Who are you shooting for, mate?

Who are you shooting for, mate?

The June sunshine beat down on me as I shuffled up the steps and into the foyer of The Queen Elizabeth Grandstand. It must have been thirty degrees in the sun and it felt even hotter under my suit, over which I was wearing a black photographers bib, which meant that I was absorbing even more heat. Racecourse etiquette required that I wore a tie and my shirt collar buttoned up at all times and as a consequence my body heat had no-where to escape from. I was steaming. I could only imagine how the horses felt. When I tried to adjust my white shirt under my suit jacket I found that it had stuck to my back. I checked my watch. It was five to four. I had to clear security in time in order to make it onto the roof for The Derby, which was at twenty past. I stood anxiously in the foyer, waiting my turn in the queue. There was no admittance into the building until it had been cleared by security. At last it was my turn. The security man behind the counter looked at me and said: ‘Can I see your wristband please, Sir?’ I nodded and raised my right hand, to reveal a gold coloured plastic wristband from underneath my shirtsleeve. Wearing it enabled me to photograph inside The Queen Elisabeth Grandstand foyer, on The Queen Elisabeth Lawn, and inside all restaurant and hospitality areas within the building. Saying nothing, he then scrutinised the laminated photo I D card that I was wearing around my neck, in order to check I was who it said I was. Apparently satisfied, he said:‘ Right, how can I help you?’ After I had finished explaining my purpose for being there, he directed me towards the ground floor elevator. He said: ’get out of the lift on the fourth floor. Leaving the elevator, you’ll find yourself in a small reception area, facing a row of tote counters. Turn left and then take the small staircase to the immediate right of the last corporate box. It’s Coolmore’s one, you can’t miss it:  it’s got their sign on the door. Continue up two flights of stairs, passing the Royal Box on the fifth floor and continue up to the sixth. At the top of the staircase, security will ask to see your credentials again before allowing you access.’ Security, security, and more security. It hadn’t been like this yesterday on Oaks Day. I thanked him and headed immediately for the elevator. Fifteen minutes later, I made my way up the final flight of stairs that led out onto the roof. The photograph that I was up here to take wasn’t a difficult one to shoot; it was a simple panoramic picture using my 24mm lens. But it was proving to be a difficult shot to realize. As I climbed wearily up the final few steps, I looked up and noticed four people peering down towards me from a small landing that led out to my destination. They included an officious looking Epsom official sat at a small desk behind whom was stood a very large security guard. Two athletically built police officers; one male and one female, flanked the small table. They were armed with batons and handcuffs and one of them spoke quietly into a radio secured to the front of their jacket. Four pairs of eyes scrutinised me as I approached the desk. The Epsom official was looking down at a checklist of names in front of her and without looking up asked me bluntly for my name. I provided it. Then, looking up at me for the first time she added: ‘Your passport please, Mr Franklin.’ I reached into my camera bag, took out my passport and handed it to her. I also handed over a folded sheet of A4 paper, which I thought might help my cause. I said: ‘ this is a letter from Stephen Wallace, the racecourse manager. It’s addressed to the police, signed by him, explaining my reasons for requiring access to the roof. I’m a photographer, you see.’ She handed the letter to the policewoman to her left who read it. She then passed it to her male colleague who did the same. The policeman handed the letter back to me and grudgingly nodded his approval. Having satisfied their security requirements and been availed of my passport, at last I had clearance to walk out onto the Grandstand roof. I checked my watch again and saw that I had five minutes to spare before the big race. The late afternoon sun beat down on the ivory coloured open plan roof ahead of me. Thick blue, black, and yellow coloured cable coiled like giant snakes across the rooftop floor, disappearing into the doorway to a small room to my left, which had a sign hung up outside saying Media Centre. Four journalists shuffled around busily inside consulting a wall of TV monitors. I made my way across the rooftop anticipating in my minds eye the view that awaited me on the racecourse side. The roof ledge was just above waist height. I passed two giant antennae and a powerful looking satellite dish on my way. As I reached the rooftop far wall, I noticed out of the corner of my eye three men stood to my right, positioned a few meters apart from one another further along the roof ledge. The furthest from me appeared to be adjusting what looked like a camera tripod; the next man was frozen as still as a statue, a long lens camera hung around his neck. He was a study of concentration and was peering purposefully through a pair of powerful-looking binoculars. The third man, positioned nearest to me, was tending to the contents of a large bag, which lay open at his feet.
