This was a roller-coaster year in horse racing, with plenty of ups and downs that make this sport so special. 2017 epitomized the saying, “The highs are never so high and lows never so low in the sport of horse racing.”
We’ll wrap up the year by looking back at some of the biggest stories of 2017 through my camera lens, as I had the honor and pleasure of photographing some of the biggest names in the game.
Not for once do I ever take for granted the opportunity to be able to bring these images to you. It’s a thrill to be able to share my amazing experiences with you, as I love being able to narrate the game through my pictures and words in my articles here at Racing Dudes.
So, before I put a bow on 2017 with this photo recap of my top 17 favorite photos that I took this year, I want to thank you all. Happy Holidays to all of my Twitter followers and readers. I can’t do it without you, so Happy New Year and let’s do it again in 2018!
Here are my top 17 photos of 2017:
#17: Keen Ice bath time at Saratoga
A couple of weeks after running a strong second in the Grade 1 Whitney, I caught Keen Ice cooling down on a beautiful August morning outside the Todd Pletcher barn in Saratoga. He will always be remembered in Saratoga lore after he upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, but he proved this year that he wasn’t a “one-trick pony,” winning the Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont in July and running second in the Whitney and the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup in October. Forced to retire after that race, we’ll see some Keen Ice babies on the track in a few years.
Bonus: Keen Ice before the Whitney with Jose Ortiz up and looking determined in the Saratoga paddock.
#16: Battle of Midway wins the Breeders’ Cup Mile over Sharp Azteca
I had the amazing opportunity to atttend my first Breeders’ Cup this year and my camera was snapping away. I caught Battle of Midway winning the BC Dirt Mile, grinding down Sharp Azteca in the Del Mar stretch. The fist pump by jockey Flavian Prat on the now-retired victory makes this photo for me!
#15: Always Dreaming in his Saratoga Stall
This isn’t the greatest photo that I took, but personally, it’s one of the most meaningful to me because it’s the first time that I had the honor of visiting the stall of a Kentucky Derby winner. The rise and fall of Always Dreaming was one of the biggest stories this year. When I picked him to win the Kentucky Derby in my Pace Thesis, it not only helped me hit a big Pick 3 on Derby day, but it also helped me win the 2017 Ron Rippey Award, so I will always be indebted to Always Dreaming. It was recently discovered that his subpar runs in the Preakness, the Jim Dandy, and the Travers might have been caused by ulcers that have since been remedied, so we’ll anxiously await his return to the races in 2018.
Bonus: Classic Empire hanging out in his Saratoga stall. I was able to visit the 2016 Juvenile champion this summer thanks to the Mark Casse barn. Even though he never raced at Saratoga this year and has since retired, when he was on his game, he was at the top of this 3-year-old crop.
#14: Jose Ortiz and family in the Saratoga Winners’ Circle
Jockey Jose Ortiz has had an amazing 2017 and may be crowned this year’s Eclipse Award winner for Outstanding Jockey. I caught him and his family (wife and former jockey Taylor Rice and daughter Leilani) in the Saratoga Winners’ Circle after his win on American Gal in the Grade 1 Test. After I posted this photo on Twitter, Ortiz took my photo and made it his Twitter profile picture, so that makes it extra cool.
#13: Mind Your Biscuits at Saratoga
Trainer Chad Summers was gracious enough to allow me to visit his Saratoga barn in late July with the Racing Dudes. We were able to witness the workout routine of his stable’s star, Mind Your Biscuits. I caught the multiple-Grade 1 winner cooling out in one of my favorite photos here.
#12: Oklahoma Training Track on a July Morning
If you’ve never been to the Oklahoma Training Track in Saratoga, then you need to get there at least once in your life. A morning at the Oklahoma is my favorite place in the world. Here’s a great photo at 6:00 a.m. during an early July morning that tries to capture the essence of the Oklahoma.
Bonus: Another shot on the backside by the Oklahoma.
#11: Elate before winning the Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga
As said before, it was Jose Ortiz’s year, and one of his top mounts was Elate. If you’ve ever been in a paddock and heard of a horse “touting themselves,” then Elate was the absolute definition. Before the Grade 1 Alabama, Elate was stomping around like she was about to eat the field. After I took this photo, she gave out a great snort like she was spitting fire. I rushed to the window and made a nice win wager on her, and she didn’t let me down, winning the Alabama by 5 1/2 lengths for the Bill Mott barn and stamping herself as a top 3-year-old filly for 2017.
#10: Unique Bella schooling in the Breeders’ Cup Paddock
Keeping with top 3-year-old fillies, Unique Bella captured the hearts and imagination of fans in 2017 like no other horse in the crop. She stood like a statue in the Del Mar paddock on Thursday before BC weekend and I was able to capture her taking in all the sights and sounds of BC with her ears pointed. Unique Bella disappointed in the BC going too fast early, but returned to relax and pounce wining the Grade 1 La Brea on Santa Anita opening day on December 26. She will be one of the biggest stars in the game entering 2018 for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
#9: Forever Unbridled holds off Abel Tasman to win the Breeders’ Cup Distaff
The top 3-year-old filly in 2017 was Abel Tasman, and she was moving late in the BC Distaff but couldn’t catch the winner, Forever Unbridled. I was able to get this shot standing in the auxiliary bleachers past the finish line at Del Mar. Forever Unbridled capped off an abbreviated three-race campaign with this huge win for trainer Dallas Stewart and is likely on her way to an Eclipse Award for Best Older Female.
