Karen S Davis

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.

In the Shadow of the
San Gabriels

by Peter Fritz
copyright Milliard Sun, Slovakia, October 2013 (www.milliardcity.com)

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 then 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 San Gabriel's 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?

  • Know thyself (and thy passions).
  • Love thyself.
  • Be realistic. Success is personal. Countless talented and deserving people never achieve success (or riches or fame) as defined by the world. Know how you define it.
  • Take a chance. As Helen Keller said, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."
  • Eat healthy … sleep well … wear sunscreen. Then stop worrying (but forgive yourself if you do).​

Thank you so much!​

Back on Track
Photographer lives out her passion at Santa Anita

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

by Judy Wang
copyright Pasadena Star-News, California, July 8, 2006

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 snapping pictures - she ultimately took more than 3,000 photos. 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 music theatre, 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 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.