Following on from my recent coverage of the ISU World Short Track Championships in Sheffield, last week I was sent to the Cheltenham Festival for my first ever taste of horse racing. Those of you who know of my previous experiences with horses on this blog will appreciate the fact that there isn’t a single dead one involved in this post. Radical, eh?
Having only been given a few days notice, I ended up at a motorway inn 40 miles from the racecourse, so each day was an early start to get along the motorway and into the car park before the masses arrived. Never having covered any races other than the canine variety, I turned up each day like a half man/half camera gear machine with everything from a 14mm to a 400mm around my neck. That’s always the problem with covering a new discipline or sport; you have no idea what you’ll need, and it’s incredibly frustrating to find that you’ve left something behind that everyone else is using as their primary weapon of choice. By the end of the week, I’d worked out that a I’d use a 70-200mm and a 400mm for covering the race itself with a 20mm and a 50mm for shooting the features in and around the venue.
The one other bit of kit that I had a go with were the Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 remote triggers. Now, while everyone else was a seasoned pro at shooting horse racing and knew all the right angles and equipment, I was left scratching my head as I tried to get my triggers to fire. To those that haven’t used them before, Pocket Wizard make radio remote units that sit on the hot-shoe of your camera. When paired with another unit, they can be used to either fire a remote flash or, in this case, a remote camera. You know that picture that everyone else was getting; shot from ground level on a wide angled lens as the horses take the jump? Beautiful. Well, it would be if I actually managed to get my system to work. Having worked perfectly with remote flash since I got them a few months ago, this was the first time that I’d tried firing a remote camera and whatever I did, I couldn’t get it to work. The slave either didn’t fire at all, or paused then fired five frames in slow succession every time I triggered the remote. Gahhh!! Writing this nearly a week later, I STILL haven’t got it to work and can’t find anyone who can help. Boo to Pocket Wizard’s technical support…
Having stumbled at the first jump with my technology issues, I decided to focus on the features side of the event. With each day having a specific theme, I had a vague guide as to what was expected. Wednesday being “Ladies Day”, it was all about the hats. While Ascot is the race meeting that is often eclipsed by the millinery delights, Cheltenham is clearly following their lead with awards for best dressed woman and best hat of the day. Oddly enough, I shot four women in hats and one of them went on to win. I always knew I was a style guru at heart. Or was that a style gnu?
Thursday was Saint Patrick’s Day and as that one of the main sponsors of the festival was Guinness, it didn’t take much effort to see what the focus of the day would be. As the doors opened at 10:30am, the crowds flooded towards the “Guinness Village” and were soon throwing back the pints. Crikey. I was lured into a quick one after bumping into a few colleagues, but thankfully managed to avoid the second or I’d have been found curled up in a stable by noon.
Aside from the copious drinking taking place around me, I decided to burn some money and have a bet or two. In the end it was exactly two and I managed a 100% streak of defeat. Bravo. While the logical reader out there may think it was the right time to stop and I should learn my lesson, the following day, I returned to the tote window and royally kicked ass with a win by Zarkander, bringing me a profit of £29.50. With my wallet fattened, I welded it shut and retired from the gambling scene. Hearing of one photographer’s friend of a friend sticking £3500 on a horse that came second that morning, is lesson enough in keeping your head screwed on. Interestingly, I asked The Guardian’s Tom Jenkins if he ever placed the odd bet and he told me that he never did as it would take his focus off the job in hand. Thankfully, when I had my massive life-changing win, I didn’t even realise until fellow photographer Dan Rowley told me. That’s the kind of casino smoothness that I’m known for. *cough*
Friday was the day of the main race and while this removed any easily detectable “theme” for the day, I was running a little low on ideas, so decided to revisit those big neighing things that appeared to be running around nearby. With handy tips from some of sports photography’s most experienced shooters, including Eddie Keogh, Julian Herbert, Tom Jenkins and Dylan Martinez, I gave it another go and this time managed to get a few frames that I actually liked. Now the only thing that let me down was that the best shots weren’t of the winner, but who cares who actually wins the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, reeeaaaally. Surely, the guy who happened to make a nice frame for me as he came past near the back is vital, no? Damn it. This sporting lark is lost on me…