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Buckley pictures a winner on track, not through lens


Rick Buckley estimates that he has taken more than 80,000 pictures of horses in his eight-year career as a free-lance thoroughbred racing photographer.

He has attended the sport's premier events, covering as many as 50 Grade I stakes in a year, and recorded the feats of the game's biggest names on film.

His photos, particularly of the Preakness, have graced the cover of Thoroughbred Times, a glossy national news weekly published in Kentucky, more than two dozen times.

His pictures appear in sports bars and on jockey trading cards.

But Buckley is finding out that the photos that mean the most to him are the ones snapped by someone else in the winner's circle.

During the past year, Buckley, 29, gradually has turned his attention to training, rather than photographing, horses.

He is beginning to attract notice locally through the exploits of an unlikely four-legged vehicle, a filly named Sly Tilly, who started her career in low-level claimers and has developed into a solid grass performer.

On Sunday, Sly Tilly makes her stakes debut on the turf in the $75,000 All Brandy Stakes, the closing-day feature at the Laurel Race Course summer meet. To an average race-goer, its a modest event for Maryland-breds. To Buckley, it's the latest chapter in Sly Tilly's surprising career.

"I told a fellow photographer about a year ago, 'I don't how much longer I can keep doing this,' " Buckley said, referring to equine photography.

"I'm taking pictures of other people doing what I want to do.

"Ever since I can remember, I've had this burning desire to spend my life with horses. I've been drawn to them like a magnet. I've seen up close and personal the fantastic jobs trainers like Shug McGaughey and D. Wayne Lukas do with their horses. I've tried to absorb it all and thought if only I could get a horse good enough, I'd want to train and show what I can do."

For years, Buckley, who weighs 155 pounds, has supplemented his income by galloping horses at tracks and breaking youngsters on the farm. He is related to the Frock family of Carroll County horsemen and lives with his wife, Stacy, and 14-month-old daughter, Jade, near Westminster.

His hands-on background, Thoroughbred Times editor Mark Simon says, gives Buckley a unique perspective in photographing races.

"Not only is Rick aggressive and a hustler," Simon said, "but he's in tune with the horse. We use some photographers who are best at getting good candid shots of people. But what Rick does best is taking action shots of horse races in the stretch. He knows that's where races are decided and is in the right place at the right time. It's a specialized field. I'd say that only about a dozen photographers in the country are out there and capable of making a living at this on a continual basis. Rick holds his own with the best of them."

But Buckley wants to establish his credentials as a trainer. The development of Sly Tilly has become a personal crusade.

The horse has such modest breeding that when she was offered for sale four years ago as a 6-month-old weanling at the Timonium sales, she didn't attract a single bid.

Troy Director, one of Buckley's friends in Westminster, was at the auction and approached the seller. "I offered him $300 for the horse, and he took it," Director said. "Basically, she turned out to be a pet for my girlfriend."

After raising the filly for two years, Director asked Buckley to break Sly Tilly for riding.

"I've been on a lot of horses and recognized immediately, this one had a nice stride," Buckley said. "But after I was finished breaking the filly, I largely forgot about her."

At one point, Director tried to sell Sly Tilly as a riding horse for $1,500.

"Before he did something as drastic as that, though, I said let's try her at the track," Buckley said.

There was one problem. The horse had developed a cracked splint bone in a foreleg, and it needed an operation.

"Troy told me that if I paid for the operation, I could have half the horse," Buckley said.

The deal was struck, and despite some cautionary veterinary advice that placed reasonable doubts on Sly Tilly's soundness, Buckley got the castoff to the races, and she began to win. So far, Sly Tilly has won three races and $36,682.

Although she is just average on dirt, it is on the grass, Buckley says, that Sly Tilly will distinguish herself. She has been second in both of her grass starts, including a $22,000 allowance on the day before the Preakness when Buckley, through his photographic contacts, lined up Pat Day to ride. Sent off at 49-1 odds, Sly Tilly repelled three challenges during the race, but was beaten by a fresh closer from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

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