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On Track Report from the Palio …and I Do Mean On Track

— This article appeared in the August 15, 2018 Thoroughbred Daily News.

Nothing could have prepared me for shooting the Palio in Siena, Tuscany last month — literally nothing. That my photographer position was on the track in front of the start gate (read: rope that drops sluggishly after a deafening canon fires) was, as young people say, “next level.” 

Most of us have heard the legends of the Palio: passions flaring like fireworks, villagers beating their own jockeys after losing, bribery, theft, kidnapping, poisoning, and the like. The jockeys are forbidden very little in their efforts to win. Pushing, pulling, swatting, hitting one another or hindering opponent horses at the start are not frowned upon. Winning is all there is. In fact, 2nd place is considered the loser of the race.

The Palio is the oldest horse race on record. The first “modern” Palio was raced in 1633 on July 2. The August 16 race was added more recently in 1701. The Palio held on July 2nd is named Palio di Provenzano, in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano. The Palio held on 16 August is named Palio dell’Assunta, in honor of the Assumption of Mary. It sounds so peaceful when described like that.

Nine years ago I visited Siena for the first time. Our tour guide described the race while pointing at the Piazza del Campo, a modest sized medieval cobble stoned village square peppered with café tables and a smattering of tourists. She told us 17 city wards, or contrade, each put a horse in the bi-annual race to compete for bragging rights. Standing in Siena, I took the legends a little more seriously, but a part of me entertained the possibility that some of the hype was for the benefit of tourism.

I was wrong.

The Palio is a dead serious institution as old as Siena itself with all manners of respect and dignity on the line, and not an iota for the benefit of tourists. It runs only twice a year, but lords its legend over the city every day.

We arrived in Siena the day before the July 2nd race. Celebrations and preparations filled streets. Dirt had been laid down over the cobblestone, to my relief. We trotted around to secure credentials and prove my insurance coverage for the seventh time (which finally sparked the notion that covering the Palio from the track may involve some measure of risk). The trial race that evening confirmed my new fear.

The trials are run are for the horses to get accustomed to the track, the enormous crowd, and a canon that makes every heart skip two beats within a kilometer.

Before the first trial run, I was carried off the track several times by police who could not see my temporary paper credential safety pinned to my shirt. They lifted me like a chess piece back over the guard wall. I finally connected with the officer in charge of the photographers who placed me on the track about 15 yards in front of the start rope. The officer said, “You are Patty? The American? Here.” I stood, then crouched, in the very spot he left me, motionless like a bunny in a snake’s cage, for the next several hours.

I decided the telephoto lens was much too scary for me to use as I glared up and into the nostrils of the anxious horses at the starting rope appearing just several feet in front of me. I lost my ability to focus the camera for a while. My fellow photogs (6) were Sienese and my language barrier kept me from gleaning key safety tips and practices. I imagined that’s what they were talking about. I started counting the ways I could die, when — BOOM — the ground shook!

The start canon fired with the volume of a fighter jet breaking the sound barrier, the large rope dropped, and they were off! Well, after a few false starts, they were off. I wondered aloud if we could do the subsequent starts without the canon. The rope drop would suffice, no? Nobody understood my helpful suggestion, or they pretended not to. The horses and jockeys took the practice at a slower than race pace and with less whipping of everyone and everything, but the fan excitement was full throttle.

As the horses passed us a second time the crowd emptied the stands like thin cake batter pouring from a bowl. Crouching against the wall, I did not expect the bodies that came cascading over me to chase the horses. The track was wall-to-wall people in a matter of seconds. Race day I would be better prepared for this moment.

TDN Publisher Sue Finley offered me the chance to beg off the on-track position on the day of the race. I considered it, being a lifelong chicken. Ultimately, I thought of my two children, as any mother would. Though I was confident I would be missed if something horrible befell me, how could I deprive them of the tale of losing their mom in an incident at the Palio? The story itself was too good to pass up. (They confirmed I made the right choice later when I discussed it with them. Cherubs.)

