Long before the first mint julep is poured, before the grandstands fill with lavish hats and seersucker suits, before the melody of "My Old Kentucky Home” ripples across dirt and turf, before owners and trainers watch with bated breath, before the roar of the crowd rises through the air…there is a moment when night is fading into dawn, when the hype and the roar and the bustle of the Kentucky Derby seem far away.
Here, as the sun peeks over the edge of the Bluegrass and begins its climb over the twin spires of Churchill Downs, the backside of the track hums with activity: vehicles come and go, workers shovel hay into stalls, horses are brushed and groomed and bystanders murmur from their perch along the rails of the World’s Most Legendary Race Track. It isn’t quiet by any means, but the air is filled with the anticipation and hope of every trainer, jockey and owner that his or her horse will be the next champion in the Run for the Roses.
These moments before and after dawn are Dan Dry’s favorite part of the Kentucky Derby. And he would know: 2016 marks the award-winning photographer’s 38th year on assignment capturing every possible moment leading up to and during the Derby. Dan, managing director of the Content Creation Studio at PriceWeber – a full-service digital advertising agency – has served as official photographer of the Kentucky Derby for Churchill Downs for 25 years.
"That time of day at the track is so different, and unique. The light is beautiful. It’s a photographer’s dream,” Dry said. "Even with all the press and people, there’s an energy and excitement that pervades everything.”
Dan arrives each morning around 5:30 or 6 a.m. to ensure that he’s ready to begin shooting the moment the sun comes up. He moves from barn to barn, stable to stable, photographing the horses that will go on to run the Kentucky Oaks and Derby. At 8 a.m. sharp, the race track is harrowed and watered. At 8:30 a.m. sharp, the horses begin their warmups.
"Only the horses running the Oaks and Derby races are allowed on the main track,” Dry explains. "Derby horses wear yellow saddlecloths. Oaks horses wear pink. All of them look amazing.”
After 20 to 25 minutes of practice, the horses return to the barns. Dan captures a few more images, then packs his gear to return to PriceWeber, where he begins his second full work day. His photos will go on to be featured on Churchill Downs’ web site, social media channels and WAVE-TV on a daily basis.
"I always leave Churchill Downs with a sense of awe. On Derby day, by 7 p.m., one of the horses I photographed throughout the week will enter the Winner’s Circle, and his owner’s, trainer’s and jockey’s lives will be changed forever.”
Take a behind-the-scenes look at Dawn at the Downs with this slideshow of some of Dan’s favorite photos from the backside: