Jim McCue: Maryland racing's photographic chronicler for 47 years

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TwinSpires Staff

May 17th, 2016

Edited Press Release

Visitors who find their way up several flights of stairs and navigate a maze of hallways to Jim McCue's small cluttered office behind Laurel's grandstand are immediately greeted by a massive, full-color print of Secretariat hanging just inside the door.

Big Red's shiny chestnut coat glistens in the sun under Ron Turcotte, both long since enshrined in Thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame. The only smile bigger than the one on the jockey's face is that of McCue, who snapped the iconic shot moments after Secretariat's victory in the 1973 Preakness.

Among the best pictures ever taken of one of racing's greatest, most popular and most photographed horses, it was later made into a poster. McCue still has, and cherishes, both the negative and the original.

"Secretariat is my all-time favorite, bar none," McCue said. "He was the most awesome racehorse I've ever had the privilege of seeing."

In many ways Secretariat, the horse and the print, embody a labor of love for McCue, now in his 47th year as the Maryland Jockey Club track photographer. McCue, who turns 70 in September, has seen and captured his share of great horses at Laurel, Pimlico, Timonium and the former Bowie Race Course. On Saturday, he will be capturing the winner of the 141st Preakness.

"It's very cool. I can truly say I love my job," McCue said. "I've been very fortunate, and I never took anything for granted. I love horses and I love photography. It's the best of both worlds."

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, before moving to Pennsylvania in middle school, McCue got his introduction to racing through his father, Vincent, who owned and raced horses with trainer John Lenzini, mostly at Laurel, Pimlico, Bowie and Charles Town in the 1960s.

"We used to come to the races all the time," McCue said. "I used to skip school to come to the races with my parents."

Though his love of horses was ingrained, it wasn't until McCue was serving overseas in the United States Army that he discovered photography.

"I got interested in photography when I was in Vietnam because cameras were cheap and everybody was buying one, and I got into the photography. I had almost a year left after leaving Vietnam; back then everyone served a year and then you came home," McCue said.

"I applied for the Army photography school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and I got it. I went there, did the school and was supposed to go to Fort Meade, Maryland. I showed up there after I was done school and they said they had no positions so I went back. Actually, they sent me back to be an instructor at the school for a period of time."

Ultimately, photography would take McCue around the world before his time with the Army was up.

"I got called down to personnel one day and they said, 'Guess where you're going?' I asked where and they said, 'Germany,'" McCue said. "I told them I had less than six months left in the Army and I'm not re-upping and off I went. I had a blast. I got to see and do things that most people didn't. I wore civilian clothes, I was an Army photographer. We went on VIP tours. We went to Berlin several times when the Cold War was the Cold War. We're talking the late 1960s.

"I went to North Africa on a job one time, taking pictures of engineers building bridges," he added. "We brought our equipment and our vehicle, we pulled right into a C-141 in Frankfurt, Germany, flew over the Mediterranean and landed in Africa. We lived in a tent in the middle of nowhere in the desert and froze our butts off. It was really neat; an experience that you never forget."

Over the years, McCue became friends with the late Jerry Frutkoff, then working as Maryland's track photographer. A conversation they had one day would ultimately change McCue's life.

"I knew Jerry from my parents when they raced horses. He knew I was a U.S. Army photographer and he said, 'Whenever you get out, come around,'" McCue said. "Here I am, 47 years later."

McCue left the Army in 1970 and was hired to be Frutkoff's assistant, starting that fall at Timonium and Laurel. They worked together for 33 years until Frutkoff passed away in August 2003 at the age of 81. The Jerry Frutkoff Photography Award is given each year for the best picture of the Preakness. This year's award will be given Thursday at the Alibi Breakfast.

Now semi-retired, McCue spends race days at Laurel and Pimlico, where he watched American Pharoah win the Preakness last year on the way to becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner and first since 1978.

"I've seen four Triple Crown winners. That's pretty neat, especially the last one after waiting 37 years," McCue said. "I've enjoyed seeing all the locals do good, like Buddy Delp with Spectacular Bid and the King [Leatherbury]. He is the man. Nicest guy in the world.

"And to be around people that are truly not just friends, but family. All the people that have come through. When I look at old programs and I see the names and I think, 'Where the heck did the time go?'"

McCue traces his success and longevity back to his father.

"I've truly seen a lot and been through a lot of regimes," he said. "My father gave me good advice: Keep your mouth shut and stay under the radar. Those are good words to live by."

(Maryland Jockey Club)