By T. D. Thornton
This is the third installment in a series highlighting racetrack photographers. Each time we profile a photographer, TDN will feature their hand-selected favorite shots in multiple editions throughout the week.
Tod Marks initially aspired to be a writer, and in four decades as a print journalist, he was drawn to reporting those offbeat “man bites dog” stories that require being able to see the surreal within the weave of the ordinary.
That sensibility carries over to his Eclipse Award-winning Thoroughbred photography, which is rooted in the disciplines of patience and persistence.
The lifelong native of Westchester County, New York, grew up in a family where racing was a hot topic, particularly in the early 1960s when a certain gritty gelding won five consecutive Horse of the Year titles. Marks studied journalism and photojournalism in college (undergrad at Fairleigh Dickinson University, graduate at New York University). As a cub reporter with the Gannett newspaper chain, he had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of a Runyonesque sports columnist named Tom Whelan, who helped get him credentialed at the New York tracks.
Marks wrote and shot as many racing assignments as he could talk his editors into letting him cover in the early 1980s. He gravitated more to camera work, and when he took a full-time job with Consumer Reports, Marks continued to shoot freelance for numerous equine publications. Over the years jump racing began to appeal to him more and more, and his client list grew to include international publications.
Marks, 64, has long since left a “real job” (as he calls it) behind to pursue Thoroughbred photography full time. He is the official photographer for the National Steeplechase Association, and his work often appears in TDN. Now it’s Marks’ turn to tell his own tale. An edited and condensed transcript of a recent interview follows.
TDN: Which came first, your fascination with photography or racehorses?
TM: The horses. I come from a family that loved racing, especially on my sire’s side–my father and his mother. I have vivid memories of being five years old, every Saturday at my grandmother’s house in the Bronx, watching the “Race of the Week” TV show hosted by Win Elliott and Fred Capossela. I was literally sitting on my grandmother’s knee, mesmerized by the presence of these giant, elegant, and glorious creatures in black-and-white splendor. It was a ritual, and I was fascinated by it to the point that it never left me. I was just enamored by Kelso, and he became my favorite horse of all time. That fueled a lifelong passion for racing for me.
TDN: Racing’s policy at that time was a strict “no kids at the racetrack.” Despite what now seems like an enormous roadblock, how did you still fall in love with the sport?
TM: Watching it on TV and reading about it in the New York Daily News. All the papers had dedicated racing reporters and handicappers back then. I didn’t go to the racetrack until I was about 20. But I still have the 35-cent program from that first weekday my dad and I went to Belmont Park in 1977, with my father’s writing in it. You know what it was like? It was like when you’re a little kid, and you go to your first pro baseball game. You walk through the inclines, the stairways and the tunnels, and then you see the field in front of you–this vibrant green just exploding before your eyes. That’s what Belmont Park looked like to me. I had the vapors. I just couldn’t believe it.
My first day at Saratoga was in 1978, the Affirmed-Alydar match-up in the [GI] Travers [S.]. I can remember those two horses walking onto the track, and I can see it like it was yesterday. That was the day that changed everything–you didn’t even have to get tickets back then for the grandstand. When the gates opened, you could just run and take a seat. But there were so many people that day that everything became reserved shortly after that.
TDN: What was your first Thoroughbred assignment as a journalist?
TM: The very first thing I ever did professionally with racing is I wanted to go visit Kelso at his farm. He was retired and 21 years old. I wrote to Allaire duPont, who owned him, and told her my story about how I was enamored of the horse and wanted to photograph him and write about him. And she sent me this beautiful handwritten note on Woodstock Farm letterhead with Kelso’s portrait on it, inviting me down. So I spent the day with her and Kelso, and his paddock buddy Pete, in Chesapeake City, Maryland. It was like I had died and gone to heaven.
TDN: Was there a specific turning point when you decided you’d rather be a photographer than a writer?
TM: The reason I have avoided writing full-blown stories about racing is simple: Unlike writing, where you have any number of editors who have opinions on your approach and fashion themselves experts [on how to shape your stories], with sports journalism photography, you only have one chance to get the shot. Either you get it or you don’t get it. There’s no ambiguity. There are no do-overs. Sure it’s high tension and high stress. But to me, the ability to just have that moment is what it’s all about. That’s unlike writing, where we post-mortem ourselves to death.
TDN: Do you have a preference between shooting flat or steeplechase racing?
TM: If I had to only choose one it would definitely be jump racing, because there’s such a majesty to it. Jump racing in this country is a niche market. It’s not a business in the conventional sense that’s driven by dollars going through a pari-mutuel machine. It’s really a sport borne out of love, and no two meets are ever the same.
