04/21/2011 2:11AM

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


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.


wilson More than 1 year ago
This is a very nice collection.
Bonnie More than 1 year ago
Great article! I particularly enjoyed the sections on the 1947 Derby. My horse, Intent to Fly, now 28, is the great grandson of Jet Pilot, the Derby winner that year. Thanks very much.
Vicky More than 1 year ago
I'm running out of ways to say thank you for posting these wonderful stories and photos! But thank you......especially love the picture of Riva's sweet face and the wonderful Eddie Sweat! Every horse should be so lucky to have an Eddie in their lives!
Raymond, Boston,Ma More than 1 year ago
What a fantastic collection of photos. I am always thrilled and delighted to know that thoroughbred historians are alive and well in our great and wonderful country. Thank you for the privelage of viewing these awesome photos. God Bless America and all those involved,connected to and keeping the sport of thoroughbred racing in tact for all of us to enjoy. Give us another Triple-Crown Winner. The greatest athletes in the world, the thoroughbred.
Sue R-CT More than 1 year ago
All I can say is I am thrilled that you are the "Gatekeeper" of these historical photos that James Sames documented. From Man O' War to the Kentucky Derby-we are all better from yourgenerosity in sharing this national treasure! In the wrong hands, they could have been lost forever-thank you for keeping the history alive!!!!
Alysse More than 1 year ago
It really is so weird to see the photographers out on the track during the race. I couldn't imagine doing that!
sherpa More than 1 year ago
Meant to add -- it's a hoot seeing what Churchill Downs looked like the year I was born! :-D
sherpa More than 1 year ago
Barbara .. a comment on the way you've been "presenting" the photos on your more recent blog-pictorials. The b&w pictures at the top of this one look like they've come straight from an old family album, complete with the corner tabs we used to lick 'n stick to hold them in place. (I remember them well - yuk!) The gray/black framing you've used is perfect against the white blog background; whereas white (sometimes scalloped) kodachrome frames were typical of that era, because the background of most albums in those days was black. In particular, the Spring Hill & *beefcake* photos are picture postcard perfect with the lovely co-ordinated "matting" you're using to outline them. Pop 'em into a modest frame and they'd be wall-ready! Just wanted you to know I've noticed the extra time/effort you're giving to this blog, and my eyes love it. Your photos deserve the very best presentation. >
sherpa More than 1 year ago
my heart just skipped several beats
Backside Sweetie More than 1 year ago
Barbara,thanks so much for sharing these photos.They are great and so are you!You are always doing something really interesting for the fans of horse racing.In the first photo I was only 4 years old.
neiali More than 1 year ago
To 1968: (Tricky Dick et al) Cry no more Miss Rose. That dress you wear today. We sing this song for that Kentucky dress you chose. For that old Kentucky dress, far-a-way!