Cheltenham crash raises safety issue for photographers

Moment of truth: photographer Patrick McCann gets too-close a focus on two racehorses crashing out at Cheltenham yesterday
Moment of truth: photographer Patrick McCann gets too-close a focus on two racehorses crashing out at Cheltenham yesterday

For the second time in as many years, a sports photographer was seriously injured while doing his job at a top racing meeting.

Millions of television viewers watched in horror yesterday as the Cross-country chase at the Cheltenham Festival drew to a conclusion and two of the leading runners crashed out at the penultimate fence, with Racing Post photographer Patrick McCann helpless in their path.

“The photographer there dodged a bullet,” Channel 4 Racing’s pundit, Mick Fitzgerald, said over the replay of the spine-chilling incident. Because there is no dispute, McCann’s injuries might have been far worse.

McCann was attended by racecourse medical staff, who declared he’d suffered a serious fracture. According to the Racing Post, McCann is this morning “comfortable” after a night spent in hospital in Bristol.

Guardian photographer Tom Jenkins tweeted after the incident, “Just after he said a cheerful hello to me, @patrickmccannrp got wiped out at Cheltenham by a horse. Badly broken leg. Get well soon mate.”

Photographer Patrick McCann: recovering in hospital
Patrick McCann: recovering in hospital

Having two 1,000lb racehorses careering at you at 35mph can surely not simply be regarded as an “occupational hazard” for sports photographers. McCann was on the “safe” side of the track’s rails, seeking the perfect action shot.

But with racecourse’s rails now being made deliberately flexible and lightweight – properly to avoid compounding injuries to jockeys and horses in the event of collisions – they provide those working on the spectator-side of them with a false sense of “safety”.

Yesterday’s accident come s barely a year since another sports photographer – also positioned on the “right” side of the rails – was injured when a racehorse overpowered its jockey and reared into the spectator area. There have been other incidents recently when horses have jumped through the barriers, scattering everything, and everyone, in their path at high speed.

Sophia Brudenell, a spokeswoman for Cheltenham racecourse, told The Racing Post: “Patrick is a regular racing photographer who understands the rules and at the moment, as it reads, we’re not concerned with where he was standing. He was under the running rail and seemed to be moving away as the horses approached.

“Having looked at the images, the horse didn’t go over him, he brushed past him rather than trampled over him. The horses just moved to their left as they were jumping, Patrick was in that position off the rail, where we’d expect him to be. They did violently move to the left and Patrick felt the consequence.”

Steve Rose, of Getty Images, is a member of the SJA committee. “All Patrick’s colleagues wish him a speedy recovery and look forward to seeing him back at work as soon as possible,” he said.

“Looking at the pictures and footage of the incident, the photographer was clearly in an official position for photographers to work. I am sure that racecourse officials will look again at where photographers can work from. Unfortunately they may try to restrict access to areas close to fences.”

Steven Downes, the Secretary of the SJA, said, “Obviously, everyone at the Association wishes Patrick a speedy and full recovery.

“Photographers obviously want to get as close to the action as possible, whether they are covering F1 or downhill skiing, to get those pictures which we all enjoy and admire. But they need to be able to do so as safely as possible.

“The safety of our members when working at race meetings is something we will be taking a close look at, since yesterday’s was not an isolated incident. We have someone at Cheltenham today who will be discussing the matter with the British Horseracing Authority.

“Together with the sports authorities, we’ll examine whether there’s some way of doing things differently which will allow our members to continue doing their job but at the same time try to reduce the risk of this happening again.”


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