Catching up with Eclipse winner Tod Marks

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Tod Marks won an Eclipse Award. When the news came into the email inbox, everyone on the TIHR team smiled even though the winning photo did not appear in one of our projects. Marks, a vital piece of the equation at The Saratoga Special, this website and – back in the day – Steeplechase Times, is one of a kind. He works hard, captures noteworthy images, makes deadlines, exceeds expectations.

His winning photo was typical Marks, one action-filled moment in time during a maiden hurdle race at the Iroquois Steeplechase in May. Run in Nashville, Tenn., every year the Iroquois is the biggest steeplechase meet of the spring season and Marks is always there – even if he lives in New York and has a “real” job outside of racing. The photo ran in the weekly print magazine, The Chronicle of The Horse. We’d like to think the photo would have been in Steeplechase Times, back when we published that newspaper, but that’s life. Everything changes, right? Founded in 1994, the Times reached its peak and lasted far longer than anyone thought it would before ceasing after the 2012 season. Marks, and images like the 2016 Eclipse winner, helped make the newspaper what it was.

The winning photo covers the last fence of the race, where Hooded heads for the finish with Jack Doyle aboard. To their inside, jockey Kieran Norris falls with Help From Heaven. Norris’ whip is in mid-air and the jockey seems to be summoning some sort of force to pull it back, to no avail. The photo is sports photography at its best – a moment of truth, frozen.

Marks joins ST founders Joe and Sean Clancy, and managing editor Tom Law, as Eclipse winners. All won for other publications, which is the nature of this business sometimes, but all improve the quality of our editorial product every day. A resident of Tuckahoe, N.Y. with his wife Jean, son Jared and daughter Leah, Marks recently retired from a job with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine – you may have seen him on CBS This Morning talking about outlet shopping or shrinking packages or timeshares – and hopes to do even more work in racing. We caught up with Marks, 60, Wednesday for a quick Q&A.

What does it mean to win an Eclipse Award?
It’s stunning, liked getting conked on the head with a coconut, an appropriate metaphor since the awards ceremony is in Florida. You don’t know what to think. Humbling, for sure. A terrific honor. I think of all my photographer colleagues and wonder why this particular image was singled out. You always think this prestigious award from your peers is something destined for someone else, not you. Funny story, (the NTRA’s) Jim Gluckson called me on Friday. The first thing he asked was whether the Sloan Maiden Hurdle was a race for Thoroughbreds. I didn’t initially connect the dots. It didn’t dawn on me why he would 1) ask about a steeplechase race in Nashville and 2) ask me whether the competitors were Thoroughbreds. I didn’t connect the dots for about 15 seconds. Then it dawned on me.

How did you get into photography?
I studied journalism and photojournalism in college (undergrad at Fairleigh Dickinson, graduate school at New York University). I’ve always loved photography precisely because it was the antithesis of being a print journalist (writer, reporter, editor), which has been my day job for more than 35 years. I look at everything as a potential image. I view the world as one photograph after another. With writing, everyone has an opinion, and you can take one of a dozen or more approaches to a particular story, and each is valid. With photojournalism, in my case, horse racing photography, you either get the shot or you don’t. There’s no ambiguity, no do-overs, no second guessing. it’s like walking a tightrope without a net. There’s no going back.

How did you get into racing photography?
Because writing was my profession, I wanted to follow my passion for racing and horses in a way that didn’t feel like a job. And that outlet was photography. When I was a young daily newspaper reporter with the Gannett chain here in Westchester County, N.Y., I became fast friends with the beloved veteran turf writer Tom Whelan, who introduced me around to Steve Schwartz and the press folks at NYRA, and that’s how I first got credentialed in 1980. I would lobby to write horse-related stories whenever possible, and I was able to work in my own images from time to time. My greatest single moment came in 1983 when I got to cover Kelso’s (and Forego’s) return to Belmont Park to lead the post parade for the Jockey Club Gold Cup. It was a dream come true, as Kelso was, is, and will always be my favorite horse. I was standing on the track with my fully manual film camera, and I swear, the horse stopped for a split second, turned to look at me, and I snapped the photo of a lifetime. 

