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.