David Ashdown's Cheltenham Diary
Wednesday 11 March 2009
The Cheltenham Festival seems to come round very quickly, it hardly seems a year since I was here last.
Before I got to the race course I had a look at the pictures I took last year. I think it's a good idea to do that; maybe I can improve on them and try not to simply repeat what had been done before.
At big set piece events like Cheltenham where nothing much changes, it's a challenge to try and do something different, but not too different so as to miss the point of what is going on.
The big race on the first day of the festival is the Champion Hurdle. Last year it was the third race, but this year it was moved to the fourth. That only leaves two races after it, barley enough time for photographers to send in their pictures before racing ends. I think it's a ploy so that we all get stuck in traffic!
The three races before the big one are a chance to do a bit of mood, get some of the atmosphere of the place. There is a beautiful symmetry in the crowd. As the horses come up toward the finish line all the heads of the spectators will be pointing in the same direction. If the sun is out, only one side of the crowds faces are lit, providing some vivid pictures. The trick is to photograph the horses going over the last fence, but focusing on the crowd so the horses are out of focus. The result is that one's eye goes from jockeys to the crowd and all the faces, so getting as much as possible in one picture.
The day is all a build up to the big race, the Champion Hurdle. I decided to position myself about twenty meters past the finish post under the rail. I was using two Nikon D3 cameras, one with a 500mm F4.0 lens the other with a 70mm-200mm F2.8 zoom. From my position I was able to see up to the last fence, allowing me to use the 500mm lens as they came over the last, and also as they ran toward the winning post. I only needed to change to the zoom when I could almost see the whites of their eyes.
This picture of Barry Geraghty on Punjabi winning the race was taken just as they passed the winning post using a shutter speed of 1/800 second at F4.0 on the zoom.
As in all things to do with sport, one never knows what is going to happen. After all that's the fun of it. The first and second placed horses could have been on opposite sides of the course (making it impossible to capture all the runners in the photograph) so you have to take a punt. This time it was just about perfect. Next time maybe I won't be so happy when I get stuck in the traffic.
Around 230,000 spectators will attend the four days of the Cheltenham Festival, which will generate total gate receipts in excess of £7m.
Over £500m will be wagered during Festival week (compared to £60m a day normally). Last year more than £900,000 was drawn from from the 20 cashpoints on the racecourse over the four days of racing.
Over 200,000 pints of Guinness are expected to be drunk in 2009 (214,000 were consumed in 2007, 182,000 in 2008 but only three day event due to poor weather).
Bets are being taken on Paddy Power and Sky Bet on how many pints will be drunk.
The late Freddie Williams, a fearless racecourse bookmaker remembered in the title of one of the Festival races on Thursday, had the fastest book in the business , once recording 700 individual bets on a single race - that's roughly one a second.
The origins of the Festival date back nearly 200 years when the first horse races were organised in Cheltenham on Nottingham Hill.
Little is known of these earliest race gatherings other than that they infuriated a local preacher who in 1829 spurred his congregation into disrupting the races and burning down the rudimentary grandstand.
The first officially recognised Cheltenham Festival took place at Prestbury Park, which remains the home of the Festival, in 1902.
In 1982 every winner over the three-day Cheltenham Festival was ridden by a different jockey, with Jonjo O'Neill receiving the coveted top jockey trophy on the basis of being placed in other races.
Only one horse has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup more than three times - Golden Miller with a remarkable five consecutive victories in the 1930s.
The unluckiest horse in Cheltenham Gold Cup history must surely be Tied Cottage, who in 1979 fell at the last fence after leading the race and the following year won the race but was disqualified when the jockey tested positive for a banned substance.
The Queen's horse Barbershop is a likely runner in the Gold Cup on Friday and The Queen is expected to make her second visit to Cheltenham in six years. Before that, she had not visited since shortly after her coronation - an absence of some 50 years.
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