Horses and jockeys against a Newmarket sunset

08th July 2014

“He promptly started to nod off!”: Ripley on photographing Big Buck’s

I am so excited to be showcasing my work in Newmarket in July Week particularly at The Jockey Club Rooms which has a fine collection of racing art. I will be unveiling my portrait of the best staying hurdler of recent times, Big Buck’s.

I got in touch with Andy Stewart when Big Buck’s retirement was announced and said that I would love to do his portrait while he was still race fit. He looked fantastic, particularly given how long he had been off with injury and and I knew that if I left it, he wouldn’t looks as good so there was a little bit of panic in my message to Andy. He was very kind and really loved the idea.

The team at Ditcheat were fantastic and bent over backwards to make it work. The first time I went down, things didn’t quite go to plan. Rose, who looks after Big Buck’s, led him up but he is so relaxed with her that he promptly started to nod off. I thought “This is the only opportunity I am going to get and he is falling asleep!”

I went back to the hotel I was staying in and went through all the pictures but I wasn’t happy with any of them. There were some fantastic poses but he lacked that certain spark. So I meekly rang the yard again and asked if I could come down and have another go.

I went back and it took little more than 10 minutes. He was such a good boy. Horse done, I then had to think what would be the ideal landscape to place him, what would sum up Big Buck’s and the horse he is and the scene of some of his great triumphs. I wanted to mark his big moments.

The horse is a complex shape to remove from an original image, and place in a new context seamlessly. There is not a tool fine enough within photo editing software to pick out the fine elements of hair, for example, automatically. The colour is so subtle so you have to be able to go back into the image and redraw it to make those elements fit into the new environment. It is not a quick process!

My image of another horse trained by Paul Nicholls, American Trilogy set against the background of Time Square in New York, was easier to create because the background is one single image. The pose of the horse is very traditional, referencing other classical equine portraits, but the background has lots of potential for fun. Although you will need to see the image at full size to see some of the elements I introduced.

It is about playing with the genre, moving from the traditional landscape to the modern equivalent, particularly the urban environment. You have so much freedom to play with this genre and I can see in the future that there are so many ways to produce really challenging images.

I am fairly new to this genre, but there are so many great horses that I would love to photograph including Frankel.

I want to do a big project that stretches what we think of when we think of equestrian art, to continue blurring the lines between photography and painting. I can see a stage where I start to introduce the people who care for the animals. If you look at the grooms in 19th century art, they are beautifully dressed in livery. I can see a real challenge in how modern dress can match the magnificence of the animal.

Ripley’s equestrian portraiture can be viewed at