Grits, Silks, and Irons
by Scotty Denhollem
(Reprinted by permission from The Texas Thoroughbred, April 1996)
Churchill Downs. Friday, May 1, 1981.
Dawn had not yet broken, and the track kitchen glowed hospitably. Brian and Ed showed me in, the screen doors bouncing closed behind us. "I like their grits," Ed said.
My anxiety was eased for the moment. Grits, I knew about. Horses, I did not. And I had a sinking sensation that within 48 hours, the Associated Press would relegate me to the journalist's glue factory.
The Associated Press (AP) management decision to send me to the Kentucky Derby was not, on its face, very sound. I had rarely been around horses before, and had never even seen a Thoroughbred up close. In fact, my knowledge of equines was pretty much limited to 1950’s television shows like My Friend Flicka and Fury ("The story of a horse... and the boy who loved him).
But I was not going to turn down the assignment; ignorance, after all, can usually be remedied. And certainly, hometown friends and family in Shreveport would think this was something really special, my going to the Kentucky Derby. Louisiana Downs, with its own new Super Derby, was just across the river in Bossier City.
My only exposure to the Bossier race track, however, had been to view the construction site. When the track actually opened in the mid-1970s, I was long gone from the area, studying journalism at Indiana University. Consequently, I never got in on the excitement, and learned nothing of backstretches and electrolytes, let alone trifectas.
Or leaving Indiana, I was hired by the AP in Chicago for their photo desk. Wandering the fog with other rookies, I gamely initiated a change from pointy-headed graduate student to street wise photo editor. But I was warned of unseen dangers lurking within the bureau. "Nobody trusts us, we're the new regime. Overachievers, inexperienced," one of my high strung fellows would say, nervously pulling his goatee. And he would stub out another Merit in an empty film can.
Undeniably, I did lack "hard news" experience, and this showed up in my dippy photo coverage assignments. Things that seemed newsworthy to me were, in Chicago, facts of ordinary life. "What do you think this is, the Shreveport Tribune?" one of the veteran photographers would growl. His sarcasm was not limited to me, though, and in some respects I was better situated than my counterparts. The old salts simply assumed that the boss had to hire a woman for the photo desk, a fact that he denied strenuously. (“I didn't hire you because you’re a woman," he insisted. "I hired you because I could get you cheap.")
Yet, despite collective misgivings, we eventually cranked up a functional - off sometimes squeaky - newsphoto operation on the 14th floor of the Carbon & Carbide Building downtown. And although my news judgment improved, being appointed to Derby duty two years later shocked everyone, including myself. In response to lukewarm congratulations, I was openly apologetic.
All I knew about the Kentucky Derby was that a guy in a red jacket played "My Old Kentucky Home” on a bugle. Then the horses ran, and the favorite never won except for Secretariat. Would I be able to tell the difference between a bob tailed rag and a Whirlaway? Misgivings plagued me. If I bombed, the in-bureau critics would be proven right: overeducated apprentices - especially girls - were a liability to the world's largest news gathering organization.
To Louisville, Anyway
On alighting from the plane in Louisville, I was initially confused by the crowded airport. It was Thursday, two days before the Derby. All these people were flying in for it? Why? Maybe these folks just didn't have anything else to do, I decided, and grabbed a cab to the Rodeway Inn with a souvenir mint julep glass in hand.
I caught up with Brian Horton from AP-New York, and Ed Reinke, then a staff photographer in Cincinnati. Not only was I awestruck by their being big shots, they were also exceedingly handsome, which embarrassed me. They even sported well-trimmed beards that gave them the look of ante-bellum gentlemen or Kappa Alpha actives on "Old South Weekend."
Bran and Ed were congenial, though, as they were really just nice guys from Indianapolis who - like me - had come through the Indiana University school of journalism. Both had been in town for a few days, setting up photo operations at the track in a suite which was formerly the exclusive province of Churchill Downs presidents. The utilitarian result looked like a design by Gyro Gearloose.
