LQHBA Insider - By Martha Claussen March  18, 2019

THE TALENT AND DEDICATION OF OUR LOUISIANA TRACK PHOTOGRAPHERS

With our abundant year-round racing schedule in Louisiana, there will be over 1,300 racehorses posing in the winner's circle in 2019. Luckily for owners, horsemen and racing fans, we have four amazing track photographers who ensure that these special moments will be preserved for a lifetime!

Coady Photography and Hodges Photography each have two contracts serving the four Louisiana racetracks. Let's meet this creative and talented group, beginning with Ann Switalski at Harrah's Louisiana Downs; Nicole Cormier at Delta Downs; the father-daughter duo of Lou and Amanda Hodges at Fair Grounds and Marshall Blevins, who finishes out the year at Evangeline Downs.

Harrah's Louisiana Downs - Ann McKnight Switalski

Ann McKnight Switalski hails from Michigan and arrived in Louisiana in 2003 after her husband retired from the military. An avid equestrienne, she began taking photos of morning works and soon realized that an investment in a quality camera was essential. Lou Hodges, who has the contract at both Louisiana Downs and Fair Grounds, offered her an opportunity to shoot some Super Derby action and hired her in 2014.

With no previous background in photography, Switalski realized she had a lot to learn, and with the expert guidance of Hodges, she jumped right in.

"Lou made sure I understood that there is a very limited time to get the shots we need: the stretch, wire and comeback," said Switalski. "He taught me the importance of getting the horse in front to allow room for editing."

As all photographers will tell you, Mother Nature is not always on their side.

"During the Quarter Horse season, the shadows from the grandstand play a big part," noted Switalski. "You have to adjust your camera settings for sun and shade. I probably shouldn't admit it, but I root for cloudy days to avoid those shadows!"

Switalski, who adores spending time with her horse Maverick Impression, an Appaloosa who is showing promise as a novice jumper, enjoys her work with both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses.

Racehorse conformation is fascinating to Switalski and she recognizes standouts in both breeds. "As a rider, I am always looking at horses that could be eventing horses after they retire," she said. "Trainer H.B. Johnson has quite a few horses that enjoy second careers when they are finished racing. As far as a special Quarter Horse, I loved Going Noble, the winner of the 2018 Harrah's Entertainment Futurity. He had the "classic" giant butt and was so powerful."

In addition to capturing images of horses, Ann also enjoys photographing jockeys and respects their strength and determination. She admires Thoroughbred riders Emanuel Nieves and Aubrie Green and last year's leading Louisiana Downs Quarter Horse rider Everardo Rodriguez. "He has the greatest smile," she acknowledged. "I always know I will get a neat comeback shot with Everardo!"

Delta Downs Nicole Cormier

Following Louisiana Downs, the circuit moves to Delta Downs in Vinton, Louisiana. Nicole Cormier, who began working for Coady Photography as a teenager, ably handles the duties. She began as an assistant to her sister, Jessica Hicks, and when the lead photographer position opened, she took it in a "heartbeat"!

Cormier describes photography as an art, and remembers how she got started.

"I used to practice by sitting on my grandma's porch and taking pictures of cars as they would pass by on the busy street," she explained. "Trying to take a picture of a moving animal is a lot harder than a still object. One thing I will say is when you do get that perfect shot, it is the most amazing feeling in the world!"

She is also a horse lover and fan of the sport. It's a tough answer for all photographers when asked if they have a favorite or most memorable horse in their work.

"I have several over the years but if I had to pick one I would have to say it would be Exaggerator," said Cormier. "He is such a beautiful and talented athlete. It was so neat to take his picture when he won the Delta Downs Jackpot in 2015 and then watch him run second in the Kentucky Derby and win the Preakness in 2016."

Many very competitive futurities are contested in the Delta Downs Quarter Horse meet and Cormier recalled a special Quarter Horse memory.

"One Lee Berwick Futurity that stands out to me was in 2015 with Jessa Louisiana Zoom," stated Cormier. "I think other than the fact of how beautiful an animal and great athlete she is, was the excitement after she won by all of the connections. As track photographers we love to see the people in the winner's circle overjoyed when their horse crosses the finish line first. Trainer, Frank Cavazos, and owners, Jason Richards and Michael Leblanc, showed so much excitement and it was so fun to photograph and celebrate."

The live season at Delta Downs includes plenty of rain and extremely hot and humid condition as the meet wraps in July. She laughs about a weather-related situation last year.

"One day, I came to work and it rained so hard, it became a monsoon," she recalled. "But a wonderful jockey loaned me his boots for the night! It's one example of how the racing community is like a family."