Emma Berry and I arrived in Siena a little before 7:00 am the morning of the race. The tone of Siena had become a lot more serious and a little less celebratory than the day before. A crowd gathered at 7:30 am in the piazza while a full Catholic mass was performed by the local clergy. The jockeys were present and blessed while everyone prayed for their safety and for the safety of the horses. My Latin is not good, but I didn’t hear my safety mentioned.

I received my official credential after that. This one had a picture. The whites of my eyes could be seen around the circumference of my irises. I’m pretty sure that is a medical symptom of fear. Or is it insanity? No need to split hairs.

There was one more trial run after the mass and then we bopped (more acurately schlepped) around town for the remainder of the morning following horses to various churches for their blessings. There was an awful lot of praying going on. The streets were so crowded by late morning that you could keep pace moving through streets without your feet touching the ground. We never really got to select our direction, we were just swept along in people-rivers until we were let out somewhere wide enough. One time we got log-jammed under a set of bleachers. We saw only slivers of daylight for 45 minutes. For a second, I forgot I did not know the man standing behind me during this pile up, as our bodies had been pressed together for quite a while. I smiled back at him before I recognized him as a stranger.

Every contrada has unique jockey silks, of course, which resemble loose colorful pajamas. It might be a good time to mention that the jockeys ride bare back in these silky pjs, (which, along with the shoving, explains to me how half of them slip off before the end of the race). Flags fly in the contrade year-long waving their colors. Sienese, fans and tourists wear representing silk scarves around their necks. I tried shopping for a scarf to wear around my neck, but I thought better than to side with one contrada and have 16 others mad at me. I was courting enough risk at this point.

I was late to my track position on race day. The track was already closed. I needed a police escort to walk me around the empty track in front of the massive crowds. This time my fellow shooters were waiting for me with great big smiles, like maybe they had just finished laughing or trying to suppress laughter in that moment. One of them, Giancarlo, asked me to speak on his Facebook live and tell his followers how I came to be on the track at the Palio. This seemed to be as big a mystery to them as it was to me. I was speaking in English and Giancarlo was clearly not understanding me. I brought up a picture on my phone I had taken of Justify crossing the finish line at the Belmont Stakes just weeks before. I told them I covered racing in the US. They had not heard of Justify or the Triple Crown, but they clung to the topic of needing to win three races before you are crowned and discussed it at length.

Next, the longest parade in world history commenced. (I don’t feel the need to fact check this proclamation. I am that confident.) They call it the Corteo Storico. The costumes, the flags, the horses were medieval and spectacular! I considered for a moment that there were as many people in the parade as there were watching. And then, where did the parade people go to watch? There isn’t a square inch left. I asked Giancarlo if people were being repeated in the parade just playing different characters. That question drew more laughs. I wasn’t trying to be funny.

Finally, the race was set to begin. Giancarlo gave me a serious look and warned, “After the horses pass a second time, run to the center of track as fast as you can. Then try to stay safe.”

“You mean from the jock-less horses?” I asked.

“No, the humans! It’s very dangerous. Be safe,” he warned, no longer seeing the humor in my presence on the track. I lost the humor then too.

More false starts and strategic maneuvers (covert whippings of another’s horse, etc) ensued at the starting rope. Post time was 7:15pm. The race ran at 8:40pm. You can imagine how many times that canon blasted in the interim. I looked for the closest defibrillator but could see none hanging up anywhere. Bodies were carried on stretchers from the “infield” throughout the long wait, but I think they were just overheated. All hearts appeared to be beating.

When the rope dropped for the last time the horses and jockeys fought hard for inside position with almost constant turning around the small piazza. Four jockey’s were thrown in the process, but their horses stayed in the hunt as they would be considered the winner with or without a jockey. As the horses came toward us a second time, I saw my fellow photographers running directly towards them. Yikes, I ran too reassuring myself that I would not intersect with the pack at their speed.

The stands emptied faster than the night before. Suddenly I was in the middle of a melee with no idea of who won the race. A young man decided my arm looked ripe for punching so I acquired a war bruise to show off later. I’m told by my colleagues in the stands that the track looked like a sea of elbows pumping up and down while fists pummeled unknown things.

