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Photographer lives out her passion at Santa Anita

Karen Davis decided to follow her passion after being erroneously diagnosed with a fatal illness years ago. She took thousands of photos at Santa Anita Park, then turned some of them into a book, Santa Anita Morning Rhapsody.

by Judy Wang

© Pasadena Star-News, CA, July 8, 2006

ARCADIA - Looking back, Karen Davis recalls how a fatal diagnosis years ago forever changed her life for the better.

  The journalist and technical editor began experiencing piercing chest pains. So she went to see a doctor. She was told she did not have long to live.

  "I sat down and asked myself why life has the tendency to kick the passion out of you," she said.

  That night, Davis wondered what she would do with her last day on earth.

  The answer came quickly. She set her alarm clock earlier than usual, woke up the next morning and headed straight for Santa Anita Park.

  She had loved horses all her life, and felt at peace watching trainers lead the animals through their morning paces. "At that moment, I realized that I didn't want to be in an office all my life."

  Just as abruptly, her doctor called to tell Davis the good news - the diagnosis was a gross mistake, and she had many more years to live. Upon hearing his words, Davis immediately decided to change her life, her focus, and her field of work.

  Though a writer by trade, she had worked with a camera since she was a child. Combining her love for horses and interest in photography, Davis brought her camera to the racetrack and began taking photos - she ultimately took more than 3,000.

  A few years later Davis published "Santa Anita Morning Rhapsody," a behind-the-scenes photographic collection of the Santa Anita racetrack in the early morning. Rhapsody is her first book of photography.

  A number of people associated with racing, including National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame Jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, have hailed her work as an accurate and moving depiction of the racetrack that the public rarely sees.

  Davis said she has decided to continue her project. "The book evolved as a trilogy in my mind," she said.

Davis has written a screenplay version of Rhapsody, and has handed it to an Oscar-winning producer. She is currently writing music for a potential movie. "I couldn't believe that Santa Anita didn't already have a book written about it, and there wasn't a book about racetracks in the morning either."

  Davis still pursues side interests, such as singing and dancing, but now devotes much of her time to Santa Anita.

  Her high school music teacher, Olga Buttle, who gave Davis her first roles in musical productions, said she has always been amazed at her former student's many talents. 

  "This girl is incredible," she said. "I don't know anything that she has touched that hasn't been successful."

  Davis, a former Pasadena resident who lives in Burbank, said she owes her book's publication largely to the Santa Anita trainers and staff.

  "I'm just really grateful to everyone down there for letting me be part of the family," she said.

  Davis will discuss and sign copies of "Santa Anita Morning Rhapsody" at 4 p.m. today at Vroman's Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.

Karen S Davis with thoroughbred friend at Del Mar racetrack.

Karen S Davis with thoroughbred friend at Del Mar racetrack.

FINE EQUINES: Photographer Finds Herself at Peace in the Early-Morning Fog with Racehorses

by Joyce Rudolph

© Los Angeles Times, February 17, 2009

Karen Davis was five when she bought her first camera out of a Sears catalog.

  “It was a little Brownie,” she said. “The first thing I bought it with my own money. I think it cost $1.25.”

  The first picture she took was of her German Shepherd. The black-and-white image, which hangs on the wall of her Glendale home today, was taken of her family’s home in New Jersey right after it snowed.

  “I told him to go across the street so I could take his picture,” she said. “And I’ll be darned if that dog didn’t walk across the street and turn around and wait for me to do it.” She’s always been a little bit St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, and Dr. Doolittle, she said.

  It has been a blessing, she said, in her photography of horses at Santa Anita Park, some of which will be on display during an art show this weekend at Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse in La Cañada Flintridge. It’s the first art show for the bookstore, Marketing Director Sandy Willardson said.

  A reception Saturday evening will kick off the two-day exhibition. Davis will talk at 7:15 pm, and she will be signing her book “Santa Anita Morning Rhapsody” and her CD, "Someone Loves," a romantic collection of her original songs.

  “We thought it would be nice to support the local artists,” she said. “We have a lot of talent in our own town.”

  One piece in the show is titled “Loose Racehorse.” It depicts what happens when a horse decides he’s had enough, dumps his rider, and runs like there is no tomorrow, usually ending up back at the barn.

  “She’s captured the excitement of the early-morning training that goes on at the racetrack,” Willardson said. “It really just puts you into the environment so you really feel like you are there.”

  Davis likes it because it’s a one-in-a-million shot, she said.

“The horse is running at me, which is dangerous, and if you don’t get the shot, you don’t get another chance,” Davis said. “The other part about it I like is this is how horses are meant to be — free.”

  A lot of the photos she’s exhibiting are of horses training at dawn.

  “There are many books about horse racing, but no one has ever done a story on training at dawn at any racetrack,” Davis said. “It’s the most beautiful time at the racetrack. It’s when you see just what goes into the race later on in the day.”

  Horses are exercised 365 days a year against the backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains.

  “In autumn, there are trees turning red, and on some days there is fog,” she said. “When a horse comes running out of the fog bank, you hear the hoofbeats and then he emerges, and it’s so thrilling.”

  Davis began coming to the track five years ago after quitting a stressful office job, she said. One morning she drove to Santa Anita Park.

  “It’s quiet and dark because the sun hasn’t come up yet,” she said. “And when I heard the hoofbeats of the horses, I felt at peace.”

Fred, the horse who played Seabiscuit in the 2003 film, and Karen S Davis at Santa Anita.

Fred, the horse who played Seabiscuit in the 2003 film, and Karen S Davis at Santa Anita.