From Golden Miller to Native River: happy memories for Cheltenham photographer
If Bernard Parkin thinks last Friday’s Gold Cup was one of the all-time greats, you can rest assured the titanic battle between Native River and Might Bite was a race for the ages.
Already a Cheltenham Festival veteran by the the time he became the racecourse’s official photographer in 1972, Parkin knows a thing or two about champions, with first-hand recollections of such legends as Arkle, L'Escargot and Dawn Run.
"Golden Miller’s last three Gold Cups in 1934, 35 and 36 were my first three,” says Parkin. “I lived on Evesham Road, between the station and the racecourse, so there was always a procession on raceday and I always used to follow them to the track when I was old enough to walk on my own and watch the racing down by the water jump.
“Back then footpaths criss-crossed over Prestbury Park and the public could walk over to the last fence, up to the winner’s enclosure and anywhere they wanted except the enclosures. It was like Manchester United in those days – racing was what mattered and that’s how I got hooked.”
“The first racing photograph I ever took was of Major Frank Weldon winning a Flat race in Malta in 1948 and, when I came out of the army, that’s all I wanted to do,” says the 88-year-old.
Parkin captured Cottage Rake’s third Gold Cup, along with all the action from the 1950 festival, on his “little box camera” and the rest is history.
In 1953 Parkin started his own racehorse photography business and allied with his handy artwork, the venture soon gathered momentum.
The Queen Mother, no less, was an admirer of his work and from 1961 asked him to photograph her horses when they ran. Then, in 1972, he started his 35-year tenure as resident photographer at his beloved Cheltenham.
“I think the most exciting time was in the early 80s with Birds Nest, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon,” he says. “It was much more free and wild in those days – it was magical.
“I enjoyed Desert Orchid’s Gold Cup as much as any but you couldn’t beat this year’s race – what a pace they went.”
Away from the great horses, Parkin, who became the first racing photographer to be awarded a royal warrant in 1991, an accolade he still holds to this day, recalls the events of March 15, 1977 as some of the most bizarre he’s seen at Prestbury Park.
“It was a dreadful day, pouring with rain and wind lashing,” he remembers. “It was about an hour before the first race on day one and I could see this tiny aircraft coming in to land on the prepared air strip at the far end of the course.
"But a gust of wind took it, pitch-poled it over and sent it cartwheeling across the track before it plonked itself on the running rail with its nose resting on the hurdles track.
“I thought it was a scoop and, by the time I got down there with my camera, the local bobby was wagging his finger at the groundsman – it looked like he was telling him you cannot leave it here!”
Parkin had his picture but the elements had left his camera unserviceable and, unable to cover the afternoon's action, he instead joined revellers celebrating senior jockey club judge John Hancock’s retirement in one of the track’s marquees.
“The picture never made the nationals, which was tragic for me but it was a very funny day and the camera worked again the next day, so all’s well that ends well.”
“I loved every minute,” he says. “I watched it with my wife Pam and on Gold Cup day with my daughter as well. We had a right party and I thought the coverage by ITV was excellent.
"In the evening we sat in our conservatory, which is right under the flight path of the helicopters leaving the course, and watching them go home we felt like we were amongst it.”
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