California Chrome roared down the front stretch at Pimlico on Saturday shining, much needed light on horse racing.

I was head on to the action, tracking the Pimlico Field with a 600 f4 lens mounted on a Nikon D4S camera.

Three races make up horse racing’s fabled Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. I’ve covered the Derby 31 times, the Preakness 28, and the Belmont at least 20 times. That’s a whole bunch of big-time horse races. This will be the 12th time I’ve gone to NYC hoping to see a horse and jockey close the deal and win the Triple Crown.

I’m obviously not sure how it will turn out this time.

But I know how I got started in all of it.

Bill Nack wrote Secretariat, Making of a Champion. I read it and was hooked on the sport.  With apologies to my many writer friends, Nack’s Secretariat remains my favorite sports book.

Dan Dry invited me to the Kentucky Derby.  I couldn’t, and still can’t believe how wonderful it is there.  All these years later, I still see Dan at the track, and we talk with no pause in our ongoing conversation that has stretched over a few decades now.  I am as fascinated by the Derby just as much now as I was the first time I walked into Churchill Downs. The only difference is I am little better acquainted with that glorious track, and that leads to better pictures.

Heinz Kluetmeier started assigning me to cover the races for Sports Illustrated in 1986. He taught me how to do it the SI way, big and bold. He was and still is an extremely generous teacher and friend.

But first, there were the images of Tony Leonard.  I was casually flipping through Nikon World. Marveling at the images done by Art Kane. Crazy good stuff.  I remember going back through that article a few times, then finally I moved on.  The next image I saw, a big red horse running free, mane streaming, in a paddock, clobbered me. I couldn’t believe how powerful and poignant it was. I still have that magazine. Published in DECEMBER, 1980. VOLUME 13. NUMBER 3. It’s a prized possession.

It was more than 15 years later that I met Tony on the track in Louisville. I gathered my courage and walked up the man who was a legendary equine photographer, who defined the genre working for the greatest farms and owners doing portraits of the best mares and stallions alive. These were not simple photographs, these were elegant posed portraits chronicling the golden age of thoroughbred racing.  I stuck out my hand and said, “Mister Leonard, I just want to tell you how much I admire your work, and your style.”  He smiled that wry smile of his and said, “Kid, I know your pictures, they’re terrific.“  Few sentences have meant as much during my career. We were close for the rest of his life.

When Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Colton asked me to photograph Seattle Slew, the only horse to win the Triple Crown while undefeated, I called Tony and asked for advice.

He did better than that, he came along as my assistant.  Showing up to do a horse portrait with Tony as your assistant would be like having the Rolling Stones as your backing band when you were in music school.

The shoot went well. What classics they were, both of them.

I’ve been in motion even more than usual the last four months, and since I average about 250,000 miles a year in the air and another 100,000 on the ground, that’s saying something.

I love books. The content. The way they feel. The relationship.

On planes, I read novels and biographies. It simultaneously invigorates and relaxes me.

In the office, it’s all non fiction.

But when I can escape to the rocking chair, well, that’s the best. A good coffee, a throw from Rejkavick, some blues wrapping around my ears and photo books. Even better if it’s raining.

I have a good collection. At least 5,000 photo books.

Yesterday, I focused on three of them.

Mark Cohen’s opus about his hometown.  He uses a technique to make the images that wouldn’t work for many, but he makes it sing.

Alec Soth’s Ping Pong conversations. Beautiful images, combined with an insightful, lovely book length interview with art critic Francesco Zanot. It is a book for photographic thinkers.

In Red Thistle, photographer Davide Montelone explores a small region of the Northern Caucus. It’s a deep introspective work connecting narratives of the people and places he visits.

All three are blissful - sublime - and offer much pleasure.

Incredible style. Powerful subject matter.

I am working on a couple of my own that will hopefully be in a similar vein. Personal work more than commissions.

Heavenly. I do love the power of photography.

Best. Audience. Ever.

One hundred third graders at United World College in Singapore.

Dave Caleb, a terrific friend, teacher and photographer invited Laura and me to talk with several groups of students at the school about creativity, my favorite topic. We always enjoy interacting with classes. We always learn more than we teach. But these kids were special.

The first video we showed was a highlight reel of my work for Sports Illustrated. I have shown this collection of images in various iterations at least 100 times through the years to audiences of all ages and interests. This group got it like no other. Oohs, and ahhs. Smiles, gasps, and giggles.

Normally in an hour-long presentation, we will show four or five video pieces, and a gallery of still images.  Normally, we take a dozen questions from the crowd. This time was different.

