By Kathy Day
As the Del Mar racetrack gears up for its 75th season opening on July 18, all sorts of special activities are being planned. But there’s one that will last beyond closing day – a carefully crafted book of memories that captures the essence of a day in the life of the legendary track.
“Del Mar at 75: Where the Turf Meets the Surf” was the brainchild of photographer Barry Myers of Bethesda, Md., who admits to attending a horse race only once before he started on the project. When he shared the idea with his cousin Jay Privman of Encinitas — the national correspondent for the Daily Racing Form who is decidedly better informed on thoroughbred racing – the plan started to gel.
Privman knows the staff at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club well from covering the season there for years. As an 11-year-old on a family vacation, it’s also the first place he ever saw a horse race.
Four years ago, Privman approached his friend Craig Dado, the club’s senior vice president for marketing, about the idea of “capturing the ebbs and flows to the season.” Then, to paraphrase Trevor Denman, away they went.
“The Del Mar experience is so visual,” Dado said. “We’ve always wanted to do a coffee table book so when Jay, who’s an award-winning writer, talked to me and (DMTC President) Joe Harper about it, we decided we had the right team.”
Myers, a retired commercial photographer who had little experience shooting sports but lots doing portraits, said he wanted to show more than just the racing. He wanted more about who the people are and what their daily routines were.
To accomplish his goal he spent 60 days over the past four racing seasons, from sunup to sundown and beyond looking for the photos that told the story. Myers said he wanted to be there for at least part of every day of the season, including the week before and a couple of days after closing day.
In the acknowledgments he wrote: “From the beginning, I saw this project as a documentary, an aggregate day in the life of a great race track, where 3,800 workers, 2,100 horses, and more than 650,000 fans come together during a season …”
Privman’s words help tell the story.
“Del Mar has such great allure, from its founding to the great atmosphere next to the ocean and the fun things after the races,” he said. “I didn’t want the project to be just a history book.”
While there is a chapter on the storied history that serves as an introduction and a chapter on “Zenyatta: Del Mar’s Best Ever,” the emotional ride of the book is from early morning to evening as the jockeys and staff do their part and the crowds react and enjoy all the sideline activities. The book includes many of the landmark Del Mar shots – ladies in their hats on opening day, people poring over racing forms, lines at the betting windows, the Party in the Paddock.
To do the project right required access to places that few journalists get to see, either on a regular basis or just for a snapshot.
For Myers, the time he spent taking pictures in the jockeys’ room was special.
“Most of the press doesn’t go in,” he said. “It’s not like TV coverage during races like the Preakness when the lights are on.”
There are also shots taken in the money room where employees deal with stacks — and stacks and stacks — of cash and security guards are on alert.
Privman said he doesn’t know of any other journalists who have been in that room, much less been allowed to photograph it.
“It’s a testament to how Del Mar race track and Thoroughbred Club officials trusted Barry to do a good job and tell the story,” he said.
Author and photographer alike singled out Dado and Harper along with DMTC Executive Vice President Mike Ernst and media director Mac MacBride for their assistance, but also wanted to thank everyone else associated for being so helpful.
Dado said the unfettered access was essential to telling “the real experience of all of Del Mar.”
“We let everyone know Barry would be in places photographers would never be,” he said, adding that he really likes how the book turned out. “Four of the photos are now hanging on my office wall.”
One of those shots is of horses breaking from the gate.
For Myers, the racing shots were “challenging at first,” he said. “I hadn’t shot powerful animals coming down the track at great speed.”
But he learned, he added, with the help of other photographers and his own technical knowledge from years as a commercial photographer.
At the end of each season, he would edit the collection and cull about a third of the shots right away, he said “From there, I selected about one in every 12 to 15 as the best ones.”
After last season, they had about 25,000 images – with only about 350 making it into print.
He’d send disks to his cousin, who had ideas of what Myers wanted to shoot. Towards the end, Myers said, Jay suggested that he was missing some pieces or should devote more time to some areas.
Both have favorite shots in the book, although Privman had to think a bit before answering.
“The one on the back cover – the view of the paddock, is unmistakably Del Mar,” he said.
He’s also partial to an archival shot of a shirtless, barefoot Charlie Wittingham — the renowned trainer — exercising one of his horses on the beach and one of Zenyatta walking in the morning fog.
Myers’ favorites include early morning scenes on the track, those with the trainers, and the moments in the jockeys’ room.
Some of the shots do a particularly good job of conveying the span from what Myers described as the “great elation” of a victory for jockeys, owners and bettors to the sadness at the end as the season winds down and the crews begin packing up.
Each season when he returned to Del Mar, he would bring back some prints, particularly those he had taken with Del Mar’s people and their family members in the shots.
So he it was a proud moment when he spotted a photo of Martin Pedroza and son in the jockey’s locker area.
Were there any surprises for this formerly novice racing photographer? “How much people work and love the horses,” he said.
How to get your copy:
• “Del Mar at 75: Where the Turf Meets the Surf”
• Photographs by Barry Myers
• Text by Jay Privman
• $51.40 at www.dmtc.com/silks/
• May be available at Amazon.com and local retailers by racing season.
• Barry Myers and Jay Privman will sign their book on Saturday, July 21, from 8 to 10 a.m. during “Donuts at Del Mar” at the track’s Seaside Terrace and 1 to 3 p.m. in the Plaza de Mexico inside the main gate.