Friends of both duct and electrical tape, Brian and Ed had stretched miles of it throughout the quarters. School cafeteria style sinks stood where the Downs president's credenza surely must have been, with brown plastic jugs of photo chemicals stored underneath. Portable hair dryers to dry film quickly were hanging on the walls; these were mounted next to flattened Hefty garbage bags that were used as a backdrop to "squeegee" finished prints. (In fact, the black Hefty bags were critical to our operations, for in addition to providing a suitable squeegee surface, they also provided light-tight liners for the darkroom.)
Telephones, photo transmitters and a network squawk box were lined up on a long table which served as my work area. Featured here were also an Underwood manual typewriter, caption paper, and a bottle of white-out. And if anybody needed to reach something, there was a nine foot ladder propped against the walls.
The main objective was quickly articulated: the nation's newspapers should use more photos of the Kentucky Derby made by AP than by our rival, the United Press International (UPI). "Time. It's all about time," Ed said as he cranked out canisters of film from the Kodak bulk loader. He explained that when the race went off late Saturday afternoon, all the East Coast newspapers would have already locked up their early Sunday editions. "But they'll leave a space for a Derby picture on the front page," Ed continued. "And whoever gets their photo out first - AP or UPI - that's what they'll go with. Doesn't matter what it looks like, just whoever's first."
Brian concurred. "The big papers will have a guy assigned just to stand at the photo receivers. He'll grab the first one, then run to the backshop with it."
Having worked out logistics well in advance, they explained where the Derby photographers would be stationed, as well as where the remote cameras would be. The “worm's eye view” was always the most popular shot, they said; it was taken remote from a point on the ground, right beyond the finish line. Hmmmm. I'd always thought a photographer just crawled underneath the fence and took the picture. Graduate school did not stress these sorts of things.
"So, uh, guys, what am I supposed to do? Seems like everything is already covered," I observed.
"Oh. You write captions and file the wire," Brian responded.
"What's that now?" I thought it sounded pretty measly.
"It's a really important job," Brian replied and looked for confirmation at Ed, who nodded politely in agreement. "Maybe it doesn't sound like it, but you'll see. Everybody's running around, and pictures are flying everywhere; somebody has to keep things organized and keep the pictures moving on the wire."
Ed interjected. "And special requests. Out-of town papers will either send their own shooters, or they'll call and ask us to get something exclusive for them. You'll have to assign a photographer to get the shot they want, like maybe someone from their town who's at the race. After all that, somebody's got to transmit the stuff to the paper, see."
Later, in conversations over supper, it became crystal clear to me that AP photographers ran virtually on auto pilot at the Kentucky Derby. They'd been coming for years and knew the answers before anybody else had thought of the questions. Moreover, the assignment was a reward, a perk, such that only the best photographers were sent along with their usually hearty egos. "So in otherwords," I said, calling on my new module of information, "I'll be like a dappled mare keeping the Thoroughbreds calm in the barn." "You could say that," Ed replied.
Off to the track
On Friday morning, Derby Eve, we left for the track at 4:30 a m.; an early departure was mandatory for shots of workouts, owners, and trainers. Crouched in the back of Ed's car along with telephoto lenses and assorted other gear, I was bleary eyed and lethargic. Ed and Brian were in their element, however, animated and talkative. The car buzzed along as though it were on trolley tracks: no navigation required.
When we arrived at Churchill Downs, darkness shrouded the famous spires and I had no sense of being anywhere in particular, except maybe for summer camp. I was just confused, and becoming worried again about my role in this event. Would I look like a complete dope to the entire Associated Press? How could I tell my friends in Shreveport?
While fearful that Brian and Ed would leave me swinging in the breeze, I still hoped that they would fancy themselves Henry Higgins-types with an Eliza Doolittle, sort of a "My Fair Lady Goes to the Racetrack." If so, they had their work cut out for them.
However, they were not similarly preoccupied at that point, as, eager for breakfast at the track kitchen, they homed right in on it. "I like their grits," Ed said. My anxiety was eased for the moment, as we heaped all manner of good breakfast eats and big cups of hot coffee on our trays. Settling in at a table, I looked around enviously at the grooms and exercise riders who appeared so knowledgeable, so comfortable in that setting - while I felt like the essence of nerdness.
