Monday, August 22, 2016

Travers Week!

Travers Week. When the racing world converges in this small upstate town in anticipation of the summer's final showdown. This is what's known as the "top of the stretch". The homestretch, the final strides to the wire, the finish line! Travers Week is traditionally the week leading up to the most important race of the entire meet. Saratoga is called the "Graveyard of Champions" because so many champions have been beaten here. The Travers is notorious for the favorites getting beaten. Secretariat, Affirmed, American Pharoah all suffered the same fate - a loss in the Travers. Losing to horses who just seem to come out of the woodwork for this one race and then retreat right back into it.
Last Saturday's Alabama was the unofficial start of Travers Week. We were treated to a spectacular win in that race by America's newest sweetheart, Songbird. A filly who looks like her daddy (in horse racing that's a good thing; in people, maybe not so much) and runs like him too. Only faster.
My parking space karma was good, as usual. I left the gallery around 4:30 pm and drove straight down East Avenue to the front door of the track. I did a quick K-turn to snag a spot half a block from Union Avenue, facing in the right direction (away from the track). I got to the paddock in time to see the eight race on the monitors before figuring out my "spot" - the best place to try and get a photo of Songbird. (I took my camera this time.) I looked in my program to see what her post position was, and looked around for tree number 6. No karma here. The "6" was across the paddock, near the saddling enclosure, as far away as it could possibly be. I'd only have two chances to photograph her up close before the race - coming into the paddock and going out. The trend in the past ten years has been to have two grooms accompany the horses in the paddock, so getting a photograph of the horse's head and neck without a person blocking it is now impossible. Undaunted, I pick a spot along the rail near Big Red Spring. It's a shady spot, with long shadows and large patches of sunlight. The  horses for the Fourstardave are now beginning to enter the paddock. King Kreesa and Grand Arch (last year's winner) are being saddled under the trees directly in front of me. I click away. Great light. Great color. I can easily picture what I'm going to paint here.
King Kreesa and Grand Arch (#2)
Then it's, "Riders up!" The horses leave the paddock but I stay put. I don't want to loose my spot. The race goes off and there's an inquiry after the race. It delays the start of the Alabama a few minutes.

"KEEP BACK 4 FEET" is painted in big red letters on all the paddock rails. Used to be a time when there weren't any rails surrounding the paddock. People could just walk among the horses being saddled to get a better look. I know, I know. The world is a different place now. But I think it sends the wrong message to the fans. It certainly isn't a very friendly message. Everybody just ignores the warning.
Entering the paddock
The horses are entering the paddock for the Alabama now. They come into the paddock in consecutive order, one, two, three. I look for number six. Here she comes. Her head's down and there's lots of tack on her - bridle, halter, etc. It's hard to see her face. They walk directly to the saddling shed. They don't take a turn around the tree or anything. I'll only get one more chance for a photo when she comes out. They no longer walk the horses around the paddock one full time. Just put the riders up and walk out to the track. Songbird has a lead pony in the paddock, which further hides her from view.
The pony is in the way as she comes around the corner.
The lead pony blocks my view!
I get wonderful shots of the pony....
It took me three weeks to notice that the saddlecloths are color coded - red and white for number 1, white and black for number 2, etc. It's always the same for every race. I feel rather silly, since I'm supposed to be so observant! They have the name of the race and the horses on them for the Alabama.
I race down to the end of the grandstand to get some photos of the horses warming  up. I finally have a chance to get some full length photos as they warm up. I take some nice shots of Weep No More, Going For Broke, Go Maggie Go, Dark Nile as they circle back towards the starting gate. I finally spot Songbird as she comes around the turn. She looks magnificent. Before they head to the starting gate, Mike Smith crosses himself and looks towards heaven, uttering a silent prayer before the race.
Mike Smith asking for Divine guidance
Then suddenly, he looks confident and ready to go. He smiles as he talks with the outrider.

Songbird wins the Alabama easily - as easily as Frosted won the Whitney two weeks ago. Another awesome performance by the best filly in the country. I wonder what NYRA can possibly do to top this. The Travers seems a bit anti-climatic. I've never known a year when the biggest stars weren't the three-year-olds in the Midsummer Derby. It's as if summer's already over. I can't believe it almost is.
Songbird Takes Flight!


  1. Nice wrap up of a great day in racing. Thanks Christine!

  2. Many thanks Cindi. For all the Saratoga artists, past, present and future!