receiving barn prior to the race.  Instead, each entrant is visited in their stall for pre-race checks and the mandatory blood draw.  That meant we would walk straight to the paddock and not have to stop and wait enroute.

It wasn’t long before we were joined by the stellar team from TVG, with hugs and big smiles for everyone.  They have been backside with us prior to every race over the past thirteen months, and commentator Mike Joyce can always be counted on for his humor.

In addition to Alan’s friends, Bobby Hobbs, Jordan Olsen and Matt Smoot, award-winning turf writer and family friend, Jay Hovdey sat quietly in a folding chair at the side of the barn in the shade of a perfect afternoon.  Upon closer inspection, I saw that Jay was wearing his Pegasus tie - which he told me he had acquired years ago.  The perfect accessory for the occasion.

As Alan and Raul began the final stages of preparing Chrome to leave the barn, the mood became more serious.  Not sad, but bittersweet.  Everything reminded the team that this was the last time.

And then the call came over the public address system on the backside, that horses for the twelfth race needed to make their way to the saddling paddock.  I quickly walked out ahead of the team, to be in good position to capture images as they stepped from the shade of the shed rows into the temperate afternoon sun and made their way toward the track.

Trailing an impressive security detail and three video crews, Raul led Chrome on the short walk from the barn to the gap at the rear chute in the track, then along the inside rail.  The closer we got to the grandstand, the larger and louder the crowd.  At a couple of points in our trek, Chrome stopped, lifted his head and looked around with curious eyes.  It felt as if he also knew - that this was the last time.

To say that the saddling paddock at Gulfstream Park is not ideal is being generous.  It is a narrow alley, with stalls on one wall and not much space to walk horses under normal conditions.  For the Pegasus Cup, every team was augmented, video crews were everywhere, security details were quadrupled, and the scene was just this side of chaos.

So I kept walking, through the paddock, and stopped to wait with Savannah Sherman, Art and Faye’s granddaughter.  In a protected corner we watched the crowd, now substantial, filling every imaginable space on every observation deck facing the walking paddock and pushing toward the narrow avenue the entrants would pass through to travel from the paddock to the walking ring.

Thankfully, saddling went smoothly and the horses and teams were soon filing out through the tunnel, to the delight of the waiting throng.  Cheers went up as Raul and Dihigi led Chrome to the walking circle, where again, Chrome stopped to look around.

By some miracle I found the Sherman family and was able to grab a few images of Chrome with jockey, Victor Espinoza in the irons, as they paraded in front of the crowd before climbing the slight incline to walk back through the tunnel and paddock to reach the track.

 

As the mass of supporters flooded the tunnel, I waited to walk with Art, Savannah and Faye.  By the time I reached the track, the gate allowing teams access to trackside positions was closed, and as I had done for the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, I implored the security team to allow me to join my team at the rail.

Once in position, we waited again, as horses and riders embarked on their post parade and the track announcer ran through the post positions and horses for the inaugural Pegasus World Cup Invitational.

Just to my left, I scanned the rail to find my friends, standing silently, taking in the moment.  Then the starting gate was towed past us and into place, followed shortly by the field for the race, who all entered the gate without incident….until it was Chrome’s turn.

For the first time in my experience, he did not step fluidly into gate #12, but rather he hesitated - if only briefly - until being coaxed in by the gate crew and his jockey.  The gates sprang open and the horses bolted onto the track.

As they entered the first turn, everything looked good.  Chrome got a good jump out of the gate and by the time they exited the turn and opened up into the back stretch, Victor had him in a stalking position, just behind the leaders, with his prime competitor on the inside rail.

About the half mile mark, you could see it.  As the horses began to move into the final turn, some making their move toward the lead, California Chrome was not accelerating as in the past.  While he continued to run, his turn of foot seemed off, and collectively we all knew that a trip to the winners’ circle was not in the cards.

As the horses cleared our position, Alan, Raul and Dihigi walked out to watch their horse run back, checking his stride to look for any sign of significant injury.  Their main concern is the welfare of this beautiful and talented athlete, regardless of the race outcome.

