By Chris Helvey
Known as “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” the Kentucky Derby holds a special place in the hearts of many residents of Frankfort and Franklin County. While many of us have watched the Kentucky Derby on television, or perhaps at the track in Louisville, few Frankfort residents have been fortunate enough to be able to venture onto the backside at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Holly Smith is one of these fortunate few.
A self-described “Horse Girl,” Frankfort native Holly Smith has followed her love of horses all the way to race tracks across America and Canada, culminating in being able to photograph the action at Churchill Downs during several runnings of the Kentucky Derby.
Growing up in the Two Creeks community on the east side of Frankfort, Holly became interested in photography because her mother, Becky M. Smith, was learning the rudiments of photography from the eminent Frankfort photographer, Dr. Gene Burch. Holly and her mother traveled frequently to “Photo Weekends,” retreats for photographers at Kentucky state parks and other scenic venues.
On these weekends, Holly, her mother and other photography enthusiasts took numerous photographs during the first day, have their film (this was before the digital camera age) developed overnight and enter their best shots in various contest categories. Holly remembers the weekends as wonderful learning experiences, as well as fun times with her mother. She notes her first camera was a Canon AE-1, and, yes, it used real film. During this period, Holly won several photography contests, for both her nature and animal photographs.
An animal lover since childhood, Holly was always especially fond of horses. Although she went to Franklin County High School, Holly participated in 4-H in Scott County because her first horse, a Morgan, was stabled near Georgetown. Later, Holly frequently rode American Saddlebred horses, and she still rides today at Signature Stables at Rock Creek Riding Club in St. Matthews.
After high school, Holly attended University of Kentucky where she majored in agriculture. During her senior year, acting on a whim, she enrolled in a photography class where she learned to develop her own photographs and create arresting black and white photos.
After she graduated from UK, Holly’s parents (who now live in Florida) became involved in a horse racing partnership, which enabled her to gain access to the backside at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. Holly began taking lots of photos of horses and sharing them with members of the racing partnership, as well as posting them on social media.
Among the horses she got a chance to photograph was American Pharoah, who went on to win the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland in 2015. Holly remembers American Pharoah as a “really cool horse, who was not high-strung, skittish or mean.”
She said that it seemed to her that American Pharoah somehow seemed to recognize that he was a special horse, one who needed to carry himself like the champion he was.
In her early days on the backside at racetracks, security was, Holly recalls, considerably more relaxed than it is today. Back then, she remembers “we could bring in a bag with food and beverages, even a cooler. Then just hang around the barns, chatting, watching the horses and shooting a photo when something special caught our eye. Now, security is very tight and, as a photographer you really need to be credentialed.”
Holly’s first credentialed Kentucky Derby was 2017, which was won by Always Dreaming. Perhaps her most memorable, and difficult Derby to photograph, occurred the very next year, when Justify won in a torrential rainstorm. “It was so challenging to take a good photo under those conditions,” she recalled.
“Taking a truly memorable horse racing shot always comes with some good luck, because thoroughbreds are not going to pose for you, especially during a race.”
While she has taken “posed” photos of thoroughbreds, Holly prefers to take what photographers refer to as a “scenic” shot. A scenic shot is an unposed photo taken of a race day crowd, horses, backside workers, etc. Among her favorite photographic subjects, Holly reveals, are the men and women who work behind the scenes in the world of thoroughbred racing, folks such as the groomers and hot walkers (people who walk a hot, sweaty horse after a workout or race, allowing the horse to cool down and for its pulse rate to return to normal).
Her favorite horses to photograph are those with a “personality.” One example is a horse named Tom’s Ready, a multiple graded stakes-winner, who ran second to Gun Runner in the 2016 Louisiana Derby, then came back less than two months later to run a credible 12th in that year’s crowded Kentucky Derby (won by Nyquist). What made Tom’s Ready such a fun subject to photograph, Holly notes, was his tendency to lie down every chance he got, as though he wanted to take a nap.
Another of Holly’s favorite race horses is Mr. Misunderstood (named after the Eric Church song), who won 13 races and almost $1 million over his distinguished career for the Flurry Racing Stable and trainer Brad Cox, another Kentuckian (he was born and raised in Louisville). Holly now handles all social media postings for Brad.
In addition to these duties, Holly has had her photos featured in numerous publications, including The Pressbox, The Horse Magazine, Pegasus World Cup Social Media, NKY Magazine and Dale Romans Racing. She has also done freelance work for BloodHorse, Twinspires, Brisnet and National Horseman Magazine.
Asked what advice she would give to anyone wanting to become a photographer, Holly quickly replies: “buy a good digital camera, they’re easy to find these days, and start taking photographs. Then you have to keep working on your photography, taking photos every chance you get, and, unless you know someone who can further your career, you really need to post your photos on social media.
“Grabbing people’s attention is critical to finding success, and in today’s world social media is the way to go about doing that. Posting to social media is how I got started and it’s continued to be one key to my success.”
In addition to her freelance photography and handling social media for Brad Cox, Holly has now established her own photography business, Holly M. Smith Photography. Her website is www.hollymsmithphotography and she has a Facebook page. She specializes in photographing children, families, and, of course, horses.
Even though she now lives and works in Louisville, Holly still returns now and then to Frankfort, sometimes simply to drive through the neighborhoods of her childhood, but often to swing by China Wok on her way back from doing a photo session at Keeneland to pick up some of her favorite Chinese food. If you see her, be sure and say “Hi” to one of Frankfort’s favorite Kentucky Derby connections.
Chris Helvey is an award-winning Frankfort writer and editor. His latest novel, Looking at Kansas, has
just been released in paperback and ebook by Wings ePress. It is available for purchase via Amazon.
Chris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502-330-4746.