You can go to Middleburg, Virginia, and see an entire course from standing on a mountain top, up and down, over peaks and valleys, over water, over timber, over natural brush fencing in the countryside. You can go to Camden, South Carolina, and stand among 60,000 people, most of them college kids who come from all quarters of the South to go to this big spring festival. Then you have places like the Virginia Gold Cup or the Iroquois meet in Nashville, where you can see for miles. It is truly a painter-and-artist type of delight to just visualize these courses.
TDN: How does your shooting approach differ from flat to jump racing?
TM: It’s a lot harder to shoot steeplechase racing than it is flat racing, because you’re lacking that [counter-clockwise oval] predictability. You have jumps that are almost 30 feet wide, and if you have a big field, they’re spread far apart.
But the other thing is it’s extremely dangerous, because you’re right there on the course. People do not realize that you can get run over. So while the prospects of getting a fabulous shot are great, there is a tremendous air of unpredictability. If a horse decides not to take the jump, or to go through the jump, or to jump the fence into the infield, what are you going to do? And if they lose a rider, which is common, they can end up running like the dickens through the crowd in this country fair-like atmosphere. I’ve seen photographers try to catch loose horses and get badly hurt. So it really is a challenge, but the rewards are absolutely incredible. There’s nothing like catching a horse in the perfect stride with the perfect background as it’s getting ready to soar over a jump, legs tucked before it gets to an outstretched position. You say, “That’s the shot.” You know it.
TDN: What draws your eye when you’re at the track?
TM: It could be people or it could be horses. Grooms, owners, trainers, fans, it doesn’t matter. If there are water elements to the course I’ll look for reflections. I’m always trying to size up the lighting, because lighting is everything in photography.
The big difference between professionals and amateurs is being afraid to get close enough to the subject. Amateurs get intimidated–and it is hard. But a professional knows what they have to do. I’m not afraid to get close. And I’m not talking about in-your-face paparazzi. I’m talking about public subjects at public events.
I also look at the backgrounds. That’s another big mistake amateurs make: They don’t look at the background to see a telephone pole or a sign growing out of someone’s head. Now, there are times when you have no choice as a photographer where you stand to get a clean shot. But you learn to deal with those situations.
I look at the eyes. I look at the angle. It’s not shooting what I see. It’s shooting what I anticipate. I’m trying to stay one step ahead of the subject. I want to plot the interaction. I try to put myself in a position where the winning connections will greet the jockey, or where a groom is going with that bucket of water with tack around their shoulders. It’s thinking of the move I want, and not what I see. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But that gives me a feeling of control over my destiny and my surroundings.
There’s a lot of luck involved. But the best photographers don’t get lucky by being dumb. You get lucky by understanding the sport and how it works; what your experiences teach you about where you need to be to get the seminal shot.
TDN: Tell us about some of your most memorable photos.
TM: One I call “The Optical Illusion.” It was at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup back in 2009. There were two gray horses and a dark bay going over a timber jump, and the two gray horses were riderless. They looked 100% identical; the only difference was the tack. They’re in the exact same stride, as is the other horse with the rider. People thought I had photoshopped that.
The shot I won the Eclipse Award with in 2016 was a bizarre shot at the Iroquois steeplechase where this jockey had been catapulted over his horse, and the jock went flying over the jump like he’s swimming. And the whip is releasing from his hand as another horse is riding right by him. So you see the whip and him reaching for the whip straight out–that was crazy.
There was this riderless horse at Saratoga in 2013 at the Oklahoma training track. The horse had lost his tack. It got stuck around its legs. The outrider was incredible. He grabs the horse by its nose, and he’s squeezing that nose like it’s a ball of silly putty. These tight shots that show close-ups of human interactions with animals are just so wild.
Another funny shot that everybody remembers, I happened to be standing on the infield stand at Saratoga the day Gun Runner won the [2017 GI] Whitney [S.] with a horseshoe stuck in his tail. I was in a really good spot to get that.
TDN: Among your favorites, does one stand out?
TM: I do have this one shot that I love more than any others, and of course it’s of Kelso. It was the shot of my lifetime. It was in 1983, when he and Forego led the post parade for the [GI] Jockey Club Gold Cup to promote the newly formed Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. I’m looking at it right now.
Back then, everything was manual film, no auto-focus and all manual exposure. The lighting was pretty rough near the end of the day, and Kelso is stepping onto the track. He’s got a special saddlecloth on that says “Kelso.” He’s 26 years old, and he’s accompanied by his [pony] buddy Pete. He turns to me for a split-second, stops, and looks dead at me. Everything was in perfect alignment. I was able to focus and shoot, with everything well-exposed in that one split second. And nothing will ever come close to that photo for me.
I post a lot of older shots on social media where people say, “Oh, man, this brings back memories…I had forgotten about that…I’m crying.” And it’s just really nice to know you that in this age where people are increasingly impatient and you might not be able to reach them with words, you can touch them with a photo.