Images From the Heart

This column is about obsession, a love of horses and capturing them on film, and a bonding with my daughter that would manifest itself years later with her words. ~ Steve Haskin

Images From the Heart

By Steve Haskin


It was June, 1968, less than three weeks after the opening of the newly built Belmont Park and there I was standing outside the paddock with my father taking a black and white photo of the diminutive Dark Mirage prior to the Mother Goose Stakes with my father’s old camera. This mighty mite would go on to romp in the Mother Goose and the Coaching Club American Oaks to become the first filly to sweep NYRA’s recognized Triple Crown for Fillies.

That would be the first of tens of thousands (maybe more) of photos I would take of horses. Two months later during my first trip to Saratoga for the Travers Stakes I purchased my first camera; a Kodak Brownie Instamatic that produced 3 ½” by 3 ½” color photos. On Travers morning I took my first color photo of a horse when the great Dr. Fager stepped foot on the track for a five-furlong workout in preparation for the following week’s Washington Park Handicap and his quest to break the world record for a mile. Just as he walked by me the rain started. Now standing by myself with everyone else taking cover I was intent on getting a photo of the mighty Dr. Fager up close and feeling I would not get this opportunity again.

I learned something important that morning. The photo I took was not very good as far as horse photos go, but that is not what amateur photos are supposed to be. I didn’t need to take a perfect conformation shot or the finish of a race, as exciting as it might be. I needed to place myself in a photo, not physically, but intimately that would enable me to evoke images of a horse on a personal level, while capturing the essence of the subject.

I carried that photo in my wallet for decades and for one reason only. I did not capture a legendary horse as much as I captured a moment in time. It was as if Dr. Fager lived on through that photo, bringing back memories of a rare encounter with greatness and a special time in Saratoga that in many ways is long gone. To me, that is what photographs represented; images of the mind and heart that enabled time to stand still.

Over the next several years my trusty Instamatic camera went with me wherever there was a horse or a racetrack or a breeding farm, especially my second home, Darby Dan Farm to visit Graustark and his yearling full-brother, later to be named His Majesty, as well as stallions Ribot, Sea-Bird, Sword Dancer, and Chateaugay and a Sea-Bird yearling later known as Little Current. And there were those special mornings at Belmont Park with my dad visiting my newest equine hero Arts and Letters.

The early ‘70s bought an end to my Kodak Instamatic, replaced first by a Canon FTB, then a Canon F-1, along with zoom and telephoto lens. I was now a serious, though still amateur, photographer. And then along came Secretariat, the horse of a lifetime. With my equipment I now had the ability, and in many ways the power, to freeze this legend in time to have for posterity and to portray him in three ways – his amazing physical attributes, bringing out his personality, and capturing intimate moments most people don’t get a chance to witness.

So all through 1973 I spent as much time with Big Red as possible, starting with him galloping majestically to the post for his 3-year-old debut in the Bay Shore Stakes. I spent a number of mornings at his barn at Belmont, shooting him on the walking ring with his illustrious stablemate Riva Ridge, working out, posing with owner Penny Tweedy, following him and Riva to the track, being up close and personal with him in the saddling area before for the Preakness, capturing him break off in a show horse canter at his retirement festivities at Aqueduct, and years later at Claiborne Farm, showing off his playful side that many do not get a chance to see; indulging is his favorite snack, Certs Breath Mints, fed to hm by my wife Joan; and finally coming to the fence to greet my then toddler, Mandy.

I made up 8 x 10 prints of my favorite shots and put them in a soft loose leaf binder kept in plastic pages. And there they lay for almost 50 years, never seen by anyone but me. My only regret was that no one would ever see these photos in which I had captured arguably the greatest horse of all time and all the intimate moments we shared.

Then in 2020 I became involved with and began working with Leonard Lusky. It was Leonard who brought my photos to life after nearly half a century and exposed them to the public, many of which I was able to sign, along with Ron Turcotte, the only surviving member of Team Secretariat. Big Red lived again as I saw him in all his majesty, all his moods, and all those special moments I had frozen in time.

Now some of those photos will be on display Whitney weekend (August 5-7) at Spa Fine Art Gallery on Broadway in Saratoga, (more on this exhibition coming soon) where my Kodak Instamatic first captured Dr. Fager on a stormy morning in 1968, opening up a new world to me.

After Secretariat I had continued to take photos of the stars of the ‘70s, including Forego, Ruffian, Affirmed, Alydar, and Spectacular Bid, a number of which also will be made available to the public this year.

In 1984, my desire to photograph the nation’s top horses took a different turn. That was the year Mandy was born, and for the next 20 years or so, until she went to college, I became obsessed with photographing her with horses, especially the greats, starting when she was 10 months old meeting Northern Dancer at Windfields Farm. Whether at the track or the farm I needed to photograph her with every great horse I could and make up photo albums, hoping that one day she would be able to appreciate and understand my folly and take pride in the elite company she kept growing up.

