IN THE SHADOW OF THE SAN GABRIELS
by Peter Fritz
© Milliard Sun, SK, October 2013
SLOVAKIA - This interview could be at the peaceful Santa Anita Park racetrack, which guards the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains, or in the pleasant gloom at home. In any case, Karen S. Davis has brought into my life a pleasant change. She taught me about the beautiful early mornings in California.
Q: Karen, I was pleasantly surprised when I came into contact with your book for the very first time. Santa Anita is one of my favourite racetracks. Because of your photos, I have had the golden opportunity to bring to mind those sweet memories every day.
KSD: Thank you so much for your kind words. My intention was to preserve those sweet memories on my pages for everyone who loves Santa Anita, both the fans and the people who actually live and work there, every single day of the year.
Q: In addition to your skills as a photographer, you have demonstrated a great talent for music and acting. Which one of these activities do you prefer doing the most? Do you consider yourself an actress, a music composer, or a photographer?
KSD: I consider myself, above all, a gentle and compassionate human being . . . fortunate to have been born with a great love for animals and a gift for the arts. For me it's impossible to prefer one over another, and every experience is as thrilling as the next—traveling and photographing the world, singing at Carnegie Hall, following my inspiration to write music. I've always believed in fulfilling every talent, however much daily living might try to rob us of time and passions. The book came about because of a medical diagnosis that foretold my imminent death! The very next day, well before sunrise, I went to Santa Anita to be around horses, my first love. I decided to return every morning until I dropped dead right there, whenever that moment might come. I quite naturally began to take photographs and soon knew I would make a book to celebrate the beauty and wonder of both horse and place. This led me to write a screenplay and compose a symphony—both also called Santa Anita Morning Rhapsody. Every part of me was touched and all the arts became involved! (By the way, the doctors were wrong. But I knew I would never return to any work that didn't satisfy my soul.)
Q: Mornings at Santa Anita racetrack are definitely wonderful. What makes them so unforgettable?
KSD: You begin by standing in darkness, braced by a predawn chill, inhaling fresh air laced with barn smells, stirred by a peacock's call, your vision sometimes limited by eerie fog. You stand waiting, expectantly, to hear the first drums of a distant rhythmic pounding. The sound comes nearer and nearer until it turns into a thundering gallop, until you can hear the massive snorting breaths, and out of the darkness and fog emerges one of the most incredible, beautiful creatures on the planet. But not just one! Scores of thoroughbreds walk, trot, and gallop in organized chaos before your eyes, directly on the other side of the rail, close enough to touch. More horses and riders wait their turn in the gap, trainers and outriders on ponies adding to their numbers. Other trainers hurry by on foot, under the vast grandstand, to clock their horses. You've barely noticed the scene lighten, but the shapes of the San Gabriel mountains have emerged, snow-kissed, and the sky has become a changing palette of colors. The orange sun finally rises, the horses resplendent in its rays. I suppose the most unforgettable things for us evoke our deepest passions and affect all of our senses. At Santa Anita in the morning you can imagine yourself on a thoroughbred—racing to the wire—and it's a feeling like no other. I have quotations from Shakespeare on some of my photos in the book because he expressed such feelings to perfection: "Wonder of nature, when I bestride him I soar. I am a hawk." Perfection!
Q: Did you succumb to the charms of this racetrack your first time there? Or was it just a coincidence?
KSD: It was love at first sight—the eloquent expression of my passion for horses. I first lived in California and went to Santa Anita in the late 1980s, Alysheba's glory days. I delighted in his personality. He enjoyed kicking up his heels in the walking ring before a race (just to make Jack Van Berg admonish him, I think) and always had plenty of energy left to win. But all my stars were aligned then . . . I'd also just succumbed to the charms of the love of my life. I met and married my wonderful husband, who died of cancer more than twenty years ago now. We both loved horses and he particularly liked betting on them. Santa Anita was our track. We never failed to bet Flying Paster's fillies in maiden races, and they always won. Once a turf horse from France "spoke to us" and his win at 99-1 on our twenty-dollar bet bought us newlyweds some furniture! Together we saw Ferdinand, Winning Colors, Sunday Silence , , , and John Henry make a celebrity appearance. Bill Shoemaker had his last ride, but Eddie Delahoussaye kept us on the edge of our seats bringing winners home from the back of the pack (and many years later honored me by writing the preface to my book). How could a girl not be swept off her feet?
