In an industry struggling to reinvent itself, the freelance photographer gets squeezed more than most. All the more so, when it’s a sports-specific effort, like Healy Racing in Listowel. As the local September festival kicks off this weekend, Pat Healy reflects on the trade, characters, and moments he’ll remember — and the ones he can’t forget.
Were he not the nation’s pre-eminent horse racing photographer, Pat Healy might turn a trick or two telling stories rather than depicting them.
“Listowel were playing in a North Kerry league final in Ballylongford back in the 80s and I had a stormer from wing-back,” he is explaining, modestly.
“Got about 3-3 and we won, beat Duagh. On the Monday we were all in Tim Kennelly’s pub, well on it now, and (the Kerry legend’s local handle) ‘Horse’ beckoned me over and said ‘You should be in with Kerry, someone should ring Dwyer about you’.
“Of course, I was enthralled and before I gathered myself, I was shoving 20 pence into the phone box out the back of the pub, ringing Waterville.
“‘Mr O’Dwyer, it’s Pat Healy here from Listowel. We won a North Kerry final yesterday and Tim Kennelly suggested I give you a ring.’
“‘About what?’, says Micko.
“‘About myself, and maybe I should be on the Kerry team at this stage...’
“‘And how did you do yesterday?’, queries Dwyer.
“‘Ah very good Micko, I got 3-3, stormin’ forward from wing-back. The lads here think I could do a job for Kerry.’
“‘And who were ye playing, did you say?’
“‘Well I’ll tell you what,’ growls Dwyer. ‘The next time Kerry are playing Duagh, I’ll give you a call...’ And the phone line dies.
“I went back out into the bar and of course the whole lot of them were falling against the counter, bursting their holes laughing,” Healy sighs ruefully.
“I didn’t get caught like an ape again.”
Mercifully for himself and a family that relies on the photographic business his father started 38 years ago, Healy is a better spotter of sporting theatre than ball-hops. From three decades of hanging with the jockeys, the trainers, the owners, the bookies, the stable lads and the other snappers, every angle has been covered and every race from the Breeders Cup to the Epson Derby to Cheltenham and the two-day meeting in Sligo is logged.
Just little over a year ago, he had a career moment at a race meeting on the beach at Laytown in Co Meath.
“I knew I had it,” he says. “My father once said to me ‘if you see it, you didn’t get it’. He was always right, it’s that split second. The camera got it, but it’s too late or too early for you to see it. I didn’t see the picture in Laytown, but I saw it in the back of the camera.
“And I looked at it. I just stood there. ‘This is it, boy,’ I thought. I relaxed and I shot the finish of the race. It comes with age, I suppose. If I was 18, or if it was my son, Jack, he’d be running and rushing. It’s like going home with the best looking girl in the nightclub. Take your time, do it right. There’s no rush now.” If Healy had taken the picture 20 years ago of Arbitrageur, jockey Johnny King and groom Aidan Wall before the handicap race at Laytown, we could be discussing its finer points now with feet dangling off the back of Healy’s yacht, moored in Vilamoura. The truth is he made very little off one of the most iconic images, in racing or in sport, in decades.
Nearly 20 years before, he shot a picture of nine horses falling at a meeting in Listowel and it made the front page of every newspaper in Ireland and Britain. This time, newspapers like The Guardian were tweeting it within hours. By evening it had gone viral and global, from Athea to Australia, as Healy describes it.
So how much did he make? “Not enough, and therein lies the crux of the industry. Because it was on Twitter that night, the image is gone. You’ve lost it. The days of making money from an image are gone, but you know what? I am at a stage now, I have my health, I can pay the milkman. That’s enough.
“Funnily I’d seen the horse do the same thing, rearing up, at the Curragh before a flat race with a different jockey. So I said I’ll just follow him down the start on the beach, because that’s where the jockeys have to mount at Laytown. Johnny is getting up on him on the beach and I know the lad leading him, Aidan Wall. I have a 300mm lens and then Johnny gets up on him and I’m thinking, ‘Ah, he’s okay now, gonna canter away now, nothing’s going to happen’. I just stood for a moment, and then sure enough, he just took off.”
There was another good reason it was relegated from the front pages the next day — a young man who killed the life of his siblings in Charleville, Co Cork dominated news coverage.
“It put life and a good picture into sharp focus and proper perspective,” he says.
In 36 years of taking racing pictures, he’s seen only two fights in the jockeys room, that inner sanctum where Healy’s gravitas in the trade earns him privileged access.
“Fellas come in buzzed up to the two eyeballs, they come in and there’s red mist. As a group, jockeys are a breed apart, they do look out for each other. But when the ball is in play, there is that no inch given. Don’t ask me and I won’t expect it. And I do admire them for that.
“McCoy? When we were starting out, he came to me for a job in England, that’s how far back we go. He was like my shadow one time, so I rang up Stormin’ Norman (Williamson), who was working with Kim Bailey at the time so Williamson rings me back in a couple of days and says ‘there’s a job here for him, he can start in two weeks’.