Working for Coady Photography is not the only job for the high-energy Cormier! She teaches fifth-grade math and has a passion to make a difference in kid's lives and give them a love for learning. This April, Cormier and her husband, Derek, will welcome their first child, a son, Christian Joseph Cormier!

Fair Grounds-Lou and Amanda Hodges

Fair Grounds hosts a 10-day Quarter Horse meet in August which includes the running of the LQHBA Sale Futurity (RG1). Hodges Photography has the contract at the New Orleans racetrack with Lou Hodges, Jr. and his daughter, Amanda Weir, covering the action.

Hodges Photography got its start in 1946 with Lou Hodges, Sr. running the business before passing it onto his son. Both men have been honored as a member of the Fair Grounds Press Box Hall of Fame. Hodges has photographed some of the most celebrated Thoroughbreds in the six-month winter season, which culminates with the running of the Louisiana Derby, a major prep for the Kentucky Derby. He cites Rachel Alexandra, Risen Star, A Letter To Harry and Gun Runner as some of the most memorable champions he has photographed at Fair Grounds.

Hodges' daughter, Amanda began shooting in New Orleans periodically in 2011, but came to the business full time in 2015.

Both Lou and Amanda place a high priority on creating racing images that stand out.

"Our technique for getting perfect race shots is to use telephoto lenses to have tight shots," said Hodges. "We are always looking for different angles and different compositions that will make someone who views the image look twice."

Digital photography has added both ease and dimension to racing photography. Lou and Amanda take pride in creating composite photo arrangements for winning connections.

"When someone comes into our office to pick up their photos and tells us that is the best picture they have ever seen, that means a lot to us," said Hodges.

Like each of our other Louisiana photographers, both Lou and Amanda have many interests away from the racetrack. Lou's hobbies are cycling, bird watching, and jazz music. Amanda has her own photography business with special attention to children and newborns.

Evangeline Downs -Marshall Blevins

The final meet on the Louisiana Quarter Horse circuit is Evangeline Downs. For over 50 years, Coady Photography, a third generation family business, has been affiliated with more than 20 racetracks across the country including Keeneland, Oaklawn Park, Prairie Meadows, Sam Houston Race Park, Turf Paradise and Zia Park.

Marshall Blevins began working for Coady Photography in 2006 and has served as the lead photographer at Evangeline Downs since 2006.

A lifelong racing fan, Blevins grew up in Richmond, Virginia and showed she had an eye for a quality racehorse as a fifth grader.

"I picked Funny Cide to win the 2003 Kentucky Derby," explained Blevins. "He was such a handsome chestnut, and ran a great race. After seeing him win, I was hooked!"

Blevins lives just minutes from the racetrack and explains the preparation for a night of racing.

"I try to arrive 30 minutes before post time, get my cameras ready and the computer running," she said. "The transition to digital photography has made things so much easier. Jack (Coady) had decades processing in the dark room; he told me he could do it with his eyes closed!"

But getting the most out of an action shot takes quite a bit of experience.

"Photography is about getting the light right," she explained. "I love to get a Quarter Horse in full stride, all stretched out," added Blevins. "It shows their athleticism and speed. Those might be rare with so many blanket finishes. You have to gage who you think will emerge as the winner. Sometimes it's a 'Hail Mary' at the wire."

Arguably the most exciting night of the Evangeline Downs meet is LQHBA Louisiana Million, which in addition to the lone seven-figure futurity in Louisiana, boasts six additional stakes. The winner's circle fills with a throng of family and friends offering congratulations. The photographer must get everyone's attention for a good presentation shot and it's not easy! Blevins had to alert a large crowd several times that evening, and by the LQHBA Louisiana Million, which ran as the ninth race, her voice was pretty much shot.

"Don't make me yell," she said almost in a whisper to the large group.

And of course, she got a great presentation photo of owner Larry Boudreaux, trainer Josue Huitron, jockey Luis Vivanco and over 50 others in the winner's circle.

Blevins and her husband have two cats and a dog. Away from her duties at Evangeline Downs, she is an artist. She paints Mules and has shown her artwork in several galleries in the region. So let's hear it for these creative and dedicated professionals. Like so many hard-working members of the racing industry, they make their jobs look easy, despite the many challenges they face. We thank them for their ability to capture the beauty, power and athleticism of our Louisiana racehorses.

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The LQHBA Insider is a monthly feature written by Martha Claussen for www.lqhba.com. She served as publicity director at Sam Houston Race Park for ten years. She continues to be active in writing, fan education and Quarter Horse racing publicity in Texas, Louisiana and other regions in North America.