• Posted: Tuesday, 30th November 2021
  • Author: Jake Exelby
  • Photo: Neale Blackburn

Snapper Neale Blackburn has been a familiar face on the pointing scene for over 20 years. Official photographer for the South Midlands Area, he is also a regular visitor to fixtures in East Anglia and the South East in particular. Formerly an officer for the Metropolitan Police, where he worked in covert intelligence, Neale is possibly as well-known for his spaniels and “Matron” (his charming wife Jacinta) as he is for his images! Jake Exelby caught-up with him to find out about the transition from policing to photography, life imitating art and who he’d like to see smile more, illustrated by some of his favourite photos.

How did you get into taking photographs at point-to-points?

I’d always been into racing. My grandad was a stable boy in Stockport at the time Noel Murless was riding, then a kennelman at Bolton dog track. He taught my brother and I all we ever needed to know about betting – my brother ended up managing a betting shop, now I go racing and don’t have time to have a bet all day.

In 1998 I was seriously ill, had been off work for six months and was considering my options. A friend said to me, “You like horse racing – why don’t you go to Kimble and take some photos?” He saw the photos and said I should send them to Chiltern & Thames magazine. They published some… and gave me money. Blagging was probably the only transferable skill I picked up as a copper, so I went to Lockinge two days later then rang Horse & Hound, who printed some I’d taken there. I felt better mentally then than I had done for at least a year.

The editor of Chiltern & Thames asked me to keep going pointing and – as I’d taken a journalism course at night school – I replied, “Do you want reports too?” So I went off to become the next Brough Scott, started writing and sticking my nose in, got to know people and felt at home – not just at point-to-points, but pony racing, one day events and hunter trials. It was at the time two girls named Andrews from Hertfordshire were riding ponies with mad abandon.

What’s the favourite photograph you’ve taken?

I don’t know – I’ve taken about 200,000! The photo I’m most interested in is the next one I take. It’s like when you decorate a room and notice the joins in the wallpaper - when I look at a picture, I think, “I could have done that better.”

Seriously, I took a black and white photo at Edgcote last year of Luke Harvey and Ben Bromley when Gina Andrews just beat Ben on the line. The different expressions indicate just how much a £150 race means to the people involved. Luke in particular is doing it because he loves it – and that’s what I like about the sport.

Despair for Ben Bromley, joy for Gina Andrews

Do you make a living taking photographs at point-to-points?

No, I don’t make any money from it – if it pays for my diesel, that’s a good day. If this was my bread and butter, I couldn’t do it – I make money from weddings and football (Neale is also official photographer for Beaconsfield SYCOB FC). But it’s a pleasure to be able to go to places like Cheltenham and Stratford for what’s really my hobby.

Changeofluck taking avoiding action at Stratford

Who's inspired you most in the world of pointing?

On the photography side, John Beasley and Trevor Meeks, who was the Horse & Hound staff photographer.

Who have been your favourite horses?

I had a soft spot for Start Royal, who was a wonderfully consistent horse, whatever the conditions. And his owner Stewart Nash is such a lovely man – it’s nice to see people you like getting something back.

Broken Eagle was great – a spectacular jumper who stood off his fences and made good photographs. And Dabinett Moon – I couldn’t leave out the mighty “Moon”.

Broken Eagle - spectacular jumper

Which jockeys have you most admired?

Bridget Andrews was the most stylish, but I’d be on sister Gina if my mortgage payment was on the line. But anyone who’s prepared to take on three miles and 18 fences has my immense respect, from the rawest novice to Phil York, who’s probably my all-time favourite. He’s just as enthusiastic now as he was 20 years ago.

What are your favourite courses and why?

Guilsborough is beautiful and picturesque and Ampton is small and compact with a good atmosphere. I particularly like it there at the bottom of the hill by the church.

What have been the highlights of your time in the sport?

Gina Andrews riding five winners at Mollington, Alan Hill’s Cheltenham double with Harbour Court and Quinz, Phil York’s 300th winner at Kingston Blount, Gina again beating the record of winners for a lady rider in a season at Edgcote – those were all days to remember. I’m fortunate to work in the South Midlands Area, where we have plenty of milestones.

Gina Andrews celebrates a five-timer at Mollington

What changes have you seen during your time, for better and worse?

I like the Oriental Club sponsorship and think that’s positive as it offers good exposure to the smaller operators and I like the PPORA getting behind Novice Riders races. However, I do raise an eyebrow at the flat racing, although I admit that I don’t know the numbers involved.

I’m also a big fan of pony racing, as it gets youngsters into the sport and teaches them good habits and tactics. I’ve seen riders graduate from ponies to points and beyond – Jordan Nailor is a good example.

Pony racing at Kingston Blount

I appreciate that the world changes, but is it sustainable for pointing to effectively be the Conference (non-league) of National Hunt racing without the prize money? I wonder how long the hunts will be able to keep going.

What would you do if you were in charge of the sport?

I’m not really qualified to say and wouldn’t want the job – there are a lot of interests to balance and mouths to feed. But I do think we should do as much as we can to encourage the true amateurs with one or two horses.

What do you love most about pointing?

It’s like being a member of a travelling circus. You end up in a field with a bunch of people – it’s the same bunch every week, just a different field! I’ve developed relationships with people I’d never have come across if it wasn’t for pointing.

As for the sport itself, it’s being inside the rails hearing the hooves of a horse at full tilt followed by the silence as they jump, hoping I’ll get the perfect shot. I can’t imagine a better way to spend the afternoon.

Too Late To Sell and Katy Lyons in full flight

What do you think the effect of lockdown on pointing will be?

I’d have been more fearful if we’d continued without spectators, although I’m not sure how many owners and trainers have fallen by the wayside. Personally, I didn’t mind operating during lockdown, as it was easier to get around the course! Overall, I think the sport’s dealt with it very well.

What do you think of live streaming?

It’s been fabulous and I hope it will continue as it’s a way to grow the sport. When the weather’s bad, you can watch the racing without having to stand in the rain with idiots like you and me!

Sausolito Sunrise wins at a very wet Cocklebarrow

What are your non-horsey hobbies?

I love cooking and do it all at home – Matron went to the kitchen once in 1983, didn’t like it and hasn’t been back since. My first job was in catering but I didn’t like the long hours and low pay. My signature dishes are all slow-cooked – cottage pie, lamb tagine, beef brisket. I couldn’t cope on MasterChef – if Gregg Wallace told me I had 45 minutes, I’d go down the chippy!

So who would be your ideal dinner party guests?

Lester Piggott at the top table – he was the man when I was growing up. And Tony Benn – while my politics are middle of the road, people at extreme ends of the spectrum interest me, and particularly him, coming from a privileged background but very left-wing.

What are your favourite films and TV programmes?

I tease Matron that she’s watched every Scandinavian crime drama known to man. I’ve just re-watched The Wire, which is one of my favourites and I love the Sweeney, the most realistic cop show ever on British television. I had special dispensation to stay up late to watch it as a child. When I joined the police, I worked with the Flying Squad and it was like life imitating art – both the behaviour and the wardrobes.

What superpower would you choose and why?

I’d like to be able to fly, for the thrill of it, into the blue and towards the face of God. Maybe it’s because of my liking for birds of prey – I’m always taking photos of the red kites at Kingston Blount. But I’ve never wanted to fly a plane – I think the mechanics would let me down and I wouldn’t win an argument with the ground.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Jockeys. I appreciate that you like to look mean and moody, but smiling after you’ve won a race makes for a better picture!