Looking up, I saw celebratory flags for one contrada hoisted in the air and surmised the winners would be a happier (safer) group. I was able to snake my way to the victorious pile of people hugging and crying. I told myself, this is the story, and stayed there a long time.

Ironically the winner was a horse whose blessing I had attended earlier in the day. And I had a quiet moment with him outside his stall, which was decorated like a church. I’ll go ahead and add here that I experienced a brief crush on his vet as well, so I was happy to see this horse win. The Palio is not for the faint of heart, nor is the start canon, but it is the most extraordinary scene you could imagine for the oldest horse race on record.

I highly recommend visiting Siena and watching the Palio for yourself…from a balcony.

Intelligent, extensive and colorful coverage of the Palio can be found in the September TDN Weekend by Emma Berry. I hope you enjoy the images in this little film.

TDN

The Kentucky Derby is less than four weeks away and I’m as excited as I have ever been. We started working again with the Thoroughbred Daily News (TDN) again this past year which lands us in the middle of the owners, trainers, jockeys, exercise riders, hot walkers and grooms all prepping for the pinnacle first Saturday in May. (Our work with NYRA [New York Racing Association] has ramped up too (another blog), and put us at tracks on race days.)

E5 Racing burst on the thoroughbred scene just over than two years ago. They've already won a couple Breeders' Cup Championships and are now in contention for the Kentucky Derby with Good Magic.

The TDN has always been special to me because it is owned by two friends and former work colleagues of mine who took the paper from a daily one sheet informational fax to the expansive and most reputable media source in thoroughbred racing and breeding today. I worked at the TDN 15 years ago marketing special thoroughbred ventures. I watched with my own eyes how great leadership can foster productivity and excellence.

My life moved me around quite a bit and I left horse racing, the sport I loved covering more than all others since 1986. I kept my terrific memories. Occasionally I would produce a show or feature for TVG or NYRA, but I didn’t see myself coming back.

Sue Finley saw things differently. Sue is the publisher/co-owner of the TDN and the TDN Weekend Magazine. When, a year and a half ago, doctors found a cancerous tumor in my stomach, Sue spearheaded a plan to get me into surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering with the top GI cancer doctor in the world. Two weeks later I was cancer free and Sue and I started discussing our future and how we may work together again.

We are two people who don’t spend too much time looking back at the past (oh, there are a few stories from our days at ABC Sports we can’t forget as hard as we try!). I imagine us as old ladies sitting on a porch still talking about the future of media and racing and politics. We’ll throw in a few stories about our fathers who deserve the all the hero worship we can heap on their beloved memories, but mostly we love the concept of “what’s next.”

‘Next’ currently is expanding the media at TDN to give readers everything they need to stay informed on the business of racing and breeding, to make the streaming present and in real time and to build the video assets as rich as the current TDN text and photography libraries.

We started in baby steps with regular features like “The Last Word” and “The Big Interview” and now we are equipping writers with cameras to catch sound bites to accompany their stories. TDN features are becoming multi-media spreads layering information, insights and perspectives to the stories. A well-timed partnership with XBTV is providing video of morning workouts and as well as race coverage on featured days. We are setting up for coverage all over the country and world to keep the TDN as the only source a professional in racing needs to run their business. The future is limitless as we expand into video ads and profile features.

The TDN Weekend is a thoroughbred lifestyle magazine. I'm honored to host the monthly overviews.

The TDN Weekend is Sue’s brainchild digital magazine expansion piece that showcases the unique corners of the world that people in racing find themselves. Hotels, restaurants, chefs, personalities, travel tips and much more are all fleshed out with glorious images and film. I feel as if I have taken a vacation every time I read the TDN Weekend. I host the monthly overview because my passion for the TDN Weekend is unbridled. PWMG contributes photos, videos and ads. I went a little off my gourd when one of my photos made the cover for the first time.

The May TDN Weekend will feature Kentucky Derby recipe segments that we filmed in Orlando. Everyone pitched in. The Kentucky bourbon flowed. The food was so outstanding we made it again the next week just for eating.