“And there I was thinking that I had a photo exclusive up here.”
I returned my attention to the view and, reaching the ledge, looked out across The Downs. Wow, I said out loud, under my breath. I stood in awe as I took in the best racecourse view in all of England, possibly the world. The spectacular Epsom Downs unfolded beyond me as I watched 120,000 people swarm around like ants across the horizon and down below me. My eyes panned slowly across the inner racecourse enclosure from left to right. Epsom fairground was in full swing and besides that a giant patchwork quilt of thousands of colourful (occupied) picnic rugs. Along the home straight rail, I counted the rows of red open-topped double-decker buses, each one packed to the rafters with early summer revellers, and beyond them, over on the far side of the racecourse, I saw the Derby runners circling behind the starting stalls ahead of the big race. Immediately below me on the Grandstand side of the course, a sea of top-hatted men and elegantly dressed women swanned around on the immaculate Epsom Lawn, sipping champagne and chatting idly. Then directly, below me the Winners' Circle, a lush green carpet of grass enclosed by white racecourse railing opening at one end into a chute that led out onto the racecourse. I thought of some of the legendary Derby winners of the past who had been led proudly into the Winners' Circle in years gone by; Relko, The Derby winner in the year I was born; The Minstrel in 1975. The mighty Nashwan ten years later and Quest for Fame the year after that. It were as though all of London were here, gathered together on Epsom Downs, to witness and honour the 2005 winner. All I was waiting for now was for the Derby to get underway, for the field to swing around Tattenham Corner and gallop up the home straight towards the finishing line, above which I stood, clicking my camera shutter for all it was worth, capturing the moment. I wondered if it would be the favourite Motivator and Johnny Murtagh who would cross the line in first place? As I removed my camera from my rucksack, I caught the eye of the man stood nearest to me, just a couple of feet further along the roof ledge. I switched on my camera and took some test shots, a couple of panoramic pictures across the course. I checked the exposure on the digital display of my camera. I took the man for being a photographer like me. In a casual voice, by way of making conversation, I asked him:
“Who are you shooting for, mate?”
Just like before, he was again squatted down on all fours tending to the contents of his bag. And upon closer inspection I realised that it wasn’t camera equipment that he was checking. Bloody hell. Everything suddenly made sense. Of course. The photo ID card, the rigorous security checks, the reason for my passport being held. No, It wasn’t camera equipment that he was tending to, it was an automatic machine gun. His eyes caught mine as I realised how darkly funny my casual question must have sounded to him. Who are you shooting for? With a glint in his eye, the man replied with a question of his own: ‘The woman in the sky blue hat, on the balcony one floor down below?’ I peered over the ledge, one floor down onto the balcony of The Royal Box. Sure enough, there was a woman wearing a sky blue hat, flanked by two very tall men. Body guards. It was The Queen. Of course. ‘Well’, the man continued ‘you could say that I’m shooting for her. If I’m required to, that is’.
The woman in the sky blue hat, on the balcony one floor down below?
The woman in the sky blue hat, on the balcony one floor down below?
Unlike Royal Ascot, The Epsom Derby isn’t an official state visit for HRH The Queen; she attends because she wants to be there. The three men with me up on the roof weren’t photographers after all; they were either from MI5, or perhaps the anti-terrorist squad. I had been so side-tracked with getting my roof-top photograph that I had overlooked today’s royal visit. But then I smiled to myself as I realised that the situation I had found myself in was a win-win situation all-round. After all, HRH The Queen’s immediate well-being seemed to be in good hands and it looked as though I did have a photo exclusive after all. A loud voice suddenly boomed out over the racecourse tannoy: ‘Racing Epsom. The 2005 Derby is underway.’ A roar of excitement shot up from the huge crowd on Epsom Downs as the horses shot from the starting gates. I switched on my camera and composed myself in anticipation of my photocall. As the horses shot round Tattenham Corner and charged up the home straight, everything felt good in my world. All I had to do in order to prolong this feeling of well-being was to remember to ask for my passport back from security before leaving the roof. SparaSpara SparaSpara SparaSpara SparaSpara
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Keenland, in rolling parkland on the western outskirts of Lexington.

