Photographs by Michael Steele/Getty Images
Text by Ye Charlotte Ming
The Sandhill Racing Stables in southwestern England are known for being the home of Philip Hobbs, one of Britain’s most legendary racehorse trainers, who has more than 2,000 wins over his 32-year career.
But apart from the sheer exhilaration of the races themselves, what’s life at the stables like, day to day? Photographer Michael Steele set off to find out. He spent 10 months at the stable capturing the hard work that goes into training these world-class race horses.
A renowned sports photographer, Steele has always wanted to shoot a story about racing stables. "I have lived in Somerset in the southwest of England for six years, and this is an area where many top trainers are based," he said. "[Sandhill] ticked all the boxes I was looking for — variety of views, undulating hills, different gallops, schooling grounds and more than anything, I needed the yard to let me have freedom to work in."
Steele first started shooting in July 2015 on a day when the horses were being led back into the stables from neighboring fields after their summer break. Over the 10-month season, he has returned to the yard more than 70 times, photographing the training from all angles.
To shoot the horses from an elevated viewpoint, Steele arranged a cherry picker, but when that failed, he quickly resulted to building a 12-meter-high scaffold on the gallops. The outcome offers a rare view of the race tracks.
Bath time is one of the most photogenic moments to photograph in horse racing, and the October morning light and changing leaf colors only made the scene better. "It wasn't always easy to get a clean shot as several horses would be within a small space of each other getting hosed down," Steele said, "so it was a matter of waiting for the moment when horse and stable lass were isolated and against an uncluttered background."
During Steele's time photographing there, Sandhill's first jockey, Richard Johnson, was named the National Hunt Champion Jockey, a title awarded to a jockey who has ridden the most winning horses during a campaign season in the U.K. "His chance of becoming Champion Jockey became an important part of the story over the season," Steele said. Johnson played runner-up 16 times to the legendary Tony McCoy, who held the title for 20 consecutive years, but Johnson's persistency eventually won him the honor.
Steele said he was made part of the family at the stables, and "access all areas was never a problem." As a result, he was able to capture intimate moments that illustrate the close relationship between Johnson and his trainer, Hobbs.
The winter of 2015 was one of England's wettest winters in history, but that didn't keep the horses from exercise. Steele also became addicted to weather reports since "they weren't always accurate, and on many visits I was left frustrated by grey skies when the opposite was forecast."
"My sleeping pattern became rather messed up — 4 a.m. alarm calls in the depth of winter is not an ideal way for a clear mind at all times," Steele said. "This aside, the story consumed me, and it was always a pleasure to see the horses working out, and the incredible dedication of the staff, day in day out."
see more photos of the sandhill racing stables
Horses are rounded up from the fields after the summer break on July 13, 2015.
The second lot head back to the stables at Sandhill Racing Stables on Jan. 16, 2016.
The first lot workout at Sandhill Racing Stables on Oct. 20, 2015.
Conditional jockey Tom Cheesman leads Handsome Horace from a horse walker, where horses can warm up ahead of the gallop.
Horses are washed down after third lot on March 25, 2016.
Star Trouper is washed down after working out on March 3, 2016.
Conditional jockey Conor Smith heads out from the stables for third lot on July 22, 2015.