FIRST HAND REFLECTIONS ON THE BREEDERS CUP

Cowboys 19, Eagles 6

The phone rang at 9:30 a.m. while I was organizing photography equipment for my eight-year-old son’s championship football game later that afternoon. I’m the official “unofficial” photographer of the team and have been for the past four years and subsequently have yet another blog to keep up…Taking pictures of the Eagles’ games and focusing on the photos reminds me of my college days as a sports photo journalist, and the technical aspect – focus, composition, f-stops – creates a viable distraction which makes the games much less nerve-wracking.

Saturday morning was the championship game with a trip to the state-wide playoff in Virginia Beach next weekend and ultimately a trip to Orlando for the National Championship at stake. After upsetting the #1 seed in the tournament the week before, it was as big a game as an eight-year-old could play in November.

“A seat on the plane has opened up, do you want to go to the Breeders’ Cup?” the voice said.

“Let me call you right back,” I said.

Piper Malibu

I consulted my wife Amy, prefacing it with “I have a moral dilemma – A seat has opened up and — ”

“Go,” she interrupted me. “You have to go.”

So with guilt assuaged (for the most part), I went back downstairs to inform the troops – his eleven-year-old sister is a cheerleader for the mighty Eagles. “I’m not going to your game,” I told them.

“What?”

Following a brief explanation, my son faked tears before giggling got the better of him.

Go, daddy, go!

The plane touched down in Louisville at about 2:30pm and we headed off to Churchill Downs.

Along the way, logistics were dealt with – calls were made, emails and texts exchanged and by the time we arrived at the front gate all the wheels were in motion. Erin Keely, wife of Dave Keely the yearling manager at Spring Hill Farm, met me with a ticket. Not long after that, the Breeders Cup provided me with a press pass. To my delight, they also credentialed me to take photographs on the track and, ultimately, in the paddock as well. This caused me to immediately second guess my camera choice.

The view of Goldikova from the fourth floor

Fighting off the adrenaline buzz and trying to focus on a major event in a sprawling venue required all the focus I could muster. I took myself on a tour of the “new” Churchill Downs. I hadn’t been to a Breeders’ Cup there since 1992 when Arazi won the Juvenile and Black Tie Affair the Classic.

Of course, I headed straight for Millionaire’s Row and watched Goldikova win her third straight Turf Mile at the expense of U.S. turf champ and former Virginia Derby winner Gio Ponti from the fourth floor balcony. While the room was no doubt full of millionaires, I didn’t see any famous ones. I had a chat with Ray Paulick of the Paulick Report and headed on down the line.

I caught up eventually with my friends and the other folks in the Spring Hill contingency. Owner Edward P. Evans remained in New York so farm manager Chris Baker was there with his family to represent the home team. They didn’t seem the least little bit nervous, but then I didn’t get a chance to speak with them in the paddock where, no doubt, the butterflies surely caught up.

Winchester

I was on the track for Winchester’s race and was obviously hoping to get photos of a triumphant return. No such luck, but Franki Dettori who rode the winner, Dangerous Midge, always puts on a good show.

Then it was off to the paddock for the Breeders’ Cup. Now, I’ve been to a lot races both here and abroad. I’ve been fortunate enough to have credentials that have gotten me deep inside these events. I’ve patted Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners on the nose both before and after big races. But, I had never been in the paddock for a Breeders’ Cup race.

Let me tell you something you may or may not have noticed on television. It’s crowded. Really, really crowded. Overall, the paddock at Churchill is quite large, but it was packed on Saturday evening. It was literally shoulder to shoulder and the energy was palpable. That and it’s dark and getting darker as they make their way to the track for the Classic.

Zenyatta dances in the paddock

Folks applauded and cheered the video about Zenyatta as over 72,000 people were abuzz with the historic significance of what was about to take place. I found a corner over in front of Quality Road’s saddling stall and made a deal with a child about the age of my son. “You get in front of me, and I’ll shoot over your head.” It worked out perfectly for both of us.

Evan’s brother, Robert S. Evans, joined the Bakers for the wait as did Angel Cordero and one of his daughters. Quality Road was a perfect gentleman in the paddock as were all the horses – a bit surprising in such a claustrophobic and energized environment.

Baker had pointed out to me earlier in the day that Churchill continued to put a great deal of water on the racetrack. When I followed the horses out of the paddock and onto the track, I noticed how wet it was. That said, evidently it was “deep and loose” on the rail, and not at all to QR’s liking.

Quality Road’s connections on the lookout for Zenyatta

I found a spot on the track with a contingent of Louisville sheriff’s deputies and planned the shots I would try to get. Then it was a matter of waiting for the horses to load…That went smoothly, and I noticed that the helicopter was all the way across the track flying over the backstretch barn area when the Classic was loading.

As the light waned and the tension mounted, the most notable thing was the buzz of the crowd with everyone talking about Zenyatta – even all the people working the event, no matter the capacity, became enthusiastic fans. It always fascinates me how a large group of people can suspend reality and focus on one tiny spot in the universe for such an event. Forget life, health, taxes, kids, problems…forget it all. It’s the ultimate distraction – every ounce of everyone’s focus is channeled in one direction. It’s pretty amazing.

And it’s loud. The collective roar of the 72,000+ was continuous. Right up until Zenyatta made her last desperate stride across the finish line a nose behind Blame. Then it was quiet. Then it was loud again – Did she get there, did she make it, did she win, who won, she made it, no she didn’t, I don’t think she made it…DAMN! QR trailed in dead last, he must have really hated the going…Where’s the photo?

And so on and so on, until the results were official.

Then the crowd, perhaps with the exception of the connections of Blame, took a long collective breath and waited for the super mare to gallop back.

Quality Road
Then it was loud again…The crowd gave her a rousing ovation as she came back to be unsaddled. Ears pricked up, no doubt, looking for the winners’ circle where she had gone nineteen previous times. It was slightly surreal seeing her be lead away as Blame’s connections celebrated.

I took a deep breath and reveled in the fact that everybody appeared to have come home in one piece. I was at the Breeders’ Cup when Go For Wand broke down and it was horrific. So when everybody gallops back and none are in obvious distress that’s the baseline for my positive reaction to such a big race played out before millions of viewers.

All the Virginians were disappointed that Quality Road didn’t run better, but that’s horse racing. Almost everyone was disappointed about Zenyatta’s loss, but everyone I talked to, and probably the overwhelming majority of the 72,000 witnesses, would tell you same thing: That too is horse racing.

Blame

The disappointment was tempered by an amazing day and a short trip home. I was at the entrance to the winner’s circle one minute and back home in Warrenton less than four hours later. Had an accident not snarled the traffic exiting the track, I think we could have gone from track to home in about three hours. Sleeping in my own bed that night made the whole day seem like an out-of-body experience.

The next day, I looked at the photos, and, yes, I really was there…

In the end, it wasn’t the outcome I was looking for, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m guessing there are about 72,000 horse racing fans that would tell you a similar version of that very same story. — Glenn Petty