The Malone Column
Give Pat a helicopter over a horse any day! Even circuit-bashing is less boring
It’s almost thirty years since I learned to fly a helicopter and began the delightful business of boldly going where no fixed-wing could follow. I was constantly on the lookout for off-airfield opportunities: hotels, restaurants, fields, gardens — no friend was safe if he had a few flat metres. An early investment was a share in a second-hand Robinson R22HP which cost so little that my wife could not have objected even if I’d told her the truth (I once calculated that my portion of G-BNKX was worth one-eleventh of the whole).
At the time I was a junior executive on a Fleet Street newspaper where the newsroom had formed a syndicate to own a racehorse. There were dozens of people in this syndicate, and from memory it cost us each about £400 a year to indulge in the Sport of Kings as owners. Despite the fact that my interest in horse racing was to say the least circumscribed, I joined the syndicate with the intention of flying to the places where these beasts perform. Thus it was that with my miserable outlay, my eleventh share of a helicopter and one hock of a horse, when asked what I’d done at the weekend I was able to say: “Oh, I flew my helicopter down to Newbury to see my horse run.”
Most racecourses are keen to accept helicopters — raises the tone, don’t y’know — but getting the most out of horse-related aviation takes inside knowledge. Avoid, for example, flying to Royal Ascot. Quite apart from all the briefings and the hassle, they land you some distance away in the woods and you arrive at the course in the back of a Transit minibus, and where’s the percentage in that? Goodwood is better — you can land within view of the stand, puff out your chest and walk in nonchalantly, as befits your station.
Bear in mind, too, that you have to arrive before the racing starts and they don’t like you leaving until after the last race. Even with owners’ privileges giving you access to the paddock and all the best dining facilities, you’re going to feel trapped if the thrill of watching near-identical brown animals run round and round begins to pall. I recall a day out at Lingfield, in the Gatwick zone: flying time from Redhill, four minutes. Flying time back again, four minutes. In between… seemed like about a year. Before all-weather courses came along the Flat season started in April and ran to November, and while it was supposed to be a summer sport there were some cold and miserable meetings. I think I was at most of them. And here’s a tip — if you’re an owner, it’s important to remember the name of your horse. In the paddock I was asked: “Which is yours?” “The blue one,” I replied. “Not the helicopter… the horse.” And for the life of me I couldn’t remember. Its name was Mediane, you see, but in the syndicate we always referred to it as Fred, and when the question was sprung suddenly upon me, its nom de
guerre totally slipped my mind. “We call it Fred,” I mumbled, frantically checking the racecard. And as for recognising the animal by sight — get real. Depressingly often it was the one at the back; as a racehorse, Mediane was never very good at the job.
Of course, one always has to bet on one’s own horse, and gambling is one of the very few vices I have singularly failed to cultivate. Even when you get your money back — and I once saw Mediane place at Kempton Park, which sits underneath H9 on the London Heliroutes — it felt like I was exposing to unnecessary risk perfectly good money that might usefully be spent on flying. For the sake of form I would back the thing, but grudgingly. The turf accountant, noting my owner’s badges and the pitiful wager I was proffering, would lengthen the odds on Mediane as soon as my back was turned.
Even when the race was in progress my eyes would wander out to the centre of the course where the helicopters were parked. I didn’t mind having the cheapest machine in the field. They’re all the same to the innocent observer in the stands, so the fact that mine was worth about the same as the undercarriage leg of the 109 next to it was immaterial. I didn’t envy the life of the charter pilots flying the heavier metal either — sometimes they’d sit for the whole afternoon in the helicopter, totally uninterested in the racing. Bit like me, then.
With Fred performing mediocrely, visions of historic victories in Classic races faded to nothing and it looked increasingly likely that nobody was going to get any of their investment back. Even the most passionate members of the syndicate, the ones who signed up more than once for the day out to the stables — and if you’re ever short of something insanely dull to do, I can advise — started to flag.
So my racegoing ran its course. I qualified as a helicopter instructor and bought a half share of G-BROX to teach on, and instead of swanning off to the races on a Saturday afternoon I spent my weekends happily bashing the circuit at Redhill. Sadly, Fred went lame and was sold for a hunter, and although a sterling attempt was made to revive the syndicate with another horse, it came to nothing.
I wonder if any pilot feels entirely at home in the company of hardened horseracing types? I never did. The uniforms are wildly different — velvet lapels don’t suit me, and in a trilby I look like that bloke out of Madness on his day off. I’d hardly know a filly from a furlong, and I could never read tic-tac. Worst of all — and astoundingly — these people just weren’t interested in helicopters. Many’s the time I tried to inform them, backing up my statements with irrefutable statistical evidence, that riding a horse is thirty times more dangerous than flying a helicopter. Were they interested? Not a bit.
Slow horses and fast women I can cope with; otherwise sensible people who look at you blankly when you talk about flying are beyond the pale. Horses for courses, I suppose; I’ll stick to the course I know.
My portion of G-BNKX was one-eleventh of the whole Worst of all these people just weren’t interested in helicopters