National Museum of Racing’s Photo Finish tour with Tod Marks: Tips and Observations

Racing photographer Tod Marks without a camera, a rare sight near the Oklahoma Training Track in Saratoga Springs, NY. Photo by Rhonda Lane

On two Sundays in August, during the thoroughbred racing meet, the National Museum of Racing near the Saratoga Racecourse holds a special tour of the backstretch with a professional photographer.

I took the tour on the Sunday racing photographer Tod Marks, staff photog for the daily Saratoga Special newspaper and contributor to other racing publications, led the group.

Here are some tips on taking the tour, including some of my own observations and some of the photos I took.

The morning sun outlines two horses heading back to the barn after morning works. Photo by Rhonda Lane

Tips:

Book early. Watch the museum’s website calendar of events. There are usually two weekends for the photo finish tour, usually in August.

Know you will have to get up early. Brace yourself. I had to be at the museum parking lot at 6:45.

You don’t have to have a professional quality camera, at least for the tour I took.

You will need a zoom lens, preferably an optical zoom lens instead of a digital zoom, and a camera with an image stabilizer and/or be good at holding the camera steady. Three years ago, I took the museum’s basic Oklahoma track tour with a regular point-and-shoot camera equipped with a digital zoom and felt frustrated. I prefer using a digital SLR camera.

Wear comfortable shoes and layers for changes in temperature as the sun rises.

Accept that you can’t get close to the horses or go off by yourself. You must stay with the group.

Feel free to ask the tour leader questions about photography, the history of the track and the horses running as well as their connections.

Be open to what you see. You’ll still see wonderful shots.

The tour officially only lasts for an hour and a half, but ours lasted a little more than two hours.

Observations

The nose of a bay horse pokes out between fence rails.

Does he have a nose for winners? A waiting horse stabled near the Saratoga Racecourse’s Oklahoma training track. Photo by Rhonda Lane

My thoughts on the tour

A young girl and racehorse in stall share secrets

Little moments happen fast on the backstretch at Saratoga. Photo by Rhonda Lane

If I want to do something at the track in the early morning, I won’t stay in Albany again, let alone downtown Albany, a 45-minute drive away. I did reduce that driving time dramatically, so it’s best we move on.

Be prepared to get up early.  I had to be at the museum parking lot at 6:45. There’s discussion of starting the tour an hour earlier next year. I’m all for it. The morning light is That Worth It. Even worth paying extra for a hotel room a lot closer to the track the night before.

Pack something to eat before you leave for the tour. Odds are, you’ll be getting up before the hotel offers breakfast or your favorite coffee purveyor opens for business.

At first, the distance rules rankled, especially when we saw a family with a child standing by the rail at the Oklahoma practice track with horses thundering past. #jealousmuch,Rhonda? 😉 Soon, I realized I liked having a buffer zone between me and the horses.

When you’re in the Zone taking photos, all you know is what you see in your viewfinder. That’s it.  I get tunnelvision, and my other senses narrow to an area that barely covers my personal space. Having non-photographers looking out for my safety was nice. If an accident happens and one of the equine athletes throws a fit, not only could we get hurt or killed, but so could other people.

Tod also served as photographer’s wingman, letting us know when something fun or beautiful was happening within camera range.

You never know what famous people you might see. We saw horse owner and NY Giants coach Bill Parcells and Christophe Clement, with his string lined up at the Oklahoma track just as they are in the website banner photo.

Because the tour is scheduled to only last an hour and a half, I thought I’d have time to boogie over to the track for Breakfast with the Work, except we didn’t return to the museum parking lot until 9:30. I took a gamble and hot-footed it across Union Avenue to the racetrack clubhouse where the breakfast program is served. Even if I missed it, I knew I could find food – or even just coffee and a pastry – somewhere nearby.

The BWTW program was over, and the staff seated me anyway because there was still food out at the buffet station. I paid about what I’d pay at a business class hotel restaurant for breakfast, except I was trackside on a beautiful day. That said, if you’re looking for a late breakfast at the track on a race day and the host/hostess rebuffs you, there’s a big Dunkin Donuts booth within sight of the Clubhouse entrance. So, you can grab your Dunkin, walk out to the seats on the track apron and watch the stragglers work before the track closes at 10 am for a lot cheaper.

Would I do it again?

Absolutely! Health, finances or schedule permitting.

Horse in stall plays with bucket

“Look, Ma! No hands.” Great photos happen fast, sometimes when you’re looking elsewhere. Thanks, Tod, for spotting this one.

 

15 Comments
  • tod marks
    August 22, 2012

    So glad you enjoyed the tour, Rhonda. It was a pleasure to be surrounded by such enthusiastic horse racing fans! I think this year’s tour was the best ever. We all got to see so much. Much more than in past years. The weather was gorgeous, and it make the photos sparkle.

