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.