04/21/2011 2:11AM

Through One Man's Lens: James Sames and the Kentucky Derby

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Above:  Crowd at the 1947 Kentucky Derby, the first year Mr. Sames photographed the Derby.

James W. Sames’ interesting life is reflected in a description from his 2005 obituary: historian, mapmaker, photogrammetrist, book author, illustrator, photographer, curator, antiques collector, furniture maker, toolmaker, painter, and World War II veteran. The obituary also states Sames was “an official photographer for the Kentucky Derby.”

Many years ago, I sought out Sames at his home in Midway, Kentucky, because he was the final person to photograph Man o’ War. As a result of the meeting, Sames sold me his negative collection – including his Kentucky Derby images. He related how he worked with Churchill Downs’ photographer Brownie Leach for decades, usually shooting the race finish from atop the roof.

Above and below:  Kentucky Derby day 1947.  The scene that is the paddock nowadays (above) and rows of similarly-styled cars, all parked in nice, neat rows (below).


The earliest images were black-and-white, and a young Sames – then 26 - was busy that year. There are about 20 4x5” negatives from 1947 Derby day, from a time when the photographer had to reload the camera after every photo. Sames kept up the pace in 1948, too, recording many aspects of the great Citation’s soggy classic.

There are odd empty patches in the collection – not a single photo from 1949 or the 1950s, for instance. Perhaps Sames had settled into his ‘regular’ life. But he was back at it for Carry Back in 1961.

He moved on to color film in the 1960s – Dancer’s Image, Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Cannonade. The last photos are of Spectacular Bid, shot from his rooftop perch, in 1979. 

Sames was 84 at the time of his death. His visual record of the Derby provides a fascinating look back at more than 30 years of the race’s history. We were fortunate that, among his many trades, Sames was a historian.  

Above:  Four-star General Jonathan Wainwright was an honored attendee at the 1947 Derby.  Although he had the difficult task of surrendering the Phillipines to the Japanese during World War II, he returned to the U.S. a beloved hero, receiving a ticker-tape parade and being awarded the Medal of Honor.  He retired in August 1947.

Above:  Infield crowd on what looked like a miserable Derby, weatherwise - 1947 (Jet Pilot, winner).

Above and below:  The immortal Citation on a gloomy, rainy Kentucky Derby day in 1948.

Above:  Citation in the 1948 Kentucky Derby winner's circle, Eddie Arcaro up.  

Above:  Carry Back's Kentucky Derby 1961.  As a photographer, I find it very interesting how far out on the track the photographers stood/crouched for the race finish.  Nowadays, we are still on the track surface, but we crouch down/sit up against the outside rail.

Above:  CBS television truck, 1962 Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs.

Above:  Ridan, 1961 juvenile champion colt - and the Kentucky Derby favorite in 1962 (he finished second).  Below, Admiral's Voyage also ran in the 1962 Derby, finishing ninth.  He did, however, win seven stakes during his career.

Above:  The 1965 Derby field swings around the first turn (Lucky Debonair winner).  Below:  the post parade the following year (winner, Kauai King). That odd building in the background with the red-and-white checkers reads "RALLSTON PURINA."  I've never noticed it there, if it is still there.

Above:  Kauai King, Don Brumfield up, 1966 Kentucky Derby winner's circle. Below:  Proud Clarion, Bobby Ussery, enjoys the same honors the following year.

Above:  Peter Fuller and his family, including daughter Abby (nearest trophy, next to Bobby Ussery), in the winner's circle after Dancer's Image finished first in the 1968 Kentucky Derby.  Abby went on to be a successful jockey, winning the 1985 filly Triple Crown aboard Mom's Command.

Above:  Richard Nixon attended the Kentucky Derby as a candidate in 1968 (note the wonderfully fashionable woman at far right).  He returned the next year and is the only sitting president to ever attend the Run for the Roses.

Above:  Heywood Hale Broun, the famous CBS commentator, at the 1970 Derby.

Above:  Canonero II (Gustavo Avila up) shocked the racing world with his surprise win in the 1971 Kentucky Derby.  He followed that up with a track-record performance in the Preakness two weeks later but then faltered at the Belmont Stakes.

Above:  It was a free-spirited infield crowd for the 1971 Kentucky Derby.

Above:  Eddie Sweat with champion Riva Ridge at the 1972 Kentucky Derby.  Sweat, and the rest of the Meadow Stud connections, returned to the Derby winner's circle the following year with Secretariat (below).

Above:  The odds on the tote board read 25-1, but the fourth-place finisher in the 1973 Kentucky Derby had many great days in store.  His name was Forego.

Above:  Bold Forbes speeds into the first turn, 1976 Kentucky Derby.  Honest Pleasure follows.  Bold Forbes held on to win the Derby and, in a possibly more impressive performance, considering his running style, he added the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.

Above:  The last Kentucky Derby that James Sames apparently photographed was a good renewal.  It was 1979, and the winner was Spectacular Bid.

This article appears in print, with a selection of photographs, in the DRF Weekend section of April 23, 2011.