The story behind the award
Cossack display snapped for a surprising success
Sometimes, probably most times, you just never know what you might get from a particular sporting assignment.
This is the story behind the story that was written, photographed and published in the Meath Chronicle on Saturday 25th May 2019.
Photographs from the event were used on the front page of sport on the basis that they were unusual and visually would make an impact on the reader (reproduced here).
Later, some 10 months later, the front page from that week was submitted ahead of the closing deadline of Friday 14th February 2020 for the annual National Lottery-sponsored 2019 Local Ireland Media Awards.
These awards honour the talents of the hundreds of journalists, photographers, designers and advertising executives involved in producing local weekly titles, both print and digital.
The awards were sponsored, for the third consecutive year by the National Lottery, but due to Covid-19 the popular event was initially rescheduled and then postponed indefinitely.
Eventually the winning entries were announced and a type of virtual awards ceremony took place late in 2020.
Word filtered through last November that the Meath Chronicle had won an award and the recognition has to be attributed to the photographer Gerry Shanahan of John Quirke Photography.
Getting back to the story in the lead up to all that 'hard work' that was completed one May morning not too far from the historic Bellewstown Racecourse.
The location was the almost secluded Rockview Stables, Fowlerstown for a Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) open day at John McConnell's training base.
HRI adopted a pro-active strategy in early 2019 with an invitation to all media to attend a series of open days at selected training establishments in each county.
The HRI initiative attracted enthusiasts to 28 training yards across the country with trainers opening their doors to the public as part of the inaugural National Racehorse Trainer Open Morning.
A response was duly supplied to HRI and the trainer selected from a list of about six in Meath was John C McConnell.
I had never met him and had only a vague idea of where he was located - he was generally referred to as a Stamullen trainer.
That particular week the newspaper had also received a request from a student who was looking for some work experience.
The student (Kristofer McCormack from Navan) was offered the opportunity for an early Saturday morning start on a trip to Rockview Lodge with instructions to stay close and see what opportunities might arise for a story.
Photographer Gerry Shanahan, who covers sport for John Quirke Photography, was also assigned and it was agreed that we would meet at the venue, somewhere near Ardcath and close to Bellewstown, about an hour before kick-off to allow time to formulate a plan of action.
The hour in advance turned into about 30 minutes after getting lost a couple of times and eventually ending up in Ardcath where directions were provided.
Early morning around the hills at Bellewstown racecourse provided a diversion from the usual weekend demands of standing on a sideline watching football, hurling, rugby or soccer.
For McConnell and his hard-working, friendly staff it was a busy morning as they completed their usual daily tasks and dealt with the questions posed by close to 100 members of the public who thoroughly enjoyed the occasion with the extra entertainment provided by Cossaack rider Sergiy Khimich from Ukraine.
Gerry Shanahan took the snaps and explained how he approached a task that was totally unexpected.
“When I arrived at John McConnell’s yard, I knew that a lot of photos were needed, as it was open to the public, under HRI Go Racing events,” said Shanahan.
“A highly unusual part of this was the display of Cossack Traditional stunt riding by Sergiy Khimich from Ukraine.
“As always with any shoot, especially sport, the usual questions arose.
“Where is the best light coming from? Where will spectators be? How far away will I be from the display? What is the display area like? Will the horse and rider be coming towards me or from left to right, etc?
“All these questions would determine my choice of equipment and where I would shoot from.
“As I didn’t know what his stunts on the horse were going to be, I needed to take as many photos as possible.
“I had a look at the area well before the display and decided to shoot head on, as the horse and rider were coming towards and moving away form me.
“That would give me two different aspects of the display. I also knew that they would be moving quite fast.
“I decided to use a 400mm lens at f4 to blur the background and it would also mean that I could shoot from a safe distance.
“I shot from a kneeling position to make the horse and rider look taller.
“I also took some shots when they were moving away from me, as he did a different routine.
“One of the difficulties was that the rider would be fairly close to me when he was stabilised on the back of the horse for the routine.
“That meant that I had to be very quick to get the peak of the action. At the end I was satisfied,” concluded Shanahan.
Technical: Camera Nikon D4; 1/1200sec; F4.
THE WORK EXPERIENCE GUY
Kristofer McCormack got the story from the Cossack.
The tradition of Cossack stunt riding originated in southern Ukraine, where Sergiy Khimich is from, during the 15th and 16th century by men known as Cossacks.
Originally used for military purposes as a training exercise and to allow Cossack men better balance and agility on their horse during battle, but the Cossacks also competed in horse shows.
For that they would develop new moves to demonstrate their skill and the discipline remains popular in the Ukraine to this day.
Khimich started stunt riding just after he left college and since then he has grown to become quite a talented rider.
He has performed both at shows in Ireland, north and south, and even in Australia.
Despite looking quite comfortable and fluent during his performance on Saturday morning, it turned out that his horse was new to Cossack riding having only started the previous week.
“I had to get a new horse as my regular show horse died at the age of 32,” he told the Meath Chronicle.
“The new horse only started practicing on Monday of last week and whether it would perform on Saturday was not decided until this morning after he (the new horse) started to show some promise,” he added.
Having a limited amount of time to train and grow accustomed to his horses isn’t something new for the Ukranian native who enjoys the challenge of a new horse.
Previously he had a mere three days to train with a horse for a show in Dubai after the original rider couldn’t get his mount through quarantine on time.
Outside of his natural talent, the Cossack rider matches up perfectly with the horse-focused direction at McConnell’s stables.
While the care and training of the horse is essential in any winning formula in horseracing, its only when you get to see behind the scenes that the point is really driven home.
The routine and treatment of horses at McConnell’s stables is similar to the care and treatment of a professional athlete.
THE SPORTS EDITOR
In my role as the Sports Editor I had the tea and sandwiches and made sure everyone else was doing something. There was also a brief chat with the trainer.
McConnell made the transition from life as a vet based in Kildare to a stable of more than 50 horses at an impressive base close Bellewstown racecourse where he had his first winner in 2005.
The journey wasn't that straightforward and took a route through Monaghan, back to a training base at the Curragh where his monthly rent was €3,500 before landing at Fowlerstown, Stamullen in 2010.
“I'm from Kildare, but moved to Monaghan where I had a horse or two of my own, but nothing really serious from a racing perspective,” he told the Meath Chronicle back in 2019.
“The man that supplied the feed for the horses asked me to train one for him and it developed slowly from there, it was for that owner that I had my first winner, Grand Lili in a novice hurdle at Bellewstown in June 2005.
“It got to the stage in Monaghan where I had 10 horses and had to make a decision.
“I made a move to Kildare and was paying rent for the yard there of €3,500 per month, that was arund 2008 and it was tough going.
“That wasn't really something that could be sustained and then the move to Meath was on the cards as Mark (Kavanagh) had this place and we were in business together anyway, so it was the obvious choice.
“I have around 50 horses at the moment spread across a number of owners.
“I like taking in horses and improving them, I also don't have any issue with going for the lower level races either here or in the UK.
“My owners just want to have some enjoyment, win a race or two, the standard of the race is not of major importance, it's just to get that winner for them.
“Crucially, I have good staff between full-time and part-time, they are all very young, but it's a good team and a happy working environment, that's important for everyone.
“This initiative by HRI with the open day for the public will be helpful, it was a good day which people seemed to enjoy.”
So there you have it, that’s the ‘hard work’ that goes into award-winning photo-journalism.