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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 1999-11-15

The Sport of Kings: how to shoot horse racing
By Todd Buchanan

Photo by
There is at least one redeeming sport that doesn't plaster corporate logos all over the side of its athletes...yet.

Horse racing; the sport of kings, running the ponies, or whatever you want to call it, is not totally devoid of commercialism as the rail is starting to get more corporate logos than in the past. But to me, this is an elegant but powerful sport. When you stand near the finish line at Churchill Downs and feel the pounding of the horses' hooves as they near the finish line, I still can't see why anyone would prefer the deafening, logo plastered, redneck infested, smoke belching engines of car racing.

Photo by Todd Buchanan

Photo by Todd Buchanan
This event, which is billed as the richest day of horse racing in the world, is the premier event for all aspects of horse racing around the world. Sure, The Kentucky Derby, The Epsom Derby and the Arc d'triomphe are classics, but when it comes down to "show me the money", this is it. The day is filled with $13 million in purses in eight races on the turf as well as on the dirt. For the European horses, it is literally backwards, as races in Europe are traditionally run the opposite direction than we run them here in the states. This annual event is located in a different city each year and therefore generates a new set of photographers who have never covered the event in each town it visits. This Year's Breeders' Cup at least was in the sunnier climes of Hallandale Florida's Gulfstream Park with allowed for some sun, but photographers still had to struggle with the annual battle of the last race semi-darkness.

For a little background on covering horse racing, you could (and usually do) spend the whole day setting up remotes and checking angles for that 2 minutes and 15 seconds of actual racing, so planning and preparation are your basic equalizers. Tough assignment: you by yourself, good set-up: you and one assistant, best set-up: team of three photographers and one assistant to fire remotes.

Every year there is someone new who doesn't know the basics, so if you haven't covered the ponies, here are some horse racing basics:

Photo by Todd Buchanan

Photo by Todd Buchanan
DON'T cross the track once the harrow tractors have come by between races! The thinking here is that foot prints in the freshly harrowed dirt may have a shadow that might spook the horse. I know many people grumble about this, but as someone who rode horses in national and international competition before I became a photographer, I have seen this happen at the most bizarre times, so this is not just some over zealous nutty track official's fetish for a pretty pattern in the dirt.

Horses do not see in the traditional color we are accustomed to, but are much more keenly aware of shadows and small contrasting tones, so they may see a small item, such as a shadow or a white film canister on a dark background and shy away from it. In my opinion they are less likely to shy away from someone standing on the rail versus an item that they aren't familiar with such as a shinny stepladder or maybe a huge white Cannon lens on a monopod.

If you look at pictures from the 1940's, people literally stood with their arms hanging over the rails to watch the Kentucky Derby, now the opposite is true, so now it almost accentuates our presence inside the track. One of the most famous sports photos every taken was the "fighting finish" taken by a Louisville Courier-Journal photographer. Legend has it, he was hung over from the night before, and he was literally lying on the ground and happened to roll over in time to click the shutter as two jockeys were pulling at each other's sleeves in the home stretch of the Kentucky Derby. It just goes to show that even the greatest images can come after a hard night's "preparation".

Photo by Todd Buchanan

Photo by Todd Buchanan
If you have remotes set-up, watch out for the water trucks that wet down the track between races. I've seen many an uncovered F3 go 6 FPS after a good dowsing. Also, watch for the timing lights placed around the track, (they look like small stoplights that got left in the dryer too long). These send a beam of light across the track to a corresponding one on the opposite side to provide the split times as the horses pass and break the beam of light, so a wandering photographer during a race could raise havoc with official times.

Don't move suddenly as the horses pass. Also keep a good distance back from the hindquarters (butt) of the horse on the way into the winners circle for obvious reasons. Always ask permission to enter the specific barn of a trainer, otherwise wait outside the barn until they bring the horse out for a work out or a post-workout bath. This is their bit of sacred ground and they don' appreciate photographers tramping up and down the aisle of the barn. You can work the areas outside the barns in the mornings, its just going under the roof is considered taboo without permission.

