HOW MANY TRIPLE CROWNS?: A LOOK AT MARYLAND PHOTOGRAPHER JIM MCCUE
With the advances in the digital age and camera technology, I think most people with the right camera or even a phone can get a good clear finish wire shot at a horse race. I believe though, that the best photographers are born with a special eye, and are truly artists! Most of the time, when I do one of my horse drawings, I have a particular horse in mind first. Although I take some decent photographs at the races, I don’t have a great camera, or access to the superstar horses in the sport. I spend a lot of time surfing Google Images to find the right image to draw, usually one with that is very clear, and very detailed. Once I select a photograph to draw, I must get image use permission from the photographer, and the creative process can begin.
Last year I decided to do a drawing of Secretariat. Big Red is in the conversation as the greatest horse ever, and his records in all three 1973 Triple Crown Races still stand today. As I started my Google Image search, I kept coming back to a photograph from the 1973 Preakness race at Pimlico Race Course. Secretariat is pictured in the post parade with Jockey Ron Turcotte in the irons. Being 43 years old, the image lacked the detail I prefer, but is a great image and the one I wanted to use. I then noticed the copyright at the bottom of the photo. It read: Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club 1973.
My first thought was, “I know Jim.” I have met and spoken to him at Laurel Park. He is still the Maryland Jockey Club photographer, and I see him every time I go to Laurel Park or Pimlico. I have seen him walk down to the rail on windy days that were in the single digits, and I have seen him photograph the races on days with a heat index over 100 degrees. My next thought was, “Wow, he has been the photographer for Maryland Jockey club for almost 50 years!” There have been articles written about Jim, and I have read all of them. As interesting as his story and career has been, not one of the articles mentioned or posed this question. If Jim has been professionally shooting horse racing since before Secretariats Triple Crown campaign, is he the only active Equine Photographer that has professionally shot more one Triple Crown winner? Not only has he shot more than one, but if he shot Secretariat in 1973 for Maryland Jockey Club, he has now shot four Triple Crown Winners with American Pharoah being the last in 2015, plus Seattle Slew in 1977, and Affirmed in 1978. Not only has he shot more than one, he has shot four!
During the Fall Meet at Laurel Park, I spoke to Jim. I asked him my Triple Crown question, and he looked puzzled. I don’t know if anyone had ever asked him, or if he had thought about it. I told him about my column “From the Apron”, and told him I wanted to do a column about him and focus on my Triple Crown question. He smiled, and in his soft-spoken tone, agreed but told me, “Not too many questions though. I didn’t stay in this job for almost 50 years by not staying under the radar!”
On an overcast but mild winter day, I spent some time with Jim at Laurel Park. Jim allowed me to join him at the rail and in the winners circle, as he shot all the races on the 9-race card. I had given him a print of my Secretariat drawing, and he said in his 47-year career he has never seen a horse like Big Red. He said the big chestnut (16.2 hands) was his favorite horse, and said how lucky he felt to have photographed him. I asked Jim if there was another horse, or race, that he didn’t get to shoot, or missed the shots. He told me about the old hand crank cameras he first used as an equine photographer. The Rollieflex cameras were German made, and had two lenses. He said sometimes they just broke. He would look down, and they just simply hadn’t worked.
Jim’s description of the Rollieflex camera was a perfect lead in to our next conversation. I asked him about the rapid advances in photo and camera technology. Has he embrace it, or has it been difficult for him? He told me that as photography was his profession, he didn’t have a choice but to keep up with the technology. He said, “If you are a Doctor or a Lawyer, you have to keep up with the new medical procedures or new laws.” Jim said he started shooting digital in 2004, and quickly learned the computers and camera equipment.
Jim said that his parents owned some race horses in the sixties, and that is when he started going to the races. Now at the age of 70, Jim just kept telling me how lucky he was to be doing this as a career. He told me that he genuinely loves coming to his job every day. He said he has never taken anything for granted, and added “I have the greatest job at the racetrack.” Jim is now in his 47th year as the track photographer for the Maryland Jockey Club. He has shot an occasional wedding for a friend, and done some photography for a Trainer/Breeder, but has never pursued doing more than shooting the races and Winners Circle for MJC. He clearly loves what he does, and although he said that over the years everything in the game has changed, he is so laid back about all of it.
I still get goosebumps when I watch the replay of the 2015 Belmont Stakes. American Pharoah thundering down the home stretch to win the Triple Crown. Larry Collmus, who has covered countless huge races, screaming at the top of his lungs. “American Pharoah’s got a two length lead, Frosted is all out at the sixteenth pole, and here it is, the 37 year wait is over, American Pharoah is finally the one, AMERICAN PHAROAH HAS WON THE TRIPLE CROWN!”
I don’t know how long we must wait for another Triple Crown winner. I will bet though, that at the Preakness Stakes, Jim McCue will be at the wire, shooting for the Maryland Jockey Club. He will be shooting his fifth Triple Crown Winner. He will have loved getting up for work that day, and coming to the race track. As the horses cross the wire and he gets his shots, before he walks away, he will turn, give that half grin almost looking down, and say, “How can I ever give this up? I have the best job in the world!”
All photos courtesy of Stephen Bardsley.