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Let There Be Light

HOF - Dave Landry

Dave Landry grew up around horse racing, and developed a true love for the sport.

While Landry’s early days at the track may have sparked a flame, it was when he picked up his first camera at age 16 that began him on his path to Hall of Fame recognition. By Keith McCalmont

Top equine photographer Dave Landry, a legend of both Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing, will join his brother Rob, a former jockey, in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

“It was a little unexpected. It was almost like, do I deserve this?” says Landry. “My brother broke bones to get in there. I’ve always cheered for him… and I’ve always cheered for his races. But, I do feel a bit of guilt.

“He had to ride all those tough two-year-olds,” Landry continues with a shake of his head. “I realise it’s a different category and I hope other people realize that too. Do I belong in there? I have to live up to this now.”

And yet, in a way, it seems that maybe the two brothers should have been inducted at the same time. After all, both got their introduction to the game by following their father, Hector, on regular sojourns to Greenwood and Woodbine.

“From when we were small, Rob and I would run around the track. The old tickets back then were colourful and we were those kids collecting all the losing tickets and later, as we were older, we were the kids on the rail asking the jockeys for goggles,” smiles Landry. “There’s a photo that’s at my mum’s place from a ‘Meet The Jockeys’ day in the walking ring and Avelino (Gomez) and Sandy (Hawley) were there. I brought a little camera and took a shot of Rob with Avelino and Sandy and my mum still has it. It’s a good shot.”

Even back then Landry was following both breeds of racing, making little wagers and developing an eye for the sport that would serve him professionally for decades to come.

“My dad would take us down to Greenwood and I remember the boats out in the lake. We’d be sitting in the stands and he would give me money to bet. I’d bet Ron Feagan, Ron Waples and Tom Strauss,” laughs Landry. “I’d be betting to show, I was a kid, and I’d be betting favourites but as a kid, ten cents, thirty cents, eighty cents, it adds up over the day if you keep hitting them.”

Perhaps the best part about being a Hall of Fame photographer is that your entire career is right there, captured on film or in digital format, to relive for the rest of your life.

For Landry, that first frame towards the hallowed hall came at the age of 16 when he purchased his first camera.

“It was a Minolta XGM. I remember it had a little motor drive on it, three frames a second, and I remember bringing it to the track as a teenager. I didn’t have a great lens but three frames a second seemed fast then. That was all on film,” recalls Landry.

As a student at Northern Secondary, a polytechnic and football powerhouse led by coach Clark Pulford, Landry enrolled in a Photo and Graphic Arts class. His new camera was put to work covering everything from swimming to track meets. And, of course, the occasional foray into horse racing.

Making good money as a stock boy at the A&P, located at Yonge and Lawrence, Landry dipped into his savings and purchased his first pro camera.

“I bought a Nikon F3. It only had a sixteenth of a second flash but it had a motor drive and it was the king at the time. I also got a couple of decent lenses,” says Landry.

Under the recommendation of his high school friend Marco Chiesa, the two would cover Thoroughbred racing together for many outlets, Landry made the decision to buy a lens with a manual focus. The unique feature, at the time, honed his keen eye and developed his dexterity.

“Marco was very influential and he pushed for the higher end equipment. You had to get the lens with a manual focus that you manoeuvred with one finger while the cheaper ones you had to move the whole barrel,” explains Landry. “I got to be good at it. Today the equivalent might be a kid who is really good at a video game, I became pretty good at manual focus.”

In 1986, Landry took his first pro gig covering turf racing for Canadian Thoroughbred magazine. A dream realized, his shots of Carotene were met with admiration. But sometimes, amidst those great moments captured comes tragedy.

“In 1990, we were at the Breeders’ Cup at Belmont and of course that was the worst thing that ever happened - Go For Wand,” says Landry, eyes down, recalling the talented filly who broke down at the sixteenth pole while leading in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. “She went right down in front of us. I was sick because I loved the horses. I said there was no way I’m publishing those shots.

“It was horrible for me and I’ll never forget the image of that outrider coming up trying to lift her up,” says Landry, gesturing urgently with both hands. “I don’t care if I would win 50 awards, that type of shot isn’t getting published.”

Fortunately, those heartbreaking moments came less frequently than the ones that sent Landry’s heart racing.

“Go For Wand was one of the worst racing experiences I’ve ever had followed the next year by one of the best, in Kentucky, with Dance Smartly,” recalls Landry of the famous Sam-Son Farm mare who captured the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. “That’s racing for you, there’s so many ups and downs.”

While Thoroughbreds were his first love, Landry soon came to love the Standardbreds with similar aplomb. In the late 1990s, after a call from editor Dave Briggs, Landry joined the Canadian Sportsman.

“One of my first assignments was covering the tail end of Moni Maker. I covered her at the Meadowlands and then the final race in Montreal,” says Landry. “That was an introduction to Jimmy Takter, and I realized what this horse had made. Oh man. That’s when I realized there were superstars on this side too.”