“But AP ended up going to Toby Balding’s instead, and that’s fair enough. Down the years, we’d meet often, I’d stay in his house and that’s why I became close enough to stand back from him and admire what he did.
“Ali, Federer, Messi? This fella has outlasted a couple of generations of sports stars. He rides an animal over obstacles for 20 years and he’s never been beaten (in championship terms) and he’s still not counted as the greatest sports star ever? That tells you one thing — our (racing) industry is only a fish bowl in global terms.
“I am in awe of him, I’ve seen him get up off the ground and he’s literally broken into bits. One day he fell in front of me in Navan and he’d a rib broken, no doubt, if not more. He’s lying there and I’m here, ‘are you alright?’
“He’s saying ‘what do I ride in the next?’
“‘You’re on one for O’Grady, it’s the favourite.’
“‘Right, get me up.’ He gets up, hops into the ambulance and goes off and wins the next race for O’Grady with a broken rib. An outlandishly honest, generous fella and the more successful he got, the more generous he got with his time. He never forgot his pals. There was 4,000 at that gig JP (McManus) threw for him in Adare. I met lads there like Conor Everard, who I wouldn’t have seen in 20 years. AP wanted him there.”
When Ruby Walsh was in short pants, Healy was riding out for his father Ted. “I used stay with Brendan Sheridan, who was the stable jockey to Ted. I wouldn’t be on the best horses now, I’d be riding a hunter or a cob. Ruby wouldn’t own you tuppence, he’s straight down the line. If you asked him to do something for charity, he’s there. He’s never gonna have a one-man comedy act but he’s very good with the young lads in the weigh room. He’s ‘The Don’ in the jockeys’ room in both countries (Ireland and England). He wouldn’t be the most stylish of riders, but he never, ever makes a mistake. He’s always in the right place at the right time, he has that knack of appearing from nowhere. And he’s gold dust for punters.”
To get a sense of the vocational zeal Pat Healy, and his father Liam, bring to their work and the tracks of Ireland, Britain and around the world, one needs to go back to a winter Friday in November 1987. The day after Joan, Liam’s wife and Pat’s mother, died.
“We missed one meeting since we started, the day after Joan died. It was a Saturday in Navan. A good friend of mine, James Collins from Athea in Co Limerick, rode his first winner at that meeting, and we’ve no picture of it. He often gives out to me about it.
“If there is racing, we are there. Healy Racing covers every meeting on the calendar. There have been times I’d be on the road every day, but the older I’ve got, my nephew Kevin and my own son, Jack, now do a couple of meetings for me. I love it. Most fellas get in the car and they hate having to drive. It doesn’t bother me. If we missed a meeting, that would be the end of the world for me.
“My dad started it up in 1978, he started by going as far as Kildare — to the Curragh or Punchestown — and gradually he branched up to Leopardstown and Navan, then he started doing the north.
“Wherever the meeting is north or south, it’s the same circus — the same clowns in different towns. When you go to Downpatrick, it’s the same fellas riding, same trainers and owners. The only thing that changes are the bookies and the punters.
“We are keeping our heads above water financially. I think we are the best, provide the best service. I’m not in a position to sit back, kick off my shoes and say things are grand. I got out the gap in 2014 and if we get out the gap at the end of this year, that’s a fair achievement.”
In today’s fragmented and some might say ruptured media landscape, it’s a phenomenal achievement, with five wages to pay each week. “Everything’s changed because everyone’s a photographer now with their iPhone,” he explains.
“I find now that once they have the picture on their Twitter account or on Facebook, they don’t want to bother buying a print and putting it on the wall. They can go into Harvey Norman and print it off their phone. I’m never going to get rich, I’ve five wages every week — my dad, my brother Liam, nephew Kevin and sister Cathy runs the office.
“The biggest problem at the minute is the ‘weekend warriors’, fellas with 9-5 jobs who rock up at the weekends, and ring up the Examiner and say ‘I’ll send in a few pictures there, and if you use them, just give me a byline.’ They don’t want any money for it.
“We have a picture in the Examiner today from a meeting in Leopardstown last night. I’ll tear out the picture from the paper, fold it up and throw it in a shoe-box. Since I started back in the 80s with the Irish Field, I’ve shoe-boxes full of photographs reproduced in newspapers. I get that from the oul fella. I still love seeing our pictures in the papers, and the Examiner use them better than anyone else, I’ll always acknowledge that.”
The shoebox collection was started by Liam Healy in the 70s and will continue into tomorrow and next week, when the family doubles up with camera and committee for the local Listowel festival.
“Back in the 60s the oul fella was working for John J Galvin, a drinks distributor, driving a lorry. He bought a council house in Ballygologue Park in Listowel and he bought a camera. You’d have three meetings a week in the winter, and you were assured of three cars from every town in Ireland would head to a meeting in the week.
“He was a non-drinker, so he’d drive the lads, and he got friendly with Ted Walsh and Pat Casserly, two leading amateurs. They’d introduce them along the line. We were at that AP McCoy tribute function in Adare and Tony Mullins was telling a story how his father, Paddy, came home one day, and told them there was a young man from Listowel who was taking racing photographs, make sure when they rode a winner to give him a bit of business.
