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.