Q: Which part of the racetrack managed to capture your imagination? I have to admit that I love everything about this place. It is a complex mixture of beauty and romance.
KSD: As you can tell, it was the thoroughbreds that captured me, and their life in the morning that set my imagination alight. For me the horses themselves create the real magic of the place and all else revolves around them. I was lucky to spend two years behind the scenes while making my book, so I saw how this whole little "city behind a fence," how people's entire lives, revolve around them. So much is involved in preparing a horse for that brief race he runs in the afternoon, and I thought it a story worth telling. Photographs seemed the ideal way. I like your description "beauty and romance." These magnificent steeds of undeniable beauty understandably engender excitement, mystery, and love. And the natural scenic beauty of Santa Anita is the breathtaking backdrop for it all. The design of Santa Anita itself is accessible and intimate. All spaces seem to have up-close-and-personal encounters with the horse in mind.
Q: "Santa Anita Morning Rhapsody" has been praised by such personalities as Queen Elizabeth and Laura Hillenbrand, the talented author of the book "Seabiscuit." Have you ever considered publishing another collection of photos displaying racetracks from the USA or different parts of the world?
KSD: I would absolutely love to! I'm open to discussing all offers and ideas, and I welcome all financial backers and publishers interested in bringing my creativity to bear on their projects and passionate endeavors. Anyone can reach me through my website at www.KarenSDavis.com.
Q: What is your attitude towards horse racing? Why do you like it?
KSD: A horse lover from early childhood, I craved any and all exposure to them and watched the Triple Crown on television each year. Here was a sport that featured what I loved most. When Secretariat not only won the crown in 1973 but came home in the Belmont by thirty-one lengths, I was thunderstruck! I still have the Newsweek "Super Horse" front cover on my wall. Over the years I learned about other equine legends. Humans and horses have had a bond for thousands of years. Think of the racehorses that have captivated us, the ones that "run their hearts out" for us . . . the ones all trainers hope to find. We are privileged to watch these amazing animals run, and personally I am always reminded of how they would have run in ancient times—wild and free. The mystique of the horse defies explanation and creates a sport like no other. My in-depth exposure to the industry while making my book acquainted me with some practices I would change (but that's another article!), yet it also introduced me to a dedicated group of people who are in this business for the love of it.
Q: Taking into account that you are a successful woman, I would like to ask you a question connected to the topic of success. What "recipe" would you give your readers on how to achieve their life goals?
Thank you so much!
HORSES MAKE DREAMS COME TRUE AT SANTA ANITA
by Jo Anne Disney
© San Gabriel Valley Weekly, CA, April 6, 2007
Around the world horses play roles in work, leisure, and sport. And sometimes horses make dreams a reality.
Such is the case for Karen S. Davis, author of Santa Anita Morning Rhapsody. An accomplished journalist, composer, singer, and performing artist, Davis is working on a symphony and recently finished a screenplay about the racetrack that an award-winning producer is interested in making into a film.
Davis was born in Atlantic City and grew up in Northfield, New Jersey. She graduated valedictorian of both her junior and senior high schools and went on to college at Tufts University in Boston, Mass., and London, England, finishing two degrees magna cum laude (English and History) in three years.
Davis stayed in the U.K. for seven years, receiving training as a journalist in the world-renowned program at the Thomson Organisation, which then owned the London Times. The only American up to that point to have completed the program, Davis confesses it was “an amazing experience.”
Currently Davis resides in Burbank, having also lived in Pasadena and Glendale over the last twenty years. In addition, she spent a few years in Portland, Oregon. Davis recently has been looking for a little place in Italy because she has family there who own a winery.
How can one woman have so many talents? It depends on how you deal with the circumstances that life brings. According to Davis, “I had two big wake-up calls. One fifteen years ago when my husband of three years, Jim, died of cancer at a young age. He was everything to me, everything I’d ever dreamed of. His love was a gift beyond measure. He told me not to waste a moment because life goes by so fast.
