July 2, 2011

Reflections Along The Derby Trail

photos and story
by Scott Serio

     What everyone sees moments later online or the next day in the newspaper is the image of an exalted jockey aboard a horse that just won a major race.  These aren’t the best moments of thoroughbred horse racing, only the most publicized.  Go to any track along the Triple Crown trail and you will find many ready-made photo ops, but you will also find unrehearsed pure moments.

     It is in these moments, where simple connections take place that horse racing can find what will save it and what will propel it forward. Whether it is a connection between a horse and a human, a connection between a person and a place or maybe a connection between a person and the history in which they are immersing themselves, the link is there.

     I think back to walking “The Back Yard” at Belmont Park shortly before Big Brown made his attempt at history. By the playground I spotted a middle-aged father holding his daughter by the arms and spinning her in a circle.  They could have been sharing this moment anywhere, so why here and why now?  I made some pictures and then introduced myself. I asked the father and he replied, “I just wanted my daughter to see a Triple Crown winner, so we came today.” He had lived next to the track his whole life, but this was his first trip.

     Then I think back to the early afternoon just five weeks ago, just before the Kentucky Derby, when I ventured to the backstretch to see if I could stumble into a nice photo. There wasn’t a horse to be found grazing, but Churchill was open for live racing.

     In contrast to the mayhem the envelopes the backstretch during Derby week because of the photographers, writers, TV crews and fans that descend shortly after sunrise, the scene before the third race was quite calm. I watched the horses start from the chute for a six-furlong sprint and was about to leave when I spotted a very nice moment.  It was quite Elliot Erwitt-esque.  The reflection of a father and son watching the races filled the side-view mirror of the family’s Dodge Charger.

     This was a racetrack family for sure. I knew that before talking to them. The father’s burly arm was hanging out of the window reminding me of the bumper sticker “It is not the size of the truck, it is the size of the arm hanging out of the window.” I would learn that Joshua Dossey is a racetrack employee, but this day was his day off. His 19-month-old son Preston had already formed a bond with the track, and his father, having seen the races almost a dozen times.  After watching a few races, the Dossey family drove off to enjoy the rest of the day.

     This is the little stuff that makes racing great. Horse racing is made up of those little serendipitous moments where whether you are a fan or an owner you still enjoy the moment.

      It could be eating your bacon, egg and cheese at Wagner’s Pharmacy across from Churchill Downs and seeing Jeff Bonde and Phil Lebherz doing the same thing – they are the connections for Sway Away who didn’t make it into the starting gate Derby Day. Then you notice the next table over is the whole Zayat family partaking in the same breakfast you are.

     Or, you could be drinking a tall, very tall, glass of Foster’s lager and eating your Outback Special when you spy someone at the next table.  The light goes on, maybe you think, but then you think again, it is all too incongruous. Then you realize your intuition was right. Who is dining at Outback but Charlotte Weber.

     Not only is Ms. Weber the owner of Live Oak Stud and Brilliant Speed, but she also happens to be one of the Campbells Soup heirs. She is worth $1.2 billion and she is there eating the same meal as you are.

     Then there are the moments surrounding a race that get hidden by images of winning owners foisting trophies into the air.  This year, it was the image of Jane Motion rushing to hug Lerina Velazquez as they ran across the track to the winner’s circle. Then the image of John Velazquez’s valet Tony Millan simultaneously lifting Michael Velazquez and his right fist into the air in celebration of the victory. In the middle of the mayhem, these quiet moments go unnoticed by many.

     Horse racing isn't just about win, place or show. It is about the people, the place and the event.  Why else do you think 90,000 people show up to Oaks Day? Do you think they are all betting hundreds of dollars? Many are there because they have formed just such a bond with Oaks Day, or Churchill Downs, or a horse in the Oaks field and maybe they just want to be a part of something they feel is special.

     Below is a photographic reflection on the Triple Crown Trail for 2011 and the little moments. You may have seen some of them in this forum in other posts. Either way, enjoy…

(Side Note: The moment that was my personal favorite from the entire Derby trail for 2011 did not lend itself to photography, only personal enjoyment.  While setting up cameras at 8:30 in the morning, most photographers are un-swayed in their determination to get everything just right and be done with it.  Some singer practicing the National Anthem usually doesn’t rate their attention.  Usually the singer stops, starts over, picks it up from the middle, just working to get it right.  Jordin Sparks managed something I have never seen before as a photographer. Not only did all the photographers stop and turn to listen, but after she absolutely slayed the song the first time she sang it, they applauded. I joined them. It was just that good. Maybe it was events with Osama bin Laden that sparked a little extra patriotism, but I connected with that situation. Not sure who else will take that moment with them, but I will.)


  1. Except that you didn't post any images of the friends that helped you along the way I thought this was an excellent piece.

  2. Post well taken. In spite of some of the ridiculous stuff that goes on behind the scenes, horse racing is a great sport to cover. With the help of some true friends, and sometimes just the fact they are there to take part of the event, none of this stuff would ever get documented. I am definitely thankful for all the friends I have made along the way.

  3. Beautiful!!! As if I were there. Thank you!