Picture the photo: my limp body leant against a motorbike, arch-rival Devan in a heap behind me, devastated to have lost her Mongol Derby victory. The perspective draws your eye from my relieved smile to Devan’s scowl. If it makes you giggle, consider the cheek of the photographer. The image tells of his detached amusement.
A one-thousand kilometre seven-day multi-horse marathon through Mongolia is coloured by the characters flanking your charge: six hundred sniggering marmots, twenty-five noble ponies, doting strangers, cackling stewards, grasses and a blue-domed sky.
In amongst this imaginary grand stand on the steppe stalks a singular witness. He is a background figure, as noticeable as a low-lying hedge on the horizon. Yet he frames your days, chooses your story, and sends you home with his record. He is the photographer.
I recall brief snapshots of Richard early on: driving over to get a close up of me entangled in a pony’s capsized saddle, an easy smile under his camera. Other riders treated him with half-bowed heads. It would be another 250 kilometres before I worked out why.
We met on the second night. My body had crumpled. He was edging round the tent shamelessly pouring cups of Chinggis Khan vodka when I overheard the doctor speak of Richard and the Grand National in the same sentence. Ignorance shook itself off like a wet dog emerging from the bushes. Our photographer was that celebrated jockey from the eighties and nineties, who won the Grand National twice, before I was born.
Richard Dunwoody. I wilted and looked at him afresh, questions flooding in. What was he doing here? Mucking in at the whims of the earth, when all the nation’s racetracks awaited him? This wasn’t the National, no, nothing like it. Was he in disgrace? He chuckled, seeming so calm.
The next morning, he asked again if I had fallen off.
‘Oh, you will,’ he muttered with a knowing look, ‘everyone does’.
The thought made me cross. A champion jockey predicting my downfall? I made a note not to tumble and ambled down the horse line in search of my next mount, his camera tracking my onion-faced seriousness.
Was this worthy material? Fit for documentation by racing royalty, once the most photographed man in his world? I wondered how taking photographs rivalled the thrill of riding a winner.
Soon I learnt more. Injury forced Richard to retire from racing at the height of his career. I contemplated what happened to a champion arrested in his prime. Did his life enter a void, just as a river’s flow cuts out at a whirlpool? Apparently he trekked to the North and South Pole, and marched the same Newmarket mile a thousand times for charity. It must have been hard to settle after a life of leaping.
On the third day of the race, I told him I had named my gorse-hurdling ninth pony ‘Steppe Orchid’ after Dessie clueless that it was Richard who steered Desert Orchid to two of his four King Georges. He gave nothing away, talking conspiratorially of Devan instead.
‘She didn’t make it to station ten last night.’
All week he flung me dramatic one-liners.
‘She’s twenty minutes behind you.’
‘Put your helmet on, she’s about to get a penalty.’
‘You should be better by midday.’
That was when I was ill.
I had seen heroes in the newspapers and revered them at a distance, but never up close. Quiet, magician-like, Richard roamed the peripheries of my lonely race. I saw his camera as a metaphor for his ability to see beyond his vision. What drove this ghost who hung over the steppe, alchemizing my mystical experience into 2-D images for the 2013 world?
Photographing his own sport meant withdrawing and observing from a distance the ancient premise behind all horseracing. It has lead him to explore its incarnations beyond many a Brit’s imagination in Sudan, Afghanistan, and now in Mongolia.
His job is to portray the visible, but like so many photographers, his obsession lies with the invisible love, strife, misery, hope. This is the idea that the beauty of horseracing might be neither the gliding quadruped, nor the look in her rider’s eye, nor the thronging crowd, but the intangible chemistry between all three.
At dawn on the fourth day, Richard popped up to photograph me brushing my teeth. Was my llama grin symbolic of some deep-rooted ache? He seemed to take pictures of anything.
Here was the rift between generations. I am young and young can be daft, uninterested in toothbrushes and blades of grass. Richard and I passed like ships in the night, me growing up, flying for the finish, he growing down, back to earth, his two feet landed with a camera to hand. It takes courage to cherish the ordinary, the blades of grass as much as the humans upon them, especially if your first life sought win after win.
When I lost my map mid-steppe, I stole Richard’s. His face fell as though a potted plant had landed on his toes. I galloped away upset that I had no pictures of him for his one hundred of me. On the final day, he caught me aboard a bolting grey, my eyes falling out of my head with exhausted delight. I look like a hooligan. He gave it to the BBC.
He had his go at capturing me, now it’s my turn to capture him back.
I see him clearest on the fifth day, stood behind me when Devan tried to seize my chosen horse. He grinned as he uttered a singular line, tinged with the irony of his past.
‘Now, now. Don’t get competitive you two.’