“Then it came to the stage when he had a bedroom in the house he turned into an office. Next thing, one day he said to my mother, I’d love to have a crack at this. It was a ballsy thing to do with three kids in 1978. He gave up a steady job. Every picture he took, we still have the negs at home.”
Pat’s first big day at the races was the Shergar Irish Derby in 1981. “I was interested, and in the middle of fifth year at St Michael’s, the principal, Fr Linnane, came to me and said ‘Pat, you know you’ve no business here, I’ll give you a good reference if you leave now’. I snapped his hand off. I had failed my inter cert, and when I went home Dad was putting diesel into the tank down the bottom of the garden. You’d better go down and show him the results, my mother said. “I had my answers ready: ‘Sure how can I study, I’m racing every day with you’. It wasn’t long before I got a start with the Sporting Life newspaper, which eased the burden on him.”
Healy’s start coincided with that of Norman Williamson and Charlie Swan, both of whom knew the Listowel snapper from the pony racing circuit. Now some of his closest friends in the business were winning Champion Hurdles and Gold Cups. Many of the industry’s biggest names grew up with a Healy lens trained on them. And the family aren’t so bullish to forget who butters their bread.
“There are times I won’t release a picture, especially the young lads on the way up. They might have got unseated at the last fence, and they wouldn’t look good. We are all in the game together, and we all make mistakes, and I would hate to make money on the back of someone’s mistake.
“At Galway this year, I had a call from an agency in England: Can you get us girls getting sick, falling around the place, to show the rougher side. We will pay you well?’ No thanks. Racing is good to me, and I am not going to make the game look bad, I am in the business 30 years, you can keep your 400 quid.
“I’d punt and fellas will think I’ve got good information, but I’ve got burnt down the years from good information. There’s one lad you want good information from — the middle-of-the-road jockey who has a car loan, mortgage and three kids. When he reckons a horse is worth a monkey, this has to win for him. The lad who has eight winners a year, I’d follow him in.”
Thirty-six years crouched down beside hurdles and fences has also given Healy a degree in the macabre. He has seen young jockeys hit the ground for the last time, and recognised instantly that they were done for. It’s no business for the faint of heart and more than once, he’s been reduced to tears.
“I cried when I knew John Thomas (McNamara) was in trouble. After seeing jockeys fall in front of you for 30 years, I would know now when I look at a fella on the ground. I cried with joy for Charlie when he won the third Champion Hurdle on Istabraq, and when Norman won the Gold Cup on Master Oats, but I also cried when I got the phone call about Kieran Kelly. And I’ll always remember where I was, Dingle, when Sean Cleary got the fall.
“A jockey died in front of me at Fairyhouse when I was only 12 or 13. God bless him. Then down the years, you could name them all, unfortunately.”
Mostly though, the tracks and the personalities make the travel journeys of anticipation.
“Every month, you’ve something to get the blood racing. January you’ve Leopardstown and Hurricane Fly racing. Hello! If that doesn’t stir ya. February you’ve the Irish Gold Cup, March is Cheltenham, April the Aintree Grand National and Punchestown, May the Guineas in Newmarket, June you’ve the Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot, July is Killarney and Galway, August at York, September is Listowel, October Champions Day and the Breeders Cup in America and November you are back to Cheltenham. In December it’s Hong Kong. But it’s the Sligos and the Ballinrobes too.
“Racing changed, people aren’t going to come back in the same numbers. A man can go to the local pub and watch At The Races and bet on his phone. Back in my father’s time, there’d be 15 fellas from the town at every meeting, whether it was Gowran, Thurles or Clonmel, having a bite to eat and a few pints. And then they stopped off on the way home and have another bite. Slowly but surely the smaller tracks are making a big effort to hold onto what they have.
“I love Ballinrobe. The people that go there, they’re talking horses or football. John Flannelly has provided great facilities, good broadband, beautiful scenery, good craic. Everyone seems to be in good form in Ballinrobe. Down here, in Killarney, no-one’s looking at their watch, and visitors can’t get over that. It’s a great social town. And in Listowel this week, with an All-Ireland to look forward to...”
Pat will spend less time crouched beneath fences next week as he assists with the smooth running of Listowel, but he’s hoping his son and nephew will continue the service and the quality that he business has become renowned for around the world.
“What makes a racing snapper? You have to have an understanding of horses and the game. And a bit of luck. Coming from Listowel back in the day, I never thought we’d get to where we are now, seeing Healy Racing recognised all over the world, in Australia and the United States. We will never be Getty Images in terms of resources or wealth, but we have cut a business for ourselves in an industry that is tough and we have survived.
“The standard of sports photography now has never been higher, I’m in awe when I see the Monday newspaper supplements at this time of year and see the quality that Inpho and Sportsfile are producing from Croke Park. I could go to a match with the same equipment, but I wouldn’t get the shots these lads get.
“But I’d always be comfortable settled in beside the second last...”
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