    Hope to see you next time around. Great post!!!

    -tod

  • Rhonda Lane
    August 23, 2012

    I did, Tod. Everything came together for us. Plus, the tour was especially rejuvenating for me. I’ve been focused on writing for so long that I’d forgotten how much fun it is to just go out and take pictures.

  • Kristan Higgins
    August 23, 2012

    This is definitely on my list of things to do, Rhonda! I really enjoyed your pictures…as you recall, it was the same day I watched “Secretariat.” 31 lengths, baby! 31 lengths! There is nothing more beautiful than a horse. Except maybe a baby. But still. Horses are such glorious animals, and I always enjoy your take on different aspects of racing.

  • Linda Avellar
    August 23, 2012

    Gorgeous photos Rhonda. My daughter goes to Skidmore, and every time we drive past that beautiful track I remind myself how much I want to visit. Now it’s a must do!

  • patricia grasso
    August 23, 2012

    I wish there were more photos. Kristen mentioned Secretariat. I’m not too young to remember watching that race when he won the triple crown. Secretariat is my all-time favorite athlete, only tied by Mohammed Ali.

  • Rhonda Lane
    August 23, 2012

    Thank you, Kristan, Linda and Patricia (and Tod, who I forgot to thank) for taking the time to comment.

    Believe it or not, I missed all the Secretariat excitement. That was back in my I Don’t Need Horses period, so I never watched his races live. I do remember feeling psyched when he made all the covers of the news magazines. I also fell in love with Tony Leonard’s classic photo “Secretariat at the Belmont” and own a print which hangs here in my office. So, Kristan, I cried during the Secretariat movie.

    Linda – The National Museum of Racing offers tours of the backstretch, where we were on the tour, for early mornings, most often on Sundays. Other events will be happening at the track soon. The Steeplechase Festival is in mid-September, and I think there’s going to be an equine expo there toward the end of October. FWIW, horses train at the track until Oct. 15. Old Friends at Cabin Creek, where you can pet the old champions and feed them carrots, in nearby Greenfield is open year-round..

    Patricia – I probably should do another post with more photos. I’m glad you enjoyed them.

    Actually, I see several more blog posts out of this weekend. 🙂 Anyway, thank you all for coming by and saying “hello.”

  • gailingis
    August 23, 2012

    Fantastic photos Rhonda. I want to paint le nez. That’s the one with the horses nose. The horse picking up the bucket is pretty special too.

    What a wonderful thing to do, go on a horse tour. Horses are magnificent beasts. I have this photo I took in the 80’s while in London, of a horse in silhouette, in the landscape. I love that horse in the landscape. I covet the photo. Guess I should paint that one too. The photo has meaning to me. The meaning will get lost in a painting. We were driving past, and saw this perfect picture on the side of the road. We stopped so I could catch the moment. That’s for the post.

  • gailingis
    August 23, 2012

    I meant, thanks for the post Rhonda.

    • Rhonda Lane
      August 23, 2012

      Hi, Gail – Thank you for your comment. (I know what you meant.) The light made that nose photo sparkle. There’s a certain magic in the light of early morning and golden light waning day. I used to dabble with oils and understand how difficult capturing that fragile quality of light can be. Almost impossible. Thank you for stopping by and saying “hello.”

  • Gloria Alden
    August 23, 2012

    What an experience that must have been. I love your photos, too. I love horses, but never had anything as beautiful as the horses there. Now I’ve downsized to two small ponies to satisfy my love of horses. They’re sisters and my special pets.

  • Rhonda Lane
    August 23, 2012

    Thank you, Gloria. So glad you stopped by and said “hello.” Your ponies must be adorable. Sisters! I love ponies.

  • Jennifer Iszkiewicz
    August 24, 2012

    Great article as always, Rhonda, I loved the photos! You make so much effort to keep us non-horsey informed and wow! Albany to Saratoga before 6 am – remind me: what color is the sky at that hour?

  • Kate Wyland
    August 24, 2012

    Fun post. I grew up around Santa Anita. While the track was beautiful, behind the scenes was dreary. Nothing like Saratoga. Neat.

  • Rhonda Lane
    August 24, 2012

    Hi, Jennifer – Thanks for stopping by. The color of the sky at 6 am? Beats me. My eyes weren’t awake enough for that. 😉 Thanks for leaving a comment.

    Hi, Kate – Saratoga is one of the few tracks with a backstretch prettied up with trees, potted plants and flowering shrubs. Still, even at Saratoga, racetrack workers live a hardscrabble, gritty life. That’s important to keep in mind. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  • Marian Lanouette
    August 25, 2012

    Great photos, Rhonda. I love horses and riding. They are one of the most beautiful animals.

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