Category Archives: Pictures

Opening day 2011 at Mount Pleasant Meadows

Opening day at Mount Pleasant Meadows was the climax of a roller coaster year for the central Michigan track. Porsche Pink is led to the winner's circle with Nate Alcala aboard.

On the track’s Aug. 1 closing day last year, the idea of Mount Pleasant Meadows hosting Michigan’s lone Thoroughbred meet seemed outlandish.

A lot can happen in a year.

The central Michigan racetrack’s July 24 opening day was last stop of a roller coaster offseason that included the shuttering of Pinnacle Race Course and months of “Will they? Won’t they?” tension as the state, the track and the horsemen all worked to get on the same page.

The pressure went down to the wire, as the Michigan Gaming Control Board balked on approving Mount Pleasant’s live meet until just days before it was scheduled to commence. Once the paperwork got signed, the gears got turning – and with little time to spare, they got turning fast.

Since Mount Pleasant called it a meet last year, I have been to more racetracks around the country than I can count on two hands. At no point was I more genuinely excited for a day of racing than I was for this year’s opening day.

By the time the horses came over for the first race, I could hardly contain my giddiness, and it lasted throughout the card. The tension that built up with every event that made it look like the place would never host another race had finally come uncoiled. This feeling could have also been due in no small part to mild dehydration, but it was still pretty amazing, nonetheless.

I have been watching and playing the races at Mount Pleasant for years, but for the first time since I first picked up a program, I had absolutely no idea how the races were going to shake out. Would the native horses and riders have a home-track advantage until the new ones figured out the four furlong bullring? Would class prevail regardless of the racing surface? Would horses and bloodlines that succeeded at five-furlong Great Lakes Downs recapture the magic? Would the horses bred for Pinnacle be able to adapt? As it turns out, the answer for just about all of these questions was “yes.” Every bettor on the grounds was on a level playing field, and it was an exciting time.

The best thing about opening day was, without a doubt, getting to see everyone in the same place – Thoroughbred people, Quarter Horse people, Arabian people and other fellow racing enthusiasts. Mount Pleasant is a very communal track, and that spirit was not lost on its new residents. I was glad to see this.

The crowd was robust – easily double the average attendance, if not more. I have never been good at eyeball estimating a crowd, so whenever I want to gauge the attendance at Mount Pleasant, I look out at the parking lot. On a normal day, the cars usually make two rows. On this day, they made four very long rows. It was kind of beautiful.

But enough talk, lets look at some pictures…

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A slice of Michigan racing’s past

While we wait (and wait, and wait) for Michigan racing to right the ship or sink, I’d like to share a small piece of the state’s racing history I managed to snag on eBay.

As mentioned in a previous post, a pair of racing programs from the 1924 Alpena County Fair were offered on the online auction website, and I was the winning bidder.

Considering the age and use of the programs, they are in very good condition. The programs consist of a single piece of heavy stock paper folded down the middle to resemble a book. I believe elementary school students call this “hamburger style”.

Inside the programs are the entries for four races. Two are clearly marked pace events. The other two are a tad more ambiguous. The “County Race” and “Free For All Run” are race conditions I am unfamiliar with – harness or otherwise.

The highest published purse on the day’s card was a whopping $300. Using the Inflation Calculator, that purse would be equal to about $3,791.48 at last year’s rates. For a fair circuit track in rural northeast Michigan, that’s not bad at all.

Period-specific idiosyncrasies are plentiful in the programs. One can hardly argue with a 35-cent lunch or a men’s suit for $28.50. The two and three-digit phone numbers must have been easy to memorize, as well, when one needed to call the Studebaker Motor Cars dealer or the local radio shop.

For less than five bucks, these programs provided an interesting snapshot of the state’s fair racing scene, and that of its surrounding community. It was definitely worth the purchase, and I am happy to share it with my readers.

Today, the number of county fairs in Michigan still hosting harness racing is dwindling, but they are still out there. I have yet to attend any of the state’s fair races, but I intend to do something about that this summer – especially if it is my only option.

