The Sport of Kings

The races are back! Yorkshire has so many racecourses that I have lost count – York, Ripon, Richmond, Doncaster, and Beverley. Maybe others. A fine day, brisk breeze and the horse boxes are lining the road outside the Beverley course. There are ugly dogs, fortunately loved by their owners. I see them parading the streets of Beverley on market days, but it is hard to find an ugly horse. In summer they are so sleek, mostly the colour of chestnuts, a dark shiny brown, but there are a few motley greys and occasionally a black or a light brown one. Their legs are so spindly that one fears they will snap.

In our motor obsessed times, it is easy to forget that 120 years ago there was hardly a motor car on the road and that the power of the first independently moving carts was measured by the number of horses needed to pull them. You could buy a motor car which had the power of six, or ten horses to pull a certain weight. I seem to remember that my father had a second-hand blue and white car twelve horsepower one with mahogany trimmings. These new vehicles took on the status of horsepower that had existed for centuries, though without the range,  flexibility and variety of the horse world. There one could choose the sort of horse one could afford, from tiny Shetland pony for the children to learn on or to pull a trap, to the thoroughbred for rapid transit from one place to another. Could a handsome man stepping out of a car ever rival Mr Rochester pulling his steed back on its hind legs to avoid Jane Eyre, who was trudging along the muddy track to become his illegitimate daughter’s governess?

Think of the sleek racing cars moaning around the Silverstone course. Impressive, certainly, as inanimate objects designed for speed. But can the moan of engines on tarmac rival the snorts and rhythmic thud of hooves on turf? Animal and car alike jostle for the inside position to race close to the railings as every yard or metre saved could count for victory. Then there is the thrill of betting – win or lose, it fires one up to cheer for one’s chosen animal as they gallop round the bend into view. Horsepower. The speed of animals who flee from danger.

Dogs became the first companions of our ancestors. They could both hunt the same prey for mutual benefit, a dependent relationship. But horses could speed up human legs, provide transport and widen horizons. Beautiful as racing cars can be, they lack the rippling muscles, quivering nostrils and the uncompromisingly living reality of a thoroughbred horse galloping away from some imagined danger or round the bend before the last stretch.

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