Here is a horse racing question for racing fans: Name the person that has seen the most horse race finishes in Northern California in the last 40 years.
Those that have been around horse racing tracks in Northern California in that span could likely come up with the correct answer if they really thought about it.
Oh, it might surprise a few when they hear the answer, but then their response would quickly turn to – “That makes sense.”
Here is a hint before I give you the answer – since 1995 the person has seen around 58,000 finishes.
Give up? How about track photographer Bill Vassar.
That makes sense, doesn’t it.
Vassar shoots the horses crossing the line, as well as the winner’s circle photos. The number is much higher as Vassar went into business in 1987, but it wasn’t until 1995 that he started using computers to track everything.
“It’s kind of crazy isn’t it,” said Vassar of the number.
Vassar graduated from the Brookings Institute (Photography) in Santa Barbara in 1980 and got hired by the Emporium Capwell, who at the time had a color insert in the Sunday papers.
He then went to Golden Gate Fields where he was hired by iconic photographer Steve DeVol as a publicity photographer. DeVol eventually gave up his photography business and relocated to Sedona, Arizona where he lived until his passing in February of 2021.
He then impressed Greg Gunderson, the Manager and Director of the Bay Meadows Racing Association with some photography work and he was brought on at Bay Meadows.
“That clinched it for me,” said Vassar of helping Gunderson.
After being the track photographer for both Golden Gate and Bay Meadows for a while, Vassar also started working at Sacramento during the State Fair.
From there he picked up the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, then eventually in 2010 he was hired by the California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF), handling the duties at all the summer fairs, including the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton.
He has easily become one of the fixtures of horse racing in Northern California. If there is a horse race, count on Vassar being there to shoot the race and then take the photos in the winner’s circle.
The 68-year-old Vassar is the guy everyone knows, and everyone likes. He orchestrates the pictures of the winning connections, as well as shots with race sponsors or other special events.
Having been around Vassar for years in both Pleasanton and Santa Rosa, he is one of the people I look forward to working with each summer.
He started when photography was old school and everything was “wet processed,” and now has the luxury of the digital photography age.
“The easiest part these days is when they want a recall of a photo,” said Vassar. “If they want six photos, you just send them to the printer.”
Vassar has seen many great races and many big-name horse racing people over the years, but it’s the beginners that provide the best memories.
“Of course, the highlights are the big races,” said Vassar. “But seeing a trainer win their first race is the best. They are so happy. The people that are excited when they come to the winner’s circle make me the happiest. The owners that show up and are excited are also fun. It’s gotten to the point that a lot of the big owners and trainers don’t even show for the race.”
Part of his job is taking the photos for the winning connections, who in turn often purchase additional pictures. What is the most pictures purchased following a race?
“There was a stakes race at Golden Gate Fields where I had to print 58 photos,” explained Vassar. “I don’t remember the name of the horse, but the trainer was Fordell Fierce. And in those days, it was all wet processing, so it took a while.”
How long will Vassar keep shooting the winners?
“I don’t have an end in sight,” said Vassar. “A lot of it depends on the industry. “They could put me in retirement.”
Vassar was referencing the state of flux the industry currently sits in. Golden Gate Fields recently announced they would cease operations as of December 19.
CARF is trying to save racing in Northern California by pushing a 10-month racing schedule, utilizing the tracks in Sacramento, Pleasanton, and Santa Rosa.
It’s been tough enough to see the direction of racing over the last 10 years. Now we are staring at no racing in Northern California, ending a sport with a rich history in the area.
“I am hoping CARF can pull it off,” said Vassar. “But I am glad I am towards the end of my career.”