This month our “Hats Off to the Horses: The Road to the Derby” auction continues with a third hat up for bid to honor Soi Phet, the nearly black California-bred son of Tizbud and beautifully photographed by Old Friends volunteer and photographer, Laura Battles.
Over the years Laura has shared so many beautiful images of the Old Friends retirees for our annual “Hats Off to the Horses” fundraiser, and I was especially delighted when she agreed to be our official “Hats Off” photographer in Kentucky for 2020!
Laura is a familiar face at Dream Chase Farm. She is a volunteer there; helping with feedings and farm tours.
She knows the horses well, for she walks among them.
And when she picks up her camera, Laura has a special gift for connecting our hearts to these amazing retirees through her magic lens.
The horses of Dream Chase Farm are truly Laura’s dear Old Friends, and her devotion to them shines through in every photograph.
I recently asked Laura if I could interview her and was thrilled when she said yes!
Laura, welcome to my Hats and Horses blog!
We are thrilled to have you join our “Hats Off” team for our 11th straight year with the “Hats Off to the Horses” Derby hat auction fundraiser for the retired racehorses of Old Friends. I’m so glad I got the chance to catch up with you and ask you a few questions for this Q&A!
Sally: For those who are meeting you here for the first time, where were you born and where did you grow up?
Laura: I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas.
Sally: What is your earliest memory of a horse?
Laura: I am not really sure, but my earliest memory of horse racing was listening to Foolish Pleasure win the Kentucky Derby on the way home from the mall and following that classic season.
Sally: Did you ride when you were little?
Laura: Just my two weeks at Girl Scout Camp every summer. I was willing to suffer through the heat and discomfort of camping for that glorious hour once a day with horses!
Sally: When did you first start taking photographs, and when did you realize that you wanted to be a photographer?
Laura: I always took photos on vacations as a kid and always got the best camera in the family. My first real camera was a little Minolta 35 mm camera that I found at a Target on clearance about a year after I got out of college. I have been a computer programmer/analyst since I got out of college in 1987. Surprisingly, I still work for the same employer that gave me my first job after college. I have moved around the country with the company and the company has changed names several times (EDS – HP – HPE – DXC). I find that photography is relaxing for me and a way to de-stress from my “real” job that pays the bills.
Sally: Was there anyone who especially inspired or helped you along the way?
Laura: Not really. I took a couple of semesters of photography at the community college and learned the nuts and bolts of how photos are produced and got to do a few darkroom projects.
Sally: How did you come to be a volunteer at Old Friends?
Laura: Old Friends appeared about a mile from my house a year after I had finally gotten relocated to KY with my job. I drove by it every day on my way to and from work. I attended a few events in the early years at Dream Chase Farm, including the ribbon cutting for the grand opening. I stopped by one snowy February day and Beth was kind enough to spend the next day showing me every horse on the farm. I just kept coming back and they finally put me to work. 😊
Sally: What would be your perfect day at Old Friends?
Laura: Get there in the morning and have a nice wander around the front of the farm. Take a break up in the office to rest my weary feet, then head back out and wander the paddocks at the back of the farm visiting the horses that don’t see tours on a daily basis. Of course, no visit is complete without some time in the mares paddock doing a little spa treatment on my girl of the moment (who is currently Miss Du Bois). I love to be the last off the farm in the evenings to capture the horses in the glow of the setting sun.
Sally: Are there any horses that you especially love to photograph at Old Friends and why?
Laura: War Emblem is just a gorgeous horse and such a character. I don’t think he ever takes a bad photo, even with his ears pinned 😊
Of course, I could never get enough photos of my Binty (Bint Marscay). She was another one that the camera loved.
Game On Dude and Little Mike can really put on a show when they want. Another that I love getting photos of is Cost Affective. He is a dark bay and gorgeous in the evening light.
Sally: Laura, you and Old Friends retiree, Bint Marscay had an amazing relationship. How did that come about, and how long were you two friends?
Laura: I remember hearing that we were getting an Australian champion mare at Old Friends and made it a point to see her in the big mares paddock. A couple of years later, Bint Marscay was moved in with Hidden Lake, who I liked to visit with her human at the farm, Barbara. Binty and I fell in love that spring and the rest is history. I was researching her racing career one night and realized that I had actually seen her last race in Australia in 1994 on my first trip down under. She became my best friend and would always come over to the fence as soon as she spied my heading her way. I always had carrots for her and she liked to be groomed and then would go roll in the mud as soon as I was done.
On hot summer days, I would go up and give her a bath to just keep her more comfortable in the heat. She would follow me around the paddock like a puppy and if I tried to leave before she was ready, she would herd me away from the gate. She was always a perfect lady, but she made sure I knew what she wanted.
Sally: You seem to have a real affection for the cats of Old Friends…?
Laura: I have been a cat person my entire life and have three of the things at home. Cats make you work for their affection, but if they like you, they have a ton of love to give.
Sally: On your FB page I noticed that in your many travels you are fortunate to have several traveling companions, Mr. Sparkles and another pink unicorn?
Laura: Yes, Mr. Sparkles was sitting in the window of a shop at Brussels Midi Station a couple of years ago. I just couldn’t leave him there. His little pink friend is Penelope, who was a gift from the trainer of one of my favorite horses.
Corine Barande-Barbe has been super about letting me visit Cirrus Des Aigles during my travels. Fortunately, Penelope is a laid back little girl and just goes along for the ride with Mr. Sparkles, who can be a bit of a prima donna at times. He attended Bint Marscay’s last birthday party after I agreed to make a rain poncho for him!
Sally: In your travels, you have photographed some incredibly talented racehorses. Do you have any favorites?
Laura: That is a very hard list to limit, but here are a few favorites:
Forego was my childhood hero. I was lucky to spend a lot of time with him in retirement at the Kentucky Horse Park. His stablemate at the Park, John Henry, was not too fond of me since I always walked right by him to visit Forego first.
Easy Goer was the horse that got me to make my first big racing trip to see him in the 1989 Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream. I was lucky enough to see him at Claiborne farm a few years later.
Silver Charm was a horse I saw all over the country during his racing career. I was thrilled when I heard he was coming to Old Friends and I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I realize that stopping to give Silver Charm a carrot in the evening is just another normal thing to do 😊
Cigar started my travelling to see a specific horse race. He was something else and I also got photos of him stepping off the van at the Kentucky Horse Park where he lived out his life.
I saw Frankel race four times and was lucky enough to be at the 2000 Guineas. I don’t know how to describe the feeling of being at that race. It was one of my top 5 races to have attended. He was otherworldly.
Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. I saw both of them race many times and have also visited them both in retirement. I never understood how people could love one of them and hate the other. They were both magnificent.
The French fillies Goldikova, Zarkava, and Treve, who I saw race on multiple occasions. All amazing girls.
The Japanese Triple Crown winners Deep Impact and Orfevre were completely different animals. At the time I saw Deep Impact, I didn’t realize how special he was. Orfevre was a quirky horse and I love his personality.
And then there is Cirrus Des Aigles. He was a true rags to riches story. He raced through his nine year old year and won races all over the world.
Being a gelding, he could not run in the Arc, but he always appeared in the Prix Dollar on the day before the Arc and I got used to seeing him every year. He won at the top level in England, France, and Dubai. Every year he would journey to Hong Kong and every year, he would just not get a hold of the fast ground but he still had a couple of placings there over the years. Twice, he inspired me to make “day” trips to Paris — once to see him in the Prix Ganay against Treve (and he beat her) — and once to go to Saint-Cloud to see him parade into retirement. Any time I am in Europe, I find a way to get to Chantilly to visit with him at his trainer’s stables.
Sally: Our current hat up on the block for the January auction is the “Soi Phet” chapeau which was one of the hats you photographed on our model with Soi Phet the horse. Had you ever met or photographed Soi Phet before he arrived at Old Friends?
Laura: I saw him race out in California a few times and one time, he and Rail Trip finished fourth and third, respectively and I have that photo.
Sally: I have to tell you that you look GREAT in hats! Do you think of yourself as a “hat person”?
Laura: Not really. I like to wear them, but I am all about packing as light as possible on my trips since I have to haul everything I take (and my shopping) on and off of trains. A couple of my favorite hats came from Marks and Spencers. They are made from Organza (or some other poly fibre) and can be smashed flat for packing but pop right back up when out of the bag. A few times I have ended up having to wear hats I take home while wearing my travel sweats and tennis shoes…
Sally: I am sure that people are going to be inspired by your support of Old Friends. Can you tell them why it’s important to support these retired T’bred athletes?
Laura: These horses give everything on the track for us to watch and fall in love with. Once they are done breeding and racing, they deserve to have a chance to just be horses. It is also great as a fan to have a place to go see so many of these wonderful horses in one place.
Sally: I could easily ask you so many more questions, but I know you are very busy and I appreciate all the time you have already given to me and to Old Friends for the “Hats Off” fundraiser this season.
Thank you, Laura.