Martin Parr has photographed the most famous horse races in the world. He’s shot races in England and France, in India and Sri Lanka, in Australia and South Africa and Zimbabwe. And yet he had never made it to one of the most celebrated races in the U.S., the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky.
“The Queen went in 2007,” Parr tells TIME. “She’s a racing nut as well, and she beat me to it by eight furlongs. So I finally decided to get around to it. I finally put it on my list and I’m very glad I did because it’s quite an event.”
With more than 170,000 people attending last weekend’s “most exciting two minutes in sports,” as the Kentucky Derby is known, Parr was in his own version of paradise. “I was delighted,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It’s very American: there’s no place where the prices are so huge. It’s American Capitalism at its best and worst. Everything out there was crazy.”
Parr is famous for his satirical approach and in an arena known for extravagance being on full display, it was easy pickings for the English photographer. “You just walk around and you take pictures,” he says. “You get a little bit tired with people with hats, so it’s your job to find something a bit different. That’s the aspiration. Otherwise all these races pictures would look the same. But, of course, the hat is irresistible. It’s a photographer’s dream.”
The secret, he adds, is to find the places that will keep on giving: “You locate different hotspots and different places that you keep coming back to. It’s a massive space. I probably didn’t get to every grandstand, every corner. So you go back to the same places where you know things reveal themselves. And then, you watch the actual race. You’re waiting for the person to erupt when their horse looks like it might be winning, and they’re screaming and shouting.”
Martin Parr is a member of the Magnum Photos agency.
Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s deputy director of photography.