Del Mar, California, is famous for its beautiful beaches, world-renowned racetrack, wonderful weather, and upscale living. The Del Mar Racetrack is known for the slogan “Where the Turf Meets the Surf” and is a racing tradition dating back to 1937 when Bing Crosby greeted the first guests.
A day at the track begins with Morning Workouts. The mornings have none of the pageantry of the races but are a beautiful, peaceful, hopeful time of the day. In the early morning, there is no cheering crowd, so you hear the horses breathe and snort, and you hear their hooves against the well-groomed dirt. I believe the quote below, written decades ago by William Murray, still describes the essence of morning workouts well.
“…horses and riders, the soft music of hooves striking the surface in the early-morning mist and, in California, the wonderful, improvised phrases of Spanglish, the state’s own racing lingo, in the air: “That caballo? Esta f***** beautiful, man. She work como el viento, that’s no shit.” And the Backside is also…laughter and good talk, the rumble of the horse vans coming and going, the electricity of renewed hope in the air, and above all, it is the animals themselves, the protagonists in the drama, incorruptible in their innocence and beauty.”William Murray
For my summer at Del Mar, I used my Canon 7D Mark ii and alternated between a 70-200mm and a 100-400mm lens. The camera and lenses let me focus and shoot quickly as well as giving me some flexibility for images near and far and in varying light.
During morning workouts, I primarily try to catch the feel of speed. Therefore I take mostly panning shots of the horses working out. My first goal is to get some panning shots with all four hooves off the ground.
Then I try to capture some shots with all eight hooves off the ground.
And maybe if I’m lucky, I will get an even dozen hooves up in the air together.
When panning the fast-moving horses, I shoot shutter priority and set the shutter at 1/100 of a second. Typically, I let the camera go to auto ISO and f stop, then adjust the exposure compensation based on the lighting conditions.
During Morning Workouts, Lead Ponies escort their thoroughbreds into the paddock, into the saddling stalls, and then eventually on to the track to practice what will happen on race day. The Lead Pony leads by example and shows the younger horses that it is safe and there is no reason to get agitated.
On race day, the Lead Pony will meet their racehorse at the end of the tunnel, accompany them onto the track while they warm up, and then lead them to the starting gate. All the while being a reassuring companion.
I always shoot in shutter priority at the track. For my non-panning and non-racing photos, I set my shutter at 1/640 or 1/800 of a second. I like the somewhat fast shutter speeds. To me, it seems like every person and horse at the track is moving, at least a little bit. Once I set my shutter speed, I adjust my exposure compensation as needed to adjust for the varied lighting at the track.
Behind the Scenes
So much goes on behind the scenes at a racetrack. There is the cleaning and preparing the facility, which includes making sure the landscaping is well taken care of.
There are nationwide television broadcasts, as well as people charged with tracking the fractions (check out that technology). Fractions are posted increments of how fast each horse runs each 1/8 of a mile, 1/4 of a mile, etc, and of great interest to bettors.
Horseshoers’ (more properly known as farriers) skills include the ability to shape, fit, and balance horseshoes and the ability to clean, trim, and shape a horse’s hooves. There are also people to make sure water is available to cool off a horse if it gets too hot on the track.
Although one of the strong photographic appeals of racing is the colours, which really stand out during the sunny summers at Del Mar, I think Black and White can work well on the track during the overcast mornings, as well as in the barns with their mix of fluorescent and natural light.
There is a lot of love for horses at the track, and that love is not limited to racehorses. Most trainers employ nearly one person per horse. For example, a trainer with 40 horses in their barn will employ 35-40 people to care for the animals. They all, trainers included, work seven days a week as the horses need constant care and attention. Trainers love their horses, and fans love all the horses, even the ones the Outriders and trainers ride!
Grooms are an essential part of the care and love for the racehorses. Grooms do just about everything, including keeping the horses calm in the Paddock Saddling Stalls and calming them as they get ready to leave the barn area.
As mentioned earlier, trainers work 24/7. A few of them still like to get on horseback during morning workouts.
A highly successful trainer will have their horses win 25% of the time and be in the money 50% of the time. Theirs is a very competitive world, and it helps to be able to laugh with a jockey before the race, and trainers are always looking toward future races.
Before a race, trainers give their jockey a leg up, as well as some last-minute instructions. After a race, they may ask the jockey questions like, “So, what happened out there.”
People show up at Del Mar in style, whatever that style may be.
And it’s a great place for kids. Sometimes a jockey will loan out his racing cap and goggles for a child to try on. Between every race, the Lead Riders make sure their horses get petted by children!
Being a Jockey can be a dirty job. Here are the before and after the race photos.
Del Mar has its share of stars and celebrities who come to the track to see the horse and to be seen. My favourite celebrities are racing stars. One of my very favourites is 21-year-old Lava Man, who went from being a $50,000 claimer to having a Hall of Fame career while winning over five million dollars! Lava Man is now a lead pony and an essential part of two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill’s barn.
Mike Smith is not only a Hall of Fame jockey, but he is also among the elite of the all-time great jockeys. He has won over 5,600 races and led his horses to over $342 million in earnings.
Undefeated in five races, 4-year-old Flightline won Del Mar’s signature race, the $1,000,000 Pacific Classic, by over 19 lengths! Flightline is considered one of the best, if not the best, horse in the country.
“And away they go”, as track announcer, Trevor Denman says at the beginning of each race at Del Mar. There’s an undeniable charge of hopeful excitement as the gates open; you hear the starters bell being drowned out by the roar of the crowd, then see and feel the horses break from the gate.
There’s really nothing like seeing, hearing, and feeling a small herd of horses charging past you with their ears peaked, their faces calm, their legs reaching, and their muscles straining.
At times it seems like they are coming right at you!
Often, it’s a two or three-horse race to the finish. When all their hooves are in the air, you can see how instep they are with each other as they race for the lead.
Other times they come flying home on their own for the win.
There is a sense of relief when the intensity of a race is over. There is also something joyful and calming when the winning horse and jockey trot back to the Winner’s Circle.
For my racing photos, I spin the shutter speed up to 1/3200 of a second and adjust the compensation bias if needed. I was very reluctant to shoot this fast, but after quizzing several professional track photographers, I became comfortable with it.
The Editor felt that this article, coming at the end of the week of the funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II, would be a fitting tribute to the late monarch who was such a lover of horses and racing throughout her life. Gary Schwartzwald added some additional thoughts from his trans-Atlantic perspective:
Stemming from her interest in horses, Queen Elizabeth II visited Kentucky five times, although there is no record of her having been to Del Mar in California. There were numerous visits to horse farms in the Lexington area, as well as her first visit to the Bluegrass in 1984 to celebrate a race named in her honour at Keeneland.
Her Majesty’s most recent and final visit to Kentucky came in 2007. She spent three hours at Churchill Downs, enjoying the most exciting two minutes in sports. The Kentucky Derby is always star-studded but became a royal affair when Louisville was graced with the presence of a queen.
The late monarch consented to her name adorning some of the world’s most prestigious races. Chief among them are the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1T) run during the fall meet at Keeneland (Lexington, Kentucky) and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (G1), a European mile championship event now staged on British Champions Day at Ascot, while the highlight of Australia’s autumn racing program is named the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick in Sydney.
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