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: