I really miss my mother. She was an extraordinary woman who overcame incredible obstacles to realize the American dream and provide me with the comfortable life I currently enjoy. Born into poverty in Fujian province in southeastern China, Jane Huang was young when most of her family died of a plague. She was raised by her older sister, and because they went to bed hungry most nights, she made certain I understood and appreciated the blessings in life that I’ve been granted. Determinedly, she beat the odds and became a nurse and married my father, who happened to be the smartest man in China. Although that claim has never been definitively verified, it is documented that he scored the highest of all civil engineers in Taiwan on a competitive exam, allowing him to study in the United States and paving the way for our family to immigrate. Together they left everything they knew behind and moved to the United States to find a better life for our family. My mother taught me the value of honesty, hard work and perseverance, and basically ruled over the family as the strict disciplinarian, but with unconditional love. In a cruel ironic twist, the sharpest and strongest woman I ever knew developed Alzheimer’s Disease and slowly lost her ability to communicate and care for herself in final years of her life. She passed away on May 2, 2014, exactly one year before I would photograph my first Kentucky Derby on May 2, 2015.
It was a sublime honor for me to be credentialed to photograph the 141st Run for the Roses for Tops Magazine. A lifelong proud Kentuckian and racing enthusiast, I had attended the Derby several times in the past but never with my camera equipment. Needless to say, I made made the most of the opportunity to take snapshots all over the hallowed grounds of Churchill Downs on Oaks and Derby Day, albeit with a heavy heart remembering my mother who helped get me there.
Although I was quite happy with my photos, I understood that many of the most memorable racing photos are actually captured with remote cameras underneath the inside rail. On the first Saturday in May, a photograph with the winner galloping past the finish line in front of a capacity crowd under the iconic twin spires would be truly special. Unfortunately, there were several roadblocks preventing me from acquiring that image.
First, I had never used a remote camera at a horse race ever in my life, so my experience was limited. I understood the technology, and did have some experience firing remotes at Rupp Arena for UK basketball games, but I really didn’t know what I was doing.
Additionally, I didn’t have a long shutter cord or an assistant to help fire it. The professionals that set up remote cameras at Churchill Downs have multiple cameras wired together with somebody designated as a button pusher. Radiofrequency transmitters known as pocketwizards can be used to trigger the remotes, but radio interference can be an issue and they’re not always dependable from longer distances, and if even if they transmit and receive the radio signal, you can never get as many frames per second using pocketwizards as you can with a corded shutter release.
And finally, probably the biggest barrier, I was a first time Derby photographer shooting for a local monthly magazine, and there simply was no room for me to have a remote camera, as all of the precious few spots were designated for the larger media outlets.
But I really wanted to try to get this photo that I’d been dreaming about for so long. Remembering my mother and everything she taught me, I knew I needed to at least try.
After the spots were assigned, I tagged along to help my buddy Mark Zerof who was responsible for several remote locations assigned to USA Today. Even if I didn’t end up with a spot, I’d get some valuable tips in case I ever would be granted one, and it would allow me to hang around and see if there would be any room for my camera. I happened to hear one of the other photographers telling the photo marshall that he wouldn’t be using one of his multiple spots. I immediately asked if I could use it, and unbelievably I was granted a really sweet remote position just past the finish line for my one and only extra camera.
Since I really didn’t know if my remote would yield any usable images, I decided to shoot the race from the other side of the track to get a more traditional picture of the winner, similar to the image below that I took on Oaks Day.
With an assigned spot along the outside rail, nothing between me and the horses, and with a trusty Canon 1Dx in my hand, it was less likely that I’d miss the shot. The remote was going to be a crapshoot anyway since I would be using two pocketwizards, one on top of my camera in my hand triggering the other one wired to my remote camera under the opposite rail. I had to hope that the pocketwizards would successfully communicate with each other from across the track, and I would get bonus photos from the reverse angle. With the distance, the crowd, and all of the TV and radio interference, it likely wasn’t going to work. And since I was shooting from the other side and couldn’t afford to get stuck on the wrong side of the track, I also had to set up my remote with camera settings hours before the race, not only guessing where to focus on the winner crossing the finish line, but also guessing what the light would be like at post time.
Needless to say, the odds were stacked against me. But it’s amazing how things work out sometimes. My plan worked better than I ever could’ve imagined, as I got several good frames of Amercian Pharoah racing to immortality with the camera in my hand.
Miraculously, my pocketwizards fired at precisely the right moment, and I also obtained a remarkable image out of my remote. I wasn’t just dreaming about it anymore. I actually captured history, a timeless moment frozen in time, forever documented by me. The fact that American Pharoah would go on to captivate the world as the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years made it even more special. And the fact that I took this photograph exactly one year after my beloved mother took her last earthly breath, I just can’t even express what it means to me.
So if you think it was just pure luck that a 1st time shooting the Derby nobody photographer happened to get assigned a coveted remote spot just past the finish line originally meant for Sports Illustrated,
that it would be this picture perfect beautiful day with brilliant blue skies and fluffy white clouds,
that my pocketwizards would actually work from thirty yards away across the track through all sorts of interference and take the picture at precisely the right moment with the right settings when I had never done it before,
and that this horse who would go on to win the Triple Crown and the Breeders Cup Classic and become one of the greatest champions of all time, would run right through my focus point and give us this picture to remember this day for eternity…well, maybe it was just luck.
But I know my mother had everything to do with it. She always put me in position to succeed, and this day was no different. Thanks for everything, Mom, I will always try to make you proud. I love you.
Dr. Michael Huang is a full-time physician and part-time photographer, who will be covering the Kentucky Derby for 8th consecutive year in 2022. He gave a 37 minute video presentation last year for the University of Kentucky Alumni Association about his experiences as a credentialed photographer, which included a version of the above story in his own words as well as his experience of shooting the pandemic Derby of 2020 with no fans.