American Pharoah by Bronwen Healy.
This is a story about a journey of the soul; a quest inspired by the love of horses and the determination to photograph an American Triple Crown winner.
Less than a year ago, Bronwen Healy, widely regarded as the finest equine and Thoroughbred photographer in Australia, was battling cancer and undergoing radiation treatment. Now here she was embarking on a 10,000-mile journey from Melbourne to New Jersey with only one major goal in mind – to capture the magnificence of American Pharoah.
Healy’s only trip outside Australia had been to New Zealand, and she was apprehensive about flying great distances over water. In addition, she would have to part with her two children Heath, 13, and Jessica, 10, and her boyfriend of 12 months, Darren Tindale, who volunteered to watch the kids after her mother was unable to, feeling the trip was too much for her.
What is it about a horse, even one as special as American Pharoah, that can spark the human spirit and set in motion an adventure of a lifetime?
As Bob Baffert said of American Pharoah, “I get so emotional when it comes to this horse. He literally brings me to tears.”
And it was the tears Healy shed after the Belmont that made her realize this was a horse she needed to photograph.
“When he won the Belmont it actually made me cry, especially with me being a hopeless horse fanatic,” she said. “Goodness, what a situation. I thought to myself after he won the Belmont, 'This is going to turn into Black Caviar all over again' – Madness! Like nothing else I've seen before.”
It was the great Australian sprinter that helped expose Healy’s talents to the world, as she became the “official” photographer of Black Caviar, capturing her in all her glory and beauty, especially with her magnificent shots of the mare standing and frolicking in the ocean.
Healy also is the photographer for the famed Arrowfield Stud, where among her subjects is Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.
But despite Healy's fame and reputation, and despite having recently recovered from cancer and having to leave her kids, the lure of the American Pharoah siren proved too strong to resist.
“I’ve always wanted to photograph a Triple Crown winner but I knew that would be an impossible dream, because you guys have waited 37 years and the odds of me picking a year when there would be a Triple Crown winner were miniscule. I always follow the Kentucky Derby, and my kids have grown up with horses like Smarty Jones and Big Brown and California Chrome. When American Pharoah won the Derby and people were saying how special this horse with the stumpy tail was, it started everything in motion.
“I love how the Triple Crown talk starts in America after you get a Kentucky Derby winner. I’ve always felt I would give my right arm and part of my left to photograph a Triple Crown winner. I thought about going to America, but said, ‘This is completely stupid. I’ll never get there. What will happen to my kids; what will I do?’ I talked to Darren feeling it would be nice to do it together. He’s a former newspaper photographer and although we’ve been together for 12 months we’ve known each other for a long time. And he was fantastic to me when I was sick with cancer last year. I staggered through the spring carnival on sheer bloody determination and bloody mindedness. I did radiation on Melbourne Cup Day. If I had moments where things felt crappy, I would feel OK if I thought about horses. When I was sick the horses were a distraction.”
With her illness now behind her, Healy seriously began to pursue her dream. But it was almost short-lived.
“My mom thought it was too much and too tiring and wouldn’t come to watch the kids,” Healy said. “I thought the dream was over. I was devastated, because I had built up in my own mind that I wanted to do it. Darren asked me, ‘Would you go by yourself?’ He said he thought it was important for me to go. One thing about getting cancer is what if it came back? What if you had these opportunities to do things like this and you didn’t do it? You’d be going ‘bloody hell.’ ”
When Healy got her close friend, noted equine artist Lyn Beaumont, to accompany her, Darren offered to take care of her kids. One of her biggest thrills during this time came when her 13-year-son Heath, who has been a diabetic since he was 18 months old, finally was able to give himself an insulin injection.
Healy’s and Beaumont’s friendship grew over the years and they became extremely close. Part of the reason Healy moved from Canberra to Melbourne was to be close to Beaumont. Although Healy is nearly 47 and Beaumont is 60, both bonded through their love the horses.
As Healy said, “I wouldn’t have done this by myself.”
That set in motion a frantic month, in which Healy, with the help of her travel agent, tried to form an itinerary not knowing where American Pharoah was going to race next. A planned trip first to Del Mar to shoot the horse didn’t work out, so it was either Saratoga or Monmouth. She had to take the risk and plan a trip to New Jersey hoping that American Pharoah would run in the Haskell.