Shooting by Daylight
By the time we finished breakfast, daylight had broken and it was time to shoot the workouts. As we ambled toward the track, Brian gave a well-polished, entirely believable horse whinny. I couldn't believe how real it sounded. "He's been practicing," Ed noted.
They shot pictures of the Derby contenders, while I admired the spires and tried to recognize famous sportscasters Later, after finishing a couple of rolls of film, Brian headed back to the darkroom, while Ed and I set out to get “cool down” shots of the horses.
We wandered back among the barns, where the Derby entrants were being washed down. Gaggles of journalists and hangers on gathered around, each looking for a quote or trying to give one. Needless to say, business was booming over at Pleasant Colony's stall, where trainer Johnny Campo extolled the virtues of his newly-acquired trainee.
"He's a character, isn't he?" Ed remarked. "Everybody calls him the Fat Man. Don't underestimate him, though; he only just got the horse, then turned around and won the Wood Memorial at the Aqueduct in New York. It's a big race." My only previous encounter with the word "aqueduct" was in Latin class, so I mentally filed that information away.
Upon leaving Campo and his entourage, we strolled away to watch a different colt’s sudsing and rinse. I was surprised, and very impressed, to see steam rise from its back. Then without warning, the horse fully displayed his gender in a manner that instantly confirmed my Aggie friends' barnyard slang. Pie-eyed, I looked around anxiously to see what the other onlookers would do.
Squinting, Ed chewed gum thoughtfully, showing no reaction whatever. No one else reacted, either. Was I the only one who noticed? Surely not; yet, evidently, I was alone in finding it remarkable. I was glad when Ed decided to check out the action over at the media headquarters.
One for the Show The media building was a two-story, cinder block affair. Out front, next to a maple, a sign proclaimed: "Absolutely no horses, dogs or other animals to be tied to this tree." Naturally, any number of wiseacres posed by the sign, pretending to be tied up with camera straps. Inside, a Louisville radio station was broadcasting remote.
Clad in a nubby-wool cardigan and corduroys, the emcee appeared to enjoy the chatty patter. However, joining other newsfolk in scarfing down fresh donuts and coffee, I went into a food-induced stupor on a cold, metal folding chair. It was hardly 9:00 a.m., and I was ready for a nap. Thumbing through racehorse magazines, I paid scant attention to the ongoing interview; then, I finally realized that the host was talking to the owner of a Derby entrant. (It was the owner's wife, anyway; maybe they didn't live in a community property state.) I was momentarily bewildered.
Wearing diamonds as big as K-Mart countertops, this beautifully-coifed platinum blonde was most assuredly an uptown swell; the image contrasted starkly with my personal experience. After all, I knew lots of regular people who owned horses in Shreveport, and most seemed to live out on Dixie Garden Road near Mr. Money's Produce Market. Nothing high society about it.
But this lady was obviously Mrs. Money from a different neighborhood, dressed as though she had just walked out of an Hermes boutique. So that's who buys the $200 scarves featuring tack motifs, I realized. Still, I couldn't help wondering why she was going on and on about getting that horse to Churchill Downs. I always figured that competing in the Derby was pretty much equivalent to exhibiting livestock at the State Fair: your option. Just fill out the forms and show up with your horse.
Meanwhile, back at the darkroom...
We gathered coffee and donuts for Brian and returned to the darkroom. He was clearly agitated, and explained that a brouhaha had developed with respect to the field of contenders. Twenty-three had been entered the day before, he said, but Downs officials invoked a 20 horse limit based on career earnings. The owners of Flying Nashua and Mythical Ruler had already gone to court to get their horses reinstated. While the phones jangled with questions and leads, Ed left for the courthouse.
Oh great; my first Kentucky Derby and it's going to be canceled, I thought. However, it was also tempting to hope that it would be canceled, or at least postponed, as it would buy me some time to research Thoroughbred racing and save face. Brian said that not a court in the state of Kentucky would call off the Derby, though. Ultimately, he was proven correct, of course, but it was a long wait for the word.
