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