If any readers have any stories or fond recollections of racing on Michigan’s fair circuit, they are more than welcome to share them.

Behind the jump are photos of the racing program from the 1924 Alpena County Fair

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Photo of the Year: 2010 – Results Show

The Michigan-Bred Claimer 2010 Photo of the Year is "Affection", featuring Horse of the Year Zenyatta and her groom Mario Espinoza.

Horse of the Year Zenyatta can add another title to her lengthy resume as the subject of the shot voted the 2010 Michigan-Bred Claimer Photo of the Year.

The photo depicts the champion mare sharing a moment with her groom, Mario Espinoza, outside her stall in the days leading up to her second place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

As discussed in my Breeders’ Cup retrospective, this shot came to be when I was allowed to tag along with Thoroughbred Times editors Tom Law and Ed DeRosa for a chat with trainer John Shirreffs. While they interviewed the conditioner, I got a golden opportunity to snap away. The chance to photograph such a special horse was memorable by itself, but what really stuck with me during my time in the Shirreffs barn was that behind all the hype, security and cases of Guinness, the legend of Zenyatta ultimately boiled down to a horse in a stall and the people who care for her – just like any other horse at any other track in the world.

Thanks to everyone who voted and commented on this year’s Photo of the Year poll, and especially to the horses, riders, connections and tracks for providing amazing subjects for me to photograph. A special shout-out goes to those kind enough to grant me and my camera special access for sweet angles and scenarios, including the staff at Thoroughbred Times, Churchill Downs, River Downs, Hoosier Park and Ellis Park.

Hopefully, 2011 will bring with it new tracks and new adventures. I look forward to providing you all with the view from my spot on the apron or elsewhere at all points along the way.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Let’s have a look at how the votes shook out…

Total Votes: 43

1. “Affection” (Zenyatta) – 10 Votes
2. “Lens Flare” (City Girl Jesse) – 7 Votes
3. “Fond Farewell” (Zenyatta) – 6 Votes
4. “Hello Rachel” (Rachel Alexandra) – 5 Votes
4. “Rolling Fields” (Keeneland Race Course) – 5 Votes
5. “Rocky Start” (Yellowstone Downs) – 3 Votes
6. “Downtime” (Emanuel Cosme & Edgar Paucar) – 2 Votes
6. “Head In Front” (RFR The Iceman) – 2 Votes
7. “Hard To Handle” (Little Shimmer) – 1 Vote
7. “On Display” (Juan Delgado) – 1 Vote
7. “Playing In The Mud” (Oscar Delgado) – 1 Vote
8. “A Leg Up” (Lee Gates, Jose Beltran & HQH Dashing Zorro) – No Votes
8. “Classic Backdrop” (Evening Jewel) – No Votes
8. “Crowd Pleaser” (Arlington Park) – No Votes
8. “Gallop Out” (Beduinos Cat) – No Votes
8. “Indiana Nights” (Sharmona) – No Votes
8. “Payouts” (Arturo Perez) – No Votes
8. “Post-Race Interview” (Martin Garcia) – No Votes
8. “Preparation” (Victor Lebron) – No Votes
8. “Testimony” (Wilkin Ortiz & Gabriel Lagunes) – No Votes

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Photo of the Year: 2010

This photo of Zenyatta and super-skilled photographer Jamie Newell is probably the photo of the year, but for the sake of competition, it gets a free pass.

As it was mentioned in previous discussions, 2010 was a big year.

I visited a lot of places, I took a lot of pictures, I’ve seen a million faces and I rocked ’em all.

Okay, perhaps that last line is a wee bit exaggerated, but two and a quarter years of operation on this site is too long to go without a Bon Jovi reference.

The first two parts of the statement, however, are completely true. The last year afforded me the opportunity to visit racing venues and big events around the country, and I have tried my best to bring my readers along for the ride with my tales and photos.

That brings us to the annual display of my favorite memories from those travels: The 3rd Annual Michigan-Bred Claimer Photo of the Year poll.