I turned the room open to questions.  Eighty hands shot up.

The first question stopped me cold.

Eliot.  A precocious 8-year-old with a winning smile underneath mischievous eyes asked me a simple question that cuts to the core of everything we do as photojournalists.

“Your photographs are impossibly good. Do you build them in Photoshop?”

In an instant it came clear to me how pervasive the credibility issue has become for my profession.

Photoshop is a tool.  It’s a great one.  It’s wonderful for all kinds of images.  It just can’t be used by photojournalists to alter the content of a picture.

Now more than ever the world needs accurate, fair, powerful photographic storytelling.  The challenge for us is to establish veracity with our work.

Once I explained that credibility is the most important part of a photojournalist’s work they really got excited, and the questions moved to feelings, life and the world at-large.

The kids were totally engaged and intrigued.  They wanted to understand everything.

I could have stayed there all day.

There was a certain magic to opening a box of exposed transparencies… an almost childlike wonder of the exploration of your own work. In years long past, Sports Illustrated would return a few hundred rolls of my out takes from the Kentucky Derby, and I would diligently sort through them, cataloging and filing the best of them. Making notes on what worked and what didn’t.  How much film I shot, what they kept in the magazine’s files, and what I needed to do the next time.  That process usually happened a month or two after the event.

Now, two days after returning home from Lousiville, I am finishing going through the more than 15,000 files I burned through with the 25 Nikon bodies I used last weekend at Churchill Downs. The images are all sorted, captioned, and stored on raids using Aperture.

I can find any image through metadata tagging in less than a second.

In days gone by, it would have taken me a few seconds just to get out of my chair to head to the file cabinets to start a search.

I suppose it’s in my German DNA, but I love the efficiency.

I enjoyed the magic, but I don’t miss film.

A few images of Derby fashion for this week’s digital version of Sports Illustrated.

Come Saturday I’ll be on the track at Churchill Downs. Head on to the finish line, cradling a 800 f5.6 on a Nikon D4s.  Exactly like my first Derby in 1981 except then it was a 400 f3.5 on an Nikon F2.

I have to pinch myself to be sure I am awake. Being at the Derby, or the finish line at the Olympics, on the sideline at The Super Bowl, covering the President, covering a war, or walking in ancient cities… these are my life now, but I never take it for granted.  Thinking about Mom, my childhood and home, keeps my feet on the floor.

When they play “My Old Kentucky Home” and the horses come on to the track my heart pounds with excitement. It’s showtime, and the old stadium plays host to the greatest two minutes in sports.

The Derby is my favorite annual event.  It’s part sports, part culture.  The crux of my exploration of athletic competition is the intersection of motion and emotion, the sometimes chance, but more often calculated inclusion of art, commerce and athleticism into sport which so heavily influences the functioning of society through participation and observation.  And no place better than Churchill Downs during the annual running of the Kentucky Derby.

Dan Dry, one of the finest newspaper photographers ever, invited me to my first Derby more than 30 years ago.  It was a defining moment in my career.

We had a great time that year, 1981.  Gary Bogdon was with us then.  I’ll see Dan and Larry shortly, it’s a yearly pilgrimage that we are all dedicated to making — it just gets in your blood and you don’t want to shake it.  It’s too glorious.

Dan was on staff at The Courier Journal.  They were an incredible group. Luster.  Dry.  Farlow.  Mather.  Harris.  Montgomery. Spaulding.  Van Hook. Tom Hardin ran the place.  Their Sunday paper after the Derby was a tour de force of visual storytelling.

I made images I love to this day.  I used a remote camera for the first time ever — boy did that start a dangerous addiction to gear!

Times change, technology evolves.  There have been years when I’ve used more than 60 cameras to cover the action. This year I will use about 20.

SI legends Heinz Kluetmeier, Johnny Iaacono and Jerry Cooke were there, too, in force.  The best sports photographers working at the time, I couldn’t believe how sophisticated their coverage was, or just how cool they were.  I had zero idea I’d be their colleague a few short years later.

The next time I went to the Derby it was on assignment for SI.  Courtesy of Heinz.

For the next 29 years, I’ve known exactly where I would spend the first weekend in May.  Always with Kluet or working for him during one of his two stints as SI’s Director of Photography.

Heinz is the best teacher.  He pushes me to think.  To innovate and create. To outwork everyone else.  And I always hope to bring his intensity and style.

I’m missing him here.  I expect my phone to ring a few dozen times in the next days reminding of what I need to do.

I’ll do what I can so when I hear from him next week he’ll be quietly smiling.

For more on the Derby, visit these videos and articles:

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