Shooting American Pharoah, Who Broke the Triple Crown Drought

How Erick W. Rasco captured the chaotic scene at the finish line.
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Erick W. Rasco had been in this situation before. He had covered Triple Crown attempts, but none of them were successful. Before June 2015, a horse hadn’t won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same year since 1978. So, that year, Rasco went to Belmont with yet another chance to cover something that would be historic. American Pharoah had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown the previous month.

Rasco, who is Sports Illustrated’s director of photo operations, had a goal that day to try to capture spectators. He waded into the crowd when there were just a few thousand people during the smaller races. But, as American Pharaoh’s race approached, the crowd swelled.

Originally, Rasco says, he wanted to get a shot looking down on the track where he could get the winning horse crossing the finish line with a sea of people next to it. But the shot wasn’t particularly clean, which led him down into the crowd.

It got so packed that Rasco put his camera on a monopod so he could reach it up over the spectators and use it as a pole camera.

The shot he set up of the finish line had “fans in the foreground giving a sense of time and place,” he says.

But, the crowd became even bigger, burying Rasco deeper. Would he be able to get his camera high enough to get a clear shot of the eventual winner?

“The race started and it was chaos,” Rasco says in an episode of Sports Illustrated’s Full Frame video series. “I’ve never been at any event that’s that loud. And everyone was jumping, yelling. … I was getting crushed by spectators. Beer was flying. I did not see any bit of the race.”

While everyone was yelling and cheering, Rasco says he was sick to his stomach. He wasn’t sure what he would be able to capture.

“It was intensifying and got louder and louder, and I was able to tell when they were coming to the last stretch. I felt the whole of tens of thousands of people and finally it hit a point where I felt like I had to just fire. Holding [the camera] up, didn’t see a thing, and I just hammered away,” Rasco says.

Then, the race ended.

belmont-stakes-crowd

Rasco wasn’t able to tell for sure whether American Pharoah had won. He knew that he was able to get frames, but he wasn’t sure whether they were of empty track or the wrong horse.

“American Pharoah led for every step of the Belmont’s brutal 1½ miles. ... Jockey Victor Espinoza, who previously lost Triple Crown attempts in 2002 (War Emblem) and in ’14 (California Chrome), scarcely asked Pharoah to run until he hit the top of the Belmont stretch, and then hit him just twice right-handed with his whip, at which point Pharoah accelerated away to win by 5½ lengths over second-place finisher Frosted,” Tim Layden wrote in his SI cover story on the race.

When Rasco started processing the images, he saw that there were horses in the frame. And, importantly, the right horse was in the frame.

“What went from sheer panic and devastation and disgust at myself turned out to be a pretty good scenario,” Rasco says. “Never in a million years did I think I was going to get the cover out of that. And that’s probably one of my more intense days at SI ever.”


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Full Frame is Sports Illustrated's exclusive newsletter for subscribers. Coming to your inbox weekly, it highlights the stories and personalities behind some of SI's photography.

To get the best of SI in your inbox every weekday, sign up here. To see even more from SI's photographers, follow @sifullframe on Instagram. If you missed last week’s edition on Trevor Lawrence and how Kohjiro Kinno thinks about photography, you can find it here.

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