By Roger (15 May 2016)
Last weekend, I got the chance to go out on the course for the Gold Cup Races, in The Plains, Virginia (link). The races have been going on since 1922, so it's a long-standing tradition, here in Northern Virginia. I've been to the many events at Great Meadow and blogged about the joys of putting on one of the course photographer's vests, back in November, 2014 (link). It's always a long, enjoyable day when you get the chance to take the cameras some place challenging.
And the lighting conditions were challenging. Since the races begin at mid-day, you always have lots of contrasty light. This year, however, we also had moving clouds and were constantly changing our exposure settings. We've had a long run of rainy days, lately, so the course was also little soggy, and race day dawned with lots of clouds in the sky. Luckily, it held off. The day got sunny for some of the races – there are nine – but, by the end of the day, it was clouding up, again.
The key non-photographic requirement for all photographers out on the course is paying attention to what is happening on the field. Each race follows a different course, and you definitely do not want to interfere with any of the proceedings. A couple of jockeys were de-horsed, so you also have to be alert when unsupervised race horses are running loose. They could cause serious damage to you and your gear. Fortunately, neither jockeys nor photographers were harmed.
We started off with the terrier races. You wouldn't believe the intensity of some of the owners in this “fun” race. The dogs just want to run after the raccoon tail and jump the miniature fences. Take a look at their faces when they come out of the starting kennel. This is always a crowd favorite.
As we prepared for the real races, we split across the course and around the grounds. Some of the photographers were there on assignments to photograph the crowd and ancillary events more than the actual races. There were about 50,000 spectators and vendors dining, drinking, and partying. There are hat contests, tailgate contests, fancy car displays, and para-mutual betting going on, so it is a target-rich environment for photographers. I did shoot some photographs of the crowd, like the one below, but my primary interest was the races.
I tried to stay away from the main gaggle of photographers to get some photos that varied from the main pool. For example, I didn't shoot any photos of the finish line because I went out along the back of the course. (Most of the photographers weren't going to walk that far out.) The course is almost two miles around the outer fences, and, as you can see below, the back of the course is free of spectators. You can get a cleaner photo back there.
Due to obvious safety concerns, you stay out of the path of the horses and not too low to the ground. I found a few places that allowed me to get low, behind some barriers, to safely grab a few photos low and close. I was trying to get a different look from the standard photos. It's pretty exciting to be on the ground when the horses come galloping by, within 10 feet.
Of course, you can only differ so much from the standard race shots. There are certain photos that we all made at one point or another. Because these are steeplechase races, you want some of the fence and hedge jumping. One of the races included a path through the shallow pond. There was no way I was going to miss that shot.
The last couple races of the day are on a flat course, so I left the course and concentrated my efforts on other subjects – the officials up the tower and jockeys returning to their tent, after the race.
All in all, it was a great day, with lots of photos and new friends made. I hope to shoot the fall race, in November, if they ask me back. I don't get to photograph these kinds of events very often, so I try to take advantage of them every time I can. According to my phone, it was also a great step-count day. ;-)