She's the official - and ace - photographer for Newbury Racecourse - known generally as 'Smiler'
Arriving at a race meeting last Saturday, braving some torrential rain and clouds hovering low on the nearby hills, a young photographer tweeted: "I've been coming here since 2011 and working here since 2014 and I still have to pinch myself every time I arrive...#LuckyGirl."
She's sure to be there early at Newbury Racecourse on Saturday, February 10 for betfair Super Saturday's great day of racing - and she’ll be smiling - as she always does. She just loves working - especially at Newbury.
She’s Francesca Altoft and she is the official photographer for Newbury Racecourse and Royal Windsor Racecourse. She is also a member of the official photographers’ team at Cheltenham Racecourse -where she was on that wet Saturday.
She has had her own business and the Newbury role since November 2016. She is 21years old. At Newbury Racecourse they are very proud of her photographs.
Before being appointed at Newbury she worked there for three years as the assistant to their then official photographer - Marlborough resident Gavin James. For some of the racing days during those three years, she had to take time off from school which, she says, did not please the school very much.
Her popularity with the authorities at her Lincolnshire grammar school deteriorated further when she said a very firm 'No' to university. They thought she could get to Oxbridge and be a feather in the school’s cap. Francesca wanted to take photos of horses: “I’m a pretty determined person.” “You made the right decision?” “So far it’s looking that way!”
Her parents have been ‘particularly supportive’. When she was working and was still too young to drive, they drove her to racecourses across the country, covering ‘hundreds of thousands of miles.’ Recently she’s been able to buy herself a pretty impressive car.
Francesca gets paid a day rate by the racecourse. She provides the courses with all the shots they need for social media, their race cards, marketing and archives. She retains copyright and sells a lot of prints: “It’s a good job to have - especially if you love racing.” She uses twitter to advertise her photos.
She still lives in Cleethorpes where she was brought up: “I had to convince my parents I’d had enough of dancing. All I wanted to do was go to the trekking centre on the beach and ride. From when I was eight I rode on Saturday mornings - every Saturday morning.”
“The passion slowly developed into racing - thanks to a few connections with people who owned racehorses. One owner asked me to represent him at a Market Rasen meeting - he had two winners and I had to collect the trophies. That cemented things!”
“I got more and more into racing and made lots of connections with jockeys, owners and trainers. Racing is my life nowadays - If I’m not working I’m doing something to do with the job and racing - I try to get to as many yards as I can.”
Now it’s the jump season, with flat racing continuing in Britain on all weather tracks. Newbury has jump and flat racing, Windsor has flat racing only. Looking out over the Newbury course, I asked Francesca which she liked best jumps or flat: “If you’d asked before I became official photographer here, I’d have said jumps. But after a season covering flat, I think they’re on a par.”
She has decided to split her jumps and flat work by season - so she covers no jump meetings through the flat season and no flat meetings through the jump season: “So I can do the whole year with a smile!”
It's not just a matter of taking picture perfect photos, she has to be in the right place at the right moment during a fast moving card of seven or so races. Some race days she will be on her feet all afternoon and walk about six miles.
For most races she will then walk out onto the course to the last hurdle or fence or the water jump. Then she runs and walks - as the crowds allow - back to catch the winner coming in.For each race she will be in the parade ring.
When ITV Racing are at Newbury and want a live chat on the course with the winning jockey, she has a little more time for her rush back to the parade ring.
Then comes the trickiest part of each race the ‘family album’ shot in the winner’s enclosure with the horse (who needs walking round and a few buckets of water thrown over him or her), the jockey (who wants to get off to weigh-in so as to make the presentation), the trainer (who is busy extolling the prospects of his or her winner to the press) and the owner - or, as it sometimes turns out, a syndicate full of very excited people: “You’ve got to be harsh but polite.”
It’s a one shot shot - the photo everyone wants - and there will be press photographers and possibly television cameras and presenters getting in on the act too: “I know now what the TV people want - and keep out of their way as best I can - anyway I’m good friends with the ITV racing presenters and cameramen.”
How did Francesca’s brilliant career begin? “Dad’s always been a keen amateur photographer and I’ve always had a passion for horses - from a very young age. One day I borrowed my Dad’s camera - and he never got it back! Then he gave me a camera and told me which button was which.”
She knows she is fortunate to be one among many racing photographers, but is a bit worried that young people are not making it their career. What would she tell young hopefuls? "I'd tell them to stick at it. People view it as a closed shop, but it isn't - if you're good enough and keep on the right side of people, you can make it."
She is completely self-taught. And she now has a bag full of Nikon gear which helped her achieve her favourite shot of this jumps season: Dingo Dollar flying over Newbury's water jump on his way to winning Newbury's St James's Place Chase on 20 December.
Trained at Barbury Castle by Alan King, Wayne Hutchinson took the six year-old to a fifteen length victory - despite a slipping saddle. The water jump at Newbury is directly in front of the stands.
And her favourite horse - she answers immediately? "One Track Mind". He is an eight year-old gelding by Flemensfirth. Trained at Lambourn by Warren Greatrex. He has won five of his 13 races.
Second favourite horse? "Brain Power - he goes for the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival." Trained by Nicky Henderson, he has won six of his 14 jump race. On January 20, in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot he fell when in second place and three lengths behind the winner.
As we sat chatting in the Newbury press box, it did briefly cross my mind that the name of her favourite horse might be somewhat appropriate for Francesca too!
FOOTNOTE/SHOENOTE: At Cheltenham on New Year's Day Francesca took a one-in-a-million photograph during the opening handicap chase. As Daryl Jacob rode Vyta du Roc safely over a jump on their way to win the race by 22 lengths, the nine year-old lost a shoe - and there it is in the photo - flying behind them.
The shoe was picked up by Ian Kingston, a regular fence attendant at the course. Now Francesca's photo, the shoe and some key autographs will be combined in a frame to make a unique piece of racing memorabilia.
With the agreement of all concerned - including Vyta du Roc's trainer Nicky Henderson and owners Simon Munir & Isaac Souede - it will be given to the Greatwood charity to be auctioned at their Newbury race day on March 3.
LATE NEWS: It was learned this week that just after being entered for this year's Grand National, Vyta du Roc suffered a bout of colic. Nicky Henderson says "He will need up to seven to fourteen days on the easy list, which is not ideal in the lead up to preparing for the Grand National."