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"She Was My Holy Grail" - Behind the Lens of a Pony Paparazzi

Every picture tells a story, and while that story may or may not surpass a thousand words, horse racing snapshots are among the most beautiful and action-packed in all of sports. But, despite their effortless beauty, they’re also among the most difficult to capture.

You may have already seen Jamie Newell’s bright, saturated candids on NTRA.com or during coverage of the Belmont Stakes. Better known as @wowhorse on Twitter and creepy_coyote on Flickr, Newell spends her days eating delicious scones, writing a racing column for Smile Politely, and rooting for horses like Tapizar in between photo-ops with racing royalty. She was gracious enough to take a break from it all to answer a few questions about what it’s like living the glamorous life of a pony paparazzi.

Jamie with Zenyatta at Oaklawn Park (Photo courtesy of Jamie Newell via Ghostsnapper.blogspot.com)

  • What’s a typical day in the life of a horse racing photographer like, from start to finish?

For me, it’s normally a fairly long day. The closest track to me is just over two hours away (Hawthorne), so there’s usually a drive involved, unless I’m staying at a hotel. I like to arrive at the track early for the under card races, and I have to pick up credentials from the media office if it’s my first visit that season. So, after I get my credentials and a race program, I unload my camera equipment in the press box or media room and start setting up. It’s a little more stressful since I started doing remotes, because I have to time when to take my remote camera across the track and set it up.

Every track has different rules about when credentialed photographers can cross. Most of the time, they don’t want you to cross after it’s been harrowed by the tractors, so I have to zip over following the gallop back and before the tractor race begins. At some tracks, they don’t even care when you cross, but I try to be respectful and not cause any undue stress on the stewards by being as discreet as possible. If I’ve never been to the track before, I try to find someone to ask about the rules or if I am even allowed to cross the track. You know, it would be a lot more convenient if everyone had universal rules! Hah!

After I cross, I find a spot under the rail for my camera remote and figure out where I’d like to set it down. This involves me lying in the dirt and peering through my viewfinder to line up where I *think* the horses will run through the frame. I try to pay attention to trends during the day, like if there have been several winners on the inside, etc. The thing about remotes is that it’s a crapshoot. You could end up without the winner in your frame at all, or the most glorious luck in the world— it all depends on how you set up the camera and if the horse decides he’s going to run through the path you focus on. Since I only currently have one remote camera, I know it’s a waste to put my entire heart into it, so I just try to get as foolproof a shot as possible and hope for the best.

After I’ve finished rolling around in the dirt with my remote, I dust myself off, shoot that race from the inside, then cross before the tractor race can begin again. I love shooting in the paddock and try to spend as much time in there as possible, especially if I’m new to the track. Having paddock access gives me the opportunity to shoot from several different angles the general public can’t necessarily see, so I like to photograph different perspectives and always look for that magic beam of light that shows off the horses in all their splendor. At most of the tracks, I will follow the horses out of the paddock tunnel and then find a spot on the outside rail to shoot the race from. At Churchill, there is no gutter, so you actually squat down at the fringe of the track while the horses run by.

If there’s another person at the track also shooting for Horsephotos, I’ll work with that person to figure out where to shoot the stakes races. We don’t want to be in the same place shooting the races, because our pictures will be nearly identical, so we will alternate with one person on the outside, one shooting from the inside, for instance. Sometimes, I’ll shoot from the roof or the turn, depending on how many people are there from the team. If I’m alone, just go with the side with the best lighting.

After the stakes races are finished, I grab all of my camera gear and book it back to the press box to upload my pictures. I select the key images from the stakes and tweak them in Photoshop before adding the race descriptions and then transmitting them to our server. The quicker I can submit the images, the more likely they will be used in a publication like NTRA.com, etc. Since the news is timely, you can’t wait until you get home to upload your photos. If the wireless in the press box is cooperating with me, I usually upload my most important photos within ten minutes of the race’s end. It takes longer to actually get back up to the press box and get to my laptop than anything else.

