The First Saturday of May

It's that time of year again - the Kentucky Derby. This is from the roof of Churchill Downs at some point before some Derby in the last 10 years.

Today I am on my way to Louisville and the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby; the run for the roses; America's most famous (horse) race.

The Derby, in all honesty, is not my favorite event.

For me, it’s several days of early mornings, late nights and crawling in the mud.

It’s an incredible amount of work for one of sport’s fastest events. Two minutes of drama, then it’s all over.

I've been told I look very serious when I'm working. This picture is proof. In my defense I'm carrying a Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 lens on a Red Dragon here, so my expression seems appropriate to me - that setup is no joke.

When I tell people that I’m going to the Kentucky Derby, their reactions revolve around mint juleps, hats and dresses.

I can see disappointment on their faces when I tell them I’m going for work and I will be wearing the oldest, most beat-up clothes in my wardrobe, that I won’t be drinking any mint-juleps, and probably won’t even be wearing make-up.

The Derby for me means old jeans, torn shirts, rain pants (it always rains) and dirty boots.

On Derby day I’ll be up at the crack of dawn, crawling in the mud - there’s a 70% chance for rain Saturday, so the dirt track will almost certainly be mud - setting cameras and wiring remotes.

This actually isn't from the Derby. This is from the 2007 Breeder's Cup, but the idea is the same - mud, rail, cameras, me.

Oddly enough, this is my favorite part of the weekend. The tomboy inside me still loves getting dirty (my mom used to get so mad when my younger self would immediately destroy brand new shoes) and my technical side enjoys the methodical work of setting cameras up; of running wire, balancing polarity and setting shutter speeds. There is a mild thrill to pressing a button and hearing 20+ Nikon cameras fire.

The setup, however, is quite literally a race. We aren’t allowed on the track Saturday morning until every horse is off after their morning workouts. No photographers are allowed to be under the rail - where a majority of the remote cameras are located - while there are horses on the track. Where that becomes tricky is at 10:30am - the first call to post of the day.

Contrary to what you see on TV, the Derby is not the only race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. In fact, it’s race 12 of 14.

That gives me - and every other photographer - a short window to place, wire and set every remote camera. It’s a sprint, and to finish in time and you have to know what you’re doing.

Luckily, I had a pretty great teacher. Bill Frakes revolutionized the use of remote cameras long before I started following him around, and he’s taught me everything I know.

A few years back our good friend Andy Hancock got this of Frakes and I on the backside of Churchill Downs one brisk morning before the Derby.

This year will be different from my Derby’s past. In all my previous pilgrimages to Churchill Downs, I have always worked alongside Bill either as his assistant, a second shooter, a video editor or all of the above. This year, though, I will be covering the race for Sports Illustrated while Bill covers it for ESPN. For the first time in my career we will be in competition, though I’m confident it will be a friendly one.