From the horses to the fashion, to the famed mint juleps, the excitement that surrounds the Kentucky Derby is unlike any other sporting event.
For Getty Images photographer and Kentucky native Rob Carr, it’s particularly special. His love of the sport started at a young age, when he would go to the tracks and watch the races with his father, who worked on Thoroughbred horse farms.
This year, Carr will join five other Getty Images photographers shooting the race, plus remote cameras positioned strategically around the Churchill Downs track. It’s his 27th time covering the action.
“When I started out we were shooting on film and processing it at the track in bathrooms,” he said. “Now each camera has an Ethernet plug going into it so editors get pictures instantaneously. Last year, our pictures were available while the race was still going on.”
Timing is everything in a race that only lasts 120 seconds, or as Carr refers to it, the most exciting 2 minutes in sports.
“You stop and think about how a football game is 60 minutes and you get the chance to photograph them for a whole hour,” Carr said. “In a horse race you get 2 minutes, and if you don’t have your ducks in a row, you’re going to screw it up.”
Every Derby Carr pushes himself to try something different. He shot the race from just about every angle, including from a tree in 1986 and from a helicopter in 2000. He also tries out new techniques to provide a unique perspective, like last year when he used a fish eye lens. His goal each year is to make a picture that he’s never made before.
Though his approach to shooting the Derby has evolved, he says the race itself has remained the same.
“The one thing that hasn’t changed is the distance of the race,” he said. “In football, they’re always tweaking the rules, but the Derby is still the time-honored: ‘Let’s get 20 horses, start them here, and whoever hits the finish line first wins.’”
Over his career Carr has photographed many other races including the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness. To him, it’s the people that set the Derby apart.
“It’s just such a cross mix of people who come to the race,” Carr said. “From the rich owners of the horses to the families, to the college kids,” he said. “The diversity of people almost matches our society. People from all walks of life are all gathered in one place to watch a 2-minute horse race.”
While Carr may be a veteran in shooting the race, the significance and history are not lost on him.
“For me, the most exciting part is when the horses come around the track for the post parade and they’re getting ready to play ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’ This is what you’re here for, this is what it’s all about,” he said. “You know that there are 200,000 people in the stands, and millions more watching worldwide, and you think ‘Here I am, some little country boy, standing on the finish line at the greatest horse race in the world. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.’”
See Carr’s best shots and this year’s greatest moments from the Kentucky Derby at gettyimages.com