The finish line in the shadows

I’ve had some great times in photographing the horse races at both the Saratoga thoroughbred track and the Saratoga harness track.

Last week, I was at the harness track – it was an “unwind for Chuck” day, and I spent most of the time watching the races and losing money on them. But I happened to notice something in those late-evening races. Follow me on this.

Saratoga Harness is a half-mile track, so to complete a one-mile standardbred race, the horses must lap the track twice. After the first lap, as the horses are on the backstretch, the track officials turn on a beam of light along the finish line. This allows the track’s camera system to capture the horses as they complete their mile, while it also helps the track’s photographer (my friend Melissa) to get nice, crisp “winning line” photos.

But here’s what I’m thinking of. If we look at the horse race in terms of angles – with the pacers and trotters running straight across the finish line, the track photographer and the scoring photography are at a 90-degree angle to the finish line.

What if someone angled their camera to photograph so that the horses cross the finish line (and underneath that spotlight) at the exact precise time?

That sound you just heard was a lightbulb going off in my brain.

Here’s what I would need. I would position my Nikon Df camera near the finish line, so that the horses would approach me. As the dusk turns to evening and the track is lit for night racing, I could keep my camera set with a low-light setting, so that the horses would be illuminated as they pass the finish line. And if I can get some nice, crisp photos of the horses as they pass the finish line … at an angle that could show off some amazing sharpness… maybe 1600 ISO at an f/2.8 or so…

That sound you just heard is another lightbulb popping in my noggin.

Obviously, for me to do this, I have to work within where I can legally shoot at the track. Under no circumstances can I step upon the physical track itself, I can only shoot from the stands or from the corners. And no flash allowed – the last thing I want to do is temporarily blind the horse as it’s crossing the line.

So there I was, last Saturday night, Nikon Df around my neck, my 80-200 f/2.8 telephoto lens at the ready. By the fourth race, we were at dusk. By the sixth race, we had darkness.

But most of my shots were trial and error. I cranked up my ISO to an insane 6400, but the resulting shots had more grain in them than a farm silo. Some races had two horses cross the wire to the point where it looked like one horse was piloted by two sulkeys.

Then I chose a different angle. This is the 11th and final race of the night. There’s a horse in the field named Keystone Dakota, and most of the smart money was placed on his nose. And sure enough, Keystone Dakota led nearly wire to wire – yeah, that meant my two choices to win, Yakama and Gunpowder N, turned my Daily Double pick into a betting window donation – and at the angle I shot, not only did I get a crisp shot of Keystone Dakota crossing the line – under the curtain of light – but I also got the tote results on the illuminated scoreboard. Woah.

Winning at 1:5 Odds. Nikon Df camera, Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8 lens. Photo (c) 2021 Chuck Miller, all rights reserved.

Yes. If you follow harness racing, you can see that this horse was #4 in the field, running in the 11th race (check his saddle blanket for the numbers “11” and “4”), and over to the right, you can clearly see the oddsboard with him winning the race at 1:5 odds. I mean, nobody else was even close.

So there’s five more weeks of Saturday twilight racing at the harness track, and I may try this again. I mean, how cool would it be to get a photo like this with a longshot crossing the finish line?

And this could be a nice placeholder for Competition Season 2022. You never know. It’s never too late to start. Right?