This week I'm at my favorite yearly event, Louisville's own -- the Kentucky Derby. It's my 34th trip to the Run for the Roses.Read More
It is no secret that one of my favorite sporting events to cover is the Kentucky Derby. From the pageantry to the exhilarating race, the first Saturday in May is special.Read More
Covering the Kentucky Derby is no easy task. There are countless photographers working to get the position they need to make their picture.Read More
I live much of my life with a nonstop musical score, sometimes just the one in my mind, but more often actual sounds… so I considered it a very good omen when the first song in the rotation today was Patty Larkin's Letter..."Give me a ticket for an airplane...” I'm heading to Louisville for the 141st annual running of the Kentucky Derby, my favorite annual sporting event.
This will be my 31st time there, and every single time it's been magic. I love being at Churchill Downs, they've always greeted me warmly -- Southern Hospitality at its finest.
Sunrise on the backside. Beautiful. Blissfully peaceful, even with the cacophony of Derby week.
The stunningly powerful thoroughbreds, just babies, but magnificent, the best of their breed -- coats glistening in the early morning air as they breathe hard following the morning gallop. Getting washed, and rubbed down, surrounded by crowds of onlookers all eager for this private glance at the elite 20.
There are a number of sporting traditions that still move me. The crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground singing Waltzing Matilda before the Aussie Rules Grand Final, the quiet when the sprinters get into blocks for 100 meters final at the Olympics, match point on centre court at Wimbledon, walking through the Grove before an Ole Miss/LSU game Dixie quietly being played behind heavy Southern drawls and lilting coed laughter -- I've gotten to be there front and center for all of them. But there is nothing like hearing My Old Kentucky Home as the horses enter the track for the greatest two minutes in sports.
When that happens, I go to a different place, the one where I am a young boy hanging out in a pasture with a little red transistor radio listening to the call crackling on the tiny speaker imagining the splendor of the great place. Little did I imagine I'd be standing on the track year after year during the race, comfortable with surroundings I've come to know so well.
Lots of my friends will be in town for the race and it'll be wonderful to see them, especially Dan Dry who took me to my first Derby; Razor Bogdon who will no doubt borrow something from my cases; and the little General, Bill Luster, whose covering his 50th Derby. 50! Wow! From hearing stories, I would have guessed the number to be much higher.
But three won't, and I'm sad about that.
I worked the race maybe 25 times with the legendary Heinz Kluetmeier -- the best there ever was, and my default answer at the track is always the same, WWKD?
Laura Heald has been with me doing a lot of the heavy thinking -- and lifting -- for the past 7 Derbies, but we've been running especially hard this year, and she is sitting this one out. I'll really miss her. We got in from Beirut last night, and we're headed back out right after the Derby so she drew the long straw and gets to enjoy some much deserved beach time before another three intense weeks on the road.
The last absent friend, Tony Leonard. His image of Secretariat as a colt hangs in my office. He was a special guy. We lost him a few years ago, 89 years young. I'll raise a lens to him, and save him a spot on the rail -- as he would have done for me.
There was a certain magic to opening a box of exposed transparencies... an almost childlike wonder of the exploration of your own work. In years long past, Sports Illustrated would return a few hundred rolls of my out takes from the Kentucky Derby, and I would diligently sort through them, cataloging and filing the best of them. Making notes on what worked and what didn't. How much film I shot, what they kept in the magazine's files, and what I needed to do the next time. That process usually happened a month or two after the event. Now, two days after returning home from Lousiville, I am finishing going through the more than 15,000 files I burned through with the 25 Nikon bodies I used last weekend at Churchill Downs. The images are all sorted, captioned, and stored on raids using Aperture.
I can find any image through metadata tagging in less than a second.
In days gone by, it would have taken me a few seconds just to get out of my chair to head to the file cabinets to start a search.
I suppose it's in my German DNA, but I love the efficiency.
I enjoyed the magic, but I don't miss film.
Come Saturday I'll be on the track at Churchill Downs. Head on to the finish line, cradling a 800 f5.6 on a Nikon D4s. Exactly like my first Derby in 1981 except then it was a 400 f3.5 on an Nikon F2.
I have to pinch myself to be sure I am awake. Being at the Derby, or the finish line at the Olympics, on the sideline at The Super Bowl, covering the President, covering a war, or walking in ancient cities... these are my life now, but I never take it for granted. Thinking about Mom, my childhood and home, keeps my feet on the floor.
When they play "My Old Kentucky Home" and the horses come on to the track my heart pounds with excitement. It's showtime, and the old stadium plays host to the greatest two minutes in sports.
The Derby is my favorite annual event. It's part sports, part culture. The crux of my exploration of athletic competition is the intersection of motion and emotion, the sometimes chance, but more often calculated inclusion of art, commerce and athleticism into sport which so heavily influences the functioning of society through participation and observation. And no place better than Churchill Downs during the annual running of the Kentucky Derby.
Dan Dry, one of the finest newspaper photographers ever, invited me to my first Derby more than 30 years ago. It was a defining moment in my career.
We had a great time that year, 1981. Gary Bogdon was with us then. I'll see Dan and Larry shortly, it’s a yearly pilgrimage that we are all dedicated to making -- it just gets in your blood and you don't want to shake it. It's too glorious.
Dan was on staff at The Courier Journal. They were an incredible group. Luster. Dry. Farlow. Mather. Harris. Montgomery. Spaulding. Van Hook. Tom Hardin ran the place. Their Sunday paper after the Derby was a tour de force of visual storytelling.
I made images I love to this day. I used a remote camera for the first time ever -- boy did that start a dangerous addiction to gear!
Times change, technology evolves. There have been years when I've used more than 60 cameras to cover the action. This year I will use about 20.
SI legends Heinz Kluetmeier, Johnny Iaacono and Jerry Cooke were there, too, in force. The best sports photographers working at the time, I couldn't believe how sophisticated their coverage was, or just how cool they were. I had zero idea I'd be their colleague a few short years later.
The next time I went to the Derby it was on assignment for SI. Courtesy of Heinz.
For the next 29 years, I've known exactly where I would spend the first weekend in May. Always with Kluet or working for him during one of his two stints as SI's Director of Photography.
Heinz is the best teacher. He pushes me to think. To innovate and create. To outwork everyone else. And I always hope to bring his intensity and style.
I'm missing him here. I expect my phone to ring a few dozen times in the next days reminding of what I need to do.
I'll do what I can so when I hear from him next week he'll be quietly smiling.
For more on the Derby, visit these videos and articles: