Kaia Diringer has worked as Berkeleyside’s photo intern for the past four months. One of her last assignments, which she chose herself, was to shoot at the Golden Gate Fields racetrack on the Berkeley-Albany border. Here, she writes about her impressions of the track, which she visited several times over the course of a few weeks:
I noticed the exit sign for Golden Gate Fields Racetrack the first time I drove down I-80 last fall and I was immediately curious. Horse racing didn’t really seem like a Berkeley thing to me. I grew up going to tracks like Laurel Park in Maryland — places that were rural or seemingly out of the way. But here was this racetrack, in a city on the bay, and so conveniently located.
Living off Gilman, I was always driving past it, but it always seemed distant in some way, hard to see in, and even harder to imagine all that was going on inside.
I finally made it to Golden Gate Fields last month, having arranged to take photos that I hoped to share with Berkeleyside readers who may have been as intrigued as me.
When I walked into the stadium it was just as I had imagined it — as if I had stepped into a different era. The air felt stiller, as if time had stopped. The contrast before me was striking. Right in front of me lay the track and beyond that lay the beautiful Berkeley hills.
I started my first day at the track shooting photos of the morning workout. The sun was just rising, but the atmosphere was already busy as horses were led out of their stalls and jockeys adjusted stirrups. Trainers leaned against the rail, chatting with each other over cups of coffee, timers in hand. I was an outsider but was surprised to find that I was greeted with warm smiles and offers of help.
The first race started at 12:45 so I had time to look at the day’s racing program. They had provided a step-by-step guide to placing a bet for first-timers. Names like “He’s Cagey,” “Justalittleloopy” and “You Better Run” gave the horses something to live up to. A quiet murmuring began as each horse was led into the paddock. The regulars were keeping their thoughts to themselves as the beginners tried to analyse which horse was a winner.
[View a gallery of photos taken at Golden Gate Fields by Kaia Diringer.]
It’s hard to capture the essence of a race. The energy levels rise and all eyes and ears are drawn forward as the horses are loaded into the gate. You feel your heart jump as the bell rings and the announcer calls “and they’re off!” As the horses round the bend, the crowd roars and the hooves pound the ground.
One of my favorite parts of my three days at the track was hearing the stories. One security guard told me of scratching an itch a horse couldn’t seem to reach and how it laid its big head on his shoulder and let out a deep sigh. Jockeys told me of being injured and not being able to ride, of how their bodies continued to wake up at the same time and yearned to get back in the saddle. A former jockey told me he didn’t miss racing because he could actually eat now.
I guess that part of me wanted to show there’s more to the racetrack than gambling. But you won’t really know until you go. You won’t understand the thrill of the track until you’re right there on it, watching the horses enter the final stretch and holding your breath for a winner.
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