The day before the Keeneland meet began was the usual morning bustle of horses and riders, fitted into the span of training hours.  There was an anticipatory air evident that I have felt quite a few times on the eve of racing beginning there.  People gathered around the rail and asked each other how long they’ve been here, speaking of their sometimes transient lives, based on the schedule of the horses in their care and the calendar of racing.  The names of the horses working across the oval frequently change, but so many of the human players are a constant, year after after.  Zito accompanied his chestnut charge Frammento, a Blue Grass Stakes entrant, to be contested in two days, bumped up to opening weekend.

I arrived around seven a.m. when the light was still less than ideal for photographing the workouts, but Carpe Diem had run by during that time of low light, at some point.  Never mind. I’d get a better look at him Saturday, as he too entered the starting gate for the Blue Grass, on the way to hopefully make Derby dreams a reality for his connections.  I saw no reason to indicate he wouldn’t live up to his promise.

Later I saw Barbara Banke of Stonestreet – who owns Carpe Diem in partnership with Winstar – walking near the track kitchen.  She had been present to see his work that morning, and it was the first time I recall seeing her walking around the grounds.

Larry Jones also made an appearance on a pony, once accompanying a horse that was pointed out to me by another photographer as Believe You Can’s half brother.  The colt was rather full of himself, to the point of near-obstreperousness, but Jones just eased the stout frame of his pony near the young runner, and walked him to the barn, providing a bit of a settling presence.  [Read later that the colt, named How About Him, was actually a ¾ brother to Believe You Can.  Of course, these siblings to good runners don’t always pan out, but they are still worth noting for what potential they might possess.]

(Interesting to note, though, while I wrote this shortly after opening weekend, I am just now posting it while the second week of Keeneland is in full swing, and How About Him just won a maiden special weight on April 8th. So there’s definitely potential there.)

I was glad to see Jones again. He is a trainer that seems to bring a good string of horses and is genuine.  I happened to wait on him the day before the October meet began last year (in my “fill-in-the-gap” job that I have between graduation and working for Coady full-time), and we started talking about racing, naturally, and I told him I’d be working for Coady during the meet.  He then said that he hoped he’d see me a lot with a laugh, speaking of course of having winner’s circle photos taken.  The cool part, besides how I’ve always liked him as a trainer and liked his horses, was that he actually did remember me by name each time he saw me at the track. I haven’t been a part of that world professionally long enough for that to get old, and let’s be honest, to be seen as a part of the track community will never get old.  If it did, I think I’d be seeking the wrong profession, and I have aspired to be part of that world for too long for it to become something I ever take for granted.

So this go-round, it was just a bit of symmetry that I saw Larry Jones again before the meet began, though I didn’t introduce myself this time, and though the setting was a more expected setting, it was all just a reminder of that anticipation of the meet I felt last time and feel each time.  Keeneland, too, never gets old.  It is just a pinnacle of the racing experience, each and every time, and all the smiles and happiness I saw as people took to the track again spread to me as well.  There’s not much better than Keeneland on a bright beautiful morning.  I have been struggling a bit lately to stay on top of the largest class load I have had yet, and work, and other things, but I walked away that morning really feeling like everything is going to be okay.  Not only that, but I felt invigorated.  It’s amazing what a morning with horses can do, in such a beautiful setting.  Keeneland had worked its magic once more.

I next came back the following afternoon, on a temporary leave from my “fill-in-the-gap” job, for the duration of the meet.  In the past, I had primarily taken race photos.  A larger-than-usual staff for the meet this time made my assignment covering events and people.  Of course, the horses still drew my eye when they appeared, but focusing on the people to the extent I did that day even more drove home how happy people are to be at Keeneland, and to see racing once more in the heart of the bluegrass. I really can’t think of that many other tracks where you see so many happy faces, and that too makes it enjoyable to be here.  Of course, Keeneland does get its share of drunk people (not always pleasant to be near),but the camaraderie that I feel by the rail in the morning and in the photo office is also fully present.