There are basically about 6 main shooting positions for the race: The first turn shot, 4th turn (heading for home shot), standard finish line shot, remote cameras under the rail near the finish, head-on shot of the finish line (basically shooting with a 600-800mm straight from the end of the track), or from the roof of the grand stand.

Here are the pros and cons plus a primer on shooting remotes:

The First turn shot is great for Churchill Downs or Saratoga where an elegant back-drop 85-105mm, but it won't do you much good for a finish shot, and you can try to run the 1/4 mile back to the finish line, but you probably won't have much success and only tick-off the other photographers that have been in place for hours. This first turn is also an area that a spill is most likely, something akin to the 110/405 merge at rush hour in LA (or maybe attempting to merge on the cross Bronx Expressway) as many horses move for position.

4th turn, they're headed for home! Always a nice shot with a 400-600mm coming around the turn for home. This is the spot that the horses are tired so there may be a spill or a break down. But most likely, just a nice clean background with a stack of horse, but if the horse that's in the lead on the turn may well come in 3rd or 4th down the stretch, so this is not a sure-fire shot. (You explain to the Sports Ed why you don't have "Sack of Oats" who came from last to first after you took that beautiful 4th turn shot)

Standard finish line shot (standing about 15-30 feet beyond the finish line on the grand stand side of the track, which is usually panning a 180mm-300mm lens depending on how tight you want to go). This shot is good CYA and the bonus is to keep tracking to get the jockey react after winning the race. Most of your claiming races at the local track won't have any react, but on the big purse stakes, most jockeys' will pump their fist and if you're lucky, stand up in the stir-ups and yell. Panning at 125th can look great, but heaven forbid you miss it. One of the all time great shots of Secretariat was about 100 ft before the finish line panning at 1/125th, and Against a lighted tote board at dusk it looks like a million bucks, but Heaven helps you if you screw it up!

Remotes under the rail beyond the finish line: The Remote cameras placed near the finish line can number from the dozens to Over 100 depending on the significance of the race. Hint: forget trying to do remotes with radio controls at these races since there are so many signals bouncing around, you're sure to get your remotes fired at the wrong time.

HARDWIRE EVERYTHING! A photographer, who shall remain nameless, a number of years back at Churchill Downs thought it would be funny to trigger all his remotes by using an old Fire Alarm switch and had even spent time gluing little action figures to the rewind knobs to insure that the film was advancing. Seems he spent so much time on this side stuff, when the horses came charging down the track, none of the action figures moved an inch (I think it was over a dozen cameras in all)!

STICK TO THE BASICS. a couple hundred feet of14 or 18 gauge household wire from Home Depot, a bunch of add-a-taps wired into a switch box or a foot-pedal will do the trick (along with appropriate remote cords for your camera). Most of the spots are now assigned the during a photo meeting the day before (in the case of the Derby, it's gotten to the point where you have to put in a request more than a month in advance and they will have diagrams to select your locations, but don't expect to get much, since most of the prime spots are based on circulation, years of coverage, tradition, etc. and most have already been requested). All remotes are placed AFTER the finish line and only on very rare exceptions do they allow remotes before the finish line. All remotes have to be placed under the rail and cannot go past the plane of the rail. Mini-pods or ball heads on baseplates work best.

Some locations still have a stewards tower about 50 ft. beyond the finish line from which remotes can be hung, (Churchill has a "tree" that you can clamp them on...Hollywood, Belmont & Keeneland have full stands), but they are getting smaller and some tracks have totally eliminated them. Permission to stand on the towers has to be cleared by the track steward. Some photographers have tried to be resourceful by bringing their own
ladders to stand on, but they are increasingly frowned upon inside the finish line area. At this years Breeders' Cup, Ben Van Hook had to paint the ladder black to satisfy the stewards concerns and even then a long battle ensued with another track superintendent who claimed to have jurisdiction in the matter.

