The Kentucky Derby:
Scenes of the Season
May 2009

by Bill Luster

"Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold a Derby, you ain't been nowhere and you ain't see nothing."

— Kentucky humorist Irwin S. Cobb

When I was 10 years old I got a gift from my grandmother that started a lifelong love affair with horse racing.

It was only the size of a cigar box, but inside there were five plastic horses that traveled around five cardboard slots made to look like a racetrack.

I would spin the wheel in the center of the box over and over, moving each horse forward until one crossed the finish line. I loved playing that game.

For the past 44 years, I have translated that love of the race into the photos I take at the Kentucky Derby. I spend the early mornings leading up to the greatest race in the industry watching the horses get in their workouts around Churchill Downs and documenting it for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.

Each year, on the first Saturday in May, about 160,000 crazed fans make their way to Churchill Downs for the annual Run for the Roses. They fill nearly every space in the track that spans nearly 80 acres near downtown Louisville. Those fans cover the spectrum of spectators – from those dressed to the hilt on Millionaire's Row to those in their shorts and t-shirts in the drunken haze of The Infield.

Some who attend never even see a horse but they come to the track to enjoy the spectacle, spot celebrities or watch the races on one of several JumboTrons. Most try their hand at a wager at some point during the day.

I got my first chance to cover a Derby in 1965 while I was working for my hometown newspaper, the Glasgow (Ky.) Daily Times. I remember clearly watching jockey Bill Shoemaker ride Lucky Debonair across the finish line to win.

I stood on the roof of the press box and captured a shot of the horse soaring across the finish line. But it wasn't enough. I quickly jumped into the press elevator and made my way to the jockeys' quarters for the post-race interview. Though I had no credentials for the jockeys' quarters, I snuck in to grab a shot.

I was hooked on covering the Kentucky Derby at that moment.

As basketball season winds down in the spring, Kentuckians turn their attention to the approach of the Derby. Excitement begins to build as the weather starts to warm.

Since 1979, I've had the job of covering the horses, the trainers and the jockeys on the "backside," or barn area, of Churchill Downs. I spend the two weeks leading up to the Derby combing the backside and learning about the horses. That is my favorite time.

It's a magical time watching the horses arrive at the track. Trainers begin making their final preparations. All the buzz is about the Derby horses, despite the dozens of other magnificent animals that fill the barns. Everyone wants to know who the "big" horse will be. Everyone has their own guess.

As Derby draws nearer, the crowds get bigger. Out-of-town guests make their appearances on the backside, looking to get a glimpse of a future winner. I've only been able to pick the winner eight times: Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Ferdinand, Winning Colors, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Fusaichi Pegasus and Street Sense.

Many locals get their fill by going to the track on Friday, where they take in the Kentucky Oaks. It's the fillies' time to shine, in the race only for females. And by Friday night, the parties around town are in full swing as celebrities come to town for a good time.

By Saturday morning, the anticipation is palpable. And when the strains of Stephen Foster's song, "My Old Kentucky Home," is played, tears come to many eyes and the race is ready to kick off.

The crowd gets a hush as the horses go into the starting gate, followed by a roar of energy and excitement as these thoroughbreds come racing down the dirt track. When the horses hit the final turn, the noise gets deafening as a winner roars past the finish line.

I've covered practically every sport during my time at The Courier-Journal, but nothing beats the finish of the Kentucky Derby. It's the moment I wait for all year: two weeks of work rolled into two minutes of fury.

blog comments powered by Disqus

© Bill Luster

Bill Luster, who has covered over 40 Kentucky Derbies, is a photojournalist working in Louisville at The Courier-Journal, Kentucky's largest newspaper, where he has served as director of photography, photo editor, and chief photographer since 1969. He won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography along with other members of the photo staff led by C. Thomas Hardin. In 1989 the news department and the photography staff, also won the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. In addition to his newspaper work, Bill has photographed two stories for National Geographic Magazine, and numerous stories for National Geographic Traveler. His work has also appeared in Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, and Life.

President of the National Press Photographers Association in 1993-1994, Bill was awarded the Joseph Costa award for innovative leadership in 2000 from that organization. Bill was the administrator for NPPA's educational program, the Flying Short Course, for 12 years and also chaired the NPPA-Nikon Documentary Sabbatical program. In 2000 he was named Visual Journalist of the Year from Western Kentucky University. He has been Kentucky Photographer of the Year five times.