I'm sitting in my office at my computer. As usual the kitty Maxie is on my lap. He makes it far more difficult for me to type when he does this, but I like having him with me, so unless I need a cup of tea or my legs and butt have gone to sleep, I don't kick him off.
It's 5 April. I should be at my Mum's house in Sydney. Yesterday, in any other year, I would have been busy at Royal Randwick working hard on Day 1 of The Championships and expecting to go straight on to the Inglis Easter Yearling Sale. This morning I should be dog tired. My neck and shoulders should be aching and I should have sore legs as a result of having traipsed approximately 10km around Royal Randwick racecourse carrying my heavy gear with me.
Not this year. I have to say that pandemics suck. Utterly! We, like many others, are effectively locked out of work while the nation and world tries desperately to control the relentless march of the deadly coronavirus. So now, like so many others, I am watching from afar while the Sydney Autumn Racing Carnival somehow manages to limp along without spectators and many industry participants on track. It's remarkable that our industry has been able to continue racing this long. Every day I expect to hear the news that it's been suspended as more and more major sporting and cultural events across the world are either postponed or cancelled altogether as countries try desperately to halt their outbreaks.
Yesterday I was forced to watch Day 1 of The Championships on TV rather than through the view finder of my camera. After the finish of the G1 Sires I admit I got cross and sulky. I probably muttered darkly something like 'eating batses was a VERY bad and VERY stupid idea' as I walked away from the television. You see, the legend Redoute's Choice had just sired the quinella in this race for 2yos. Redoute's died just over 12 months ago and we were all heartbroken. However his glorious legacy has continued to shine and missing that race, with King's Legacy (1st) and Prague (2nd) easily defeating the rest of the field quite frankly really sucked. I've followed both colts closely throughout their brief careers and of course I'd photographed Redoute's Choice for a decade at Arrowfield Stud and for most of his racing career. Both colts were consigned by farms I work with, in Segenhoe and Bhima, and were both sold at the 2019 Magic Millions Gold Coast Yearling Sale.
I cannot work from home. Well, truth be told, there are things I can do. I can edit, do book work (booooorrrrrrinnnnngggg), and tidy up loose ends as well as working on some creative projects I'm normally too busy shooting to even think about. But my camera bags sit on my office floor and my cameras are silent. My hard drives have stopped filling up and I recall somewhat sourly to when I thought less than a month ago 'goodness, I'm on my 9th hard drive for the season, 18TB of photos and it's only March!!!, this will be my busiest year on record!' Things changed so quickly in such a short time and I didn't foresee that all of this would happen. The Golden Slipper was the last raceday I photographed. I finished the yearling shoots I was booked for in NSW and Victoria. Even these were affected by COVID-19 because one shoot was curtailed a day, another we didn't finish and then every single Victorian horse I photographed was then been withdrawn from the sale because Inglis has been forced to hold the sale online instead of as a live auction because of COVID-19.
These images that I was prevented from taking are lost forever. I'm not like a journalist, or a tv commentator, I can't do it remotely. So when a raceclub retracts the carnival accreditation of almost all photographers it's all over if you weren't one of the ones selected, and seeing there was only 1-2 allowed the chances were never good. I can never go back and retake those pictures. The break in my picture library is irreversible. Ahhh.. I tell myself, 'it's just a horse race, it's just a horse...' in an attempt to make myself feel better. But truth be told, it does matter to me. I continue to tell myself 'at least you got to the Slipper, and got Farnan and Castelvecchio and in reality it is safer at home' but the next 3 weeks are going to be tough. And we've been stood down without pay by the Clubs and that's going to really hurt and I have no idea how long it will last.
Being a photographer I am often asked (or sometimes told) 'surely you have enough photographs?' This always irritates me. In my mind it's like saying to a trainer or jockey 'haven't you trained/ridden enough winners?' My job is to capture great moments, great horses, etc. And I don't always know what a horse will go on to achieve at the time I take an image. And that is one of the great joys of the turf and I guess life itself.
