Derby On, Sunday Off – Tales from the Red Carpet and More

May 10th, 2013 by Clay Cook

I’m Clay Cook and I’m director of marketing and social media for Outdoor Photo Gear, I’m also a professional photographer. The Kentucky Derby is a huge event that brings people from all over the world to our “big little” city of Louisville, KY. Not many people “get it” or understand the hullabaloo that is the Derby. But, maybe you’ll understand after reading this. It’s a long read, but a honest, personal account of my past month and all of its glory…

I’m feeling all different emotions and being pulled in all different directions. Confident, accomplished, determined, but also haggard and burned. I’ve had to push aside many people and projects just to keep my head above water. The Kentucky Derby is called “the most exciting two minutes in sports”, but for me it has been 4 weeks of non-stop action.

At the start of every new year Kentucky Derby preparations start heating up. By February, I was buried with the multimedia presentation “Fashion Pastiche” for the biggest Derby fashion show in Louisville; ”Runway For The Roses”. I had kept my options open and had heard chitchat of potential projects for the Derby, which never came to fruition. By the first of April, while others had there Derby planned, I had no plans. I knew I needed to get involved and it needed to be solidified soon. 

At the 138th racing of the Kentucky Derby, I sat in a posh box in section 113, hungover from the previous nights festivities, just staring. Staring at all the photographers on the track, I wanted to be them and I felt the itch. Right then, I told myself I would work 2013 and work it all.

The first week of April I received a call from interior designer and Louisville Magazine style editor Chris Caswell, I had collaborated with Chris on a few occasions and had a good working relationship. We had just finished up a fun Derby editorial for the April edition of Louisville Magazine. He had been contracted by a start up blog called MyDerbyLove to cover a plethora of events all leading up to the 139th racing of the Kentucky Derby. They needed a photographer. The pay was decent and the job was straightforward; shoot each event, pass out QR cards, take names and turn the images at journalism speed. Twelve events including the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, I was on board before I even checked my schedule. This was my ticket.

We jumped right in a week later to our first event, “Taste Of Derby Festival” at Louisville Slugger Field. I was nervous. I had covered a few step and repeats and candid photo journalism, but never a combination of event photography, journalism and step and repeat. It was all run and gun and it had to be good. We entered through the media entrance and were handed our credentials. We split up and I started shooting everything in sight. The florescent stadium lighting was gross, my speedlight was malfunctioning and I had forgot my Black Rapid camera sling strap. I was an obvious mess. Nevertheless, I kept my composure and pushed through the problems. I surveyed the area for photo opportunities, but came up short. Luckily, I received a text from Chris minutes later to meet, we hit table after table and Chris being the local rockstar that he is introduced me to a handful of important people. An hour in, I had a decent amount of images and we walked out the door, I was honestly relieved. The ice had been broken and I learned what not to do.

That Friday we were tasked with covering the Kentucky Derby Festival “They’re Off Luncheon” a kick off event for sponsors and media. Followed by the “Fillies Derby Ball”, a black tie auction event and dinner. The next day, “Thunder Over Louisville”, one of the biggest fireworks shows in the world.

We showed up a bit late to “They’re Off”, but we managed to snap a few images while people were settling into their seats and grabbing drinks. “My Old Kentucky Home” was gracefully sung by Miss Kentucky Jessica Casebolt and the lunch started with an introduction by our Mayor Greg Fischer. The room was very dark which offered a challenge, but the stage was well lit and I was able to grab a few high ISO shots without the need of flash. We enjoyed a nice steak lunch and headed out.

We returned to The Galt House 6 hours later to shoot the “Fillies Derby Ball”. Upon entering I felt immediately out of place; high-society women in sparkling gowns and black tie tuxedo brand men approached the event with there chins high. To avoid any possible awkwardness, I began shooting. There were an abundance of fashionable people and we had no trouble meeting our image minimum within the first hour. We sat down for a decent dinner and a few glasses of wine which helped ease the sense of unease. The auction ended and the band Louisville Crashers went on stage. Once Chris and I had had our fill, we cut out, party favors in hand and managed to stopped by Nulu’s “Before I Die” chalkboard on our way back to his home, where my car awaited.

When I booked these events I knew there would be some events that ran together or a few I just wouldn’t be able to shoot. Luckily, my intern Jenna agreed to take on the job of covering “Thunder Over Louisville” on my behalf. Nervously, I sent her into the wolves with my gear and quick 20 minute run down, yet she performed beautifully. I’m really proud of what she captured and how she stepped up.

The following Sunday, I was brought in by Aveda to shoot a clean water charity event for 21C. Hundreds of hair stylists from all over the city converged on the one event to not only show off some crazy cool hair styling in support of Aveda’s cause, but also to literally scream for their team. It felt exclusive and the fashion show was an absolute blast. However, the weekend had worn on me and I was ready for rest, which would eventually come… after I edited the images from the weekend.

We were coming down the strech,”Opening Night Cocktail Reception” at the Kentucky Derby Muesum and the “Heyman Talent Model Search” down at Fest-A-Ville Waterfront Park. Chris and I decided to kill two birds with one stone and attend the events together. It was dreary and drizzling, but I knew I needed to show face for Heyman as I would be shooting the winner of the search. Also, as a sponsor I would be judging the contestants as well. We arrived and made our picks, which was far more difficult then I anticipated. Not surprisingly, Chris and I differed on just about every single contestant! While the models trickled in, we engaged in causal conversation for another 30 minutes  then decided to move onto our next event at the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Fortunately, we had Chris’ lovely assistant Jamie a.k.a. “JE” around to write down names, which is my least favorite part about event photography. I have pretty bad hearing from my days of sitting in front of amps and screaming guitars, so typing in names in a loud venue can be trying for me. We walked in and the first person we stumble upon is Louisville’s own Tracy Blue. Boom. I walk around the corner into the venue and is handed a glass of wine. Chug. Snap. Snap. JE followed with a handful of QR cards and her phone for names. I went up to the second level to take some wide angle shots of the venue floor, which turned out to be my favorite of the night. Naturally, when you have a camera in hand, people gravitate towards you and ask for a photo. This event was a breeze, despite a few lighting hiccups. With the job done we left opening night at Churchill Downs with mobs of people still entering the track.

Now, with Derby week upon me, I was scrambling to get things done and edits completed before the big show. I knew that from Tuesday through Sunday, my life would be in complete madness.

It started with coverage of KDF’s WineFest 2013, a melting pot of winery’s that assemble to show off their prime products and share samples to hundreds of wine fanatics. We arrived at the East Belvedere early to find Wine Fest rather bare. Nevertheless, we stayed and explored, but decided to leave shortly upon arrival, without drinking a drop of wine.

The next day I headed over to Waterfront Park to meet up with my friends in A Lion Named Roar who would be performing an acoustic huddle session for “America’s Best Racing” a group dedicated to promoting horse racing to a younger demographic. Upon arrival I suddenly found myself on a massive tour bus cracking open a cold adult beverage with the band. Speaking with the “America’s Best Racing” crew, I received a synopsis of their intentions and tour. It was overall pretty exciting.

A Lion Named Roar grabbed their guitars and headed outside to begin their huddle session, which I gladly followed to snap a few shots. After a few well played tunes, we bounced back into the bus for an interview, quick shot of bourbon and I said my goodbyes.

I hopped over to The Ice House for an official media party where I rendezvoused with Matt Stone and Dustin Strupp, two Courier Journal photographers whom I had admired for quite sometime. It was quite an honor to join the fun with them and pick their brain over free drinks and food. We ended up hitting a late night karaoke bar and I couldn’t of asked for better company.

As Chris Caswell covered “Celebrity Day At The Downs”, I reported to Dillard’s to cover an event for Nine West founder and infamous shoe designer, Vince Camuto, who was in town for Derby with his gorgeous wife, Louise Camuto. The day started slow, but when you put models in front of my lens, I get shutter happy. The event was fun and I got to see a lot of familiar faces as well as meet a lot of new ones. Dillard’s had a fantastic presentation and the line for autograph’s was steady throughout the day. The hubbub eventually slowed and we wrapped up, I handed Vince a business card and I headed out the heavy glass doors.

I grabbed a quick bite to energize and bounced over to the “Derby Poker Championship Celebrity Gala” with Chris. Myself, not being a poker player, I really didn’t know what to expect or didn’t expect much excitement. We arrived to a decent crowd and a painter stroking away on the backside of the floor. To the right was a dozen poker tables and a small step and repeat to the left, which we would cling to awaiting any worthy celebrities. After about an hour the entire left section of the building opened up to a club and people started to warm up. I snapped a few images and Chris made his normal rounds introducing me to his fine friends. The beauty of this event is I actually had time to mingle and grab a few drinks, as we weren’t under the gun for a quick turnaround. Then the ladies from “America’s Best Racing” showed up and we had a few good laughs before Chris and I headed out the door to catch some sleep before the big day ahead of us.

