Notes on Racing Days
I started going to the track in 1973. Mostly, I went to the local track, Suffolk Downs, home of hard-nosed horse players and low-priced claimers; but occasionally I ventured as far as Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire, or Narragansett Park in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, which has since closed. The next year I made it to Saratoga, a world apart with its strawberries-and-cream breakfasts and million-dollar thoroughbreds. I’ve gone back there every year since.
From my first trip to the track, I knew I wanted to photograph there, but it wasn’t until my second Saratoga trip that I began to do so. At first it was just casual shooting between races. Soon photographing replaced horseplay as my primary activity. I shot for magazines, for newspapers, and, mostly, for myself – and I began to dream of doing this book.
Whenever I could find time, I traveled to different racetracks. Over the next several years, I visited about a dozen tracks across the Unites States. The trips varied for three days to two weeks, but my routine was always the same. Each morning I could get up, early to photograph the workouts and the backstretch activity, and each afternoon I would shoot the action of the track. Only occasionally would I take the afternoon off and work on the Racing Form instead.
I pursued this book for several years, then shelved the project. I was busy with other books and teaching and hadn’t yet found a publisher. While I continued to go to the track, I went strictly for pleasure.
In 1985, with Brendan Boyd’s help, I decided to revive the racetrack project. The idea of doing a truly collaborative book appealed to me, particularly since Brendan took me to the track for the first time (although for reasons unclear to me, he denies this). Anyway, we have been going to the track together for many years now and share both and interest in, and a common perspective on, racing.
For the next 18 months, we pored over old photographs and discussed what was needed to be shot and written. I made seven additional trips to finish the photography, while Brendan stayed home and wrote to the pictures. We met regularly – often with our art director, Lisa DeFrancis – to decide what should be included in the book.
Technically, these photographs were done in a very straightforward manner. The were shot with Nikon single-lens-reflex cameras, usually fitted with a motor drive, and a wide array of lenses from 24mm to 1000mm. (A few early photographs may have been shot with a Leitz M-4 camera.) In almost all cases, I used Kodak Tri-X film. Indoors, or under dim lighting conditions, the film was rated at ISO 800 or ISO 1600 and pushed. All the photographs were made with natural light. Most were taken woth a hand-held camera, though sometimes I used a tripod. Prints were made on Kodak Polyfiber or Ilford Multigrade paper by my assistant, Porter Gillespie. About half the photographs were cropped slightly.
People sometimes ask me how difficult it is to photograph at the racetrack. Usually it’s easy. In the morning, people on the backstretch are relaxed and friendly and shooting is no problem at all. That’s often the case in the afternoon as well. But horseracing is a volatile business, and there is inevitably a certain amount of tension. The horsemen are busy readying their horses for the race, and the bettors are anxious about how their choices will fare. There is no substitute for good judgment in deciding whom to shoot and when to shoot them.
About the time Brendan and I began working on this book, some friends and I purchased a New York-bred colt named Omar Khayyam for (by today’s racing standards) the paltry sum of $5000. As the work on the book came to an end, Omar was in the midst of a outstanding three-year-old season in which he won several of his starts, competing in the lofty world of New York stakes racing. With Omar’s winnings, we bought his half-brother, Del Viking. Omar and Del have helped me make a neat, if unintentional, transition from shooting other people’s horses to watching my own run. From now on, I want someone else to take the photographs at the track – mainly of me, Omar, and Del in the winner’s circle.