The first day of the meet was quite rainy, and the sun did break through the clouds at one point.  At that time, it lasted long enough that it seemed the rain had passed by for the rest of the day, but there were more deluges in store.  Since I was not shooting the races that day, I was in the office when everybody went out to the track with the horses, and when they all came back seconds later, we asked if there’d been a delay.  Lightning had been spotted near Keeneland, so that was to be expected.  However, not long afterward, the announcement was made that the remainder of the card had been canceled due to inclement weather. I’ve been coming to Keeneland for over ten years, and could never remember that happening.  It turns out, it was the first time ever that Keeneland had canceled the remainder of a card.  Nothing to do about it, and of course it was for the safety of all concerned, but could you imagine how fired up those horses might have been back at the barn, sent out to race and even starting the procession to the track before being called back?  So just like that, our day too was suddenly over.  We finished up some things and watched the downpour from beneath the grandstand.  The track was starting to be washed into the winner’s circle, and every time it seemed like the rain would stop, it was only for a brief span of time. Keeneland even had everyone evacuate the grandstand.  Apparently all of Kentucky was under a tornado watch.

Nearly everyone tabbed to be the Keeneland team for Coady this meet were people I met for the first time on the first day of racing for this meet, as they usually worked for other tracks, often outside of Kentucky.  Some, though, were recently added to the fold and did work in Kentucky.  I met Clementine, who had been working at Turfway, and her husband Richard, who is a jockey.  They are from Britain originally and kept me laughing with that British sense of humor I’ve long liked from people as diverse as the Beatles to Monty Python. When the work is done for the day, it is great to feel that camaraderie and be brought into the racing community.  It bears repeating, because so far I’ve only been able to be part of that during 3 Keeneland meets, 1 week at Saratoga, and a day at Belterra.  Now that I am so close to graduation, though, I look forward to that being my life too, as I’ve always wanted it to be.

I also met Caitlin, who is Danielle’s assistant at Turfway.  I’ve helped Danielle at Belterra during the one day mentioned above, and we worked together during all the Keeneland meets I’ve been part of so far.  But Caitlin recently began, and like most of the Coady employee family, she welcomed me right away.  I just find it so easy to click with people in this setting, and it did occur to me after the meet last year, that is probably because we all share a common interest or passion for racing and photography.  While that seems obvious, it is a bit of a revelation to me, because most of the work I’ve done previously just involved walking through the door and putting in an application, without having any specific skills or being drawn to it because it was a passion.  As a result, that brings a hodgepodge of people of all ages and from all walks of life with all sorts of different motivators, and probably the one common thread in jobs like those is just the need to make a living.  And yes, I realize I am talking about the difference between a career and a job, but it is all the more wonderful to me that I get to be part of this not only because I am following a calling, but also because the common thread with the people that are there is one that is more likely to bond people, because it goes far beyond just needing to make a living.

The second day of racing was sunny but chilly, yet at least there was no chance of the races being called off due to weather. It was Blue Grass day!  I arrived as the National Anthem was being sung, before jockey Joe Bravo participated in a Q&A session.  He is riding his first full Keeneland meet this April, and was asked about what prompted him to move his tack here for the full meet.  He said the timing was right for meets he usually rides, such as Monmouth, which alludes to his nickname of “Jersey Joe.”  He might be a little under the radar around here, though I know he’s recognized for a few recent Kentucky Derby rides, but he has such a likeable demeanor and it came across during the time he was interviewed as well.  Another question revealed that he soon will have reached the milestone of 5,000 wins, and then he was asked which wins or horses were especially memorable from that span of victories.  I liked his answer a lot, as he said it was the horses that are warriors that mean so much to him.  He also mentioned being third in the Derby last year feeling incredible.  He said it wasn’t a win, but it was his best finish ever in that race, and I fully sensed how just being on the board in a Derby meant a lot. I could imagine if I was a jockey, especially if I didn’t often have a Derby mount, how incredible that would feel.

Another response he had (to a question I don’t recall), was about how he often meets people that own restaurants, and then he gets rides in races through those chance meetings.  He went on to say that the people you’ll meet through racing and that circle is incredible.  And that led me to reflect on the (so far) brief time I’ve been involved in this professionally.  You really will meet some incredible people, and the racing world can be smaller than you’d think.  I love how it brings people together, too, as he said. That was in full evidence yesterday, with all the people so happy to be here with their friends, to a few people I knew and ran into the day before the meet and on opening day, and to feeling an almost instant kinship with the people I just met in the photo office, and a renewal of the friendship with the ones I had already met but not seen for months.  I’ve heard similar stories of what a small world it is from other people in racing too, that common thread drawing us all together.

On a busy day, with thousands of people present and a big card of races, there is only time for a few key moments to really stand out, like snapshots.  I had several of those from this second day of racing, with an array of stakes races that culminated in the Blue Grass Stakes.

