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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

An Interview with Racecourse Photographer Francesca Altoft

Who needs higher eduation when you have the chance to

take photographs of the sport you love?

'I refused to go to university as I already had a job offer doing racing photography, much to my school’s dismay,’ explains Francesca Altoft with absolutely no regret. Instead of continuing her education, Francesca followed her dream of taking photographs on as many racecourses as possible.


Francesca, 27, is currently course photographer at Salisbury, Exeter, Huntingdon, Wincanton and Cheltenham. She takes beautiful shots of horses and humans alike, capturing many memories. In bringing her passion of photography to the people within racing, she is a shining star with a bright future. Testament to her talent, Francesca was nominated for the Horse Writers and Photographers Association’s Photographer of the Year in 2018 and won HWPA Picture of the Year two years in a row, in 2020 and 2021.

  Originally from Cleethorpes, Francesca now lives in Newbury, which is centrally located for travelling to and from the racecourses where she loves to work.

 

How did you start taking an interest in photography? When I was much, much younger, I actually wanted to be a jockey. But after a lot of visits to trainers’ yards and racing schools, I decided it probably wasn’t for me. One day, when I was aged about twelve, my dad, who has always been a keen amateur photographer, gave me a camera to use at Market Rasen and he never got it back.

 

How did this progress onto becoming a racecourse photographer? I went racing throughout secondary school, especially during the holidays and at weekends, always taking my camera with me. I shared a lot of photos on social media and got a message one day from Bruce from T4 Cameras in Swindon. He told me Gavin James was looking for someone to work as a runner with memory cards at Cheltenham. I wasn’t insured at the time so couldn’t go on track but Gavin got me an armband to work from within the public enclosures for the November meeting the following weekend. My first day with proper accreditation was the day Many Clouds won the Hennessy and I took the finish line shot that ended up being used in all of Newbury’s branding the following year. I had the bug by that point! In the next year, I did my first Cheltenham Festival and many other big meetings. I also helped out Steven Cargill a lot, which led to my first Royal Ascot.

In October 2016, Gavin retired from racing photography and I set out on my own. In the first year, I worked at just Newbury and Windsor but as the years went by, I gradually accumulated more and more tracks. Thankfully, I love driving as some of the courses I work at now aren’t exactly on the doorstep but I absolutely love all of them.

I had to grow up pretty quickly as back then I was pretty quiet. I soon learnt that if you can’t stand on your own two feet, people will walk all over you in this industry. If you ask anyone I work with now, they’d probably want me to go back to how I was because now I don’t shut up! 


What is your favourite racecourse? This is such a difficult question because I love all of the tracks I work at so much. Cheltenham is probably the obvious answer for its prestige. Salisbury is so friendly and I felt like part of the family there since day one. I’ve just taken on Exeter and Wincanton this season but I am having such a great time working there so far. Huntingdon is the course that keeps me the most fit with lots of running about! Huntingdon also has some epic sunsets!

Aside from my own courses, I love going to places like Kempton. I think the key to longevity in this job is definitely working at courses that you enjoy going to. I find that days at the races when you can have a laugh with colleagues and the racecourse teams don’t really feel like work at all.

 

What is your favourite race meeting? It’s got to be The Cheltenham Festival, hasn’t it? I actually do a six-day Festival, as I’m always up there on the gallops with the Irish horses on the Sunday and Monday, which is, by far, my favourite part of the week. Being surrounded by so many superstar Irish horses is just absolutely incredible and I love being able to take those photos for the stable staff and work riders. It’s not every day you get a photo of you riding your pride and joy with either Cleeve Hill or the Cheltenham grandstands in the background! Every day is different too, at the start of the week you have the horses for the early part of the week and by Friday you’re taking photos of horses that could potentially win the Gold Cup that afternoon.

I am like a kid at Christmas. My family, friends and colleagues are probably sick of me saying which Willie Mullins or Gordon Elliott horse I’ve seen that morning for six days in a row! It’s fair to say, I don’t really sleep much on the Saturday night before the Festival, even though I’ve been going to the gallops for the last five or six years now. The novelty still hasn’t worn off!

