words & pictures by MELISSA BAUER-HERZOG
When I booked my trip to the Northwest for Christmas, the first thing I did was what any self-respecting racing addict does – looked at the local track’s schedule.
I grew up right across the Columbia River from Portland Meadows but hadn’t been able to go to a race there since moving, so I was excited to return “home,” especially for Oregon Championship Day. After the races were rescheduled from an icy Sunday, it was supposed to be mid-40s and sunny, the perfect winter day weather. So imagine my surprise when I looked out the window at a wall of fog and cool temperatures. The thought of skipping the races crossed my mind for about a tenth of a second but like I said, I’m addicted, so I packed up my camera, put on a few layers and headed off.
One of the best things about Portland Meadows is that the track also runs Quarter Horse races and two were carded to start the day. I wasn’t the only one who loves the quarter horses, it was hard to find a prime spot due to all the people there for the Quarter Horse.
I watch Quarter Horse races online but I forgot how fast they go by you when you’re watching in person. I thought I was prepared to catch the winner as he came by but I was wrong. I got his nose as he entered into the frame then he was gone.
As the Thoroughbreds started to take over the track, I figured it was a good time to go to one of my favorite places to shoot – by the luck sign in the paddock.
Over the entry way to the paddock is the word “Luck” with two horse shoes. One of my favorite things is to get shots of the horses walking under it as they enter the paddock. The sign brought some luck to Delineator Express, who won the Oregon Fall Starter Handicap after a disqualification so I guess it does work for some horses.
This race seemed like a perfect time to move inside and see if I could get to the spot on the upper deck where I had watched my first live race as a kid. Unfortunately, the section was shut off so I settled for a spot below it. Bonus: the heaters were right in front of my seat (like I said, it was a cold day!)
I swear Mother Nature has a sense of humor and she showed it as the big Thoroughbred races on the card started up. While I easily saw the backstretch during the two races I’d watched inside, before the Oregon Hers the backstretch had a bit of a haze to it. As the babies moved out for the next race on the card, the Janet Wineberg for 2-year-old fillies, the backstretch looked eerie with the fog noticeably thickening.
Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone, who moved to Oregon in late 2009, has been a force in the Oregon breeding ranks and this race showed that off with his daughter Semiprecious coming out of the fog to win by 2 ¾ lengths. It had to be a bit of a sweet feeling for her trainer Debbie Van Horne, who had lost a win two races before when her horse Hock was disqualified to second.
Watching the replay, I saw just how bad the fog looked on camera but for the Janet Wineberg it wasn’t as bad as it looked. It was the next race where we had no idea what was going on as the 2-year-old colts gained some experience their trainers didn’t expect them to get, racing with very little visibility.
The Fog seemed to be magical for Grindstone and Von Horne again with the duo taking home the Bill Wineberg Stakes with Gravel. I was a fan of this victory because in the post parade, Von Horne and jockey Jorge Rosales seemed to be having a blast. It’s always fun when people enjoying themselves pre-race get a win.
By this point in the day, there was no hope of seeing anything except part of the stretch with the fog blocking most of the track. That made for a very scary moment in Race Eight. After the field passed the wire, I thought I heard hoof beats coming down the stretch and picked up my camera even though I didn’t think there was any reason to.
A second later, Quesea came galloping through the fog with two important things missing – his rider, Kassie Guglielmino, and his bridle. Even more terrifying was that he was galloping toward the rest of the field, who would have trouble seeing him in the fog. With people screaming to warn them, it all turned out fine with the outriders wrangling Quesea on the backstretch.
If you’ve tried to do anything in heavy fog, you know how bad it is. Add the problem of the sun already setting and the last at Portland Meadows was one of the harder races I’ve ever shot. Thankfully I was next to a security guard who had a radio that told us when the race was off and outriders were reporting when the field went past them so I had some idea of where the field was, but not much.
The good thing about the fog was that it kept the sound trapped low to the ground so I could hear the horses coming. They popped out of the fog about 100 feet before the wire with Guglielmino and her mount Cantchaco giving the field no chance to catch them with a 5 ¾ length lead.
My favorite moment of the day came after the race when pony rider Rebecca Cole was taking Cantchaco back to the barn. As they disappeared into the fog, Cole was giving Cantchaco big hugs. The best part of this sport in my opinion is the love between the humans and horses and that was perfectly shown between these two.
If you’re ever in the Portland, Ore. area when Portland Meadows is running, give the track a try. Even on a clear day, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.