While it was my assignment to take photos of people that day and not the races, there was a gray horse in the seventh race that caught my eye.  I didn’t even know until later that his name is Kobe’s Back, but he was the only one I took a closeup of from the field in his race on their procession to the walking ring.  Gary Stevens rode him, and together they won. I was glad for them.

Stevens has long been one of my favorite jockeys and to see him come back and excel once more is watching his dream become reality.  I can only imagine how that feels, to come back after retirement and being older than many of the jockeys, and still see it all come together.  I’m older than most college students, and certainly the ones who follow the traditional path and pursue a degree right out of high school.  I understand the moments of people doubting you and what you want to achieve, and of feeling like you’re coming to something later than most, and maybe even having moments of doubt yourself.  I know Stevens has been here before, in this career, and he seemed quite confident upon his return, but there’s that and then there’s leaving them all behind aboard the back of a fleet gray horse, and knowing you can do it.  To see all the familiar players come back and for the buzz surrounding a race meeting to take root around Keeneland once more. All these things, big and little, make it feel like coming home, to a place that is familiar and welcoming.

Another snapshot moment that stood out was when Larry Jones entered the paddock with his horse Lovely Maria for the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes.  I know Larry Jones often has a top horse, and maybe she was expected to be in serious contention for this race. I don’t know, since I was only minimally watching the races and how they played out or were expected to play out.  But when she ran on to victory a few moments later, it did represent the culmination of a possibly improbable dream.  When she won, her jockey Kerwin Clark achieved his first Grade 1 win ever, after forty years of being a jockey.  Photos showed him wiping away tears after the victory.  I can only imagine that had to feel as amazing for him as a third-place finish in the Derby did for Joe Bravo.  When you reach a pinnacle you maybe never thought you’d reach, on an elite stage, after so much hard work day in and day out, the emotion makes all the sense in the world. And I’d say that is a feeling that will never fade.

The remaining snapshots from this day were all pertaining to the Blue Grass Stakes.  I had earlier spotted a woman carrying a circular sign she made decorated like a pepperoni and bearing Blue Grass entrant Pepper Roani’s name on it in big block letters. She disappeared into the crowd before I could get a photo of her and the sign, though, so I was on the lookout for her as the race approached. I got a perfect photo of her with her friends as she held up the sign and they all laughed together while the horses were in the walking ring.  That is the actually the first sign I’ve ever seen anyone make a sign for a horse at Keeneland, but his name was too perfect not to have fun with like that.

But before that, I just felt so lucky to be in the paddock for a Blue Grass.  Last year, Dance With Fate won, and while I wasn’t super-enthused about him personally, it was incredible to be that close to him when he won and get those shots of him winning and coming to the winner’s circle on the turf course. That was a thrill beyond words.  When I get to be that close when they run by, I swear some of the adrenaline the jockeys must feel transmits to me as well.

But on a whole, I felt the field this year – particularly my pick, Carpe Diem – had a much better shot at having impacts on the Derby picture as major contenders.  Perhaps that does have a lot to do with the Blue Grass being on dirt once more and a week before it had  previously been held.  That same thrilling feeling of being so close to the horses as they ran last year came over me once more during the wait for them to enter the paddock.  There’s just such an electric feeling that filters through the paddock before a big stakes race, and I felt that anticipation.  To me, it was just a bit of a realization of dreams – as in pursuing my dream career at last – to be standing there, and there was a sense that each horse entering that paddock was representing a culmination of dreams for their connections as well.

Quite a few horses caught my eye – those at the elite level will do that – but there was no denying Carpe Diem was the one to watch.  He looked like tightly coiled, quietly contained fire just waiting to be unleashed, and that held up on the track.  He was a looming presence on the outside, entering the turn, and the sense that he was waiting to be unleashed was even stronger than it had been in the paddock.  I had missed seeing him that dark morning two days ago but there was no missing him now.  He took charge of the race and drew off by daylight, leaving Frammento in his wake, the horse I had taken note of two mornings ago.  The story was all Carpe Diem, for sure, but Frammento still gave Zito a shot at the Derby with his fourth-place finish.

The day wrapped up quietly after one more race, when Francisco Torres evaded disaster and stayed on his mount after a hard bump in the stretch, and the fiery sun made a glow settle over Keeneland as it began to set.  One more glorious day at the track was in the books.