I was in Kentucky last week taking a little trip down memory lane. A big trip, actually, spanning some 30 years of Thoroughbred racing history.
I began photographing Thoroughbred racing for the old Thoroughbred Record in the mid-1980s and continued on with the Thoroughbred Times until the latter’s unfortunate demise last September. It’s not surprising that the company’s photo files included thousands of my photos, and I was in Lexington to claim as many as I could before the bankruptcy auction concluded on Friday. A few other photographers joined the hunt, and we shared the task of sorting through more than three dozen file cabinets packed with an estimated 200,000 hard copy photos. They included everything from the earliest days of photography up to the early part of this century, when the digital transition made prints obsolete for editorial purposes.
So there we were, trying to find a few needles in a very large haystack, and there were a lot of great memories – for those interested, I’ll share a few with you here.
There were the three Triple Crown winners of the 1970s – Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Enough said. There was Forego and John Henry, the last of the truly great geldings. Of these five, I only spent time at the track with John Henry, and then only at the twilight of his long career. He was an ornery beast, but his idiosyncracies were accepted as part of his magnificence.
There was Lady’s Secret and Risen Star, Secretariat’s two greatest offspring. There was Sunday Silence and Easy Goer – I always suspected the latter was the better horse, but Sunday Silence had more speed and versatility and used it to get the jump on his arch rival. There was the brilliant flash of Arazi, whose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile romp in 1991 would never be forgotten. I saw the flashy chestnut some 15 years later as a stallion in Australia – he had lost none of his personality. There was A.P. Indy, a regally-bred son of Seattle Slew out of a Secretariat mare, who would go on to become one of the industry’s greatest sires after a Horse of the Year racing campaign.
And then there was Cigar. I’ll borrow part of Tom Durkin’s unforgettable call at the end of the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic: “the incomparable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!” Few horses before or since had his unique combination of talent and personality combined with connections who gave us incredible opportunities to enjoy the greatness over which they presided.
We also went through several failed Triple Crown bids, including three heartbreaks in a row as Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Charismatic all fell short in the Belmont Stakes. And who could forget the tough-as-nails Tiznow, the only two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, whose gutsy victories inspired the coach of the New England Patriots to lead his team to a championship.
One of the last champions I recorded on film was the filly Azeri, whose Horse of the Year title in 2002 would be followed years later by superstar fillies Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. The next year I made the transition to digital photography and never looked back.
I’ll close my long-winded rambling with a couple of observations. In general, horses don’t race as often as they did just 20 years ago, or they get sent to the breeding shed with only a hiccup in their training that should just require a little R&R for full recovery. In that environment, it’s hard to develop a fan base. And from my perspective as a working media photographer, it is often more difficult today to get close to the industry’s stars and that reduces our ability to record their lives for future generations. It has been my experience that horses like attention and are interested in what goes on around them. Do today’s champions really need to be sheltered more so than champions of years past? It’s a shame that it gets tougher every year.
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