And then we went to Keeneland

It is a bit corny I suppose, to say that if Mountaineer Racetrack is hell, then Keeneland must be heaven, but that’s how it felt.

  Keeneland saw its first day’s racing on the 15th October 1936, in the midst of the great depression, which had occasioned the demise of Lexington’s previous racing venue, the Kentucky Association Racetrack. The brainchild of prominent local horsemen Hal Price Headley and Major Louis Beard, the track stands as a testament that great things can be achieved successfully, and sustained and improved on, without the slashing of costs and making of redundancies, and the relentless, mindless, pursuit of profit maximization. The racetrack, and indeed the world’s largest bloodstock auction house which is now also part of Keeneland and intimately shares its grounds, are a not for profit venture. Profits realized are ploughed back into improvement of facilities, philanthropic deeds, and prize money. Hal Headley said “We want a place where those who love horses can come and picnic with us and thrill to the sport of the bluegrass.  We are not running a race plant to hear the click of the mutuel machines.  We want them to come out here to enjoy God’s sunshine, fresh air, and to watch horses race.”  They don’t really make people like that anymore do they? Well Mr Headley, lay easy in your long goodnight, because under the leadership of the twinkle eyed and eccentrically named Rogers Beasley, Keeneland is a place where everything is right. And I mean everything. It is so right, it could almost be a definition, a byword, a moniker of right, an appellation. A utopia.
Well Mr Headley, lay easy in your long goodnight, because under the leadership of the twinkle eyed and eccentrically named Rogers Beasley, Keeneland is a place where everything is right. And I mean everything. It is so right, it could almost be a definition, a byword, a moniker of right, an appellation. A utopia.
Situated in rolling parkland on the western outskirts of Lexington, on land purchased from a Mr Jack Keene. The long winding entrance road is immaculately tarmacked and old fashioned street lamps line the route (by the way, whenever I talk about anything here, just throw in an “immaculate” for yourself to save me the job eg the quaint green wooden benches; immaculate, the artfully tree’d and pruned paddocks; immaculate, the catering booths selling premium hotdogs, Kentucky Burgoo, and candy, immaculate, the bars selling bourbon cocktails; immaculate, the restrooms – you’ve got it – and they are too – even during racing). As you drive in trees are scattered across the parkland with leaves in every autumn hue of yellow and green and brown and rust and gold, and incredible reds of every shade, from delicate rose pink, to blood as dark and fresh as from an artery.  Nature at its most beautiful, but helped along by human artistic touch, as these trees have arrived in their setting with the care one could ordinarily only expect of  an actuary with obsessive compulsive disorder. The result is prettier than nature alone could achieve, and as you approach the parking areas you see the trees unite to stand in perfect lines sheltering the cars from the sunniest days. The grandstand itself is built from large light gray stone blocks of Kentucky limestone, a tribute to the original Stone barn that stood on Mr Keene’s land, giving it a slightly castle-like impression from the outside. Entrance starts at only a few dollars, and people flock here, attendants at every entrance are shouting information, greeting and welcoming the people thronging in, ready to answer any questions they may have.  The first area you come to is the paddocks, to the far end is where the horses are led round waiting for the valets to bring out the saddles for their race.  Once saddled they wait for the call to parade into the main ring. Towering above the ring is an imposingly large and beautiful Silver Sycamore. It stands there like some over-sized student of the form, its arms and hair wild in the wind.  Once the jockeys are mounted the horses are led though an opening under the grandstand and emerge into the sunlight and onto the track to the poignant notes of the bugler. Horses in the USA don’t have to be led to the start, but they generally are. The outriders at some tracks often look as if they have taken to sleeping rough, but here they are all in Keeneland green (not far off British racing green). It is a nice spectacle for a nice crowd.  Most people here aren’t huge racing fans, but they don’t ignore the racing, they read the form, they look at the horses in the paddock, and they bet their trifecta boxes, and their superfectas and their pick sixes, and cheer as loudly as at any British track – which is unusual here. And after the horses have passed the post they turn back to their friends, for this is primarily a social gathering, a place to go and dress up and be seen. Blazers, bow ties, and cigars, is the tradition for men.  Ladies anything from casual to high fashion, no one judges, it’s just however you feel, and what the weather is like.  Lots of people enjoy a drink, but everyone seems to conduct themselves well, even on the free admission days for students which was an eye opener. There are many tracks in England and Europe as pretty, and there are some of those tracks that also offer the high levels of prize money. And some of those tracks you can enter for two without getting a payday loan. And there are some that are fairly clean, and some that offer good food and drink easily and inexpensively. And some even have that great mix of people having fun without getting too carried away, somewhere where you could let children run off together and do their thing, allowing the adults to do theirs.  But I can’t think of another track that I have been to that does all these things so well.  It is a shining example of American ambition when it was of a more noble kind, and a shining example of American hard work and can do attitude and efficiency, and all of the things that as a kid growing up I imagined in my mind it was, and have found, now that I have returned, that often, inevitably, it is not.  I suppose it is a bit like an English child brought up in America and thinking of England’s good manners, and dress, and civility, and cosy fires in country inns, and red buses and telephone boxes. And after many years returning to find KFC, and Poundland, and tattoos and litter, and drunks everywhere, and traffic laced with swearing drivers…. But there is still the odd gloriously good pub. Keeneland is good, its intentions are good, and its actions are good. And its execution is brilliant. So I can tell you now, and I am sure that I am the first. It is a mere seven hour drive from heaven to hell. So I beg you please, take careful heed in which direction you are headed.
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The grandstand was built in 1895 and with it the two twin spires, a famous symbol known throughout the United States and beyond.