What I was doing was so unique, Hall of Fame journalist Mary Jean Wall wrote a column in the Lexington Herald-Leader about me photographing my daughter with great horses.

From left to right: Alydar, Lady’s Secret, Affirmed, Genuine Risk and Genuine Reward, and Cigar

We now fast forward to about a dozen years ago and one of Mandy’s visits home when I saw her going through photo albums, not realizing which ones they were. Shortly after, she wrote what you are about to read, which eventually was published in the online racing magazine “Stride,” founded by Scott Serio, now of the award-winning Eclipse Sports Wire.

To this day her words still get me choked up, for it made all those years practically forcing Mandy to pose for photos with famous horses worth every second of it, because I finally knew I had left her with something she was able to appreciate years later. But more important I had built a foundation for her love of horses and a special bonding between father and daughter.

Here is what she wrote and what I am so proud to share. As I read it over and over and get a warm feeling inside each time I rejoice in my obsession, beginning when I fought the elements to get one shot of Dr. Fager in the rain and my wondrous year spent in the company of the immortal Secretariat. And then of course there was photographing Mandy with every horse of the moment and every horse of a lifetime.

Now years later my special horse photos are of one-year-old Mandy sitting on her first horse at Saratoga, placed alongside a photo of Mandy’s one-year-old son Theo sitting on his first horse at Saratoga. Next year I hope to get a shot of Mandy’s now 2-month-old daughter Lily sitting on her first horse at Saratoga. How time marches on, and how the images of horses, whether all-time greats or stable ponies, continue to be a part of our very being.

I leave you with Mandy’s words:

All the Pretty Horses – by Mandy Haskin

“When you wake you shall have all the pretty horses.  Blacks and bays, dapple grays…”

That lullaby pretty much sums up my childhood.  Indeed, I grew up with quite a number of pretty horses.  It started at 10 months old, with a very pretty bay named Northern Dancer.  From that day on, my picture was taken with a lengthy list of champion Thoroughbreds.  A chestnut stallion called Secretariat soon followed.  A sunny afternoon was spent playing in a field with a sweet dapple gray by the name of Lady’s Secret.  I rode in a car up the rolling Pennsylvania hills as Lonesome Glory galloped alongside.  I picked flowers as Da Hoss grazed just inches from me, only a week after his second Breeders Cup Mile win.  Genuine Risk showed off her first foal to me.  And I saw the regal Dahlia twice – first as a baby in my mother’s arms, and then years later, standing on my own two feet, now tall enough to reach her nose.

I introduced my dolls to Precisionist, gave a bouquet of dandelions to Alydar, and Holy Bull nibbled on my hair.  And I have it on good authority that my first kiss just may have been from Cigar.  He was quite the charmer.  Then there was Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Forego, John Henry, Damascus, Mr. Prospector, His Majesty, Danzig, and Spectacular Bid, who by that time was white as snow.  The list goes on and on.  Mighty photo albums lined our shelves at home, as they still do today.  The pages are not as white as they used to be, and some are now frayed along the edges, but the albums are still there, forming a wall of memories that any horse lover would dream about.

On my last trip home, I looked at some of these albums.  The covers creaked open, revealing a rich tapestry of scenes – this horse, that farm, big smiles, outdated outfits.  But instead of joy or nostalgia, a strange emotion crept into my mind.  Regret.  I suddenly realized that I didn’t have one true memory of these scenes.  That my only “memories” of these remarkable experiences were through photos and stories.  Even once I was old enough to capture these moments, I lacked the appreciation to really make them stick in my head.  Despite what my father enthusiastically tried to tell me, I couldn’t fully understand who these horses were, or what they had accomplished.  That feeling of regret was quickly followed by an overwhelming sense of guilt.  How many people would kill for experiences like this?

Yet, to my naïve younger self in these photos, it was just another horse.  It pains me to write that.  Admittedly I took it all for granted, not knowing at the time how lucky I really was.  While my dad was having me pose for pictures (no doubt encountering some resistance and overly dramatic rolling of the eyes in later years), I didn’t realize he was actually giving me a very special gift.  I have to believe that he knew I couldn’t appreciate all this then, and that’s why he froze these moments in time.  He wanted me to look back at them all these years later and think, I did this – how lucky was I?  Sitting here now, looking at a photo of me as a baby with chubby cheeks meeting Northern Dancer, I’m thinking that very thought.

I suppose childhood memories can only be fully embraced in retrospection. Only then do we grieve over their transience and celebrate their sublime purity. That’s why we take photos. So that those moments will one day be suspended in time and bound by gilded picture frames. Untouchable. A brief glimpse into who we were and the experiences that made us who we are today. I am the person I am today because of years of green pastures, white fences, shaded stables, the soft purring of barn cats, the crinkling of peppermint wrappers, and of course the blacks and bays and dapple grays.

Thanks to my dad and a library full of photo albums, I will always have cloudless memories of all those pretty horses.


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