My driving instructor was going on about gees gees the other day. I’d let it slip that I was a fan of the horses and liked a punt. “It’s so cruel though. The horses bleed from their noses and suffer burst blood vessels every time they race.” “Well that’s not exactly true”, I said, struggling to maintain the correct line on Hemel’s Magic Roundabout at the same time as fiddling with the blinker thing. “And when it comes to the jumps, there are just too many deaths. I disapprove”. “Yeah, but things are improving, these horses have the best possible care - whoops!” Grinding noises suggested I’d engaged an inappropriate gear. Again.
It was no use, Guy had me at a disadvantage. There was no way I could refute his arguments whilst trying to turn off the radio turned on by mistake and peering through wipers set to intermittent on this beautiful day. (Overtures of Mike’s New car!: http://flimmr.passagen.se/movie/pixar_mike_s_new_car.action)
Driving for me is a bit of a saga. Truth is I’ve left it a bit late to learn. My overstuffed brain is a stuck in its ways and doesn’t want to pick up any new tricks. Like clutch control, for instance. It seems unable to communicate simple messages like STOP to my right foot. Or is it left? I’m outside my comfort zone inside that Ford Focus and I don’t much like it.
I tried learning to drive for the first time over ten years ago. Mrs A was expecting daughter no 2 and I thought I’d just hop into a motor, grab a few lessons and pass my test in time to be a useful 2nd driver in the family by the time the baby arrived. Well that little fantasy crashed and burned - not quite literally – one Saturday just before Christmas on the unsuspecting streets of Tring. “Never mind the handbrake! What about the f***ing steering wheel?”, screamed my then driving instructor. I was gently manoeuvring the car towards a small crowd of Christmas shoppers staring back at me with rising panic. Seems that my grappling with the sticky handbrake after a tricky uphill junction had knocked me slightly off course. Anyway, disaster was easily averted with a hasty spin of the wheel and we wobbled off down the High Street.
“Could you pull over here, please?” asked Pete in a much more civilised voice. I executed a perfect kerbside stop. Pete cleared his throat in a rather embarrassed way. “Mr Atkinson” (he always called me Dave) “I’d like to apologise. I’ve never sworn at a client before. Have you thought about learning in an automatic?” That was pretty much it for that set of lessons.
So back to Guy. Does he have a case? It’s a fact that on average one horse a day dies in training or on the course. That’s pretty harrowing. On the other hand, there are about 17,000 racehorses in training in the UK. They are bred to race. Without racing there would be significantly fewer horses. They are beautiful, magnificent animals that grace their surroundings and it is a privilege to see them in full flight. The vast majority are incredibly well cared for with excellent facilities and devoted stable staff. The authorities are incredibly hot on trainers who abuse or mistreat their horses. And casualty rates are declining.
I tried to make these points to Guy. “It’s a much safer sport than it used to be. Look how they’ve tamed the Grand National course”. He gave me a side-long glance. Yeah, but one death is one too many isn’t it? That was great clutch control.” I beamed inwardly. “You stopped to let that car through and moved off again perfectly. Only you were in second gear. You should have been in first!” I stopped beaming. I was never going to convince him that these sad deaths were the acceptable price we paid for the thrills and adrenaline rush of a spectacular sport. But it’s true that those running the game have been too complacent, too out of touch with issues of concern around rehabilitation, welfare and safety at the tracks. Mistakes are still being made.
There’s some way to go for the sport I love. Same goes for me and the driving. Inevitably Guy got the last word. “It’s just a too exploitative for me. Bit too many revs there, Dave.” A young Mum pushing a pram gave me a nervous wide-eyed stare as I raced the rpm counter through the 6,000 mark trying to make a gentle uphill left. I only want to drive so I can get to a few more race meetings!