I wasn't always full time and this immersed in the industry. I started off, as many others did and currently still do, photographing on a very part time basis while I worked a 'real' job at CSIRO. I suspect that, if I'd been able to get in to CSIRO's Ministerial Liaison Wing under Marie Keir, which was the section I always wanted to work for, my life could have turned out very differently. While I was working at CSIRO I completed a Bachelor of Arts degree part time at ANU and I double majored in Political Science which I really loved. Unluckily for me there was zero movement in Marie's section during those important years. Then our beloved Chief Executive, Malcolm McIntosh, died of cancer in February 2000 leaving the entire organisation heartbroken and after his death CSIRO then went through a period of upheaval, including some fairly controversial and profound restructuring. I became pregnant and my son was born in late 2001. I took 12 months maternity leave and during this time that my section was completely disbanded because my boss, then one of four Deputy Chief Executives, resigned and became Vice Chancellor at a university and things were never the same after that because I didn't have a real job or section to return to and the last 3 years I spent working in isolation with the rest of my 'section' in Sydney.
My return to full time work was permanently compromised when my son developed Type 1 Diabetes at only 18 months old. Back then 'working from home' was well truly frowned on unless you were an executive and especially if you were female. It's a little ironic remembering trying to convince CSIRO I could be trusted to do a whole 4 hours per week from home without skiving off now, at a time when the entire nation is being asked to work from home during this wretched COVID-19 pandemic!! My daughter was born in 2005. Having two young children, one of whom had increasing special needs, caused my job prospects at CSIRO to dwindle. My position was eventually made redundant and I left the organisation at the very end of 2008.
I turned my hand to photographing horses full time when I wasn't with the kids and in the decade that followed I started doing a lot more bloodstock photography. In 2012 I managed to extricate myself from what is best described as a toxic and damaging relationship, and, with a lot of help from my family, my life and business flourished. By many standards I have been reasonably successful. My work is largely well received and I've been able to make a modest living from it. My work is best described as "niche" and at times "high end" but it's given me the opportunity to travel internationally and I've been fortunate enough to work with some of the very best racehorses and stallions all over the world.
For now we are continuing to try to stay safe and stay at home, be busy and productive. We won't be able to travel to the carnivals in either South Australia or Queensland like we usually would from late April to June because those states have strict border controls and quarantine orders and the Queensland Winter Carnival is also lost. Our trip to Europe this year is absolutely postponed because Australians are currently not allowed to fly overseas. At best we hope for a northern hemisphere autumn shoot but even that is probably only a remote possibility.
Moments like these can make me reflect on the dangers of being a full time thoroughbred industry photographer because all my eggs really are in the one basket, and the lid on my basket has been closed and someone took the key and lost it it! I wonder how long we will be stood down for? Can we recover? Will we be considered essential staff if racing does manage to continue and/or when it is resumed if it does get halted like everywhere else around the world? The breeding industry will continue but even this is filled with uncertainty as we grapple with issues such as will the shuttle stallions be able to return to Australia, will there be enough staff, will the farms and industry in general have any money left to spend on photography and marketing?
I hope for many things. I hope that CSIRO and our other research institutions will be able to discover a vaccine. That our industry and society won't be too smashed by the pandemic. That my children's schooling won't be too badly affected with my son trying to finish Year 12 and daughter doing Year 9. I hope she will be able to get back to rehearsing with the Australian Girls Choir and that my son can get a job after he finishes school and that we can keep our house and have what is left of our business stay afloat. I hope that no one we know gets sick and that our lovely friendly nation and world won't be permanently changed and that we won't be forever afraid to give someone a hug. And I hope that I'm not separated from the horses I love for much longer because otherwise fear it will become tempting to either take Freelance out of retirement or buy a new horse! However at 27 years old I'm sure she will think this is a really stupid idea and I'm 100% certain that I absolutely can't afford another horse!
Farnan (Not a Single Doubt x Tallow) winning the Golden Slipper on 21 March 2020
Alligator Blood winning the G1 Australian Guineas on 29 February 2020