I tried to watch the Kentucky Derby. Really.

The first Saturday in May holds a special place in most racing fans calendar. The day of The Kentucky Derby. When Americans, who on most other days couldn’t care less about horse racing, go all in. Great marketing work from the track Churchill Downs. So great that racing people all over the world talk about it – although it essentially is a domestic American affair. But (and here’s the point) most of us folks outside the US can’t watch it. I spent several hours trying to find ways of watching this fantastic race day from our base in Europe. The tracks website? Only if you are based in the US and have an account. NBC Sports? I downloaded their App. on Apple TV full of hope – only to find that I was expected to prefer rugby from Wales... Racing UK? Showed re-runs of handicaps from a track somewhere in England. Dubai Racing TV? Nope... I googled and googled and all I found was obscure websites that wanted my credit card number and suggested I log in via proxy... My Facebook feed was full of people with the same problem. It was simply not possible to be a part of the build up that would lead to you ultimately placing a bet and generating revenue for the track and exposure for its sponsors. It is 2016. Red Bull invent new sports by the dozen and downhill ice skating and airplane racing is poured out on our TV’s and smartphones all over the world. But the most exciting two minutes in sport remain a local affair hidden from the eyes of the world. The good thing about this is that if racing can survive under such terms, the potential for growth is enormous! * PS – In the end I managed to see The Derby on a betting site ( after placing a small bet. But only just the race... nothing else.
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