Cheltenham festival snapper: ‘We’re the clowns in the circus’
The Cheltenham Festival is a busy working week for racing photographer Pat Healy
Istabraq and Charlie Swan are led back after winning their third Champion Hurdle in a row in 2000. Photograph: Healy Racing
Pat Healy: “I won’t have a drink for the week. You’re there to do a job. It’s the biggest week of the year for Healy Racing and I go to Cheltenham to make money, not waste money.”
Norman Williamson dismounts after winning the 1995 Gold Cup on Master Oats. Photograph: Healy Racing
Tony McCoy and Ruby Walsh at Cheltenham in 2006. “Fellas just took their lead from him [McCoy]. You could see it in them,” says Healy. Photograph: Healy Racing
At the festival, every race is its own whirlwind. A twister onto itself, whipping through Cheltenham in half an hour, just in time for the next one to hit land. At some point over the coming a week, a young jockey will ride his first festival winner or a syndicate will yahoo the lugs off the place and everyone will smile and clap and then it will be over and gone.
The immutable law of the next race.
And when it all dies down, in a week or a month or whenever, Pat Healy will frame that half hour for eternity. The package will have probably four pictures – the horse jumping the last, crossing the line, coming into the winner’s enclosure and standing with connections. The whirlwind tamed, ready to hang on a wall for as long as it stays special to the people in it.
The Cheltenham Festival accredits over 100 photographers, all scurrying for their own deadlines and responsibilities. And Healy Racing has its own contracts to maintain as well – The Irish Field, Irishracing. com, the Examiner and beyond, outside of Ireland as well as within it.
But if you’re in Irish racing at all, you know Pat Healy. And you know, at the back of it all, his clients are inside the rails or they’re in the parade ring or they’re saddling up the horses for the next.
Like them, this is the biggest week of Healy’s year. He’s been going to Cheltenham since 1990, from the days when he’d take pictures all week but wait until he was back in Listowel to develop them. That might have been on the Friday night or it might have waited until a day or two later – it would have depended on whether he went tackling the bars in London with Charlie Swan and Norman Williamson on their way to Uttoxeter on Saturday.
The festival has changed, racing has changed, everything has changed. There’s more pressure now, more money, more everything. The one thing still the same is Healy’s place in that world. His number is in every jockey’s phone, every trainer and owner will stop him or stop for him.
“Take Ruby Walsh, take AP McCoy – I photographed their first winners. Take Jack Kennedy, a generation younger than them both. I started photographing Jack at pony races a few years ago. Now he’s going to Cheltenham as the brightest young star in the game. I photographed his first ride, his first winner – and now hopefully his first Cheltenham winner, which I did with McCoy and Ruby as well.”
Back in the day, he used stay with Williamson in his house in Lambourn. It was all far less frantic back then. Half the jockeys rode in Ireland, half them rode in England and Cheltenham was the annual jamboree where they all met up. They’d hit the pubs on Monday night and take it from there. Healy went along for the ride, soaking up every bit of it.
“The year Norman did the double, the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle, we got in the car at 10 o’clock in the morning to head for Cheltenham. It’s about an hour’s drive. After 10 minutes, his car ran out of petrol and rolled to stop outside the house of Seanie Curran, another jockey. Seanie went away and got a can of petrol and we were just sitting there, waiting on him to come back. There was no panic, no drama, no hurry. It was a laugh. Now fellas are at the track at the crack of dawn.
“McCoy changed everything. I remember being out for dinner one night at the festival and McCoy was there and Ruby was there and a few others. It was before Ruby got the job riding in England so I’d say you’re talking early 2000s. And McCoy hadn’t ridden a winner yet for the week and he was sitting there in a foul mood and eventually he said, ‘Lads, if I don’t ride a winner tomorrow, I don’t want to wake up Friday morning.’
“He was basically saying that he was looking at a bout of depression if he didn’t ride a winner. Fellas just took their lead from him. You could see it in them.”
It changed for them, it changed for him. Digital photography dawned and soon enough it was out of the question to wait until he got home on the weekend to start doing up photos. It became a nightly task, himself and his brother Liam beavering away at their rented house about 15 minutes from the track, a universe away from the madness. Now he’ll go the week without a drop passing his lips.
It’s changed in other ways too. Time was, a jockey would take a fall in front of him and once he was sure there wasn’t a bone pointing the wrong way, he’d scan the horizon for the onrushing doctor and quietly whisper the name of the horse and racecourse into the jockey’s ear. It was unspoken but he never doubted it was expected of him, to help a lad beat a concussion test and be allowed to ride the next race. That’s gone too. Not long gone, admittedly, but gone and gone for the better.
He’d be protective of them, always. He’s seen jockeys cry in ambulance rooms on being told they’re gone for three months, knowing full well they’re going to be stuck for a mortgage payment before they come back.
He’s been 10 feet away when they’ve broken legs and arms and ribs and more. He’s been the first person on the scene when a fallen horse has snapped a leg and watched a panicked groom sprint down from the stands hoping it isn’t the end. He’s never once been tempted to lift his lens and start snapping.
“I just wouldn’t do it. And people in the game would know me and know I wouldn’t do it. I would hope I have a reputation for doing right by everybody, whether it’s a point-to-point jockey or the champion jockey.
“I’ve had newspapers ring me up and ask have a picture of Ruby breaking his leg and I’ve said ‘no’. And they’ve said, ‘But we saw you down at that fence taking pictures. We’ll give you a few hundred quid for it.’ And I just say, ‘Thanks but no thanks’.
“It comes down to respect. My dad started the business in 1975 and that’s the one thing I would always have hoped for – that we’d be respected in the industry. Never photograph an injured horse, never photograph an injured jockey. That was what my father said and it has never changed.
He never asks for tips either. That’s another rule from above. Whatever he hears, he hears – but he never goes looking.
“Fellas always say to me, ‘You have all the info, you know what’s going to win.’ Like, if I knew what was going to win, do you think I’d be standing out in the pissing rain pressing a button with my fingers frozen? Of course you hear information around the place but you have to be careful who you listen to and what you do with it.
“A big-name jockey telling you to have €200 on a horse, right, okay. A trainer telling you to have a monkey on one of his, fine. But I’ve always said that the fella to listen to, to really take notice of, is the jockey who’s riding 10 winners a year, who has the car loan and the mortgage and two kids. If he is saying to have €50 on his lad, that’s the time to bet. He needs that horse to win.”
And so he goes. Another festival, another year. Every race is different, every story has a face and a name and as long as he comes home on Friday with them all gathered up, he’s happy.
“I go over there with simple demands. Four days, equipment that’s works well all through, everything go smoothly and never walking out of the place going, ‘I wish I had been in the right spot for that’. Once that happens, you come home and then you worry about making money out of it.”
And he will. Safest bet of the week.