His life's a circle Horse racing: No one knows Maryland's winner's circles like photographer Jerry Frutkoff, who's been part of them for 50 years.

May 12, 1998|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

He's one person every horseman wants to see after a race.

Because if Jerry Frutkoff is in one's future, it means the winner's circle likely will be the meeting place.

For half a century, Frutkoff has been photographing the victors at Maryland tracks and, come Saturday, he will be shooting his 50th Preakness.

"The only one I missed was 1973 because I was in New York trying out for a job up there," said Frutkoff. It just happened to be the year of Secretariat's Triple Crown.

He quickly returned to Maryland to continue earning the respect of millionaire owners and hot walkers alike.

"He has made thousands of memories for thousands of people," said Ann Taylor, Pimlico-Laurel media director. "To consistently record so many winners for 50 years is a phenomenal record. And he is one person who is always there."

Frutkoff's interest in photography developed early, and its roots were in his family.

He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but grew up near Belmont Park and had two uncles who were deeply involved in the photography business.

After nearly four years in the Navy during World War II, he joined his uncle Leo, who had a photography shop in Florida and also serviced area tracks.

"I worked in the shop for a year, but I was so used to being out in the open air, I asked to go to the track," he said.

He broke in at Hialeah and added Tropical Park (now Calder) and Gulfstream Park to his routine for 12 years.

In the fall of 1947, he became forever connected with the local circuit. He started a round-robin schedule that included Maryland in the spring and fall, Florida in the winter and New Jersey in the summer.

A Frutkoff specialty is calligraphy, which he learned from his uncles. It supplies an added touch to his composite win photos, so much so that winners and fans from other tracks seek his services.

"To me, racing has never changed," Frutkoff, 75, said. "I have the same routine and always will. This is one of the few jobs that is going to take a while before it's computerized. I'm sure some day it will be."

He plans to keep right on clicking as long as his health cooperates.

"I must have walked about 2 billion miles, which keeps you fairly fit and is good for the heart," he said. "And I've taken at least that many pictures. I don't want to guess that number."

The most memorable Frutkoff shots have appeared in such publications as Life magazine, the Saturday Evening Post and Sports Illustrated.

But it is one he missed -- because he didn't have his camera with him -- that stirs his reminiscent side.

"I was up in the starter's stand with Eddie Blind and a horse was being fractious in the gate," he said. "The jockey came off and the assistant starter fell and landed on the horse's back just as the door opened.

"The horse broke out of the gate with the big guy on him, riding backward."

Before the 1968 D.C. International at Laurel, Frutkoff was out in the morning to take pictures of Japanese entry Takeshiba-O, who was being schooled out of an American gate.

All of a sudden, a young filly named Irish Course trained by George Mohr decided to sit down in the gate.

"She hadn't acted up or given any advance notice she was going to do anything ridiculous," said Frutkoff. "The next thing you know, she was sitting on her rear. She must have been down three to four minutes. I ran around to the back of the gate and took a picture."

The filly's head was pointed straight, but then she turned her head "so that she could kind of see me out of the corner of her right eye. That made the picture on the second shot."

Spills also have supplied plenty of material for Frutkoff, including a famous one at Charles Town when jockey C.C. Smith stayed on while a horse called Melrose fell behind the gate.

He also is fond of a picture he took of a dog walking a horse.

"Jimmy Hector [an old-time trainer] called me one day and expected me to believe that," he said. "So I went and, sure enough, there was a dachshund actually leading a horse. It's always something different."

There is an element of danger in Frutkoff's occupation, but he has never been bitten or kicked.

One day in Florida, a horse reached out of his stall and nearly tore off the sleeve of one of his favorite jackets.

"I was so mad I felt like hitting him with my camera, but of course I didn't," said Frutkoff.

The nearest accident came at Pimlico during a steeplechase race.

Frutkoff was shooting horses rising over a jump without realizing there was a loose horse on the track.

"I turned my back and started off the track and he came up behind me. The wind he caused galloping by at full speed almost knocked me down. I just stood there and shook for five minutes," he said.

Frutkoff likes to say he'd "walk a million miles for one of your smiles," referring to the happy reactions he snaps in the winner's circle.

But his typical days have not been all smiles. Ordinarily, he is at the track around daybreak to snap workouts or special requests and does not finish for 12 to 14 hours. And he has had to contend with all kinds of weather.

A friend to all, he won the coveted Thoroughbred Racing Association's press photo award for his picture of the sitting filly.

His favorite famous horse of all time is Greek Money, who won the 1962 Preakness.

"He would stand and pose for an hour," said Frutkoff. "He held an Easter basket in his mouth like a trouper for I don't know how long."

Gag shots used to be extremely popular and Frutkoff handled them with aplomb -- like Tomy Lee holding a Preakness entry blank in his mouth in 1959.

But his personal choice as individual picture was of Nashua in a workout, taken with a telephoto lens with the horse running straight at the camera.

"You meet so many different people in racing. I've been lucky to do this," he said.

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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