Now there was a quiet, almost solemn mood as I fell in stride with Raul to walk back to the barn with Chrome.  His immediate comment was that Chrome just didn’t like the track.  Later we would discover that he had twisted his knee, a minor issue that would be corrected with rest to his complete recovery.

I wonder now, if the pauses along the way to the starting gate were his way of saying that he knew it wasn’t his day.  He's an incredibly intelligent horse, so it’s possible, if not likely.

Back at the barn, a small group gathered while Chrome was cooled out and bathed.  The sentiment was just as I had expected - not an ounce of disappointment.  This horse has done more than enough.

As people began to depart, warm hugs and words of gratitude were exchanged.  Team Sherman will return to training at Los Alamitos, the crew from TVG will head to their next assignment, and owners and close connections will continue to attend training and races.

Something hung in the air that was almost palpable.  It made me want to linger a bit, to let it settle on me, to sink in and be carried away.   A great horse, an impressive career, and an awaiting retirement and the potential for pretty and talented babies will certainly keep us all engaged for years.

But this is an imprint on the soul.  A mark that will be visited from time to time, and remembered with fondness and longing.  The final race may not have ended in a win, but this last waltz was victorious.

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2017/2/chrome-diaries-the-last-waltz Fri, 03 Feb 2017 14:51:45 GMT
Chrome Diaries: Art Appreciation https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2017/2/chrome-diaries-art-appreciation

In August of 2014, I met two men that would forever change my life.  One, my dear husband Scott, I married.  The other was Art Sherman.

To be fair, I knew my husband in high school, when he was 18 and I was 16.  And I technically met Art on July 31.  But this lead makes for a better story....

Knowing that the ride I have been on with Team Sherman and their champion trainee, California Chrome, would be coming to its conclusion with the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational on January 28 at Gulfstream Park, I've been understandably nostalgic.  Not melancholy, but in gratitude and appreciation for so many experiences over the past two and a half years.

While I have written about almost every visit I have made to the barn that houses Sherman Racing Stables - whether at Los Alamitos Race Track or a temporary home at Santa Anita, Del Mar, Parx Racing or Gulfstream Park, and hope that my feelings for my friends have been evident in my writing and photography, I would be remiss if I were to fail to be explicit.

From my observation, everyone loves Art Sherman.  Race fans, the media, fellow trainers, jockeys, owners, his employees...I've not met a single person who has ever had anything but kind words to say about him.  And because of Art, I have had the opportunity to meet scores of folks in each of these categories, as well as his family and close friends.

Ambassador is the word that my husband always uses when referring to this jovial, dedicated and direct gentleman, who has had the earnest task of training the world's most beloved race horse for the past four years.  It is a job he has embraced with the zeal of youth, his focus being on what is best for California Chrome, while always being available to accommodate an interview request or to sign an autograph.

During morning training at any track, Art is easy to find.  If you are not tipped off by TV cameras or a crowd of Chromies, all you have to do is listen for his laugh.  It is pure joy and it travels well.

I treasure the stories, the sense of family and the laughter that are central to life in the Sherman barn.  I am warmed by every welcome back I received whenever I showed up the week of a race.  I am humbled to have been included as part of a team and a family that I respect and admire so deeply.

I cherish the good-natured ribbing about my golf cart driving skills, the manner in which I devour a lobster, and the ragged straw hat that made it to every morning training session, even when it had to travel by airplane from Georgia.

My affection and regard for his entire team, and for Art personally, are genuine and profound.  You will find no finer people in Thoroughbred horse racing, or in life.  To say "thank you" seems insufficient.  

Bless you, my dear friend.  For in knowing you I am truly blessed.

 

 

 

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2017/2/chrome-diaries-art-appreciation Thu, 02 Feb 2017 22:35:18 GMT
Chrome Diaries: Pegasus Awaits https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2017/1/chromes_diaries_pegasus_awaits Wednesday morning I pulled up to the gate of the farm that I share with my dear husband and our menagerie of animals to embark on my trip to south Florida for the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park in Hallendale Beach.  It was the seventh time since last January that I would travel to be with my friends from Sherman Racing Stables and their champion trainee, California Chrome, as he contested races in the United States.  Each time my Scott has sent me off with a kiss and his unwavering support for what I do, while he has tended to farm and family.  Every time I have thanked him for his love and encouragement, and this time I added, "This is the last race."

