I have been following jump racing my entire life. Growing up as a child, my father and I would watch the English Grand National, held at Aintree race course outside of Liverpool, on TV and being the rambunctious youngster I was, would jump around as the race progressed. More often than not, I would immediately set up stacked pillows as fences in the back hall, and jump them as if I was a Grand National horse. I have grown up dreaming of these fences.
If you can imagine an obstacle that stands every inch of 5 feet tall, or more, on the take off side and up to 8 feet, from the top of the fence to ground, on the landing on the landing side, and then jump those fences for 4 miles around a course that tests jockey and horse in both bravery and skill then you get an idea of what it’s like to run in the Grand National. Though the race itself is held in April, there are other races that run over these formidable fences throughout the season. Two of those races were held at Aintree on Sunday, November 21 and I had the privilege of shooting them as a third shooter for a racing photographer.
The morning of the races, I met friend Sam Twiston Davies for a guided walk around the Grand National course. Sam, in his first spin over the fences, took Hello Bud to fifth in this year’s Grand National and was named to ride the horse again in the day’s Becher chase over the same fences. The becher is a warm up for the Grand National and is used to see if the horse is brave enough or let him have a look at the formidable jumps before the big day in April. As it is only 3 miles instead of the 4, it is just a slightly less testing experience for horse and rider…but you still have to get around.
To shoot the race, I started on the far side of the course and shot the horses as they jumped the first fence and then sprinted back across the infield to the most infamous fence in the race, Becher’s Brook. When someone says ‘Grand National’, Becher’s Brook is always mentioned in the same breath. The fence is nothing special from the take off side. However the landing side of the fence is a tremendous drop. The ground falls away an extra three feet making the landing about 8 and a half feet tall. Standing under the fence, my hands outstretched above me cannot touch the top of the jump and I stand at 5’11. It is a serious fence and always takes it’s share of horses out of the race. In recent years, Becher’s has been shortened (if you can believe it) to keep jockeys from peeing their pants and trying to make the sport safer. But it is still every bit the biggest fence on the course.
Sam rode the 12 year old, Hello Bud, brilliantly and won convincingly. As I was on the other side of the track, I could not run the good mile and a half back to the winner enclosure but I heard over the loud speakers the result and headed for the jockey’s room as soon as I could to congratulate Sam. We shared a good laugh and watched the race replay together before I headed back north.
Looking back, I was the only credentialed photographer standing at Becher’s Brook and that evening, I recieved a text saying that I “needed to pick up the Racing Post” for the following morning. I did as instructed, walked into the local shop in Middleham and found my photo of Sam and Hello Bud as the feature photo on the front of the world’s biggest racing publication. This was my first cover, first major publication and the fact that the photo was of a friend winning on a course that I have always admired and adored made it all the better.
So again, congrats to Sam, Hello Bud and the Twiston Davies yard for a stellar two weeks! A Paddy Power Gold Cup, A Betfair Chase and Becher Chase over two weekends isn’t too shabby. Many thanks to the Grossicks for giving me the chance to shoot! I won’t ever forget this special weekend.