Bring black garbage bags to cover the cameras and rubber bands to hold them tight so they aren't blowing in the wind. (you will be executed on the spot if you have white ones or one of them gets even slightly loose and spooks a horse....try explaining to your editors why the paper is getting sued by the really wealthy racehorse owner who claims your loose bag caused the jockey to fall off the horse and cost him $2 Million) Bill Frakes is famous for his solution, black collapsible boxes that fit over the top of all those 300/2.8's he has spread all over the ground.

The Head on finish shot (from the outside rail of the first turn) can give you the most flexibility to get finish and react, but if one horse runs close to the rail and one on the far outside, you've got a 50/50 chance to pick the right one. Churchill downs is a 600mm shot but tracks like Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Belmont it's more like 800-1200mm.

The roof can provide a different look but it's hard to get the Jubilation...it's also the easiest spot to get to the pressroom food, but be prepared to come close to being blown off the roofsince the wind can get pretty stiff.

Photo by Todd Buchanan

Photo by Todd Buchanan
A few words about the Winner's Circle: Who the hell are all those people in the winner's circle? With the increasing number of syndicates, truly, only god knows who all those people in the winners circle photos are. There are some people who try to sneak in to the winner circle photos, but that's mostly for the bored and truly wealthy (unlike us). And like any event, where would we be if we didn't have to bitch about the network crew that places it self directly between the horse and the still photographers. At the Kentucky Derby, most photographers try to get to one side or the other to avoid the particularly obnoxious crew that always works the winner's circle.

Here's a run down of the tracks around the country: Churchill Downs- The grand old lady with some of the best angles for photography and PR staff who understand your needs, but you have to spell it out in black and white IN ADVANCE (in writing to them and bring the letter to the event to remind them) otherwise, you'll be disappointed. More and more rules each year, but still a great track. 600mm for head on shot in first turn to catch the finish and you can stand inside the rail (behind a fence) to shoot the finish. The late afternoon sun looks great around 4 PM.

Belmont - There's not much charm to this track...your basic grandstand, betting windows and wide dirt track make this one of the uglier tracks around. Remotes under the rail look pretty bland and the light is a sort of cross light that doesn't do much for pictures. It's a long 800mm+ to shoot the finish from the first turn, but there is a little more room to work remotes under the rail. And don't dig too deep or you'll strike sand (and a stern warning from track officials as Andy Lyons found out recently).

Santa Anita- A wonderful place to shoot with lots of ambiance and nice light late in the day, a wide track with a long throw 800-1200mm from the first turn to get the finish head on. There are some great settings when the horses come down out of the chute on the turf track and the roof has some great vantage points. It's a long way to the temporary digital darkrooms in between races, forcing you to run up through the grandstand.

Hollywood Park- Formerly the ugly duckling, this track has come along way, but still does not provide a great backdrop for remotes. The great late afternoon sun goes into the shadows of the grand stand just when those big stakes races are scheduled giving you some real flat light. Lots of room to work remotes under the rail, but it's a long way to the temporary digital darkrooms in between races, forcing you to run up through the grandstand.

Photo by Todd Buchanan

Photo by Todd Buchanan
Gulfstream - The track is a little disorganized for big events, but staff photographer Bill Denver was a big help to all during the Breeders' Cup setting up extra space for news media in his office. 600-800mm for the head on shot and a fairly narrow track.

Arlington - After being closed for two years, is requesting dates for 2000 and it will be good to see this track come back to life. After a fire destroyed the grandstands in the early 90's, the track was beautifully restored and would make a great site for a Breeders' Cup. Great views of the paddock from the third floor.

The most photogenic tracks around: Saratoga (classic old grandstands), Keeneland (wonderful dogwood trees on the 4th turn in the spring), Del Mar (great Southwestern feel), Churchill Downs (those spires!), Arlington (it's coming back).

A run down on the Jockeys & Trainers:

Jockeys: Pat Day is always the professional and knows how to give a little jubilation after winning. Angel Cordero was the best for a great finish react (standing up in his stir-ups as he crosses the finish line) Gary Stevens is the sour puss of the bunch, rarely reacts.