The flight from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale was a breeze, and after collecting my friend and travel companion, Margaret Luckett, we were on our way to the track to pick up our media credentials and visit the barn.  We were greeted by groom, Raul Rodriquez, who had a big smile and a hug for each of us.  He was standing in the stall with Chrome while a routine, pre-race treatment was being administered.  Both horse and human were happy and at ease.  It was good to see them.

The following morning we arrived at the barn before sunrise and there were hugs and smiles all around.  Trainer Art Sherman gave us a warm greeting, joined by his lovely bride, Faye.  Assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, was working with Raul to get Chrome ready for his morning jog, and the yard outside the shed row quickly filled up with the close connections to this incredible horse that include family, friends and owners.  

The most remarkable thing that I have experienced with Team Sherman is that the line between owners and friends gets blurred almost immediately.  A certain type of client is drawn to work with this team, and you see a closeness develop with ease.  The addition of Taylor Made Farms and the Taylor family has been a natural fit to the ownership of California Chrome and his training team.

Shortly after everyone was assembled, Alan and Raul brought Chrome out to walk the shed row and his exercise rider, Dihigi Gladney, got a leg up and headed to the track.  Chrome's full security detail followed behind and led the entourage to a safe area to watch Chrome jog.

There are many things for which I am grateful with regard to this horse, and in the morning it's his distinctive blaze that cuts through the darkness to let you know that he's coming around the turn and jogging toward you.  Over the years I've learned to pick up Chrome's stride, when I can see him in the distance, and I've gotten familiar with the way that Digihi holds his hands and positions himself on the horse.

After two leisurely laps around the track, Chrome stood in the starting gate positioned int he chute at the north end of the track.  As he exited to walk back to the barn, Alan and Art thanked the starting gate team for coming out so early, allowing them to school their horse before the crowds arrived on the track, keeping Chrome's pre-race routine.

After a shower and walking the shed row to cool out, Chrome was tucked back in his stall for some rest and the crowd outside his barn was entertained by Dihigi as he took over interview duties from Zoe Cadman at XBTV.  He did a wonderful job getting Art, Alan and Frank Taylor's thoughts on race preparations and Chrome's condition, to the delight of everyone present.

With the promise to connect in the afternoon for the races, we headed to the paddock to check in with a group of Chromies as they were taping a segment for CBSN to be aired on Thursday morning.

A peaceful start to what is sure to be a memorable trip.

 

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2017/1/chromes_diaries_pegasus_awaits Fri, 27 Jan 2017 07:31:52 GMT
Chrome Diaries: Sheer Perfection https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2017/1/chrome-diaries-sheer-perfection

Almost three weeks have passed since champion Thoroughbred California Chrome skipped across the finish line to win the 2017 Winter Challenge at Los Alamitos Race Track, and I have endeavored to post my perspective on the day.

A new track record was set as Chrome finished twelve lengths ahead of his closest competitor, and jockey Victor Espinoza considered the stick in his hand as a modest amount of extra weight, unnecessary to his end goal.

I’ve started - and even completed - full articles, detailing the day in my typical fashion, but I haven’t published a thing.  I’ve considered for hours and days why I have not shared all of my photos and the behind the scenes account of the race day preparations and post-race celebration that are enjoyed so much by Chrome’s fans. 

It finally dawned on me, as I talked with my dear husband about this final trip to Southern California to watch my favorite chestnut colt race, that this was far too personal for me to just be another blog entry.  Another play-by-play account of arriving at the track, waiting at the barn, walking over to the race and celebrating a brilliant victory.

My journey with this team and their impressive trainee all started at Los Alamitos Race Track.  On August 1, 2014, trainer Art Sherman rode with me, in what he would later discover in the light of day was a purple Scion, to work the horses he trained at the understated track that was used primarily for Quarter Horse racing.