“The other, which led me to the path I’ve recently taken, was when the medical community erroneously foretold my death.” At that time, Davis worked a very stressful job causing her to have excruciating chest pains, which led her to the hospital and ultimately the misdiagnosis.
“I had a chat with Jim that night and thought about how life has a way of kicking the passions out of you in exchange for security. I never was suited to an office, but you have to have health insurance in this country! So I asked myself what my passions were, and what I’d do if it were my last day on earth. I set my alarm for 4 a.m. the next morning and stood at the racetrack in the dark, listening to the galloping hooves and feeling at peace. I vowed to go there every morning no matter what happened.”
Luckily, Davis got a second opinion from another cardiologist revealing the gross mistake and she never went back to her office job.
One fateful morning at Santa Anita, a trainer approached Davis and asked her if she'd like to learn how to train thoroughbreds. She became his assistant and also started capturing Santa Anita in photographs. During a four-year period she took over 3,000 photographs. According to Davis, choosing only 112 for her book was the hardest part of the endeavor.
Has Davis always had a passion for horses and photography? Davis admits that horses have always been her first love.
“I never missed a TV episode of Fury or My Friend Flicka,” Davis says. She watched the Triple Crown and on her wall is a framed cover of Newsweek—headlined SUPERHORSE—featuring Secretariat for his 31-length Triple Crown win in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
Davis read all of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books and started her own club. She also collected 150 model horses. Davis admits that while she was growing up she sadly didn’t have access to real horses, except through pony rides.
As far as photography goes, Davis was about five when she got her first little Brownie camera. “I took my favorite photo the day I asked my beloved German Shepherd to cross the street and stand in front of our snow-covered house so I could capture his portrait. He did and turned back to me in a striking pose. That was the best,” says Davis.
When talking about horses, Davis’s eyes light up. Watching her around horses you can see the bond she has with them. Just what about horses gives her a strong connection to them? Davis compares it to love.
She says, “Why do we fall in love? Something within me was touched or completed the moment I saw a horse. Somehow horses are part of who I am. My friends call me the reincarnated combination of Doctor Dolittle, who spoke to the animals in their own languages, and St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. I have such a great love for them and I think animals can feel that.”
In watching Davis with the horses you can see the love in her eyes as she talks to them and it is totally reciprocated by the horses as they nuzzle and cuddle with her.
Davis possesses a passion for life. She isn’t afraid to tackle anything. She has even flown an airplane. Davis says, “My flight instructor once complimented me on the way I flew an airplane- by the seat of my pants! If you add passion to that, I guess that’s my approach to life.”
In talking with Davis and listening to all of her accomplishments, it is readily understandable why she has achieved so many goals in life. It’s her enthusiasm! When asked if she is living her dream job Davis says, “Thankfully I love to do so many things that my dreams come true all the time.”
Recently Davis had a one-woman exhibit at the Arcadia Historical Museum that was held over until April 4. I saw the exhibit and it was truly amazing. Each photo was magnificently shot, portraying the beauty and power of horses. Their eyes seemed to stare right at you revealing their keen senses. And, the varied breathtaking scenic shots tell the story of why Santa Anita is considered the most beautiful racetrack in the world.
If you missed her exhibit, some of Davis’s photos will be part of the Art in Arcadia Exhibit that is set to open on April 7 at the Historical Museum. They will be on display through May 31.
Whether you are a photography buff, simply love horses, or are a fan of Santa Anita and want to preserve the racetrack’s history, Santa Anita Morning Rhapsody is a book you must have in your home library. Davis captures her passion and enthusiasm for life on every page. She is truly an inspiration.
Santa Anita Morning Rhapsody is available at Vroman’s Bookstore, at the Santa Anita gift shop, and online at www.KarenSDavis.com and from Amazon. Her framed photos are available as well.
by Gina McKnight, Riding & Writing, July 5, 2014
KAREN DAVIS, A MODERN RENAISSANCE WOMAN
by Charissa Ng, The Tufts Daily, November 20, 2009
BACK ON TRACK
Photographer Lives Out Her Passion at Santa Anita
by Judy Wang, © Pasadena Star-News, CA, July 8, 2006
Photographer Finds Herself at Peace in the Early-Morning Fog with Racehorses
by Joyce Rudolph, Los Angeles Times, CA, February 18, 2009