Truth be told, my best photo is all but certainly the one shown above of super-skilled photographer Jamie Newell and Zenyatta the morning after the Breeders’ Cup Classic, titled “Consolation”. That projection is supported by the photo’s third-place showing in the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance photo contest. If I have not said it before, allow me to take this opportunity to thank everyone kind enough to throw a vote my way. We’ll get ’em next year.

For the sake of competition, we’ll consider that one the winner by default and conduct the poll as usual to determine a reserve champion. Unlike the TBA contest, this is one vote I can’t lose.

All of the photos included in this poll were shot with a Kodak EasyShare Z980.

Thank you all for reading, commenting, voting and otherwise being a part of what was a huge 2010. I look forward to providing a front row seat to my adventures in 2011 and beyond.

Behind the jump are the 20 photos I have handpicked as my favorites of 2010. Have a look, then vote for your favorite in the poll on the left side of the page. Comments are always welcome, too.

And now, without further ado…

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A friendly reminder

With your help, my photo of Zenyatta and super-skilled photographer Jamie Newell, “Consolation”, made it to the final round of the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance photo contest. Now, I need your assistance one more time to finish the job.

As of the time this was posted, the photo was sitting in third place, well back of the two leaders. It’s going to take some doing to catch up, but it all starts with one vote – Yours.

To vote, just follow the link here, go to the bottom of the page and select “Joe Nevills – Consolation”. Then, click “Vote” and get on with the rest of your day knowing you have my deepest thanks.

Voting for the TBA photo contest ends Dec. 31, so don’t delay!

In case you are not familiar with the contest or my entry, here it is one more time…

"Consolation" - Zenyatta nuzzles against Jamie Newell the morning after the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Also, don’t forget time is running out to decide Michigan’s Thoroughbred of the Decade.

Four-time Sire Stakes winner Meadow Vespers continues to hold a commanding lead heading into the poll’s final days. This poll will close sometime Jan. 1 once the dust settles from the previous night’s happenings. The choices can be found on the left side of the page.

Just check a few boxes for me and I promise I won’t ask you to do anything else for the rest of the year.

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Rock the vote

The end of the year brings with it the annual Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance photo contest and once again, I have thrown my hat into the ring.

Participants are allowed to enter two photos. My selections reach across the spectrum of the racing world, from the aftermath of the Breeders’ Cup Classic to the preparations for a speed index race at Mount Pleasant Meadows. Let’s have a look at the pair I sent out…

"Consolation" - Zenyatta nuzzles against Jamie Newell the morning after the Breeders' Cup Classic.

This one is my “A” entry – The ultimate example of everything coming together at the best possible time. With your help, I think this one could make some serious noise in the competition.

"A Leg Up" - Jose Beltran gets some help aboard HQH Dashing Zorro from fellow jockey Lee Gates.

This one may not be the most technically sound photo, but I defy you to find another shot in this contest that showcases the quirks and tight-knittedness of small track racing better than this. There are plenty of shots from Churchill Downs and the New York circuit, but this is something photographers won’t see at either of those scenes.

To vote, visit the TBA Photo Contest page, scroll down to the bottom and vote for up to ten choices. The top ten vote-getters on Dec. 25 are entered in the final round, which runs through Dec. 31. If you like a photo, be sure to check back next week in case it needs your vote again.

I am not going to twist anybody’s arm here, but if readers appreciate tender moments with the all-time greats or want to strike a blow for small-track racing, I would appreciate their votes.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Also, don’t forget to cast your vote for Michigan’s Thoroughbred of the Decade. The poll will remain up until roughly Jan.1.

Four-time Sire Stakes winner Meadow Vespers has ridden a wave of support to earn 48.33% of the vote. Multiple graded stakes winner Tenpins is in second with a 25% share, and Grade 1 winner Cashier’s Dream sits in third with 6.67% of the pie.

If you want to lock those results down or do something to change them, just head over to the poll on the left side of the page and pick the horse you feel is the most deserving of the title. For more information on the ten finalists, the original post can be read here.