Acacia Courtney, host of the simulcast show from Gulfstream Park, is one of the smartest and hardest working people in the business. We are featuring her in an upcoming issue of the TDN Weekend.

Charlotte Weber, one of the most respected owners in the business, keeps it old school and races what she breeds. We've been lucky enough to do several features with Mrs. Weber.

We aim to grow in our partnership with the TDN as the digital playground continues to spread across all genres. Even the sport most steeped in history and tradition is finding new life -- and fans -- in the new media order.

Video is Key to Social Marketing

Facebook has 8 billion average daily video views from 500 million users. That is daily! Put another way, Facebook sees 100 million hours of daily video watch time!  YouTube alone receives more than 4 millions daily views a day and more than one billion unique views each month! So it really isn’t surprising that 64% of marketers expect video to dominate their marketing strategies in the near future according to Nielsen.

By 2017, 69% of all consumer traffic on the internet will be watching video.

I included a little video here that I did for our company as an example. This is a direct message though often we tell stories or create narratives for our clients to communicate with customers or engage audiences.

 

 
I remember when television was exclusive and also exclusionary to a large degree. I was there. I worked for one of the networks. We worked very hard and knew we were lucky. But, I can tell you this revolution excites me so much more. Anyone with talent can get their videos watched — widely! Talent!!! Any company with a good message can reach their customers without exorbitant fees. This is a HUGE tool for the average small to medium sized companies; enabling them to compete with larger corporations in getting their dynamic messages to customers. The internet and the visual media it streams is a tremendous equalizer if it is used effectively!!

Businesses who use video report 72% increased website conversions rates. Are you using video? Are you communicating professionally? Effectively?

And lastly, are you working efficiently? You can afford to incorporate video into your media marketing plan. Can you afford not to?

I’ll be talking on this topic a lot in the coming weeks!

Wanzie’s Ladies of Eola High Seas

I love when my work includes photography. My favorite projects are shows that Michael Wanzie, Kenny Howard and Chris Yakubchik write, produce and direct and star Beth Marshall, Peg O’Keefe, Sam Singhaus & Blue Star. Okay, okay, okay, I’m a nut for Wanzie’s Ladies of Eola Heights series.

This summer’s show is Wanzie’s Ladies of Eola High Seas. It is playing at the Abbey now. (Click on any picture for tickets) I’ve seen it twice and counting. Wanzie can get me laughing and crying and back again in under 5 minutes. His writing is a kind of magic I couldn’t not begin to dissect or understand. But it touches everyone.

The comedy and timing of these shows just slay me. The emotion always surprises me. I can watch them over and over and still feel all the feels just as strongly.

I am forever awed by Sam Singhaus. He plays Miss Sammy as if overtly. There she is in all her drama. Nobody is going to look away when MIss Sammy is on the stage. But what I love is the small things. The little insecurities that a woman her age would have but try to mask. It’s the tiniest gestures that get to me. With all the make-up, wigs and costumes, it is Miss Sammy’s eyes that are telling the story.

Speaking of costumes, the amazing Marcie Singhaus knocks another one out of the park here. Marcie knows these Ladies inside and out! She makes sure to convey it all to the audience.

Go see this show! Orlando needed the Ladies and they came through again!!!!

Orlando Memorials

June 12, 2016 marked the darkest day on record for Orlando. And nobody I know is okay. But the community remains determined to poke holes in the dark cloud for rays of light. I’m awed by this.

For me walking the memorials is still super painful. I can’t lie about that. Watching little children sign posters and letters to the innocent victims who should be on the streets right now along side us is not okay. Little children shouldn’t have to live through times like these. I didn’t. It’s not fair. I got to be a child without knowing this kind of thing could possibly exist. But they can’t avoid knowing. It isn’t fair.

Seeing photos of the victims who are so bright faced and vibrant sitting amidst flowers that are dead and gone just like them infuriates me. The dead flowers have become emblematic to me and trigger tears each time I see them.