TodMarksWhat do you like about your job?
The adrenaline rush of a big race or a highly touted baby making his debut, seeing an old warhorse compete one more time. It’s the pomp and pageantry of the sport, the history and traditions. There’s nothing like the roar of a crowd before the Travers or the Belmont Stakes. I got shivers up my spine and started shaking when the rafters rocked at Belmont Park in 2004 when 120,000 people screamed in unison when Smarty Jones broke from the gate in quest of the Triple Crown. 

What don’t you like about it?
When a horse breaks down, and I watch the connections run to aid the stricken animal. I admit there are times I feel ashamed. But that’s a gut-level, knee-jerk reaction. These creatures live to run, and as an avid follower of steeplechasing, I observe first-hand how everyone – the owners, trainers, riders, and grooms – truly love their charges. Another downside to being a professional photographer is that you lose the enthusiasm you had as a fan, and that’s how most photographers who seriously follow the sport came to love it. It’s your job to get the shot, and that’s really all that matters. People will ask me who won a particular race, and I can’t tell them. I often wonder what it would be like to once again sit in the grandstand with nothing other than my program, the Racing Form, and a pair of binoculars. Frankly, though, I don’t think I could sit still as a fan anymore. If I didn’t have my camera, I’d feel completely naked at the track.

What was the first race you attended? 
Easy. It was an unremarkable weekday afternoon in the spring of 1977 at Belmont Park. With my dad. It was as exciting as seeing the Yankee Stadium turf for the first time. I still have the program from that day. I’d give anything to relive that day.

Who’s your favorite horse of all-time? Why? Kelso, probably…
Yes, Kelso is my favorite horse because he’s the first Thoroughbred I ever saw on TV. I was only a little boy in the early ’60s, but I was fascinated by his name, the fact he’d been around so long, and was so durable. Not to mention that my dad said (Eddie) Arcaro was the greatest jockey he ever saw. Years later, I wrote to Allaire du Pont, who invited me to Woodstock Farm to interview her and take photos of Kelso. 

What’s the best race you ever saw?
Oh my, there are so many. From an objective standpoint – and looking back through the prism of nostalgia – I’d have to say the 1978 Belmont with Affirmed and Alydar. I was one of those Alydar fans who fervently believed the big colt would catch Affirmed the next time. I was a huge believer in Conquistador Cielo in 1982, and I still think about his Met Mile. Then there was New York-bred Fio Rito’s shocking defeat of Winter’s Tale (another favorite of mine) in the 1981 Whitney. However, from a personal point of view, the most impressive race I ever saw was Holy Bull’s 1994 Woodward. I adored Holy Bull and Jimmy Croll, and when drew off in the stretch from the field my goosebumps got goosebumps. 

Favorite flat racing moment you took photos of?
Gee, that’s incredibly tough to nail down. Probably the most incredible was Rachel Alexandra’s nail-biting win over Macho Again in the 2009 Woodward at Saratoga. I was only inches away from Rachel on the infield photo stand, and I can still see Calvin Borel’s eyes bulging out of his head as he hit the wire. Wow.

Favorite jump racing moment you took photos of?
Equally tough, but the most awe-inspiring race was the 2004 Grand National at Far Hills. I shot the race from the backside of the course set against the stunning backdrop of trees with leaves changing color. I was in awe of the field assembled for the race including McDynamo, Sur La Tete, Flat Top, and Hirapour. 