The day passed quietly as news-types occasionally wandered in and out to visit and slap each other on the back. Meanwhile, Brian was not alarmed by my startling admission that I was clueless about everything but grits at the track kitchen. "Brian," I said, "I just don't know what the hell I'm doing. I'm the weak link in your chain gang here."
He made a gracious remark about everybody having to start from somewhere, and good-naturedly initiated a crash course on big stakes races and the peculiarities of their photo coverage. And while I was grateful for his apparent generosity of spirit, he was surely driven by pragmatism, too. Although the AP news professionals could undoubtedly get everything done without me, it would be so much better if the assigned caption writer/bottlewasher were actually useful.
For the rest of the day, then, Brian coached me on both substance and procedure, starting with the previous year's photos ("the report") featuring Genuine Risk. Caption style was important, he noted: name the horse, the jockey, and their finish. That's it. If people want more information, they can check the AP news story.
And when describing the picture, one says that the jockey is "in the irons." Or "aboard" the mount. The horse is "under" the jockey. If you can't tell which horse is which, look at the "silks' and noseguards. Ahhh, so. I practiced with horses that were scheduled to run the next day: "Classic Go Go, with Tony Black aboard, crosses the finish first at Churchill Downs on Saturday." Okay. I personally felt that "Cure the Blues" should win because Bill Shoemaker would be "in the irons," and practiced that one, too.
At Brian's suggestion, I wrote each entrant's name in big letters on a poster, then taped it to the wall. That way, I would be able to see quickly what I needed when the pressure was on. At the rate things were going, however, I could not imagine it being hectic.
Flying Nashua and Mythical Ruler prevailed in court, so the race was on with a field of 21, Wayward Lass having been scratched. Ed and Brian made the predawn run without me; I decided to sleep late and meet them mid-morning. By that time, numerous other AP personnel had arrived at the hotel, and we moved en masse to the Downs.
Having become accustomed to a much slower pace both in town and at the track, I was flabbergasted to see all the traffic and congestion that had appeared out of nowhere. Quiet neighborhoods were festooned with Derby regalia, and home owners offered parking in their driveways for inflated prices. At the track itself, a carnival atmosphere had cranked up, with chartered buses and limos ringing souvenir salesmen and motorcycle mamas. The hoopla even equalled a Darrel Royal ("You dance with who brung ya") Cotton Bowl.
Once into the safety of the AP operation, there was scant improvement; by contrast to the previously quiet hangout, the place was jammed with people. In addition to the AP staffers, the anticipated "visiting photographers" also materialized. Many were bringing in feature shots of infield hijinks and Millionaire's Row to transmit; these would augment the straight up racing coverage. I came to understand what Brian had meant about everything getting so hectic, but I was comfortable with the perfunctory business of transmitting pictures and handling the special requests. And, with certain limits imposed by technology, the visitors queued politely.
By mid-afternoon, I was caught up for the moment, and decided to go place my Derby bets. A photographer I didn't know began to tease me about my choices, which included Pleasant Colony.
"You're selling him short," I retorted. 'Johnny Campo knows what he's doing; the Fat Man only just got the colt and won the Wood Memorial already." I looked over at Ed, who lifted an eyebrow in amusement and nodded a go-ahead. I continued. "And that's a big race. You're probably looking at Horse of the Year."
The shooter was impressed; Ed nudged him. "Don't mess with this girl, she knows Thoroughbreds," he said.
I beamed all the way to a betting window, where the cashier patiently recorded my wagers. When he handed me the ticket printouts, I realized that I had just placed bets on the fourth race. "I thought I was betting on the Derby" I said shakily.
"No ma'am," the man replied kindly. He pointed down the way. "See, there's the Derby window. That's where you go before the Derby comes up."
I was crushed. Dragging my feet back to the darkroom, I did not tell anyone what had happened.
And They're Off!
The Derby was a long time coming, it seemed, but was over in little more than two minutes. After the bugle guy in the red jacket played "My Old Kentucky Home," the race finally went off amid great roars of crowd approval. And at 5:43 p.m., the tale was told: Pleasant Colony won, Woodchopper placed. Finishing third was Partez, "under" Sandy Hawley who stood up in the saddle at the 16th pole, apparently thinking that the race was over.
A breathless messenger brought back the first batch of AP film, placing it in a bucket on the ground under our second story window; we pulled it up with a rope. The darkroom wizards flew to work, and Brian dashed out to tell me what the picture would show. Meanwhile, in New York, the AP network monitor announced that he was holding off all transmissions so that we could transmit our Derby finish as soon as it was ready. "At this point," he stated, "network control goes to Churchill Downs."
My fingertips sweating, I cracked out the first caption and hoped it would fit the print: "Pleasant Colony, with Jorge Velasquez in the irons, wins the 107th Run for the Roses in Louisville Saturday." Brian bolted out, waving the picture to complete the drying process. I affixed the caption and nervously picked up the handset to become yet another voice in the ether. "All points upcoming, vertical photo of Derby finish from Churchill Downs," I stammered. "Go ahead final."
There followed the comforting sounds that accompanied a 1980s-era laserphoto transmission. A steady beep and spikes on a meter revealed that the transmitter was working, registering the black and white tones and converting them to telephone signals that would result in a laserphoto at the end of the line. It took about eight and a half minutes to transmit a picture back then, so one couldn't really be sure of the product until it was too late to fix it for tight deadlines. In this case, just a little network static would mean that the New York Times would feature UPI's finish, not ours.
But the transmission was fine, and we were jubilant. Meanwhile, additional pictures were stacking up before me and I was beginning to feel a bit power-drunk. My voice no longer quavered; it was strong, commanding. Never mind bombings or political upheavals elsewhere; the world was fixed on Churchill Downs, and I was the voice of the network. Few knew that Brian was making the judgment calls.
The AP management was impressed by my performance at the Derby, Brian later reported. "Naturally," I replied. "I was your shadow puppet!" And, although he and Ed modestly denied it, as racetrack counterparts of Henry Higgins, they had worked Pygmalion Magic that weekend. There were some far-reaching effects of their efforts, too; indeed, because of new-found respect in Louisville, I was all right in Chicago even when I messed up.
I continued to go to the Kentucky Derby, but as always, circumstances change. My final Derby assignment was 1985, when Spend a Buck took home the roses.
Since then, Brian has become the AP's exalted potentate of sports photos, while Ed is photo editor for the entire state of Kentucky. The Derby is his baby now. As for me, I'm an attorney in Shreveport, "married with children." While I do attend races at Louisiana Downs from time to time, the only derby I've seen in ten years was on a hat rack. Pretty slow stuff.
Back Home Again in Indiana: May, 1995
A decade has elapsed since my last Kentucky Derby, and two since I was a journalism student at Indiana University. Thus, with a sentimental bent, I decided to attend a retirement party in Bloomington last Spring for my former mentor, Professor Emeritus Will Counts.
I was excited about seeing Will, a former AP man himself. He had come to a couple of Derbys when I was there, and his daughter Claudia was an AP editor with whom I had worked. Otherwise, I was pessimistic about the prospect of seeing old friends; I knew of only two or three who were coming, and I imagined that their time would be pretty well spoken for.
So, after driving around the campus to recollect a bit, I decided to print some pictures in the journalism school's darkroom. Later taking a break, I meandered into a brightly-lit hallway to stretch my legs. Turning to a display case of photographs, I began to study them while patiently waiting for my middle-aged eyes to adjust first for light, then for distance. (Like an automatic camera, but not as fast.)
While intent on this effort, I was startled by the sound of a neighing horse. In the building? Before I could react, a voice called out, "Hey good looking, want to write some captions?"
I wheeled around to behold Brian and Ed, and I could not have been happier to win the $64,000 Challenge. "Is it really you?" I implored, and we hugged. Not surprisingly, I had to dab some brine from my eyes.
"Captions," I repeated, as I recovered my composure. "Well, sure. Let's talk about it over some grits."
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