Picture Perfect: ‘Everyone has the dream of calling the desk and telling them to hold the front page’

MAYHEM IN MOTION: Pat Healy’s iconic photograph of nine horses falling at the first fence at the Listowel festival meeting in 1997. ‘Because it was on film, I didn’t know exactly what I had. So, we developed the film and as it dried we saw what I had. It was beyond everything I hoped it could be,’ he recalls.
MAYHEM IN MOTION: Pat Healy’s iconic photograph of nine horses falling at the first fence at the Listowel festival meeting in 1997. ‘Because it was on film, I didn’t know exactly what I had. So, we developed the film and as it dried we saw what I had. It was beyond everything I hoped it could be,’ he recalls.

This picture captures such a unique occurrence: Nine horses falling at the first fence during the Listowel festival meeting in 1997.

That was 23 years ago, but it feels a lot longer, given the advances in technology in the time since.

The photograph was taken with an F3 camera and a 400mm lens. The camera had to be manually focused, which made it so much more challenging, when compared to today’s state-of-the-art equipment.

The story of how I got this picture actually began the night before. As a Listowel native, the festival meeting is one of the highlights of my year.

As a young lad at the time, I was enjoying the week: On and off the track. So the night before, I ended up heading out the road to Ballybunion with a few jockeys for a couple of drinks. A couple became a couple more and you get the picture... I ended up back in Listowel at 7am.

My father, Lord have mercy on him, was furious given the state of me, and smell of drink off me, when I arrived at the course that afternoon.

So he hunted me off down the track, out of the way, because he didn’t want anyone to see me in such a condition.

It was no way to come to work but back then I was young, about 26, and you learn as you go along.

Because of that, I was in the right place at the right time and got a picture that I would never have gotten otherwise. What is also remarkable about the incident is that there were no serious injuries to jockeys or horses. Everyone got up and walked away unscathed.

But because it was on film, I didn’t know exactly what I had. Nowadays, you can see the image on your camera or laptop, but, back then, it was a case of having to wait and see until the film was developed.

At the time, I was working for The Sporting Life in London but I had to drive to Tralee, to Kerry Kennelly, in Kerry’s Eye, to wire the pictures to London. So, we developed the film there and as it dried we saw what I had.

It was beyond everything I hoped it could be.

Everyone has the dream of calling the desk and telling them to hold the front page. I rang their picture editor Jeremy Chapman and told him we had a winner. I was convinced it would be the front page the next morning.

I got some shock the next day, when I picked up The Sporting Life. Instead of seeing my masterpiece on the front, I was greeted with a picture of Frank Detorri sitting on a donkey, as the date marked the first anniversary of his seven-timer at Ascot.

My picture ended up being used, but much further back the paper.

But then there was a pleasant surprise, when I strolled into Joe Guerin’s shop in Listowel that morning — with my picture on the front page of all the Irish newspapers. I was also supplying pictures to the INPHO agency and they had sent them out to all the picturedesks of the nationals.

Now, you’d take a picture on your phone there and then to record the fact. It didn’t even cross my mind to go home and get my camera and take the picture.

I bought all the papers and they are sitting in a shoebox somewhere at home. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the achievement. You just think that this would be a regular occurrence and no big deal.

My father was proud as punch. He went up to Spectra (who had a photographic processing service in the town at the time), got the picture printed on poster-size prints, and put them in the jockeys’ room. That was as close as we got to social media in the day!

It is all so different to the modern game. Nowadays, photographs can be sent (and are sometimes expected) within minutes of a race finishing, whereas, back then, the likes of The Sporting Life would let you know in advance the shape required and would push back deadlines to ensure they could get shots from evening meetings.

Back in the day, the great Irish sports photographers would go to the Grand National in Aintree, fly home that evening and develop the pictures in Dublin. And the deadlines for the Sunday papers often had to be pushed back just to accommodate them.

The fact that the photograph was in Listowel made it so much sweeter. I would drive 55,000 miles a year to race meetings around Ireland and am now in my 44th year taking photographs. That’s a lot of mileage on the clock in every sense of the phrase. So, for this picture to come on my own doorstep makes it even more memorable!

- Interview: Colm O’Connor

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