Preserving NYRA’s filmed history a worthy but costly undertaking

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

June 13th, 2015

Through the efforts of numerous videographers, both professional and amateur, American Pharoah’s victory in the Belmont Stakes, when he became the 12th Triple Crown winner, will be one of the most preserved documents in Thoroughbred racing history.

Less preserved, though, are many of the sport’s greatest events that were captured on film prior to the widespread use of videotape in the 1970s and 1980s.

Keeneland Association is presently engaged in a long-term project to preserve and restore racing’s visual past, in particular the priceless film and video archive of the New York Racing Association (NYRA).

The man in charge of the project is G.D. Hieronymus, Keeneland’s Director of Broadcast Services. In 2007, Hieronymus and other Keeneland employees cataloged and transported more than 800 NYRA film reels, which had been kept in the basement at Aqueduct, to a conversion facility in Cincinnati.

According to a contemporary press release, master component copies of the films were made and the master copies and original films were subsequently returned to NYRA.

“You can certainly take a film – 8mm, 16mm -- and put it on a film chain and shoot it with a video camera and call it a transfer, but to do it right and have this film preserved the right way you have to go in and evaluate it,” Hieronymus said. “There can be breakage in the film, discolorations. You need to put it in the hands of professionals. That’s what we wanted to do, for [NYRA], for us, and for future generations to appreciate.”

The reels Keeneland initially collected were feature films rather than patrol films, according to Hieronymus. Both kinds occasionally pop up on various YouTube channels, but are not the restored versions Keeneland has made or strives to make. One example, the “coolest” in Hieronymus’ opinion, is the footage from Belmont Park’s opening day in 1905, which was filmed by the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” Thomas Edison.

None of the films that have been restored, which are currently held in climate-controlled facilities in Cincinnati and elsewhere, are yet available for public viewing.

“When we first started this project we were still tape-based, so we’ve got a lot transferred to digital beta and going forward we’ll have them in some kind of media file that will be more accessible and charitable,” Hieronymus said. “We just got to get jump started and determine how we can share it.”

Eventually, Hieronymus notes, the public will be able to go to the Keeneland Library, access a database, look up a horse, and see a pop-up archive where you can sit and enjoy the footage.

Unfortunately, a project of this magnitude could take a very long time, decades perhaps. The obvious obstacle is funding, and Hieronymus’ annual budget for film preservation is not only for the NYRA archive, but also for such clients as the Thoroughbred Racing Association, The Jockey Club, and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

“It’s a costly venture,” Hieronymus said. “It would take a monumental task just to get it all done. You just can’t turn around and devote all these resources to it. I wish you could, it’s deserving of it.”

Not only is Keeneland attempting to preserve the NYRA archive, but is also in possession of the racing broadcasts produced for ESPN in the 1980s and 1990s by the Tulsa-based media company Winnercomm. That video archive was eventually acquired by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

One film archive Keeneland has not yet been able to acquire is that shot by the late West Coast cinematographer Joe Burnham. A friend of Hieronymus, Burnham turned some of his collection into commercially available videotapes prior to his death in 1994. Notable titles included “Thoroughbred Heroes” and “Hollywood Park: Fast Track to the Hall of Fame,” as well as historical documentaries on the Santa Anita Handicap, Del Mar, and great moments in the history of Santa Anita grass racing.

“I truly feel they’ll end up here someday, and we haven’t stopped pursuing them,” Hieronymus said.

One can only hope that a wealthy benefactor, or a collection of them, will step forward in the near future to help expedite the completion of Hieronymus’ and Keeneland’s task for the benefit of all racing fans and historians.