Two days in November
Lauren Heathcote Amberman’s connection to the racetrack dates to her earliest years when her family made regular trips to places like Pimlico, Laurel, and Saratoga. The gift of a camera one Christmas spurred the Baltimore County native to start documenting days at the track through her lens as she worked for trainers like Henry S. Clark and sold photographs, as well.
Though life eventually took her down other paths, this lifelong racing fan has returned to the rail, renewing her love of the sport and recording it all through her camera. Recently, Amberman traveled to Lexington, KY for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup World Championships, her first trip to the year’s biggest two days outside of the Triple Crown classics.
In this photo essay, she shares her impressions of the people, places, and horses that made this championship weekend a destination for thousands of racing fans.
The start of the day that I had anticipated for so long: Breeders’ Cup Day One, and my first day EVER at the Keeneland races! The autumn air was crisp as the early morning sun warmed us. I had made the ten-hour drive to Kentucky the day before, yet at 8 a.m., any leftover fatigue was replaced with excitement.
Two friends, Kim and Darlene, accompanied me. We all took photos and watched as media and event personnel arrived. We were within the first fifteen people in line at that entrance, intending nab a prime spot on the rail for our group.
The camaraderie among fellow racing fans was an important underlying theme of Breeders’ Cup weekend. Several of us who were “real-life” friends as well as “social media” friends made arrangements to meet at the racetrack. Such a pleasure to bond in person, and to make a few new friends, as well! We all eat, sleep, breathe, and love horses!
Since our group of seven all had general admission tickets, it was us vs. other groups to grab benches and hold our prime place on the rail. Although calm at this moment as shown in this early morning image taken on Friday, it became more difficult to keep our group spot as the day progressed.
It was the same dilemma on Saturday, only we nabbed an area closer to the finish line and the crowd became larger and more compressed.
I had flashbacks to those Preakness days of the 1970s and early ‘80s, as those were the days when the Pimlico grandstand apron was open for general admission. Everyone would run and stake out a spot as soon as the entrance gates opened!
In this image, I wanted to portray the history and beauty of a portion of Keeneland’s paddock. All of the elements came together in my composition: The colorful autumn leaves against the perfect blue sky were framed within the large scale of the ivy-covered stonework. Seeing the paddock on tv is one thing: in person, it was amazing to see this expansive area that runs from one end of the stands to the other. It was breathtaking and magical on that gorgeous warm day.
Distinctly Keeneland! I turned around, and as I soaked in the scenery, I could great runners of years gone by gracing those paddock paths with their dappled coats and shiny hooves.
Tyler’s Tribe came into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint with a very touching story. He is named for co-owner Thomas Lepic’s grandson, who battled and recently beat leukemia, and the tribe (group) that supports him. It is rare when a racehorse based in Iowa has traveled far from home to attempt to find more success on the national racing stage. This “small-town” horse was also ridden by his regular jockey, Kylee Jordan. Tyler’s Tribe deserved a chance and our support. His sire Sharp Azteca was a very good runner, a millionaire, and it is exciting to see one of his first foals have a lot of early success.
On Friday, our group on the rail happened to be next to people who were part of “Tyler’s Tribe,” so the cheers from that crowd were what elicited the big smile from Kylee in this photo!
On a warm day in June 2022 at Monmouth Park, my friend Kim and I nearly had Major Dude in our laps! In his first career start there, we witnessed this handsome two-year-old colt nicker to his friends. When they put the jockey up, Major Dude promptly reared up and bolted to the outer paddock rail where Kim and I were standing! Despite the antics, he convincingly won that race, and we followed his career going forward.
In this photo, I had just called out, “DUDE!” and he looked over.
It was calm — tranquil, even — at the track each day, at least for a little while. This was my first image of the day on Saturday, just before 9 a.m. The colors of the sky were pleasing, and we were all crossing fingers that the rain would stay away. The gusty breeze would become a bit stronger throughout the day, but it was manageable. We had claimed our rail position, so it was now time for coffee and some delicious Keeneland bourbon bread pudding for breakfast! During this time, a number of people saw that our spot was great “photo ops,” so they stood for pictures with the Breeders’ Cup purple and gold tote board and flags in the background.
In trying to portray a near “perfect” image of the Keeneland paddock, I chose this photo because of the electricity and activity that was occurring as the post parade was starting. The sunshine brought out the bright colors of the trees and highlighted the adornments of the talented field of twelve participants.
This race was the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint on Saturday. The horse and jockey who led the parade were Slammed and Florent Geroux. Slammed set the pace for the first half mile before fading to last.
Ever since I was little, I have wanted to be around horses. For my friends and me, horses make us content and happy. We were fortunate that throughout Friday and Saturday to make friends with a few of the ponies (and their riders) whose job is to take the racehorses to the post.
Chico is the pony closest to the camera in this image. My friends brought peppermints to feed to them, so Chico and many others certainly got their fill, along with a lot of love! The pony in the background seemed to say, “Hey! When is it my turn to eat a peppermint?”
Whether you are five or eighty-five years old, the interaction with a horse can satisfy your soul.
As a life-long Maryland-based racing photographer, I have an abiding affection for “our” local Mid-Atlantic-based horses. Granted, Caravel has run out of the area many times and is no longer based locally, but this Pennsylvania-bred spent part of her first four years training at Fair Hill, Maryland. She was bred by Lizzie Merryman, who is a member of a legendary family of Mid-Atlantic horsemen.
