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Story Behind the Photo: Saratoga Horse Racing

By Dennis Donohue, Shutterstock Contributor Story Behind the Photo is an ongoing series that highlights a unique story behind a photo or photos created by a Shutterstock submitter. This month‘s featured story comes from Dennis Donohue. Dennis participated in Shutterstock‘s Red Carpet program, which specializes in obtaining media clearance for photographers to access celebrity-themed events — in this case, the Saratoga Race Track. The Red Carpet program is a great way for you to source Shutterstock celebrity images for editorial usage. You can view Dennis‘s gallery here.

If you are a lover of thoroughbred race horses, there is nothing that can prepare you for the rush that comes the first time the guard opens the gate that accesses the winners circle at Saratoga. Saratoga is the Queen of US race tracks. For 138 years, the little city of Saratoga Springs has hosted the premier race horses and owners of the world. From Secretariat to War Admiral to Ruffian, they have all come to "the Spa" in August to test themselves against the world‘s greatest.

As a thoroughbred owner for the past three years, I had access to the stables and backstretch areas of the race track. This allowed me to learn how to handle myself moving among the horses as a photographer, when to shoot and when not to. However, on that first day with my press pass courtesy of the Shutterstock Red Carpet program, I felt lost. I quickly read the list of rules that came with the credentials. Although this was a good general list, it did take a few helpful hints from fellow photographers to get me to feel at home. There were also many unwritten rules that I had to pick up, some by making a mistake, some by simply asking.

The day for a sports photojournalist at the Saratoga track starts early, at 6:00 a.m. We arrive on the backstretch to get photos of horses working out, possibly some good candid shots of trainers and owners, and morning light shots in the stable area. The entire track is alive with activity, with exercise riders bringing horses to and from the track trainers on the track and along the rail watching the workouts, as well as hundreds of owners.

After downloading the morning shots to my notebook, it‘s off to the front of the track to get my program and plan the day of racing. Planning is based on the race‘s surface -- either dirt or turf -- as well as the length of the race, and whether it‘s an allowance or stakes race.

For turf races, photographers are allowed to cross the dirt track after the post parade. For a dirt race, we have to cross the track before it‘s raked, so no footprints would be left on it. For Stakes races, I tried shooting Paddock photos, post parade photos, and finish line and winners circle photos. You never know when the photo taken today may be of next year‘s Derby winner. I learned that lesson the hard way last year, when on the last day of the season, a young colt won an allowance race. The name of that horse was Big Brown, the eventual winner of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Shooting a stakes race involves going to the Paddock to photograph horses being saddled, and then walking ahead of the horses to be ready as they come out for the Post Parade.

Following the post parade, I walk to the photographers‘ area on the track for dirt races or for a stakes race and take a position near the finish line in back of the hedges that border the track. After the race, it‘s then a brisk walk to the winners circle to get photos there, and then off to the Paddock for the next race. By 6 p.m. I head home to upload my work to my server and get ready for the next day.

Saratoga Springs sits in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains and gets its share of summer thunderstorms. The first 14 days of the season were mostly cloudy, humid, rainy days. One day we had hail and on another a portion of the track washed out so the day‘s card had to be canceled. Outdoor photography tests all your skills as a photographer, as well as your equipment. Newspapers and magazines need pictures whether it is rainy or sunny.

There was a lot of work involved in getting all the photos, especially doing it three days every weekend of the meet. But was it worth it? Definitely. I would not trade this opportunity for anything. It was a chance to photograph the best thoroughbred horses in action on the grand stage of racing. To be on the track when Commentator won the Whitney Stakes, Curlin won the Woodward, Colonel John won the Travers, and Vineyard Haven won the Hopeful was a truly wonderful experience, and were it not for Shutterstock, this would most likely have been impossible for me.

The experience is worth the price of the work involved, and makes you a better photographer in the end. There has been a growing need for editorial images, so the more editorial imagery on Shutterstock, the more magazines and newspapers will look to Shutterstock as a source of editorial content.

As for me: Will I do this next year? Absolutely!