A Photo Tribute to Odanis Acuna: By Holly M. Smith

A lot of mornings, Holly M. Smith goes to Churchill Downs and spends a few hours before heading off to her “regular job” downtown. Nobody makes her do it. Her love for the industry, the sport, and the horse gets her up early and she loves to do it.

Along her life’s travels, she gets to see a lot of people up close and personal. Through the lens of her camera, she can capture the heart and soul of Thoroughbreds. She gets to zoom in close. She gets to look right into the eye; into the soul.

But she can also see a lot of people. And, she gets to see a lot in people.

One of those people was Odanis Acuna.

This morning, Odanis Acuna was working an unraced 2-year-old — by the name of New York Harbor — at Churchill Downs. Suddenly, at the end of that breeze and about 5:45 a.m. this cold morning, something unthinkable happened. The horse sustained injuries to both front legs, and went down. Along with the horse went the rider — Odanis Acuna.

Neither one survived.

Now, sadly, only the photos and memories remain.

Here are some of the memories that Holly M. Smith was able to capture. With her camera. In her dark room, and edit space. In her memory bank.

(Odanis Acuna, in the yellow tee shirt, exercised horses for the barn of Ken McPeek for over 10 years. After each morning, he would rush to his “other job” at a Louisville horse fee store. He saved as much money as he could to someday have enough to bring his wife and children from his native Cuba to live in America. On Saturday morning, that dream was crushed. Photos by Holly M. Smith)

This was a test of two turns and she passed it with an ‘A plus.’ I’m getting to know her more and more. I was a bit concerned warming up today. I thought she might be a little too keen early on but then she settled really nicely and she did everything better than I expected going into a two turn race. She’s getting better even faster than I thought she would.

“I didn’t really know what to expect today. I watched her first two races and she was so far back and then I rode her and I was much closer but I didn’t know what that race was going to look like. Of course, she ran honest, she ran very well that day. And then today, she was a bit aggressive warming up.

“I hoped she wasn’t going to be too aggressive and get hooked up early on into a head and head speed duel. She relaxed so well though going into that first turn and took everything so much better than expected. She won well within herself and I didn’t have to get after her at all. I just asked her with my hands at the top of the stretch to just inside the eighth pole but that was pretty much it.”

Mike Smith, the winning rider on Midnight Bisou in the Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

    Full Bio >

More From Gene McLean