 

In your opinion, what makes a successful racecourse photographer? I find it hard to see how people could do the job without a genuine love for the sport, the people and the horses involved. For me, some of the best days racing are at the smaller courses and the quieter days. There are plenty of bad days where you are standing out in the middle of the course in the rain, wind and cold but it’s definitely more bearable if you have a passion for what you are taking photos of. Getting to do the big days is just a bonus. I think if I had to give any advice to anyone wanting to get into the job it would be not to fixate on the big days, be happy to be at any race meeting at all. There are so many special moments and stories at the smaller race days and they can sometimes be as enjoyable as Grade/Group 1 days.

 

What is the best aspect about taking photographs at the races? It has to be the horses. I just love capturing the power, beauty and character of the racehorse. Every horse is different. I love knowing that my photos make people smile and provide memories that can last a lifetime – there’s something quite magical about being able to do that. I’ve seen people cry (hopefully with happiness) when I’ve given them a photo and the feeling never gets old.

I love getting to hear from so many different people. I love having a chat to owners and grooms about their horses and hearing how much they mean to them.

 

What is the worst?! The weather, definitely the weather. As a photographer, you often don’t have a choice but to go and stand out, exposed to the elements and we can often get absolute extremes of this. From boiling hot weather in the middle of summer to freezing cold and pouring rain in the winter! I always think as long as the cameras are protected from the elements, I’ll be okay!

Trying to balance taking photos and running my own business can be quite tricky at the busier times of year. I do all of my own orders and I like to put a lot of time and effort into them so it can be a lot of early mornings before race meetings to get them done! I like to think the care that I take shines through when people receive the photographs in the post though.

 

Where is your favourite place you have photographed racehorses? Definitely the Cheltenham gallops as I mentioned earlier. Ditcheat Hill also has to be right up there with the most beautiful places I have been lucky enough to photograph racehorses.

Which are your favourite photos that you have taken? I have so many favourite photos for very different reasons, but the one I first won Picture of the Year (above) with has to be the one I am the proudest of at the time. It’s of Paul Townend and the Gold Cup after he won on Al Boum Photo in 2020, with his reflection in the Roll of Honour. Winning that award meant so much to me because, up until that point, I didn’t really have any confidence in my abilities as a photographer and had a bit of imposter syndrome.

I also love the below image (below) taken on a stunning morning at Paul Nicholls’ yard in Ditcheat. It’s of Grand Sancy rounding the bend on that very iconic gallop!

What have been your best days in racing as a fan and as a photographer? I think my best day will always the last one that went by without any problems or messed up races! As a racing fan, being able to be at the Grand National when Rachael Blackmore and Minella Times won. That was a little bit of an ‘I was there’ moment, and it remains the one and only time I’ve been up to Aintree!

 

What other events have you photographed? Aside from racing, I did Blenheim Horse Trials when it was run by The Jockey Club. That was my first taste of eventing and, while it was four very long days, I had great fun.

I’m a massive Formula 1 fan and I would love the opportunity to photograph motorsport. Never say never!


What is the best time of day and weather for photography? You can’t beat a crisp winter’s day with blue skies and sun! I do love photographing when the sun gets a little lower in the sky too.

 

What does photography mean to you? I’m so lucky to have found a career doing something I love, so it really does mean the world to me. I’m lucky that through photography and racing, I have made some of the best friends and met some amazing people and horses. I’m very lucky to work for and with the people that I do. To go from a racing mad little girl to getting to work alongside the very same people and horses on a day-to-day basis is just incredible.

 

Other interests: F1 – I’m a massive Lewis Hamilton fan. I go to Silverstone every year; although now he’s moving to Ferrari, I might have to book a trip to Monza. I’m a West Ham fan, which will probably lose me a lot of followers!

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of all things Disney and pretty much every holiday is something Disney related – it’s a little bit of an escape from what can be a very intense life being self-employed!

If I’m not racing or editing photos, I can usually be found with my nose stuck in a book. I also love going to the theatre. So, basically, anything that offers a bit of escapism!

Francesca at Royal Ascot '23, battling the winter rain and escaping into Disney

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