THE HORSES ARE AT THE GATE
by Dick Kraus
Newsday Staff Photographer
I'm writing this on a plane heading to Los Angeles. I've started a week's vacation and I'm on my way to spend some quality time with two sons and two granddaughters on the other coast. I am so ready for this. I feel burned out and today didn't help. I had just this one more day before winging my way west at the end of my shift. But, as I was leaving the office, last night, my editor collared me and gave me the good news.
"You have to be at Belmont Racetrack by six AM, tomorrow, to cover the horses working out for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday."
I said, "SHIT!!!"
I always say "SHIT!!!" when I have to wake up earlier than usual. The fact that later today, I would be stuck on a plane for some 6 hours and wouldn't be getting to bed until like 2 AM EST didn't help matters one bit.
It's been an aggravating couple of months, with a lot of crap going on at work that has been rankling me. So, what else is new? So, I feel a little stressed out and was looking forward to this day and the start of a well needed vacation. Getting down on the floor and letting my granddaughters romp all over me lowers my stress level as well as my blood pressure.
What I didn't need was an early morning call out. I went to bed early, and I popped an Ambien because I have a habit of spinning gears in my brain when I am keyed up and I didn't need to be awake half the night thinking about tomorrow. I did the right thing, because I don't remember much after that and then the jazz station on my clock radio was playing. It was 4:30 AM and I felt well rested.
There are lots of photographers, still and video, who cover these workouts. I don't know most of them. But, there are usually a couple from the NY City papers or wires whom I have come to know. I will latch onto one of them, because these are the people who cover horse races on a regular basis and they know what barns to go to, and when to mosey over to the track to get the favorites working out. They also know the trainers, jocks and the colors that the stables put on their horses to identify them. And, believe it or not, these guys and gals even recognized the bloody animals.
I parked my car close to the track, near the barns where the best horses are usually stabled and looked for a familiar face. I didn't find any of the old timers. Perhaps they have since retired. Or died. When you get to my age, your start reading the obituaries and you find a lot of familiar names. I don't let that get to me. I keep reminding myself that I've outlived them all.
Finally, a familiar face appeared. A freelancer who has done assignments for my paper. He is a friendly guy, and was pleasant company as I followed him around. We checked the track to see what horses were working out and found one of the favorites. The still guys usually position themselves at the first turn so we can shoot up the track as they come towards us. But, as I said, it's hard to pick out the horse you want, amongst all of the other animals running around the track in the early morning light.
Matt was able to recognize the stable's colors (the color of the saddle blanket and the jockey's shirt or something. It's a knack that I don't possess. Having so-so vision, probably accounts for that.)
"Here comes our horse," he said. "He's on the inside rail, just behind the chestnut."
O.K. Tell me which one is the chestnut? It amazes me how fast those thoroughbreds are. By the time you isolate the animal in your viewfinder and wait for the autofocus to kick in, the bugger is filling the frame, with your zoom all the way back to wide, and if you're lucky, you might get off a couple of frames before he is past and all you can see is horse's ass and clods of dirt being kicked up behind him.
We all waited until the horse came
back and shot some more frames as he was led back to the barn, trailed by a
collection of newspuke groupies trying to get more shots without spooking the
high strung critter.
Back at the barn, the horse was walked around the perimeter of the stables to cool off. These are very expensive pieces of property and they are coddled beyond belief.
When the horse is cooled off, the
trainers and grooms will wash them down and scrub them and then they are actually
squeegeed dry. At some point, the trainer will take a bucket of cool water and
slosh the poor animal in the crotch (I dunno, do horses have crotches?) and
the beast usually jumps when he feels that cool water hit him in an area that
is probably always warm to begin with. That's gotta smart. I caught this bit
of drama at one of the stables and it was backlit and I could sense that it
would be a dramatic looking photo. The Photo Editor didn't agree and it wasn't
picked. The Photo Editor is a woman and has probably never had cold water thrown
at her crotch. I'm being facetious, here and I think it's time to move on.
I spent several hours working the story and got a nice take. Actually, once you get past the early wake up, it's not a bad story on which to be. Especially if you have some one like Matt to help you out. It's always late Spring and the weather is mild. I like the horsey smell and the animals are handsome and easy to look at. I've never had any problems getting my pictures from any of the stable hands, trainers or owners. They are an affable bunch and I've spend enough time around horses to know which end kicks and which end bites. And you make sure the animal sees you and knows where you are so you don't startle him with a machine gun burst from your motor drive. And, they serve the media and stable people a nice coffee and rolls breakfast in the grandstand.
I called the desk when I felt that
I had enough. No one ever knows how the story is going to play the next day
nor how many photos, if any. I never seem to be able to find any of our reporters
at the track, so I am clueless as to what they will be writing about. And, since
I am on my way to California, I won't be able to find out until I return, and
by that time, who cares?
My Editor told me to come in and I started scanning my stuff into the computer as fast as she made her selection. And then I was on my way home to grab my bags and head to the airport.
I am really going to enjoy this vacation.
Newsday Staff Photographer