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Breeders’ Cup Mercenary Song – Part 3: The Aftermath

Saturday's race may be the moment history will remember, but the day after is when the real magic happened. The blanket of flowers draped over Blame following his Breeders' Cup Classic victory hang outside his barn.

Over the last couple Breeders’ Cup posts, the recurring theme has been my standing as a lucky son of a gun.

Evidence of this fact was apparent throughout Breeders’ Cup weekend, but at no time was it more clear than on Sunday, the day after the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The day started around 7:30 a.m. on the Churchill Downs backstretch. It was not warm.

A cold haze had settled over the track as horses headed out for their morning jogs or back to their barns – not quite frost and not quite fog, with a dash of spray from hoses cleaning up the ground near the barns.

I nodded to the backstretch guard as I walked by like I owned the place. After covering three major events at Churchill Downs, the power-drunkenness of having the proverbial skeleton key has yet to wear off.

After some wandering, I came across superstar freelancer Claire Novak and super-skilled photographer Jamie Newell loitering around the barn of trainer Al Stall, Jr.. I’d be lying if I said the Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning trainer’s barn was anything close to abuzz following his charge Blame’s epic victory in the previous day’s race. A few reporters filed in and out of Stall’s office for interviews while another group congregated around the stall of the victorious horse. The blanket of flowers that hung from Blame’s withers following his big win now sat idly on a security barrier, drawing little attention. If I really wanted to, I probably could have made off with it and gotten a few hundred yards before getting tackled by security, but I was on the clock.

As Jamie snapped photos of Claire with the newly retired colt, I overheard someone say Stall was soon to be bound for a plane to New Orleans. As Stall was one of the people I had to interview that day, this suddenly boosted my urgency to around Defcon 3 (I am not sure whether the Defcon scale goes up or down, but three sounds like a number that would be somewhere in the middle).

Shortly after this revelation, Stall emerged from his office and chatted with the people gathered around the horse. As he left that group, I hopped over the ravine that separates the barns from the middle area, flashed my media credential and asked for a chat. We spoke about Blame’s big win, what it meant to him, the horse’s future and the potential of reloading for next year with Ack Ack winner Apart. I knew he had a plane to catch, so I tried not to hold him for too long and let him go on his way with everything I needed.

As I alluded to earlier, the scene was eerily quiet for a barn that just won a race worth two and a half times as much as the Kentucky Derby and beat arguably the best, or at least the most beloved, horse of the last five years, if not longer. In total, I do not recall there being many more than 20 people around the Stall barn at any one time, including myself, security and the trainer’s employees.

Why the lack of fanfare for the colt who could very well end up being named Horse of the Year? Remember that beloved horse from the previous paragraph? Her going away party was in progress just a few barns over.

When I got to Barn 41, a pair of healthy crowds had formed around that horse, some readers may know her as Zenyatta, and her trainer John Shirreffs. The human subject was answering questions outside the barn while his star charge grazed in a nearby grassy area. Shirreffs kept an even keel with his responses considering he missed out on just a little under $2 million by a head. However, after the ride Team Zenyatta has had over the last three years, there was plenty to be proud of.

After Shirreffs wrapped things up, the media types migrated from the barn to the half circle surrounding the champion mare. Compared to the roughly 20 people in the vicinity of Blame’s stall, it would not be hard to venture an eyeball guess of 150 fans, horsepeople, media workers and other interested parties came and went throughout the morning.

Zenyatta’s patch of grass was next to the fence separating the backstretch from urban Louisville. Whether word got out that the mare would be making an appearance that morning or fans just regularly camped out near her barn hoping she would grace their presence, they showed up en masse for Zenyatta’s sendoff.

The fans on the outside looking in crammed against the fence and stuck their fingers and camera lenses through the chain link fence in hopes of getting a brush with the champion or offer her a peppermint (which the horse’s groom surprisingly allowed her to partake). So many cars lined the sidewalk that photographers trying to capture the enormity of it all couldn’t fit them all in the shot.

