California Chrome roared down the front stretch at Pimlico on Saturday shining, much needed light on horse racing. I was head on to the action, tracking the Pimlico Field with a 600 f4 lens mounted on a Nikon D4S camera.
Three races make up horse racing's fabled Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. I've covered the Derby 31 times, the Preakness 28, and the Belmont at least 20 times. That's a whole bunch of big-time horse races. This will be the 12th time I've gone to NYC hoping to see a horse and jockey close the deal and win the Triple Crown.
I'm obviously not sure how it will turn out this time.
But I know how I got started in all of it.
Bill Nack wrote Secretariat, Making of a Champion. I read it and was hooked on the sport. With apologies to my many writer friends, Nack's Secretariat remains my favorite sports book.
Dan Dry invited me to the Kentucky Derby. I couldn’t, and still can’t believe how wonderful it is there. All these years later, I still see Dan at the track, and we talk with no pause in our ongoing conversation that has stretched over a few decades now. I am as fascinated by the Derby just as much now as I was the first time I walked into Churchill Downs. The only difference is I am little better acquainted with that glorious track, and that leads to better pictures.
Heinz Kluetmeier started assigning me to cover the races for Sports Illustrated in 1986. He taught me how to do it the SI way, big and bold. He was and still is an extremely generous teacher and friend.
But first, there were the images of Tony Leonard. I was casually flipping through Nikon World. Marveling at the images done by Art Kane. Crazy good stuff. I remember going back through that article a few times, then finally I moved on. The next image I saw, a big red horse running free, mane streaming, in a paddock, clobbered me. I couldn’t believe how powerful and poignant it was. I still have that magazine. Published in DECEMBER, 1980. VOLUME 13. NUMBER 3. It’s a prized possession.
It was more than 15 years later that I met Tony on the track in Louisville. I gathered my courage and walked up the man who was a legendary equine photographer, who defined the genre working for the greatest farms and owners doing portraits of the best mares and stallions alive. These were not simple photographs, these were elegant posed portraits chronicling the golden age of thoroughbred racing. I stuck out my hand and said, “Mister Leonard, I just want to tell you how much I admire your work, and your style.” He smiled that wry smile of his and said, “Kid, I know your pictures, they’re terrific.“ Few sentences have meant as much during my career. We were close for the rest of his life.
When Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Colton asked me to photograph Seattle Slew, the only horse to win the Triple Crown while undefeated, I called Tony and asked for advice.
He did better than that, he came along as my assistant. Showing up to do a horse portrait with Tony as your assistant would be like having the Rolling Stones as your backing band when you were in music school.
The shoot went well. What classics they were, both of them.