Everything in horse racing happens fast. History can be made in a matter of seconds, races can be won or lost in the last few strides, and in mere moments, a dream that was seemingly crushed can be achieved.
When asking the casual horse racing fan what type of people keep our sport alive, most will reply with “trainers, jockeys, owners, and bettors”. Few will mention the importance of horse racing’s photographers despite the fact that they have one of the most important jobs of all: photographers are responsible for documenting the history of the sport as it unravels before them.
Photographers are the ones who allow us to see every aspect of the racing industry, from the peaceful image of a mare and her foal in a paddock to the grueling battles down the stretch of a graded stakes race. When Dottie Miller, who has been a horse racing photographer for the past three years, was asked why photography was so important to horse racing, she solidified this.
“It captures moments not only in history but also many, many things the common fan misses during a race or never even gets to see,” she said.
Chase Liebenberg has been working as a horse racing photographer in South Africa since 2013. He believes that images are the best way to attract and maintain fans of the sport. “Horse Racing is a visually impactful sport and industry,” he said. “Images are the best way of grabbing a man off the streets attention to make him interested in racing”.
Casey Laughter has been photographing horse racing since 2015 after a visit to Keeneland for the first time sparked her passion. “I think it is very important [to give] the fan not only a memory but another vantage point,” she said. “I think documenting with photographs is just as important as television or journalism”.
Brad Conrad, owner and operator of Conrad Photo, also believed that photographing races helped keep the memory of the race alive. "I produce high quality win photos for my clients," he said. "These are memories for them. Long after the purse money is spent and the horse is sold or retired, the win photos will still provide memories for the owners".
Not only is photographing this sport important for a variety of reasons, it is also very difficult. Capturing a great photo relies both on skill and many different elements aligning in your favor. As easy as some photographers may make it seem, it is not as simple as showing up and pointing your camera at the action.
Brad Conrad described that weather can sometimes make taking good photos very difficult. “The hardest part is the adverse weather conditions,” he said. “We get used to working in all kinds of weather, but when it gets extreme with the rain or cold it gets pretty tough”.
Dottie Miller shared that sentiment. She also mentioned the difficulties of working with animals in a fast paced environment. “You don’t get a second chance,” Miller explained. “You’re shooting live animals travelling at a high-rate of speed. Anything can happen”.
Casey Laughter said that to her, the expenses associated with this aspect of the sport is one of the hardest parts. “The hardest part is the travel and the preparation. It is expensive,” she said. “ Also telling a visual story instead of just your standard racing photo can have its challenges.” Laughter also mentioned the importance of being aware of what is going on in the sport in order to get the best photos. “The struggle is choosing which horse to focus on, especially in tight races,” she said. “It also means deciding where to stand, who to follow, who to talk to, and more. Being in the know is very important".
Although being a photographer is hard work, it is very rewarding. Dottie Miller explains that being a photographer has been a way for her to make friends and connections within the industry. “If I did not start with photography, I wouldn't have met so many people within the industry and made connections in every aspect from hauling to training to riders to publications” she said.
Casey Laughter explained that her photography has been a great source of opportunities for her. “Photography has opened more doors than I could have ever imagined,” Laughter said. “I have photographed a Kentucky Derby, a Breeders’ Cup, and countless other racing events. I have met some of my best friends thanks to racing in general, and photography is something that binds us”.
Photographers work tirelessly, visiting tracks and breeding farms to capture the moments that keep the feeling of wonder and excitement alive within racing’s fans. Without their attention to detail, their focus, and their willingness to share their art with all of us, it is likely that our sport would have died out long ago.
By allowing people to see a race from a different vantage point than the TV shows, photographers spark interest in this sport. By spending time photographing a retired horse grazing at a stud farm and by capturing the quiet moments between a groom and his horse, a photographer turns that spark of interest into a flame of love for horse racing.
Support racing’s plethora of photographers by purchasing prints from your favorite photographers. Dottie Miller also mentioned the ability to use your social media to help your favorite photographers. “Sharing and commenting on our photos on social media is a huge help because it helps us reach more of an audience outside our own circle of friends” she said.
Interviewed: Dottie Miller - Head Photographer for The Racing Biz and Media Director for Phil Schoenthal Racing Stable Chase Liebenberg - South African horse racing photographer. Chase Liebenberg Design and Photography.