How did you come to take the winning photo?
Percy Warner Park (home to the Iroquois meet) has limited shooting lines. There really aren’t many places you can position yourself at the last fence. I tend to shoot the first of two times around closer to the jump, so that I am in effect somewhat diagonal to the hurdle. The problem with that vantage point is that the outside horses — those closest to the “grandstand,” are easily blocked, and rarely do horses that run on the lead go wire-to-wire. So for the second time around, I repositioned to shoot the jump from more of a head-on perspective. That way, I have better sightlines of the field should a horse come from nowhere. It’s no guarantee – shooting steeplechase races is much more difficult and less predictable than shooting flat runners especially when the field is spread apart – but betters my chances of capturing the winner. There was great intensity approaching the last. Jockey Kieran Norris, aboard Help From Heaven, was unseated trying to avoid another fallen runner, Bishop’s Castle. Jack Doyle, the rider of Hooded, stayed out of trouble, albeit in tight quarters with the airborne Norris. Instead of following the fallen horses, the instinctive thing to do (most photographers who aren’t accustomed to jump races stay with the spill because of the dramatic uncertainty; my job is to photograph the winner, so I have to make a quick judgment where to aim my camera), I tossed a coin inside my head and opted to track Hooded, the leader, and Norris, who flew into the frame, pressing the shutter at the optimal moment. Photography is all about timing – being in the right place, at the right time, and at the ready. But you have to have luck, too. And Hooded didn’t even win. Another horse, All For Us, came flying  past on the far outside to get the win.

What makes a good racing photo?
The man-bites-dog moment. The unexpected. Great lighting, horrid weather, the sun peeking through a cloud, the gleam of a spur, the flexed muscles in an exercise rider’s arm, a tear, a frown, a fall, a weathered hand, a jock’s ability to overcome adversity and stay atop a horse in trouble. There’s the majesty of a horse’s head and shoulder turned just the right way; the interaction between a groom and a horse, a pat, a tear, a kiss, a look. 

Any advice for amateur photographers or people wanting to do it professionally?
Digital photography has made it possible for almost anyone to get a winning shot now and then. You can see your mistakes instantaneously and learn from them. At the same time, automation and fancy equipment can make you lazy. You don’t learn about exposure settings, optimal shutter speed and aperture combinations, how to overcome bad lighting, out-of-the-ordinary conditions, and so forth. So many amateurs I talk to tell me they just set the camera to auto pilot and press the shutter. That makes me shudder. Amateurs tend to ignore backgrounds; that’s why you see so many people with telephone poles growing out of their heads. I would suggest anyone serious about photography to study the work of photographers they admire. Learn how to use the equipment manually, stake out a spot at the racetrack like the clubhouse turn or top of the stretch (you don’t need a credential to be creative), and practice over and over again. Take a backstretch tour in the mornings and try to recreate the images you see in your favorite photos. Eventually, you’ll see and think photographically, meaning you’ll view everything you do in your everyday life as a potential image composition.

What’s it like to work on The Saratoga Special?
I’ve been part of the Special since before Day 1. It’s the toughest but most fulfilling labor of Iove I’ve ever been associated with. As year 17 looms on the horizon, the core team remains mostly the same, with an annual infusion of new youthful enthusiasm and talent keeping things fresh. Being a photographer for a daily paper was very challenging in the early years. I still shot film, ran to the CVS to have the rolls processed into negatives immediately after the races (praying that the machines weren’t broken down), then scurried back to the office to scan the negatives, and put them all on a CD. Phew, I can’t believe we did that. Digital has made it easier, but the expectations are greater and things move much faster. I shoot more, edit more, label and upload more. The mornings are just as hectic as the afternoons, and there’s rarely time to take a breath. The drill is pretty inflexible. I shoot one race and the aftermath, run to the photo room – where I now do all my work – to offload, edit, label, and upload to my website, then try to dash off to the paddock to catch the arrival of the horses for the next race. But if the Internet’s down or slow, if there’s a special presentation or ceremony following the race, a spill or unexpected delay, etc., it throws the timing off. The hardest days of the season are Hall of Fame Day, because the ceremony ends right before post time for the first race, and Travers Day, where there are so many stakes races, so many people, and so many rules, you can lose your mind. I wish there was more time to be creative, as in the early days, for instance, shooting a race from the backside chute, at the head of the stretch on the backside, the clubhouse turn on 1 1/8-mile runs, and so on. I used to get up well before dawn to catch a memorable sunrise; now I pick my spots to do so. 