The give and take between Zenyatta and her separated fans was something to behold. The crowd oohed and giggled at every toss of the mare’s head and poke of her hoof. In return, Zenyatta looked out at the crowd and appeared to make eye contact with each and every one of them. Not to sink too deep into simile, but it was like when the entire section of a concert hall thinks a rock star is singing a song just for them. Whether was inquisitiveness, friendliness or an ego the size of Idaho, Zenyatta repeatedly tugged her groom, Mario Espinoza over to the fence to visit with the masses.

On my side of the fence, a flurry of cameras clicked and snapped, from professionals with foot-long lenses to people with camera phones. Because I wanted to maintain a shred of professionalism during my time on the backstretch, I decided to leave my camera in the car, not knowing this was going to turn into such a love-fest.

The blob of credentialed individuals shifted as Zenyatta decided to try new patches of grass to chomp or examine something that captured her attention. That movement was instigated by the nearby security, both uniformed and personal to the horse.

While we were shuffled back to make way for the mare, Claire informed me that Zenyatta’s personal security guy had previously worked for such popular figures as Jennifer Lopez and Tom Petty. How one goes from overseeing international musical artists to livestock is beyond me, but all three remain alive and uninjured, so clearly he is good at what he does.

Before he left, Shirreffs walked out to meet his star pupil to the sound of more furious camera clicks. To borrow a phrase from author Malcolm Gladwell, this was the tipping point from “look” to “touch”. Soon, people who looked like they had some kind of connection with the connections gathered around the horse to nuzzle her nose, pat her neck and pose for a photo op. For a horse that appears so fearsome when she struts from paddock to post, Zenyatta was surprisingly gentle with the strange people, including small children.

After the people who looked like they may have had ties with the horse filed out, Zenyatta was greeted by some higher-ranking members of the group surrounding her – the ones who had been dealing with the mare from the beginning – most notably HRTV analyst Zoe Cadman.

At this point, people started getting brave.

People in the blob began asking Zenyatta’s security guard for a photo op, and soon enough, a queue was formed. There were plenty of exceptions, but the order of visitation was largely parallel to the unwritten totem pole of racing media types. I don’t know what belittling title Ray Paulick would give my status in the turf writing community, but I knew I had no business demanding to be anywhere near the front of the line.

The encounters with Zenyatta ran the gamut of emotions, from joy to awe to tears. This horse meant different things to different people, and after such an emotional final race, it all came pouring out outside of Barn 41. Watching it all unfold with so many of the friends I had made during my short time in the professional turf writing community was the mother of all “lucky son of a gun” moments.

Meanwhile, I began to face a significant personal dilemma. Arguably the most photogenic horse on the planet was right in front of me mugging it up for any piece of curved glass within a half mile radius and my camera was in my car on the other side of the backstretch. I could have gone and grabbed it, but risked her being put away and missing what was sure to be a dramatic farewell; or I could have stayed there and taken it all in, but had nothing to show for it, save for other people’s pictures. My photographic memory stinks. I booked it.

As I power walked through the shedrows, I glanced over at Blame’s barn. Compared to the scene I just left, it was a ghost town. Who says money can buy popularity?

Fortunately, the only thing I missed was a few more fans getting to meet the mare of the hour. Now that several of us in our little group were wielding cameras, we each handed off our equipment to whomever was not currently behind a lens before getting in line for a multi-pronged photo assault.

While we watched the legion of lanyard-wearers file to and from Zenyatta, we were joined by the most perfectly-timed backstretch tour van in the history of Churchill Downs. I was far from the only lucky son of a gun on the backstretch that day.

After watching enough others get their brush with greatness, I finally worked up the nerve to get in line. It was a bit of a wait, and it took some effort to remind the security guard that I was in line in the middle of the commotion, but I finally got to the front.

I wish I could say I was blown away by the monster mare’s physical presence, but I deal with Belgian Draft Horses back home, so big horses are kind of par for the course. However, the ones back home weren’t nearly as smooth to the touch as Zenyatta. When I got to pet Funny Cide during my visit to Ellis Park last year, I considered finding a container to save the gelding’s hair that had accumulated on my hand. That was not an issue with Zenyatta.