After I upload my photos, I pack up my gear and head back out on the road. By then, the last race has ended and all of the fans have left; it always seems like I’m one of the last people to leave the track. It’s kind of a neat feeling, like you have the whole place to yourself.

  • You’ve mentioned at one point that the group of credentialed photographers who travel trackside aren’t always horse racing enthusiasts. Would you say that knowing the faces of the sport gives you more of an edge?

Definitely. Especially during the biggest stakes races. During the 2010 Breeders’ Cup, I made small talk with the photographer assigned to the spot next to me on the outside rail. He didn’t even know who Zenyatta was. Can you imagine?

  • What types of moments are the most difficult to capture in racing?

The worst are when there’s a horse on the inside and one on the outside coming strong, (or vice versa) and you have to choose which you think is going to hit the wire first. If it’s a Quarter Horse race, you have to have the reflexes of a jackrabbit and the eyes of a hawk!

  • From a photographer’s stand-point, how do you deal with the rise in “primetime” racing where lighting is very limited?

Thankfully, technology has made shooting in dark conditions much easier than it ever was before. You are not allowed to use flash at the track, because it can spook the horses. So basically, you’re at the mercy of your equipment. My primary camera is a Nikon D700, and I can crank up the ISO pretty far before the noise becomes unbearable. When shooting the races, I hate putting my shutter speed below 1/1250 unless I’m trying to allow some blur in my photos. I’m not a fan of blur, though, not even in pan shots.

If it’s night racing, you have to work with what you’ve got. Taking paddock shots is basically a joke because there is hardly any light to illuminate the horses. And during the race, you have one beam of light at the finish line that will adequately illuminate the horse. It looks totally different on TV than it does in person. The entire length of the stretch is pretty much worthless to a photographer during night racing. You have about three shots that will turn out and are praying the horse isn’t blinking or on that awkward front foot while he’s frozen in the beam. I know some people don’t care, but I won’t upload a shot of a horse blinking during the race unless I have no other choice.

  • Was there a horse(s) that was consistently photogenic or pleasant to shoot?

The most gorgeous horses are the ones that never seem to win anything. And the best horses always have on some piece of  equipment that looks terrible in photos. I HATE tongue-ties and lip chains. Aesthetically, they’re the worst offenders. Quality Road is one of the most gorgeous horses I’ve ever seen, but for races, he’d have on a lip chain, and he’d lift up his lip over it like a beaver and look so ridiculous.

Rachel Alexandra (Photo by Jamie Newell)

Outside of the races, it never got any better than photographing Rachel [Alexandra] at Saratoga. She was my Holy Grail. I had stalked her at Churchill Downs, where they kept her under lock and key, and I just missed her at Fair Grounds. She was so accessible at Saratoga. I had two opportunities to photograph her taking a bath at the Spa, and I was never happier at any moment at a race track, ever. But she was Rachel. Those photos I have of her still stand as my favorites.

  • What would you say was the high point in your travels that seemed to validate all your hard work?

Definitely the 2010 Breeders’ Cup. There’s nothing like being given a credential for the biggest race you’ll probably ever see in your lifetime.

  • Absolutely amazing, drop-dead gorgeous, UNF horses: name a few that come to mind.

Lava Man. I had no idea how gorgeous he really was until I got to see him in person. It was his last race, and he was older, so he had this massive neck and his dapples were just stunning. He was so full of fire and grace. His presence was unmistakable.

Mr. Hot Stuff, Quality Road, Paddy O’Prado, Christine Daae, Line of David, Old Fashioned, Chocolate Candy, and Curlin… and a bunch of maidens and claimers whose names nobody will ever know, like Seize Power.

Obsessively providing a comprehensive and personal glance at the sport of kings through original photography, handicapping analysis, editorials, and much more.

Tracks visited: Calder, Saratoga, Belmont, Suffolk, Aqueduct.

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