My dad’s funeral was one week before the massacre. I was still very raw from the pain. Seeing the families right here in my neighborhood suffering the same pain — but worse — was overwhelming to me. Mothers burying children? No. This is not the natural order. My father suffered for a long time. We knew we would have to say good bye. His body could no longer function properly. He did not die at the hands of a hateful man. I could not reconcile these families’ pain. Their loved ones should not be gone. Yet there they were, convening at the senior center on my block — with memorials growing up all around. Not okay. Not at all.

But the love of this community….

it does not end.

The angels appear at memorials, churches, vigils and events. You’ve seen them on TV. You’ve seen them on social media. I know them.  These people are resolute to love and not hate. They are affecting change. And they are melting some of my anger. They are special.

A man shows up several times a day at the Dr. Phillips Center memorial site to allow people to release white doves.

Mayor Dyer promises a permanent memorial to the victims in Orlando. They will never be forgotten.

Signs inform us that all of the gifts and posters will be saved and curated for future display.

People are singing. Money is being raised. Survivors are being cared for.

Even the dead flowers will be composted into soil for the beautiful gardens all around Orlando.

I’m still reluctant to admit that anything good can come from a tragedy like this, but thank you Orlando and our LGBTQ community for providing such a perfect blueprint for healing. I love you.

My Orlando

I couldn’t write much yesterday. I’m still feeling both physically and emotionally paralyzed. I am far from home, but I’m seeing the pictures. There is a blood bus on my street and later today families of more than 100 families will be convening and the senior center down the block to learn what they can about a madman with an assault weapon who reigned terror and blood over our once beautiful and innocent city.

My love for Orlando is no secret. I am no shy about it. I moved here a little more than 2 years ago just a shell of my former self. I like to say I dropped out of the sky because it was almost an accident that brought me here. But there I was a broken winged bird in a free fall.

I expected a hard landing. But that didn’t happen. I expected a lot of alone time to sort through my feelings. That didn’t happen either.

By some magic I had landed softly on a cushion held by the dearest community I could have imagined. Kind and super creative folks welcomed me as one of their own. And make no mistake Orlando is one unified community. Gender, color, sexual orientation borders have no place here. Nobody tried to size me up. All souls are excepted so it doesn’t matter in what category you may fall. How would one describe a “gay bar” in Orlando? I’m not even sure. Our clubs are all — everything. Nobody is excluded. Every time I go to a “gay” club, I am treated like a welcomed and special guest. Because in Orlando, that is all the people know how to do. So, are they “gay” bars? Sure! Heck yes, in every meaning of the word. But don’t mistake that for exclusion on either side.

I am certain beyond any doubt that the man who reigned terror at the Pulse in the early hours of yesterday was welcomed with open arms. I am sure everyone he encountered on his way in gave him a big and happy smile. The Pulse is in my neighborhood. It has a wonderful reputation for entertainment. It is unheard of that anyone went to the Pulse, the PH, the Venue… or countless other fun clubs downtown without having a great time or feeling welcomed.

I feel as if a canon ball took a swift path through my chest and now there is nothing but a huge hole. What has happened to my beautiful city? How do we begin to support the families of these smiling children? They were children. (old and tired folks like me are home by 2am) These kids were young and energetic. Each one with great promise for a future. All with smiles to bring the light and energy our world greatly needs. They were taken from us all. We all feel the pain, but we must find strength to be strong for their moms, dads, siblings and loved ones. How do we do that?

And what of Orlando? Our city beautiful. What remains of the innocent joy I landed in 2 years ago? Do we find this ever again? Are we still going to greet every stranger with a smile and a hug?

This community only weeks ago was bonding together over missing baby swans. There is love and caring here. Please let it be enough to heal all those that need healing.

The thing that will not change in Orlando: the LGBT community is the Orlando community. We are one. There is pride but there are no lines. This will never change. #onelove #onepulse

Capturing Alicia Moon

When I first met Alicia Moon, I was already a fan of hers. As a golfer, I was following her golf fashion & lifestyle blogs. And as a photographer, I was drawn to her appearance. I saw a unique blend of elegance and raw athleticism that I admired. But through her writing, I knew that there was more depth to Alicia than what meets the eye.