Morning came early and I starting prepping immediately. I knocked out a few edits and headed out the door to meet Chris, so we could get down to the track by 11:30am. The day was warm, but quite beautiful and the rain had subsided for the Kentucky Oaks. We parked and walked the half mile to the track. We arrived to a bare pink carpet and made a few rounds, when we ran into Churchill Downs official photographer Andrew Kung, who I’ve admired for years. We shook hands and made casual conversation, he mentioned the “Longines Kentucky Oaks Fashion Contest” would begin in about an hour. With time to burn, we decided to grab a Kentucky Oaks Lily:

1 oz. GREY GOOSE® Vodka / 1 oz. Sweet and Sour Mix / 3 oz. Cranberry Juice / Splash of Triple Sec 

I also took the opportunity to visit my parents in their box and take a quick snapshot, while Chris did some live blogging. Shortly after, I headed back down to the section entrance and rallied with Chris again. We headed over to the pink carpet where the fashion contest was set to begin. I staked my spot on the black astro-turf and awaited the contestants. I suddenly noticed a stunning red-head with amazing bone structure walking down the step and repeat. Always on the lookout for fresh talent, I pulled out a business card and was fully prepared to make a hand off. A voice came over the speaker system “Supermodel Coco Rocha“, I cupped the card and pulled up my camera in one smooth motion hoping she didn’t notice. A swift Google search proved this Vogue cover model was the real deal. I regained my thoughts and blew off the “epic fail”.

20 minutes into the contest, I looked at my watch and over to Chris and he nodded, it was time to move on. I really needed some candid lifestyle images, so we roamed to the jet set upper decks. Chris would point out the fashionable trendsetters and I would swing my camera around for that perfect shot. It was perfect team work and after a couple of races, we had ditch the track to get ready for the evenings festivities.

We were tasked with covering the “Barnstable Brown Gala”, “The Julep Ball” and “Unbridled Eve”. The media check in was 6:30pm and the red carpet opened at 7pm, for all of them. And there was only one photographer, me. This is where a clone or two would come in handy. We decided to split and I would cover the Barnstable Brown red carpet while Chris with his iPhone would cover Unbridled Eve. We would have to hit The Julep Ball later.

I showed up for media check in right at 6:30pm, there were some media outlets already setup and I really didn’t know where to go. This would be my first celebrity red carpet coverage and I had heard horror stories. I staked my place right in front and waited. Opportunely, a photographer from Getty setup right behind me and we struck up a good conversation for a few minutes. Then what seemed like a rabid monsoon struck the red carpet, it rained violently and the winds were strong, camera crews and photographers were scrambling for cover, but I held my position front and center. It continued to rain so hard that the PR crew let all the media on the red carpet to hide out under the tent until everything calmed down. An hour later, the rain had settled and people started showing up, but no celebrities. It was nearly 8:30pm and Chris was texting me on my E.T.A. to other events. I had only took one shot and that was of A Lion Named Roar, who were the first to grace the step and repeat. I had to stall time. My text to him: “I’m gonna hang for 20-30 more min, If nothing we should dip over to Julep. I’ll take a few crowd images here to fill the blog”. At 8:52pm things started to heat up and celebrities started to grace the red carpet. My friend from Getty had worked hundreds of red carpets and this was just another rodeo for him. He would yell out the celebrities name to grab attention and he would keep there attention by raising his hand. I followed suit. It worked well. By 9:30pm I had to hit the road, the last shot of Barnstable would be Miranda Lambert. I jumped out of my position and passed it on to my friend from Getty. I handed him a quick card and told him to touch base. I grabbed a quick beer from a friend’s house directly next door and popped my head in to say hello. Just a quickly as I came in, I was back out. I practically ran down to my car and high-tailed it downtown to the YUM! Center for the Julep Ball.

I parked in the media garage and took a sip watered down Dr. Pepper to wet my whistle. I walked a block to the YUM! Center where I met Chris and we walked in. It was already 10:00pm and we were obviously late, but we grabbed our credentials and briskly walked over to the main hall. The red carpet was barren. So we bounced upstairs and into the arena. It was dead. Nevertheless, we had to grab a few quick shots. So we did just that. As we exited the B-52′s were starting their set. I looked around and the majority of the tables were empty. I shrugged as we exited and moved over to Unbridled Eve in the Galt House.