It was while following Moni Maker that Landry captured arguably the best image of his career. Now Landry has picked up 10 awards for equine photography in a storied career including seven for his work with Thoroughbreds (six Sovereign Awards, one Eclipse award) and three on the Standardbred side (World Trotting Conference, Horse Publications of America and a George Smallsreed Award), but this specific image wasn’t among the winners.

“It was Moni Maker’s final race and the caretaker is walking away with her after the final race in Montreal. He’s got his arm doing a pump like that,” gestured Landry with a fist in the air. “And you can see her clean and off to the side is Wally Hennessy with his arm around Jimmy Takter. There was something about that shot. I never did enter it for any awards.”

But like everyone in the racing industry, Landry has had to overcome hardship. When the Slots at Racetracks Program ended, it sent most of racing into a tailspin. Foal crops dropped, purse money lowered and for Landry, his equine business started to dry up as the Canadian Sportsman went out of business.

“I was heavily tied to the breeders at the time and it was like falling off a cliff. When Sportsman went, it was like losing a family,” Landry says. “All along I sensed trouble, that this industry could eat itself from the bottom up if there was no incentive to breed horses.

“I thought we could have horse shortages and that always concerned me,” Landry continued.

“To see a place like Tara Hills go from all those stallions down to three, and they had Jug winners, Hambo winners… It’s good to see them come back now.”

It maybe even affected the affable photographer’s health.

“The worst part came when I got the Bell’s Palsy. Maybe it was stress related,” says Landry of the condition in which muscles on one side of the face become paralyzed. “Business dropped off and so had the corporate work. Technology. That was how I assessed the drop off. But the Slots At Racetracks thing was a big blow. People who would normally hire you had to learn about how they were going to survive.”

Landry, perhaps it’s in the genes, rode it out. He got work at TROT Magazine, and other places where he could, inside and outside of the business. And now, with the industry stabilized by a new funding agreement, business is taking an upturn working gigs for TROT, Harness Racing Update and breeders like Tara Hills Stud.

“A lot of people were in a holding mode – ‘let’s see what happens’. Surprisingly, last year was a great year,” says Landry. “It’s almost like everyone knew where they stood and even though it wasn’t as good as where they stood initially, probably, at least they knew were they stood and could go on with it.”

That Landry prefers to focus on the lighter side of things will come as no surprise to those that know him, and his work.

“I’m a light watcher. I consider how hard the shadows are, how soft they are if it’s open light. I adjust my style to the light. That’s something I always pay attention to, and people always joke with me that I’m always talking about the light,” laughs Landry.

With improvements in technology Landry has managed to find light, even when shooting the glamour division of Standardbred racing long after the sun has gone down.

“With these cameras with higher ISOs you can get something. Back when I started, with film, it was very tough at night. You had to use flashes and the horses eye never looked right,” says Landry. “That part was a real turnoff for me. There’s something about the eye. And I know with all the equipment they wear, sometimes you can’t see it, but to me a winning shot you have to see their eye. It’s so important in a horse shot.”

Landry has moved far beyond that old Minolta XGM and its three frames a second. These days he uses several different Nikon bodies all for different purposes.

“The 70 has a crop sensor which gets me in tighter and runs at seven frames a second. The 5D Mark Three probably runs at six frames a second but I certainly don’t use it for that, it’s more for the scenic and clarity,” nods Landry. “The 1D X would go 12 frames a second if you wanted it to. I don’t need it at that but even if you’re taking individuals, the fact that it’s that much faster, you can see for the next shot quicker.”

With millions of images saved on a multitude of computers, hard drives and albums at his home, Landry is so appreciative of a career he loves so much, and that allowed him to provide for his family including his wife Heather, and their three kids, Evan, Nicole and Jennifer.

He will forever appreciate a family that allowed him to pursue his passion, the horses, when a corporate gig may have been a little more lucrative.

“There was always the temptation of the corporate work, and I could get big money,” says Landry. “But I loved the racing so much that I did both. Don’t get me wrong, I did good with racing but not that good.”

Landry is still chasing the next perfect moment with the same insatiable appetite he developed in his time at Northern Secondary. And even still, that moment, for Landry, comes down to a matter of passion and lighting.

“You’re scanning for emotion. You’re scanning the light. Am I too close, is it going to be too tight. Should I have another camera where I can pull up and get the whole frame,” questions Landry. “I have a tendency to shoot tight. I love the compression of the longer lenses and sometimes it works against you but when you capture the emotion and that camera is right in there with the blurred background it can be really nice too.”

When Landry finally slides that Hall of Fame ring on his finger later this month, only a few will know the following little insight.

“The inside of my ring, I asked to have it inscribed with, ‘All about the light,’” smiles Landry.

A truly fitting sentiment for one of racing’s best and brightest.

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