After that initial pat on the neck, I felt in a bit of an awkward position. While this was unquestionably the “Tell the Grandkids” moment that I was striving for in my Thoroughbred Times TODAY postcards, I was not sure what else to do but pet her on the neck. While everyone else had done everything short of hop on her back and shout “Giddy Up”, the thought lingered that I would be the one to accidentally trigger something that sets her off. I’ve seen what those front hooves can do. With so many cameras pointed in my direction, it would have been a moment that would live in infamy.

So I stood there and stroked her neck while repeating the only phrase that came to mind at the moment, “Nice mare.” Smooth.

Soon enough, my turn was over and it was time to congeal back into the blob.

The festivities continued for another 20 minutes or so before Zenyatta was taken back to her barn. She was given a farewell of cheers and applause, which brought a look of mild panic to the faces of her handlers, who implored the crowd to tone it down. When the noise made it through the cotton ball barriers and into her eardrums, the docile mare who just shared a calm, tender moment with everyone in a quarter-mile radius turned into the aggressive, front-hoof-striking warrior of legend. She strutted her stuff and gave her handler the business until she disappeared into the shedrow.

The moral of the story? To turn Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk, all you have to do is believe and clap very hard.

The crowd stuck around for a little while to collect their thoughts and perhaps wait for an encore, but they eventually dispersed.

After the love fest reached its conclusion, I took one last stroll around the backstretch and out to the rail for a glimpse at the massive Churchill Downs grandstand. In a few moments, I would be on its sixth floor writing about everything I just saw.

Following all the commotion of Saturday’s Classic card, Sunday’s press box population was sparse. My worktab consisted of a postcard for TODAY and a “morning after” update on Blame, which is where the interview with Stall came into the equation. The deadlines were lax, the weather was getting warmer and when I felt like a break was in order, a day’s worth of races were waiting for me on the other side of the balcony door. This day just kept getting better.

My first story in the tank was the one on Blame, which can be read here.

Shortly after I turned that story in and started chipping away at the postcard, I saw out of the corner of my eye a congregation of people with recorders or steno pads in hand surrounding a guy who looked pretty important. Then I heard that pretty important guy, otherwise known as head steward John Veitch, talk about punishments for the Calvin Borel/Javier Castellano fight. I grabbed my recorder and joined the group.

After gathering the necessary information, I asked around to see if anyone at the Thoroughbred Times office already had the same info and was working on the story. As it turns out, I had something of a scoop, so I can add “breaking news” to the skills on my resume. That story can be read here.

I wrapped up my postcard and sent it in shortly after that, finishing my official duties as a Thoroughbred Times mercenary. I was once again a civilian abusing a media pass. At this point, the feeling was akin to a winning football team taking a knee at the end of the game. It was time to soak it all in for one last time knowing I was in the clear.

For the card’s feature, Claire (who was pitching a story about the morning’s Zenyatta-Con to ESPN: The Magazine and did a better job of describing it over the phone than I just did in 2,000 words) and I took the elevator down to enjoy the the race from ground level. We took one of my signature “set the timer and run” photos by the Breeders’ Cup statue in the paddock and spent our walk through the tunnel debating which of us was the luckier son (or daughter) of a gun.

Soon, the day’s races had come to an end, and so had my Breeders’ Cup weekend. A better writer than myself would insert a sentence or two here pulling together the roller coaster of events, emotions, celebrities, stages and shedrows that those five days were – but condensing it all down into that would be doing it an injustice. You just had to be there, and I am a lucky son of a gun for having been there.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Thoroughbred Times for allowing me to contribute to their coverage of the Breeders’ Cup and letting me tag along to access people and places that I will be telling others about for a long time to come. I would also like to thank all the friends – old, new or just new in person – that I crossed paths with at one point or another during the whole ordeal. Let’s all do it again sometime. Deal?

Behind the jump are some shots of Zenyatta’s going away party, including photographic evidence that I am not making this all up.

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