Jason Beem's Thursday Column for April 14, 2022

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April 14th, 2022

A good Thursday to you all! Today I'm very happy to interview a friend of mine who I think is one of the most gifted photographers we have in horse racing, Ryan Thompson. Racing is blessed with some amazing photographers who capture the great moments in our sport. I first got to meet Ryan down at Gulfstream Park West when I was calling there, and I was always shocked how much he was running around to find new and interesting locations to shoot the races — not to mention the fact how hot and humid it was! So all that said, here's my interview with Ryan.

Jason Beem: What was it that sparked your interest in photography?

Ryan Thompson: I was never the most focused person in school. However, the photography courses always grabbed my attention. My high school had this unique policy where you were required to either take art classes or foreign language classes. When it came time to graduate, photography was the only thing in my mind that I could see myself doing so I went on to study at Columbia College Chicago.

JB: Did you set out to photograph sports, in particular horse racing, as a career?

RT: Early on in my career, I focused on photojournalism and eventually began freelancing for various suburban Chicago newspapers. This mostly led to covering local community sports that ranged from Friday night football to cross-country running. I was far from the best photojournalist starting off, but I really enjoyed the challenge of something different every day.

JB: What was your knowledge of horse racing when you started to shoot it?

RT: My knowledge of horse racing when I started photographing was almost zero. I came across a Craigslist ad from Doug Clark at Four Footed Fotos who was in need of help for stakes races at Arlington Park and Hawthorne. I am thankful he gave me a shot. My first time stepping foot on a racetrack was the first time going out to Arlington to shoot for Doug. I remember watching the Kentucky Derby, but that was all I knew about horse racing in the beginning.

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Ryan Thompson

JB: What have been some of your favorite racing events/races that you've gotten to shoot, and why?

RT: I have been lucky enough to shoot a few Triple Crown races and Breeders' Cups. Spending those long days with friends and fellow photographers is always a great joy for me. The times that really stick out to me are the road trips that I have made with friends; Prince of Wales at Fort Erie, Canadian International at Woodbine, Little Brown Jug in Ohio, Derby preps at Oaklawn and Fair Grounds, Kentucky Downs. All of those days are filled with fond memories.

JB: I would think each track has its own trickiness when it comes to shooting it, whether it be lightning, architecture, shade, whatever. Does it take you a while to kind of learn how to shoot at a new track?

RT: There are talented photographers who can show up anywhere and be in the zone, but I am not one of them. For instance, it probably took me months to really get in a groove at Gulfstream Park. Each track has its own personality and features. It can take some time for me to really get a feel for and figure out how to best show off those features.

JB: I've had the good fortune to watch you work and you run all over the track trying to get unique or different angle shots than maybe the traditional photos. Why is that so important to you?

RT: I get bored of taking the same shots over and over again. I do not want my images to become stagnant so I try to constantly mix it up. Too often you see the same type of cookie-cutter shots produced at various racetracks. This industry needs people who genuinely care and want to see it succeed. I take great pride in my photography, and I want to provide the most interesting images possible. It is what the industry needs and deserves. If I am going to do this, I want to look back at it and know I tried. I did not just do the bare minimum.

JB: Do you have a racing photo you're most proud of, and what's the story behind it?

RT: I have two that really stand out for me. The triple dead heat photo from Hawthorne harness and Thunder Snow’s Kentucky Derby start are both photos I am proud of. The triple dead heat photo was just pure luck. It started snowing shortly before that race, which those conditions at Hawthorne produce a beautiful snow-globe effect, so set up remote cameras to capture that. I pointed one remote camera right out directly across the track, and the three horses did the hard work by hitting the wire at the exact same time. The Thunder Snow shot I was shooting for BloodHorse, who had me shoot on the inside of the track near the top of the stretch. I put a remote camera on a starter's stand with the goal of capturing the field zipping by the grandstand/spires. Out of the gate, Thunder Snow did not like the surface so his race ended early. In my photo, you see the whole Derby field heading off in the race and way behind is Thunder Snow just having a bad day. I did not see many other photos of that scene, definitely not from that angle. I think that was one of the bigger stories of that Derby. It can be rather difficult to get a unique photo at a massive event like that, so it feels good to have it. I do not think I have a grand vision nor do I see myself as a brilliant photographer, but I have worked exceedingly hard and I will continue to try and improve.

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Triple dead heat at Hawthorne. (Ryan Thompson)

JB: I want to ask you about the Hawthorne chandelier photo that you and I used to laugh about. I would think just like any creative endeavor, there is so much trial and error and probably a lot of shots that maybe in your head sound great but just don't pan out?

RT: Trial and error is so much a part of photography. I would rather try and fail miserably instead of not trying something at all. The "shot" was there, but I did not get it. Maybe if I was able to light it differently or tweak it somehow it could have worked. Sometimes when you fail it is best to just laugh at it. Unfortunately, I believe that room has been torn down during the Hawthorne casino construction, so I do not think that shot will be possible again.

JB: Are there tracks that you haven't shot at yet that you'd love to get to?

RT: Yes, there are so many. Of the bigger tracks, I have not been to Del Mar or Pimlico. There are just too many others to name. In a perfect world, I would get out to every single American racetrack. At some point, I would also love to go overseas to visit some international tracks too.

JB: You were at Pompano Park for the Gabe and Pete match race last week. Are you going to make it up there for the final night? Will you be documenting that evening, if so, or just going as a fan?

RT: That match race was incredible. The amount of money raised for their charities was fantastic. I really love how the racing community comes together to do good things. I was so happy to be there for that match race, and I will not dare miss the final night at the Pomp. Before they found their official track photographer, Jessica Hallett, I was filling in at the end of last season and the start of this season. The horsemen have treated me with nothing but kindness and respect. I was also at GPW / Calder for their last day of racing, and my heart was at Arlington during that last day too. Too many tracks are closing down. It is a worrisome trend, and I just cannot help but think of all of those who are affected. I feel like the best thing I can do personally is to be there and try to get a nice photo out of it.

JB: You also have gotten to shoot a lot of professional hockey games. I would think hockey would be a really fun sport to shoot?

RT: Hockey is a really exciting sport to shoot. You need to be thinking ahead of time about where the puck will end up to get the good shots. With horse racing, you have a general idea of this is where the winner will run, this is where the finish line is. With hockey, everything can happen so quickly, it can be a real challenge to shoot the right thing at the right time. I was working for the Chicago Steel of the USHL, the team won the championship one of those years I was shooting. The whole championship series came down to one final game. My buddy Joe and I made the eight-hour drive to Sioux City to shoot that game. My team won it in overtime. I have a photo of the puck in the back of the net and some Chicago Steel players with their sticks raised triumphantly. Those kinds of photos are worth all of the effort, which is why I do this.

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Thunder Snow at the Kentucky Derby (Ryan Thompson)