How do you survive the grind?
I’m very goal-oriented and make a list of what I’d like to see on any given morning. I tend to be rigid in my routines. Compared to the past, when I’d set the alarm and get up at 5 a.m. come hell or high water, I now let my body tell me when to rise, which is usually between 5 and 6. I limit my morning shooting – partly because The Special just doesn’t have the real estate as it used to for a lot of the morning coverage – to around 8 or 8:30 barring an important workout or assignment. I go back to our house for breakfast, attempt to do a little editing, but am mindful – when my family is up – that it’s not fair to them for me to be glued to the computer all the time. Our joy is to walk the Avenue of the Pines. I head over to the track at around 12:15, set up in the photo room and get ready for the races. It’s a heck of a drill, but it keeps me focused. I rarely socialize or do the “fun” non-race things that fans get to do. I barely, if ever, go to town, almost never go out to dinner, or see a show at SPAC. I enjoy supermarket shopping – it’s my relaxation – and cooking dinner, watching TV in my pajamas, editing additional photos I couldn’t get to during the day, and hitting the hay by no later than midnight. Though it may not sound like fun, I cannot imagine doing anything else. 

What’s the strangest photo you’ve ever taken?
Depends what you mean by “strange.” I’ve taken a lot of oddball shots. The most bizarre has to be Birdstone’s 2004 Travers in pitch-black darkness as a storm moved in. Very surreal. The funniest one I recall was when hockey legend Bobby Hull was in the Saratoga paddock back in 2001, I think, smoking a huge cigar. I asked the well-known tough guy if I could take his photograph. He said, sure, and proceeds to take out his false teeth to flash a toothless grin.

Canon or Nikon? Why?
I’m not an equipment junkie. I try to get the most out of my gear and update only as necessary. I switched from Canon to Nikon in 2009 because Canon was having big problems with their pro-end camera body, and I needed to upgrade some pretty outdated equipment. Nikon had come out with its groundbreaking D3 the year before, so I sold off all my Canon bodies and lenses, swallowed hard and made the switch. Both companies make superb equipment; it’s really a matter of personal preference.

Why can’t I just use my phone to take the picture?
If you have to ask, you’ll never be a real photographer.

Got a tuxedo? How old is it?
No. The one and only time I wore a tux was for my wedding, in 1985. I swore I’d never put one on again. Heck, the main reason I got into journalism was so I wouldn’t have to dress up for work. No kidding. But since I learned I won the Eclipse, I’ve been surfing the net for photos of previous years ceremonies to see if it’s true that many people simply opt for a suit. Right now, we’re having a big brouhaha in the house over what I’m going to wear. The verdict isn’t in. I’d rather go with a suit.

How long will your speech be?
I tend to be long-winded, but the horses are the stars of the show, and the people who attend the gala probably want to cut to the chase as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, I won’t have time for any jokes.

If you could have lunch with one photographer, ever, who would it be and why?
That’s interesting, as I’ve spent so much time with so many photographers. I am very close to the living legend herself, Barbara Livingston, but the two of us are practically inseparable throughout the summer, so I feel I know pretty darn well. She is a tireless workhorse, who never stops. I am in awe not only of her creativity and role as THE chronicler of our sport, but her stamina. My goodness, I don’t know how she does it. When I was a young, aspiring photographer, I poured through the work of Bob Coglianese. I even wrote to him when I was in high school, asking how to break into the business. He is living history and I admire his work. I still stop by his booth at Belmont and Saratoga to look at all the wonderful photos he’s captured during his illustrious career.

Fill us in on the Consumer Reports job. Are you really retired? How long were you there and what did you do? What are you going to do now?
Another oh-my-goodness, question. Yes, I am recently “retired” from CU (we old-timers still refer to the place as Consumers Union; the magazine is CR). I was a reporter, writer, and editor for nearly 28 years. The organization is going through a lot of changes, and there was an opportunity for many senior staffers to take a voluntary buyout. I love CR; It was my home, my identity, and the job of a lifetime. It gave me the opportunity to cover stories and travel in circles I could not have otherwise imagined. I’d like to expand my horse racing photography business and do even more. Cover more races, more meets, work on new projects, etc. Maybe even write some stories. Like the old saying goes, it you love what you do, it’s not work. 

For more on the Eclipse Award, and other media Eclipses, see NTRA site.

For a slideshow of some of Marks’ images through the years, click the photo below to launch.

 {gallery}Best of Tod Marks{/gallery}