Bonus: A bit more after the BC Distaff wire.
#8: Rushing Fall before winning the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf
With an eye to 2018, let’s review one of 2017’s emerging stars, Rushing Fall. Jockey Javier Castellano looks locked in and ready to kick off the Breeders’ Cup with a huge win for trainer Chad Brown and owner e5 Racing.
#7: Good Magic before winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile
It’s e5 Racing and Chad Brown again, this time with Good Magic, another star coming into 2018 who’s now along the Kentucky Derby path. It was also another top mount for Jose Ortiz. I took this shot on the sixth-floor roof of Del Mar while looking into the paddock.
Bonus: It was a great view from the sixth floor looking into the Del Mar paddock with the Pacific Ocean in the distance.
#6: Roy H wins the BC Sprint over Imperial Hint
It wasn’t the cover of Sports Illustrated with American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown, but I was lucky to capture the shadows of the crowd snapping iPhone photos with their arms in the air as Roy H captured the Breeders’ Cup Sprint over Imperial Hint.
#5: Lady Eli schooling in the Breeders’ Cup paddock
Lady Eli’s continued successful return to the races from a death-defying battle with laminitis was one of the most heartwarming stories of 2017. Grade 1 wins in the Gamely and Diana should finally cement her as an Eclipse Award winner this year, an achievement that has escaped her thus far. Her shiny coat glistening in the California sun while schooling in the Del Mar paddock the Thursday before the Breeders’ Cup was a sight to see. Her rough trip in the BC Filly & Mare Turf left her with deep cuts in her hind legs early in the race, and she was subsequently withdrawn from the Keeneland November sale after the race. The BC was supposed to be her last race, but there is a possibility that she returns to training in the Chad Brown barn in 2018. Stay tuned.
#4: Patch arrives in Saratoga
When it came to popularity in 2017, very few horses rose higher in the fan rankings than the one-eyed wonder Patch. Qualified for the Kentucky Derby after running second in the Louisiana Derby, Patch captured the hearts of fans worldwide because he was running without a left eye that he’d lost as a yearling. He left his fans wanting more after a disappointing 14th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, but he redeemed himself with a strong third-place finish in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. When Patch arrived at Saratoga, I rushed to see him and caught him hanging out of his stall. Patch is so popular that when I tweeted this photo, it received 622 likes!
Bonus: Patch jumping for joy working on the Saratoga main track, which he didn’t race over in 2017.
#3: World Approval after winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile with groom Roberto Lopez
One of the best training jobs of 2017 was Mark Casse deciding to cut back World Approval to a mile distance. He thrived, becoming one of the best turf milers in the world. With Grade 1 wins in the Fourstardave at Saratoga, the Woodbine Mile, and the Breeders’ Cup Mile, World Approval will likely be crowned the Eclipse Champion Turf Male for 2017. I caught World Approval with his best friend, groom Roberto Lopez, back at the barn after the Breeders’ Cup. Lopez said that the often-rambunctious World Approval will not let others get close to him, so I said, “Okay, then give him a hug.” The result was this great photo, which is a testament to the great everyday care that backside workers give to the horses that we love.
#2: Arrogate’s Last Dance
The top story of 2017 was the meteoric rise and mysterious downfall of Arrogate. After starting the year by dominating the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup, then winning the $10 million Dubai World Cup in jaw-dropping, come-from-behind fashion, Arrogate looked invincible. His return loss in the Grade 2 San Diego in July at Del Mar was the biggest upset of the year. After an “un-Arrogate-like” second in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic and a dismal, poor-breaking performance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Arrogate’s place in history as a great horse will be debated for decades to come. I snapped Hall-of-Fame jockey dismounting Arrogate one last time after the Breeders’ Cup as the dusk set in. A successful ride into the sunset after their last race together was just not in the stars for Smith and Arrogate.
Bonus: Flashback to 2016 before Arrogate became a superstar, when he was about to run the fastest Travers ever, with Smith getting a leg up on him for the first time.
#1: Gun Runner Rules
The soon-to-be Horse of the Year, Gun Runner, is also the photo of the year! Standing only a few feet away from him in the Whitney Winners’ Circle was an absolute thrill. I took this photo of the eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner in all his glory with jockey Florent Geroux.
Bonus: I had the honor to follow Gun Runner throughout his training at Saratoga, and the Steve Asmussen barn was gracious enough to grant me an interview and let me visit for this photo when he first arrived at The Spa.
Bonus: You have to get to the track early to see Gun Runner work out. I was able to get this shot of him working out at 6:00 a.m. over the Oklahoma Training Track on a July morning alongside his stablemate, the Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee.
Bonus: All of the hard work and great training from Asmussen culminated in Gun Runner’s Breeders’ Cup Classic win that I was able to witness right past the finish line. Seeing Geroux pump his fist crossing the finish line was one of the top highlights of the year.
It’s been a blast! Let’s try to do it all again in 2018!