“I did not know much about horse racing going into this shoot, but the structure was not unlike other industries in the US,” photographer Sasha Arutyunova tells It’s Nice That when we quiz her about a recent assignment shooting behind the scenes at Belmont Park and Saratoga race courses for Topic’s “Labor” issue. “What was presented to me was a world that resembled a slice, a microcosm of American inequality, where the force behind the low-wage, often risky physical labour that keeps the races functioning was largely people of colour, and the majority of the wealthy betters and horse owners benefitting from the entertainment were white.”
What makes Sasha’s The Home Stretch series so exceptional is this rare glimpse of what actually goes in to making race day happen, from the perspective of those doing the work. The series follows the trajectory of a day from pre-dawn until dusk – in fact shot over one day at Belmont Park and three at Saratoga Springs – where we follow workers as they meticulously level and rake the sand of the track, haul huge quantities of hay in a wheelbarrow and, at the end of the day, muck out the speedy beast’s stalls. It’s backbreaking work and an occupation that seems at odds with the frivolous luxury of the horse racing stand-side. “While many involved rely on the industry for survival and receive some support from the several non-profit organisations that serve the backstretch, the racial dynamic alone contributes to a complex, and unfortunately not unfamiliar, work environment in the US and elsewhere,” says Sasha. “And that’s only thinking about it from the human perspective.”
From water dripping off a wet mare, showing the heft of its muscular flank, to a sprinkler catching a rainbow in its fine spray, Sasha excels at capturing the small details. Her shots are filled with drama and atmosphere, the weight of anticipation hanging heavy in the air. “What I was hoping for with these images was to highlight both the intensity and the absurdity of the structure of the event, to honour people’s long years of labour while also speaking to the inherent inequality at the core of the entire enterprise," she tells It’s Nice That. "To me, horse racing felt very old world, horses are majestic creatures, and the jockeys that ride them possess skills unlike any other athlete. I was trying to capture that spectrum of experience and feeling in the series.”
Shot over four days, the project was challenging in that races happen for just a few minutes every half hour, meaning that there were moments of extreme focus followed by stretches searching for behind-the-scenes action. “There were so many different roles that people played and layers to the ecosystem, that navigating my way through it visually almost felt like learning a new language,” says Sasha. The Home Stretch is accomplished in that it makes a strong political point, while also being beautiful and highly charged. “In the end, I felt that photographing horses was not unlike photographing dance: the grace and gravity of it.”
About the Author
Laura is a London-based arts journalist that has been working for It’s Nice That on a freelance basis since 2016. She currently covers the news desk on a Friday for news editor Jenny. Send her all your big stories, projects and exhibitions. You can reach Laura directly on firstname.lastname@example.org or via our news channel at email@example.com.