Walking in I was slapped with yet another credential. At this point I looked like a billboard advertisement. I was also on a high. I really lived for it. I’m not going to lie, I felt like a celebrity all on my own right. I immediately started snapping away. I felt a confidence I didn’t have when I has started this gamut, I was going right up to celebrities of all kinds and asking for a photo, no matter what “list” they were on. I ran into a few familiar faces and met a few new ones. Chris and I grabbed a drink and I swallowed it down. By 11:30pm, I had a full set of images and I was ready to move onto my last stop for the evening the “Maxim & Maker’s 46 Fillies & Stallions Party”. Unbridled Eve was Chris’ last stop, so I said my goodbye and we would reconvene tomorrow at the track.

Arriving at Mellwood, I saw the line of women and got a pep in my step. I was technically off the clock, but would definitely be shooting. I found a parking space across the street. I walked in front of the line, then suddenly remembered I looked like a billboard. They let me right in, no questions asked. I hit the red carpet and it was great to see many of my friends awaiting in front of the hot lights. I was running on adrenaline. But gladly accepted the drink I was immediately given. That is when I was put on the spot and asked to step on the red carpet myself for a quick photo with Maxim’s Amanda Mertz and Jade Brownfield.

The rest of the evening escalated quickly and some celebs started gracing the red carpet. Including Adam Richman from Man vs. Food, Derek Anderson, Shaquille O’Neal, Aaron Rodgers, Kevin Ware, Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and many more. Inside the venue was a sauna, it was a hot mess, hot being the key word there. After a few drinks with my pals Joey Goldsmith, Dustin Strupp, Josh Eskridge and Steve Squall. I decided to call it and get into the office for some late night editing as I had to get all the images turned around by morning. I didn’t hit my pillow until 6am.

I woke a couple hours later and amped myself for the climax, the whole reason any of this was happening, the run for the roses. I looked out the window and knew it would be a long day. It was raining. But, I held my chin high and packed my gear air tight. My first stop was “The Julep Brunch” hosted by Lee & Babs Robinsion, A celebrity brunch that I was assigned to cover for NFocus Magazine. The brunch was in an beautiful mansion off River Road, it was quite surreal. Fortunately, my friend Gunnar Deatherage and his boyfriend Nick were in attendance  By 12:30pm I had to hit the road and headed to Churchill Downs. I said my good byes and thanked everyone for their hospitality.

Upon arrival to the parking lot, I fortunately found a wide open spot, closer to our destination. This proved to be a double edge sword as I had parked next to what seemed like the most inebriated group of dudes ever. The constant yells of USA! USA! USA! really jazzed me up to brave the cold rain. /sarcasm. I’ve totally been that guy, so I didn’t complain.

Still awaiting Chris’ arrival, I eventually stepped out of my vehicle and walked away to avoid any further awkwardness from the fun group beside me. A few minutes later Chris came briskly walking up soaking wet already. It would only get worse. After the half mile walk in the hard rain and by the time we arrived on the red carpet, we looked like we had just stepped out of a pool fully clothed. The celebrities were lined up and we had no choice but to rush past them to our allotted square. I began shooting immediately. Arriving late, I didn’t have the best spot at first and George Linsey from 102.3 The Max had the prime spot in front of me conducting iPhone interviews. As the celebrities walked down the carpet I knocked out shot after shot. This was a another moment where I feel sort of like a rockstar myself with the crowd of onlookers behind me screaming at the top of their lungs for stars like Kid Rock, Lauren Conrad, Emilio Estevez, Lance Bass, Nerlens Noel and Peyton Siva among others. The carpet became more stark by the minute and photographers were leaving their prime spots, which I gladly took for a few last shots of the carpet. At this point, my job was done. My Kentucky Derby was over. But, that didn’t stop me I wanted to meet with friends and have a good time. I pushed out a few text messages and went exploring with Chris. We made it onto Millionaire’s Row, looking like lost puppies, searching for any friendly faces. No response, no avail. Chris was over it and decided to bail to go blog from the comfort from his home. I was on my own. I decided to take this opportunity to gain a different perspective and headed out into the rain near the track’s edge and captured what I like to call my “Pulitzer”. My gear was soaked, I was soaked and an hour searching, awaiting any calls or texts decided to head back to the car myself. By the time I got back into the car and turned on the heat, I was done. For me the rain never stopped and I didn’t even end up watching the race, I edited the days images instead. I did end up meeting with friends later that evening at Nowhere Bar to catch a quick drink and recount the month. I was numb to it all.

I woke the next day and took a deep breath. It was Sunday and Derby was over, what do I do now?  The rain continued and I sat down to write this blog. I can only hope 140 will be a legendary as 139.

I want to thank Chris Caswell and MyDerbyLove for opening the doors. It was just another rodeo for them, but a brand new experience for me, that has proved invaluable.

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