“Golf is more than a sport. It’s a lifestyle.”

I wanted to meet her myself, so a mutual friend put us in touch. When we finally got together, she confirmed everything I suspected. She was beautiful from the inside out. I knew instantly that I wanted to do a shoot with her. I didn’t know the context yet. But I knew I wanted to do something unique. Something that captured her essence in a more personal way than what the public got to see through her golf fashion blogs.

When Alicia talks about subjects that matter to her, she lights up the room. Her life is intertwined with her work, and her passion shows through it. Everything about her is genuine. So when Alicia said to me one day, “Golf is more than a sport. It’s a lifestyle.”, I thought, “That’s it!!”

On the surface, Alicia is Playful, Charming, and Easy to talk to. On a personal level, Alicia is Introspective, Worldly, and Ambitious. I wanted to capture both sides of her personality. And I wanted to do so in the way I knew best. Let’s make it personal.

At first, it took some encouragement to convince Alicia to shoot the bedroom and bathtub scenes. Although with her dance and acting background, she is confident, sassy, and outgoing, she was surprisingly hesitant when it came to shooting anything that could be seen as purely provocative content.

While most women today would jump at the opportunity to bare more skin than the public asked for, Alicia was worried about being taken seriously. For her, being recognized for her intelligence, integrity, and artistic sensibilities is what matters most. After some persuasion, however, she agreed to do the shoot.

My goal was not to make her the poster girl for a “sex sells” magazine. My goal was to draw out her personality and passion for golf in a series of photos that showcase her raw beauty. There would be no hiding behind promoting a product in this shoot for a change. Instead, she would have to get over the fact that this was all about HER.

Alicia is a photographer’s dream. She is so naturally photogenic and easy to shoot. It was impossible to take a bad picture of Alicia, and even harder to select a handful of “the best” ones. But these are a few of my favorites, as they capture pieces of her personality.

Alicia is more than a golf journalist. She is a role model. Her fearless drive and acceptance of herself is empowering, and the fact that she is making a less than popular sport look enticing is a credit to her contagious personality. One doesn’t have to be a golfer to appreciate her sense of humor and style. Alicia also treats every person that she meets, regardless of age or circumstance, with an equal amount of respect and compassion. I am proud to call Alicia my friend. She just happens to be a seriously good golfer as well!

For more on Alicia Moon, follow her blogs at aliciamoon.com, or her Instagram page @alicia6moon.

To view more pictures from my shoot with Alicia Moon, scroll through the gallery bellow (all images copyright of Patty Wolfe Media Group):

SLIDER

Jessica is Perfect

I wanted to share this photo of Jessica Hanley and her adorable family. On Sunday, after a long weekend of work, we decided to take Jessica’s holiday card photo. What you need to know about Jessica is that everything she touches is perfect. Her work is always impeccable. She often brings me a lot of luck with her positive attitude. Well, this image was the first click of the camera on Sunday. I usually shoot off 2 or 3 shots until I am happy with the exposure ratios. And then, of course, there is editing. But this was the first image and it is right out of the camera – no editing whatsoever. Seriously Jessica?!?!?

Preferred Behavioral Health

An upsetting thing happened when I was editing this piece. I looked to buy stock photos of mental hospitals in the US. I saw the most frightening and darkly “comical” images of people in straight jackets making insane faces. And that is all. Not a single normal image of a mental health care facility out of thousands. This can’t be how we view mental illness, is it??? Mental illness is the most common illness there is. Why do we attach ridiculous stigmas to it? We will never be close to curing something that we do not accept!

I am writing because I can’t get the good people at Preferred Behavioral Health out of my head. I shot this piece in May 2015. I spent the week with the devoted staff and their clients. The experience will never leave me. These are people helping their neighbors to get back on their feet again. They have programs for anyone dealing with mental health or addictions. If it is not under roof, they will find the help. They turn no single person away. They also make a big investment in preventing addictions and bullying through their Prevention First organization.

Please watch if you have 5 minutes. We all can make a difference just by changing our perspectives.