I started following Caravel’s career in May 2021, and have always enjoyed seeing her determination during races. Shown here, she looked excellent as she started to warm up under jockey Tyler Gaffalione, with many fans calling her name as she went by us. As she led the pack coming down the stretch, my screaming grew louder: “Come on Caravel! Beat the boys, Caravel!”
A Pennsylvania-bred won a Breeders Cup race! I did not bet this 42-1 shot, but that’s okay. She gave it her all, and we loved every minute of it!
Modern Games was one of the most impressive winners of the weekend. His turn in the Breeders’ Cup Mile was a thrill to watch as his long and powerful strides ate up ground through the stretch to grab the win. His connections are first rate, training and spotting their horses well. Godolphin has some of the best turf runners in the world, and this son of leading sire Dubawi is among them.
I watched Modern Games win the 2021 Juvenile Turf on television, so I was looking forward to seeing this handsome colt in person. Great things are yet to come for Modern Games, and his jockey William Buick feels that way, as well!
I love showing the heart, beauty, and determination of a racehorse, and this image certainly showcases those features from both runners. Ever since I started photographing thoroughbred racing in 1977, horses in motion have been my favorite subject. The battles down the stretch can be the moments that we remember most in years to come.
I had seen Cyberknife race in person in the Haskell and the Pennsylvania Derby, so I knew he had what it takes. But I believe Cody’s Wish, a son of Curlin, had more good karma going for him. As most know, he was named after Cody Dorman, a young man with a rare genetic disorder who bonded with this horse several years ago. It is deeply moving to see those two together; there weren’t many dry eyes in the house after that Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile win!
Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff was the race I was most looking forward to. I am a huge fan of fillies and mares, and this field was stellar! The start of every race can be “make or break,” and I enjoy photographing it.
This is one of a sequence of five images that I captured of this start. Among the eight very worthy participants, I was concentrating most on Clairiere and Nest. Clairiere is number four here, with the yellow cap, and a bit lost between horses. Nest is number 6 in the orange-and-blue Repole silks.
I have followed Clairiere’s career all along and photographed her as she won the 2021 Cotillion at Parx. She was making a comeback from a long layoff, so I hoped that she would still have her winning spirit. As for Nest: Wow! She was so impressive-looking, and the way she competed in her ten lifetime races has been spectacular. The three daughters of Curlin, Malathaat, Clairiere, and Nest, all looked formidable.
I knew that Society (number 8, far outside), a daughter of Gun Runner, would gun for the lead out of the gate. Secret Oath, Search Results, Blue Stripe, and Awake at Midnyte also had a good chance to take the winner’s purse. The crowd of 40,000 plus was treated to a thrilling blanket finish. A nose separated the winner, Malathaat, from runner up Blue Stripe. Clairiere was only another nose back in third place. Unbelievable!
Rich Strike has been one of the most talked-about Thoroughbreds of 2022 because of his Kentucky Derby victory. I read many articles about him and eagerly watched each of his races. As he matured through the year, I became more enamored with him, and I was so happy that I was going to be able to see him in person at the Breeders’ Cup.
As he paraded and jogged past the throngs in the stands, many fans, including myself, were yelling, “C’mon, Richie!” and “Go get ‘em, Richie!” The horse and his jockey, Sonny Leon, seemed very focused and ready.
I wanted to capture the copper gleam of his coat, but the overcast day did not work in my favor. Nevertheless, he had that bounce in his step and that swish in his tail. It was satisfying to see him up close and in person.
Rich Strike finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
THREE MINUTES TO POST
Three minutes before post time for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, I suddenly turned around and the gravity of the moment hit me: This was IT, the defining race of the weekend. Heck, this would be the two minutes that would go down in racing history!
Since my camera’s lens was not wide enough, I snapped two images with my phone to show both the emotion and the enormity of the crowd. We were shoulder-to-shoulder, individuals who became “one” to witness a great sporting event. We were about to hear the announcer say, “They’re off in the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Classic!”
After the Breeders’ Cup Classic, there was much applause and cheering from the crowd as Flightline cantered back towards the winner’s circle. He was accompanied by the outrider and his pony, but then he broke away to jog, and then walk. His jockey Flavien Prat turned him to the inside rail, dropped his hands, and let him relax. Fatigue does not seem to be a word in this horse’s book.
Flightline stood still for a few moments, soaking in the victory. For some, this was the happy ending to the Flightline fairy tale. There were thousands of images captured by the media and fans that day. Of all of my photos of the Classic, I believe this one tells the story best. History had been made.
My friends had made tour reservations in advance to visit Hill ’n’ Dale Farm in Paris, Kentucky on the day after the Breeders’ Cup Classic. About ten minutes after arriving, Curlin’s groom took him out of his stall and over to the bathing area in the stallion barn. As the water splashed off his well-groomed coat, I saw the perfect lighting appear to capture photos of this gorgeous animal!
Curlin, winner of the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic, has gone on to become one of the nation’s top stallions.
Of all of the current living stallions, Curlin is the one who I had wanted to visit most. You see, I felt a special connection because I had both met and photographed his dam sire, Deputy Minister, when that colt had raced in Florida in 1983. I remember watching Curlin during his brilliant racing career, and it has been nice to see his success at stud. Hill ’n’ Dale was on top of the world on the day of our visit, as three 2022 Breeders Cup race victors had been sired by him! I took many more photos of Curlin that day as they paraded him before us once again shortly after that bath.