In those mild, pre-dawn hours, I was introduced to Art’s son, assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, groom Raul Rodriquez, exercise riders Anna Wells and Willie Delgado, and “the Big Horse”, California Chrome.  I stood back and watched the team work, shot lots of photos, and listened intently.  At the end of the morning, I was invited back.  

I rarely missed a week at Los Alamitos the remainder my time as a resident of Southern California, and made trips to Pennsylvania and to Santa Anita and Del Mar when Chrome raced.  My regular entries to “The Chrome Diaries”, a constant joy for me, shared with his adoring fans the day-to-day devotion of his team as they prepared him for each contest.

When I returned to Los Alamitos on December 16, traveling from my home in Covington, Georgia, via my temporary post in San Diego, two years and four months had passed since my first visit.  But what had drawn me to this “assignment” remained, having changed only for the better.

The track and the barns at Los Alamitos have undergone an expansion and renovation, but the walk from the track kitchen to the barn that houses Sherman Racing Stables was the same.  The cordial introductions I had received that first morning were replaced with warm hugs and smiles, with my friend Raul throwing open his arms and asking, “Where have you been!”

On that stormy morning, the quiet dedication of the teams employed to train and care for horses was witnessed only by a few, as they walked the shed rows, out of the rain.  It was peaceful, and pure, and perfect.  And I did not take a single photograph.

Race day was different.  I was privileged to be invited to join Frank Taylor, VP of Boarding Operations at Taylor Made Farms, and his guests as they watched the races leading up to the Winter Challenge.  I connected with the Chromies that have been a source of motivation and inspiration for me during my tenure with Chrome and Team Sherman.  And I enjoyed the races for the first time since I started as a pseudo-turf writer and photographer - sitting with shareholders of California Chrome LLC and enjoying their warmth and their enthusiasm for their horse.

When it was time to walk out to the barn, the trek was so comfortable and familiar to me that I felt no sense of “build up” to the race.  Just peace and enjoyment of the pleasant afternoon sun as I walked in solitude alongside the track, toward the Sherman barn.

Preparations for this race were just as I have chronicled on numerous occasions, but on this day, the team was on their home turf.  We sat in the familiarity of the team office, enjoyed the six foot burrito that Alan had catered in, and watched the undercard races.  

 

Raul and his wife Florentina Saldivar, Chrome’s hot walker, were able to access all of the tools and equipment they use every day, without having to pull them out of storage bins that had been packed and transported to a remote track.  The mood was happy and light, while still focused on the very serious business ahead.

 

Our walk to the receiving barn took us past the deck outside the track kitchen.  The railing that is generally populated by a handful of trainers and owners during morning training was now packed with giddy fans, calling out encouragement and support for their favorite race horse and his team.

In the saddling area, I felt a tug at my heart as I stood behind Art while he watched Raul parade their prized pupil in a lazy loop, along with the field of contenders, before stepping out into the paddock to wait for horses and jockeys and the call for “riders up!’

I found a comfortable place at the rail, away from the other photographers, to document this race, and felt a grateful smile spread across my race as the horses made their way down the back stretch. Victor kept Chrome out of traffic, and they began to make their move to a commanding lead as they exited the final turn.  Crossing the finish line was sheer poetry.

I heard the cheers of the crowd ringing in my ears as I turned to see my friends in celebration and immediately ran to congratulate them with hugs and laughter.  All too quickly they were leaving the Winners’ Circle, heading for the test barn.  I got a couple of my favorite images of the day in those final moments, as Chrome was led into the fading light.

Back at the barn, connections talked of the upcoming trip to Gulfstream Park, not mentioning or wanting to think about what happens after the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational on January 28.  Easy smiles.  Relaxed laughter.  Pure joy.

So, dear readers, that is why you had to wait so long for this installment.  I needed to sit for a while with the sheer perfection of it all.

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(forestbird photography) https://www.forestbirdphotos.com/blog/2017/1/chrome-diaries-sheer-perfection Tue, 03 Jan 2017 23:11:46 GMT