Kentucky Derby by the numbers

May 6, 2013

The Reuters pictures team of John Gress, Matt Sullivan and Jeff Haynes reflect on covering the past weekend’s Kentucky Derby.

By Jeff Haynes

Fast forward 25 years from 1988 and the Winning Colors victory to 2013 and Orb, include every Kentucky Derby winner in-between and you have a total of roughly 50 minutes of what I call a spring time tradition – photographing what many call the most photographed two minutes in sports. Just like in years past photographing the Derby for me is one of the most thrilling events I cover each year. 2013 was no different.

It was this annual event that got me hooked on becoming a wire service photographer. Covering the Derby is like no other event. You show up days before to go to early morning work-outs and photograph the horses training on the track, being groomed and bathed, and maybe catching a quiet moment where a trainer and horse just graze on Kentucky Blue grass on the back side of Churchill Downs.

Not much has changed in 25 years, maybe a few more people get in the way trying to get a glimpse of each horse. Then comes the first Saturday in May – the numbers change but the day is always the same. We arrived early in the morning to set up remote cameras, check the computers and internet connection so everything was ready to go for later in the day. You kill time by taking photos of beautiful ladies in even prettier hats, and guys smoking huge cigars they have waited all spring to smoke.

There are the silly hats, the mint juleps and the drunks in the infield who might not even know there is a horse race about to happen, but you always think about the race that is going to happen later in the day. We waited for the bugler to call the horses to the post for this year’s Kentucky Derby. This year’s main attraction was the rain. The rain started around 9am and didn’t stop all day, adding another factor to our long day.

5:30pm – time to get out onto the track into my position about an hour before the race. I was positioned in what is known as the head on, looking straight down the front stretch of the track, back toward the finish line. This was like few other events we cover, it only lasts for two minutes. The human is “not” the focal point of the sport – instead it’s a four legged animal. Everyone was getting excited and some were nervous. You only have one chance of making a photograph that tells the story.

This year was no different. The horses left the starting gate and ran down the front stretch for the first time. The ground shook as 20 horses galloped past, trying to gain position for the long run down the back stretch. Then it was show time for all the photographers who had lined the track. We could see the pack of horses round the forth turn and knew this was why we showed up days ago.

The time stamp on the first picture I took of the horses and jockeys coming down the front stretch was 6:34:45pm and the last picture I took as the winning horse Orb with jockey Joel Rosario celebrated and went past me was 6:34:59. All of 14 seconds and it was over. Another Derby winner, another Triple Crown hopeful, photographed for the ages. So I guess my 25 years and 50 minutes of work is better summed up as 25 years and 350 seconds. I can’t wait for those next 14 seconds in 2014.

By John Gress

It’s been called the most exciting two minutes in sports. For my colleagues and me it’s about three days of work leading up to three seconds of action as we capture the finish of the Kentucky Derby from every angle.

My job is to operate seven cameras at once under the rail capturing the winning horse and the iconic spires of Churchill downs, with each camera capturing about half a second of the horse passing by. The first time I did it, 10 races ago, I was petrified that I would mess something up or miss the images everyone was counting on. Over the years I have been able to relax, having learned that all the cameras are not going to be spot on every time.

Part of the strategy is to anticipate where the winner will finish. I’m told that when it’s dry, the winner is expected to be close to the rail. I’m told that when it’s wet, the horse is expected to be 10 or more feet out. In the 10 years I have done the race this has been mostly true, but I have to anticipate that even in a wet year, like this one, the horse could finish close to the cameras. So I ended up focusing cameras six feet out, 10 feet out and 20 feet out and using a variety of focal lengths in hopes of getting a perspective that features the biggest horse possible in relation to the steeples. Sometimes, like this year, the horse finishes in the sweet focus spot for both a camera set up for a rail finish (below) and a 10-15 feet out camera above, resulting in almost two identical moments with a slightly different perspective. The image below was shot wider than it appears, since the camera was set up to capture a closer horse, while the image above is almost full frame.

Some 50 feet from the finish line, I set up this camera hoping to get a shot of the jockey celebrating, but unfortunately he didn’t do that in range of this camera.

All of the cameras were wired together in a chain using special cords that connect them to regular household wire. When a button is attached and pressed at the end of the line, it fires all the cameras at once. However, I always set up a few cameras on wireless triggers in case the line fails for some reason during the finish.

(Photo courtesy of Nellie Hertenstein)

Moments before the race, my heart sank when my line of cameras shorted out and all the cameras kept firing on their own. A small amount of water bridging a connection was the culprit, which I cleaned off with a towel after disconnecting the camera cord from the household wire.

I couldn’t do it alone. For every race, I have help from fellow photographer Matt Sullivan in the morning and an assistant in the afternoon.

(Photo courtesy of Nellie Hertenstein)

Moments before the race, I climbed above my trusty mount (2nd L) and nervously bit my lip anticipating the finish.

My colleagues, (front to back) John Sommers, Matt Sullivan and Jeff Haynes made sure all of our pictures were on the way to our editor as they sat in a room full of photographers after the race.

After the race, I spent an hour with the help of my assistant Philip cleaning off all of the seven cameras, lenses and the five floor plates and ball heads I used to shoot the race.

By Matt Sullivan

For several years now my Derby Day starts out unloading and helping John Gress set up cameras for remote positions. After John and I had all the cameras ready I made my way to the media center to organize my equipment for the day. I began looking for feature photos of people arriving at Churchill downs.

I always like to go into the infield at Churchill Downs on Derby Day to make photos of revelers having a good time. This year’s Derby was a little different because it didn’t stop raining all day so I went into the infield several times to see what partiers were doing as they consumed alcohol all day long. People tend to get funnier as the day progresses.

About an hour before the race, I made my way out to Turn 4, the last turn before the straightway to the finish line with my assistant Becka. I must admit, the atmosphere and anticipation was one of the most dramatic in the sports that I cover, second only to the minutes before kickoff at an Ohio State/Michigan football game.

The horses started from the gate and sprinted by me the first time. Then I waited with anticipation for two minutes as they made their way around the track. I watched them on the large infield monitor and started to shoot as they came around Turn 4. My objective was to shoot all the horses in one big pack thundering around the turn.

I shot the horses in the lead of the race at Turn 4 but at that point it was anyone’s race and I just hoped to have the winner in one of my frames (there have been many years that I haven’t because the horse was hidden in the pack). After they race into the straightaway I hand my disk and any extra camera gear to my assistant so I can run the 1/4 of a mile to the winner’s circle to shoot the trophy presentation at the end of the day.

One comment

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@Jeff Haynes What make camera and lens did you use for the image on the front page of the NY Times Sport Sunday section, May 5th?

I know you use many cameras set up in different areas for different angles that you fire off with a remote,(different/same lenses?), but this shot is “beyond” incredible. Congratulations!

Regards,Yvonne Carella

Posted by yjmarigold | Report as abusive