Trainers: D. Wayne Lukas, runs a tight ship so don't cross the barricades around his stable on race day, but he's good with the media in knowing what we need. Woody Stephens...we miss ya. Nick Zito - a cool customer, but he's willing to help.

At this year's Breeders Cup, I was working for them posting images on the BC web site in between each race. It was my 15th year of covering the Breeders' Cup (the last two as the digital photographer). A team of shooters including a variety of magazine and newspaper shooters like Dan Dry, Ben Van Hook, Jim Gensheimer, Patrick Snyder, Todd Anderson and Tom Shelby do the bulk of the photos for ads, programs and brochures.

As with any event where you are a one-man band, I would shoot the more traditional finish shot and head for the winners circle. Even though I have become accustomed to preferential treatment in the winners circle as an official photographer, this year was a mess. Police almost wrestled the track photographer, Bill Denver, to the ground.... twice! Clearly Gulfstream was not prepared for the amount of media on hand. Three times I
was totally blocked from shooting in the winners circle and of course got blocked for the one great jubilation shot when jockey Lanfranco Dettori literally vaulted off Daylami after winning the $2 Million Turf Race.

Track photographer Bill Denver went out of his way to set-up additional phone lines and installed a temporary counter on the walls of his office to handle all the laptops. AFP, AP, NY Times, Allsport & Breeders' Cup all shared the space, but since there is a window to order photos from Denver, it was amusing and annoying having race fans wander in and ask if they could buy the pictures on your laptop screen.

I learned the lesson that all photographers who have to wear glasses already know. Have a back-up pair in your camera bag. In the last year, as I have been using computers more (and getting older) I now HAVE to have glasses to read fine print on my monitors. Between the 3rd and 4th races, I lost my glasses and was having to squint to read the racing program for caption info. Fortunately, someone had seen the glasses and set them aside, much to my relief.

Lighting at the race proved to be tough for the remote shooters as the sun came and went as clouds rolled by. Most just gave up and left their remotes on one setting and adjusted processing accordingly.

All Breeders' Cups suffer from the 5:15 PM Race time that makes whichever hemisphere you are in, just shy of pitch darkness. Discussions usually begin with how many stops you can go before you loose D-max. On the 3rd Breeders' Cup, lighting was so bad, that T-Max 3200 was the only thing that worked. NBC could hardly see the horses on the backside of the track, so now, the races are supposed to take place earlier, but still suffer from poor light conditions.

With this year's addition of one more race (making it 8 Breeders' Cup races in all) the day is even more harried as photographers have less time between races. The Breeders' Cup has been working hard to keep their television audience from channel surfing away from the races and the traditional 42 minutes between them was compressed to 32 minutes.

For getting the images out, I wound up using two PowerBooks hooked together with a small ethernet hub. One PowerBook to do the Editing/Photoshop tasks and the other with a constant TCP/IP connection using FTP to send the photos to the Webmaster for the Breeders' Cup. Using shared folders made it quick and easy to move the photos while working on the other images. I used a DCS-520 and tried out one of the new IBM MicroDrives I picked up a couple weeks ago and it worked great. The small size and weight are amazing!

After covering the Breeders' Cup for 15 of it's 16 years, if the Breeders' Cup continues with it's success, than this event will continue to grow and may be coming to a neighborhood track near you.

(Todd Buchanan is a freelance photographer based in Chicago. He previously worked at: Philadelphia Inquirer, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, KY and The Orange County Register. He says "I got my start in photography...shooting horses and the people behind the scenes"He was the United Professional Horseman's Association National Challenge Cup Champion in 1977 (akin to POY for the equestrian set) and competed in National and World Championships for Equitation (Horsemanship). He has covered just about every aspect of horse competition from Olympic jumping and eventing, to dressage, fox hunting, steeple chasing, carriage driving, polo and even circus and police horses. "If it has hooves, I've shot it!" he says. He can be emailed at todd@toddbuchanan.com and his personal website is at www.toddbuchanan.com.)


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