Horse racing's top photographer will snap the winner | News Coverage from USA

Horse racing’s top photographer will snap the winner

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — At some point just before 7 p.m. Saturday, as the horses in the Kentucky Derby enter the stretch, Barbara Livingston is going to have a decision to make. Crouched just past the finish line at Churchill Downs, Livingston will peer through a camera lens just as she has in each of the last 28 years of this race, take a split-second to figure out which horse to focus on as they’re thundering toward her at 35 m.p.h. and hope she picked the right one. 

“You have to listen to the crowd a little bit,” said Livingston, chief photographer for the Daily Racing Form. “It’s the loudest crowd you hear each year; it’s incredible. But it’s even louder than incredible if a horse is closing on the outside so you have to follow the sound a little bit. It’s wonderful and it’s awful and it’s exciting and terrifying.”

Ever since her first Derby in 1991 when she somehow missed Strike the Gold closing on the outside — a terrible irony since she showed up that day wearing a Strike the Gold shirt and has spent most of her adult life obsessed with Alydar, who sired Strike the Gold — she’s gotten the winner, even when other photographers may have missed it among the cavalry charge to the finish line. 

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But when you ask Livingston about her favorite horses to photograph since she took this up at 11 years old and went to Saratoga with her mother to take pictures of Secretariat, it’s not the Triple Crown winners or the Breeders’ Cup champions that stand out the most.

It’s Flag Down, an otherwise forgettable turf horse who won a few graded stakes in the mid-1990s. And it’s Gander, a New York-bred who won 15 of 60 career races. Or it’s pretty much any gray horse she comes across. And chestnuts, too. 

“Every year a whole bunch of new ones come up that I’m totally smitten with,” she said. “It could be a horse who will never win a race, but it’s something about their spirit or the way they visually look. Sometimes i’m just crazy about a horse that other people will never notice.”

That Livingston sees the beauty in everything at the racetrack from the cat that hangs around the gate at Churchill to a mural in downtown Louisville she was waiting to photograph the other day because she wanted to see what it looked like in the rain probably explains why she’s so good at capturing it.

Four times, Livingston has won the Eclipse Award (horse racing’s version of the Oscars) for the best photograph of the year, more than anyone else in her profession. To do that, she has essentially devoted her life to the racetrack, spending as many as 200 days a year away from home, sometimes driving from coast to coast to follow the sport’s biggest stars. 

Livingston, who also authored a series of books called “Old Friends” about retired racehorses, has never had a desire to photograph any other subject. She photographed three weddings for friends, all from the racetrack, and hated it. The furthest she’s strayed from Thoroughbred racing is…harness racing.

“I’m seriously obsessed with it and I’m not sure that’s completely good,” she said. “It’s cost me in my personal life and when I die, I’m not sure I’m going to say, ‘Man am I glad I followed the track 200 days a year. But I can’t help myself. I used to think it was a passion, and now I think it’s an obsession.”

But it’s an obsession that is helping preserve the history of the sport. Livingston envisions that someday, long after she’s gone, much of her work will end up in the Keeneland library archives along with collections she’s acquired along the way. In it will be things as profound as photo negatives of Citation and Man O’War that she’s purchased and restored or as seemingly mundane as pictures of a dive bar in downtown Louisville called the Whirlaway Tavern (named after the Triple Crown winner) whose original signage from 1946 she fears will get painted over and forgotten. 

“Even that feels important to record,” she said.

Remarkably, Livingston’s collection still includes her first photos from the racetrack of legends like Secretariat and Forego, taken with her family’s Kodak Instamatic camera, and slides of the great filly Ruffian from when it was just a young girls’ hobby. 

But things changed on July 7, 1975, when Ruffian tragically broke down in a match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. The nationally televised race, and Ruffians’ subsequent death, shook millions who watched it. For Livingston, though, having those pictures in her possession was helping keep Ruffian alive.

“I wrote in my diary I wanted to be a horse photographer and painter, but I never got good at that,” Livingston said. “I just decided the fact (the photos would) be there forever, to me that was absolutely magical and incredible. And I decided I had to do that for my life. I just didn’t have any other choice.”

At 16, she caught a ride to New York City to photograph Seattle Slew winning the Triple Crown at Belmont. At Syracuse University, where she learned the craft of photography, Livingston sometimes flustered her professors because she found a way to turn every assignment into an excuse to shoot horses. And in 1985, while working in a photo lab, she submitted a photo to the Blood-Horse magazine she had taken at Aqueduct of champion Precisionist. It became her first cover photo, which opened the door for regular work with the major trade publications, who needed photographers to shoot major races in New York. 

These days, of course, Livingston isn’t just one woman with a camera. At a race like the Derby, she directs eight photographers set up at different points around the track and sets up a row of remote cameras that will be placed underneath the inside rail waiting for someone to trigger them. 

With all that technology, it’s almost impossible to miss a shot. But Livingston still wants to get the shot that will end up on the cover of the Racing Form, like the iconic picture she took of American Pharoah in full flight just before he crossed the finish line of the Belmont, a moment she calls “the ultimate of what I could hope to achieve.”

But even if that happens in a history-making moment Saturday, she’ll be back at the barn the next morning, looking for another one that will catch her eye and add to her archive of the most sensory sport on the planet. 

“Horses will look at you as if they’re letting you into their world and they don’t have to,” Livingston said. “They can rear up and run away from all of us, but they’ll work with you. It’s like they enjoy the relationship and want to give you everything. I’m just really lucky to have a sport as magnificent as it is.”






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