By Michael Clevenger and Erik Mohn, Courier-Journal
Like last year, my crew of eight friends braved the rain and the mud. We did everything right. We kept our cameras and triggers dry. We made the photos that we came for. Well, almost. At the end of the day the winner was crowned, not at the finish line, but in the stewards’ room, and the day was nearly an exercise in futility. Win some. Lose some.
Redemption will roll around again next year on the first Saturday in May. We’ll all place our bets. We’ll win a few and lose a few, and we will all chase Wallace Lowry.
Michael Clevenger has photographed 24 Kentucky Derbys and helps coordinate racetrack photos with director of photography Scott Utterback and senior photographer Pat McDonogh.
By Michael Clevenger
On May 6, 1933, Courier-Journal photographer Wallace Lowry rolled under the inside rail at Churchill Downs and trained his Speed Graphic on the two horses racing to the finish of the Kentucky Derby. Lowry recorded one image, right, on his glass plate negative and rolled back under the rail before he became a divot in the racetrack.
And what an image it was.
Brokers Tip and Head Play were nose-to-nose in the stretch. However, their two jockeys, Don Meade and Herb Fisher, were locked in mortal, hand-to-hand combat, punching and whipping each other as each tried to win the garland of roses and a place in horse racing history.
A copy of the “Fighting Finish,” as the image is now known, hangs in the entrance to the jockeys' room at Churchill Downs and bears the autographs of Fisher and Meade. It is also the most requested reprinted photograph in the newspaper’s 150-year history.
Lowry’s photograph contains every element of a great storytelling image. A sense of place. Conflict. Peak action. In my mind, it’s the greatest horse racing photo ever made and possibly one of the greatest sports photos ever made.
It’s no wonder, then, that each year on the first Saturday in May dozens of us make our way to the rail to see if we, too, can catch lightning in a bottle. In the shadow of the famous twin spires, cameras are placed like bets. In my case, there are about 20 cameras, some at the finish, some in the stretch, and on the starting gate. Each can bring you misery ... or a fat payoff.
It’s truly a challenge. The field of 20 horses only passes you twice and covers the distance from the final corner to the finish in just over 20 seconds. And then it’s over. You got what you got. No do-overs.