Ruidoso Downs Horse Races

This post contains lots of photos, but I think that I need them all to tell the photography story that I want to tell. As you can see in the photo above, it was nearly 5 weeks ago on Friday, June 1, 2012 when Barb and I visited the Ruidoso Downs horse racing track in the town of Ruidoso, New Mexico.

I had never been to a horse race in my life, before this day, but many of the people that we had visited with that week in Ruidoso had highly recommended it. We had spent a pretty leisurely week up to that point, where I had spent most of my time studying the manual for my new Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera. We had only scheduled one “tourist activity” for each day, and today was going to be the horse races.Even though Barb had been there once before, many years ago, frankly, I had no idea what to expect.

Walking only a few yards from where I had taken the photo above (just off the highway), you can see the grandstands across the narrow valley at the base of this small mountain.

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As we drove up their entrance drive, I just had to stop to take this photo showing the large bend of the oval dirt track.

I was rather surprised that there was no entrance fee, and that the parking was free, too. We only had to walk about 100 yards (meters) from the car to the closest end of the grandstand. That’s where the entrance to the Jockey’s Club was. I just assumed that the entrance that we went through in order to pay to get into the grandstand.

The friendly group at the door let me know that we were welcome to pay to come into the Jockey Club, but if we just wanted to get into the grandstand, we just needed to walk 20 yards to our right. We did exactly that, and I was completely surprised that we could just walk right in – for free – and sit wherever we wanted to!

We had arrived just as the first race of the day had finished. There is a 25 minute delay between each race. (I think there were going to be 9 races that afternoon.) During that delay, they water down the track, and then drag an implement behind a tractor to get the dirt just how they want it.

While we were waiting for the next race to begin, an usher asked to see our tickets. Tickets? What tickets?

I know that I had a dumb expression on my face as I told him that we never encountered anyone asking us to pay for a ticket. He told us that we were sitting in “Reserved Seating” and that if were welcome to sit in the bleachers down below – which were indeed free.

OK, so we moved about 10 feet closer to the dirt track, but our legs were in the direct sun.

And they’re off!  What the heck?  The next race had started and I hadn’t even prepared my camera! Just get what you can…. I raised my camera to my eye, saw the that Olympus instantly focused on the lead horse, so I snapped this photo just as they crossed the finish line!

Wow! We were 30 feet (10 meters) or so from the track, and you could FEEL the horses pounding the ground with their hooves!

Checking the OLED display on the back of my camera, I saw that I had indeed caught the lead horse just after it had crossed the finish line, but wait just a darned minute… horses do not have 8 legs!

Hmmm… The camera was in my default settings: ISO 200, f/8.0, aperture priority, which resulted in a shutter speed of only 1/160 second. No wonder that fast moving horse had 8 legs!

While the grounds keepers prepared the track for the next race, I had some time to think about which camera settings I wanted to change.

I had read in the camera owner’s manual that the camera could shoot 9 frames per second (fps), and this seemed like a great place to try that out! I also changed to Shutter Priority mode, and set the shutter speed to 1/1600 second. To keep a good depth-of-field I didn’t want a wide aperture, so I had to increase the ISO to 800 just to keep the aperture to f/10. I also changed the autofocus to Constant autofocus mode. Lastly, I changed the Image Stabilization to mode IS2, which is for horizontal panning when following moving objects.

After the water truck and the tractor, the jockeys and the horses for the next race always ride past the grandstand and then double-back to get to the starting line.

The races today did not go around the oval track. Instead, they were straight line races, just like at a dragster race – but with about 10 horses at the same time!  As they got the horses into the starting gate, I simply walked down to the railing at the edge of the track, and positioned myself so that I had a good view of the finish line. I zoomed my 12-50mm lens all the way out to 50mm.

And they’re off!  It doesn’t take these race horses long – maybe 7 or 8 seconds before they get close enough that I push the shutter button halfway and lock focus onto the lead horse, and instantly push it the rest of the way and take the following sequence of photos.

Now that you have had a look at this sequence, I want to let you know that I only showed you every other photo (I skipped the odd numbered photos, and only showed you the even numbered photos). Even at the 4.5 frames per second that I am showing you, you should get a sense of just how fast these horses are moving as they came flying past me!

Also worth noting is that as I kept the shutter button held down, and since I was shooting RAW + JPG, the buffer in the camera filled up, and there was a delay between that last shot and the next shot.

Also worth noting is that I did not understand at the time that when the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is shooting a 9 fps sequence, it locks focus at the time of the first shot – even if the autofocus is set to Constant Autofocus. What saved me here is that my aperture was f/10, which gives a fairly deep depth-of-field, especially on a Micro Four-Thirds sized image sensor.

As we waited for the next race, I reviewed the photos on the back of the camera. I didn’t like my composition. I had kept the lead horse in the center (where my focus point was), and so all of the horses were on the left side of the picture, with the right hand side being empty. I made a mental note to try and improve on that. I also told myself to wait until they got a little closer to the finish line before I started machine-gunning RAW + JPG images onto my UHS-1 speed-class SDHC memory card.

It began to get darker as rain clouds approached, and I refused to increase the ISO setting above 800, but that meant that I had to open the aperture form f/10 to f/6.3 AND lengthen the shutter from 1/1600 to “only” 1/1000 second.

Finish line!

The previous 5 photos were taken consecutively – I did not leave out every other one this time. I reviewed this sequence on the back of my camera while they paraded the jockeys and horses for the next race.

It was raining to the south of us, and those rain clouds were blocking the sun. I was going to have to change my settings to compensate accordingly.

Fortunately, the rain was passing us to the east.

Even so, it was getting darker. I was already at the widest aperture that this lens was capable of (f/6.3), but I had to do something. I lengthened the shutter to 1/800 second, but still needed to do something in addition. All I could think of at the time was to zoom the lens to a wider angle, which would support a wider aperture of f/5.7 that I needed. That resulted in a 36mm focal length, equivalent to 72mm on a full frame camera. (Later that evening, I realized that I should have just switched to my 45m f/1.8 lens!)

I decided that I now felt comfortable enough with my timing to wait for them to get closer to the finish line, that I also decided to change to the “low speed” Continuous Shooting Mode of 3.9 fps.

I can’t remember why I made that decision at that time. Maybe I remembered reading in the manual that the OM-D E-M5 will focus between each shot at this lower speed, or maybe I just got lucky. For whatever the reason, it really helped, because I now had a much narrower depth-of-field due to my wider aperture setting.

And they’re off!

So I follow the lead horse, keeping my focus point in it, until I think I’ve timed it just right.

Things move very fast, and I just saw another horse enter the left side of the frame….

Wow! Horse #10 wins the race!

Too bad that I didn’t even know that horse #10 existed until it went thundering right past me – only 3 or 4 yards (meters) away….But the continuous autofocus had locked onto the front legs of horse #3, not horse #10!

Maybe, just maybe I’ll get a good sequence before we get rained on!

The rain was staying east of us, but it just kept getting darker. I had to to open the aperture some more – to f/5.3, which meant that I was now zoomed to only 28 mm.

I also didn’t like the limited number of frames that I captured when using the “low speed” continuous shooting mode, so I went back to the 9 fps rate.

This is the photo captured as they crossed the finish line.

Notice how the horses change their stride immediately after they cross the finish line. They don’t stop instantly, just like you need several steps after running full speed before you slow down and stop.

We could smell the rain coming, and we didn’t want to walk the 100 yards back to the car in the rain, so we decided it was time to go now.

Just before we left the grandstand, I turned around and took this last photo. Barb and I had been sitting on the bleacher in front of the two guys in the white cowboy hats near the left edge of this photo.

I never really got the sequence of photos that I was hoping to get, but I had a really fun time trying, and I’m still amazed that it didn’t cost us any money at all!

3 thoughts on “Ruidoso Downs Horse Races”

  1. Looks like you had some nice success on the action sequences. Oddly. I like the image of the line woman in the seats with the 2 tractors going by 😉

    That is a nice looking track – so much different than the ones I am used to on the East Coast. I love racetracks and don’t even lay down a bet these days if I go – I just get a coke or a beer and watch the people – fascinating stuff!

  2. Gregg-
    Yesterday I saw Rome, and today Niagara Falls and Ruidoso! I am exhausted! Seriously, the pictures of the Falls are just incredible; the rainbow is just magical. I have never been there so the sequence of pictures was a realistic experience. The pictures of Ruidoso Downs brought back many happy memories! Keep those great sots coming!

    1. Jana, thank you so much for visiting my blog and looking at my photos! I like that you think the Niagara Falls sequence made for a realistic experience. That is what I was hoping to do.

      I did not know that you had been to Ruidoso Downs before. I had never been before the day that I took the photos that you saw – and I had a great time!

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