Flying long distances over water, driving on the “wrong” side of the road, attempting to maintain contact with Baffert and Ahmed Zayat to OK a photo shoot, as well as contacting Monmouth publicity director John Heims for credentials and a media guide, and being on the other side of the world far away from her children, all created a great deal of anxiety. Not to mention arranging to take a good deal of her camera gear such a long way and watching and hoping day to day the horse stayed healthy and sound.
On June 29, she booked her flight. “I’m feeling a bit nervous about doing this in the absence of any decision about the horse,” she said at the time. “However, I’ve been watching Zayat’s Twitter feed and it looks like there are indications that they are swinging back toward the Haskell.”
The following morning she watched American Pharoah’s workout on the Internet and loved what she saw.
“I took a huge breath and paid for my flights yesterday,” she said. “Wow…I did the usual little panic about worst case scenarios happening and whether or not he will come. But I’m remaining calm hoping that the logical option prevails. American Pharoah is bringing all sorts of people out of the woodwork. I just want to produce images that I’m happy with. I’m funding the trip myself and it’s financially a bit of a risk. But it’s important for me to do this.”
Then came another minor concern. “I’ve been suffering from a bit of head and neck lymphedema after my cancer surgery,” she said on June 30. “It’s only mild and I’m a bit puffy. I just hope my face doesn’t swell up like a bullfrog from the flight. The farthest I’ve ever flown is across (Australia) to Perth. This is miles!”
As the departure day grew closer, the anxiety began to build. “My daughter was very quiet and withdrawn today and then got all teary, saying she was worried about me being away and getting hurt in America and worried about me flying over water,” Healy said July 3. “She’s only 10 and frets when I go away. I am trying hard not to feel guilty about leaving her. I think me telling her that American Pharoah was announced to run in the Haskell made my going away seem more real.”
Healy also finalized arrangements after the Haskell to drive to Kentucky, where she made appointments at several major farms and was even invited to stay at WinStar, where she eagerly looks forward to photographing American Pharoah’s sire Pioneerof the Nile and dam Littleprincessemma.
Sleep was scarce in the nights leading up to her departure. “I think I want to sleep with my media pass under my pillow, but I will make myself leave it in my bag,” she said.
The night before she left she said, “No doubt there will be some tears tomorrow night, Darren’s been great. It still feels hard to believe that he is so happy to mind my kids while I do this huge thing that is so important to me.”
Despite Healy getting nervous several times flying over the Pacific, the flights were very smooth, and finally they landed at JFK. All the waiting was over. They were in America, just in time to photograph the following day’s arrival of American Pharoah.
Now it was all about the camera and the horse and getting memorable shots of racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner to put on her website and have for posterity.
On the Friday and Saturday before the race, an amazing 13,000 total fans showed up just to watch Pharoah gallop.
The days flew by and on Sunday, Aug. 2, with fans showing up at 5 a.m. to wait for the gates to open, sitting on lawn chairs, blankets, and coolers, American Pharoah added to his legacy by scoring one of the easiest victories seen in a long time, as an enthusiastic record crowd poured their hearts out to their beloved champion, giving him a rousing ovation that built to a glorious crescendo.
“My heart was thumping,” Healy said. “It was so exciting; bedlam. But homage to the horse. It was just magic.
“It was so like Black Caviar, but even bigger. What I found the most pleasing about it was that it was all about the horse. We get this huge exciting buildup for the Melbourne Cup before the race and when the field comes out, the crowd roars as they cheer for the horses in general. With the Haskell it was more specifically about the actual horse, which makes it more like a Black Caviar atmosphere. Sometimes you just get a horse who everyone wants a piece of and wants to get close to, and they all come out with cameras to get a picture of him and to take selfies.”
And so the first and main part of Healy’s journey is complete. What at first seemed like a pie in the sky vision eventually became more real as American Pharoah marched through the Triple Crown. And now the unforgettable experience of the Haskell and American Pharoah is embedded in Bronwen Healy’s memory, thanks to the adventurous spirit, the determination, and the courage of a special lady who dreamed of photographing a special horse.
All photos in this blog are courtesy and copyright of Bronwen Healy.