A knock at the door shook both from their thoughts.[ paul’s letter probably needs to come before this and I need to add something to his story here about how he wrote the letter…]
“Who the heck is that? The dogs didn’t even bark. Did you hear a car or truck come in the gate?”
Nate’s wife didn’t answer, she was busy opening the kitchen door.
A small man, handsome but tired and hungry appeared in their kitchen. He removed his ball cap and twisted it in his right hand nervously. His left arm was held against his stomach, in obvious pain.
“I was wondering if you had any work. I’m a good hand with horses and I’m not above mucking stalls.”
“You’ve come to the wrong place son, we don’t have the money to pay anyone. Mother and I here take care of the chores ourselves. Plus, you look like you couldn’t do much with that arm all buggered up.”
“There’s at least 40 head here – you’ve got to need help.”
“There’s 52 head and fixing to be some more in a bit.” Nate said with a dash of pride.
“I’ll work for hot food and a place to sleep until you see what good I am. I can help you get some of these horses going and don’t worry about my arm. I can still work, it’s just sore is all.” He rubbed his shoulder and tried to straighten his arm without wincing.
“Sorry son, what I need right now is a good mechanic. That damn truck out there won’t start again.”
“Can I take a look for you?”
“You fix trucks?”
“No harm with letting him take a look?” Nate’s wife was pushing a cup of coffee into the young man’s hands.
“Thank you m’am. You are very kind.”
“Cream or sugar?” she asked.
“No thanks m’am, black is just fine with me.”
“Well, bring that cup with you and let’s go take a look at old Grumpy and see if we can get her started.”
“That’s what he calls the truck, and sometimes, it’s what I call him.” Nate’s wife smiled at both men.
Nate stomped out the door towards the old truck. “What’s your name son?”
“Paul. Paul Payne.” The words stuck in his throat and came out with difficulty.
Nate gave a quick jerk, then eyed Paul suspiciously “Didn’t figure it was a hard question Paul.” Nate opened the truck door and popped the hood latch. “I don’t care what you call yourself son, Paul’s as good a name as any I guess.”
Paul nodded in agreement, stepped over a battered barn cat lounging in the sun and peeked under the hood.
“My dad had just the same truck in Idaho. He had a hell of a time keeping the timing belt from slipping, sometimes it just needs a nudge, but it’s hard as hell to get to. Do you have a long broom handle?”
“This old truck is held together with baling twine and duct tape, now I’m supposed to get it running with a broom handle? Ah hell, just don’t break it, okay?”
“The truck or the broom handle?” Paul’s wry smile brought a laugh to the old man’s tired face.
In ten minutes time, with some grunting and maneuvering on Paul’s part, the truck was running.
“Back her up to the trailer over there and hook her up – will ya?” I’ll be back in a few, I’ve got to pull some leg wraps off some horses and throw some feed to the old horses out back.” Paul watched the old man amble off through the old barn stopping at every curious nose to give a scratch or a pat. A three legged dog of unnamable breeding hopped along snapping his teeth at the flies.
This was all that young and cute little gallop girl’s fault Paul mused. She’d mentioned the Hamer’s place when she was talking about all of the racehorses who needed homes. She told Paul a few stories about an old couple that re-homed ex racehorses and gave sanctuary to some too crippled or cranky or crazy to adopt out. She talked about how the couple had weathered the storms of the years while other fancy horse rescues had come and gone. Originally, Paul had been bored by the discussion, he’d seen enough of the do-gooders in his days who vilified his profession and he hadn’t the time or the patience for them. But he learned that the best way into a girl’s bed was to listen and he had.
But the story of the Hamer’s and their farm got into his head and wouldn’t let go. He found himself thinking of them that night, and he couldn’t sleep. He thought about all of the horses on whose back he had made a living for as long as he knew. Most he couldn’t remember and a few he’d never forget.
He’d been feeling the itch to run anyway as his apprenticeship had neared it’s end. He’d also been entertaining the idea to stay put for awhile. It surprised him. But that woman with the loud squeaky voice who had pointed him out on his way back to the jocks room had sealed the deal. He’d never been that close to getting caught. He felt like shit for leaving Ann. He hadn’t planned to fall for her as hard as he had. He couldn’t remember a time when he had so admired and so desired one woman.
Not to mention the guilt. He replayed her wreck over and over in his mind. Him sitting on the track after being dumped and watching helplessly as his horse bolted into Ann’s. The sounds, the scream, the crunch he felt through his whole body. He’d sat in the emergency room after she’d passed out. He watched her. He wiped the track dirt off the side of her face. He watched the face of Jude Keenan as he rushed into the hospital. And now he was gone. Out of her life with no way to re-connect. Leaving had always been so easy, so freeing. Why not this time? Because he was getting older? Because he really liked these people or because he might be in love for the first time in his life?
Nate Hamer was finishing up his last bit of frozen waffles and savoring his one allotted cup of strong coffee when his wife presented him with the morning paper.
San Diego County Journal
TECATE, CA Hwy 188 was closed yesterday for three hours while authorities cleaned up after a tractor trailer wreck. The trailer contained 23 horses presumably headed for slaughter in nearby Mexico. Three horses were dead on the scene, one escaped from the trailer wreckage, its whereabouts are currently unknown. Six additional horses were euthanized for injuries and the remaining 13 horses have been taken into custody by the San Diego Humane Society. The driver of the truck fled the scene and has not been found.
It is presumed that a mechanical malfunction of the older tractor trailer is the cause for the accident.
The San Diego Humane Society is seeking assistance in finding homes and health care for the horses who range in age and breeds. Many of them are presumed to be Thoroughbreds from a recently foreclosed breeding facility in Temecula. Please contact the San Diego SPCA if you can help with the horses and contact the San Diego County Sheriff if you have any information about the driver of this vehicle.
Nate’s wife of 38 years took his plate and, against doctors orders, refreshed his cup of coffee. She sat down, folded her hands and watched Nate read and re-read the article.
He sighed “We don’t have any more room.”
“I know.” And she did.
“Where are we going to put them?”
“I have no idea.” And she didn’t.
“I guess the Bleau’s might have been serious when they said they’d send the broodmares to the auction if we didn’t take them.”
She didn’t answer, there was nothing to say.
“Those poor horses. What did they do to deserve this?”
Again, there was no answer, so she didn’t offer one.
“Well, let me see if I can talk Javier into hauling some for me. Maybe Tammi and her mom will be able to foster one or two. Do you want to go with to the shelter?”
“No, I’ll stay here. We can’t take them all Nate. You know that.”
Bug Boy An apprentice jockey who gets a weight allowance to compensate for his inexperience.” from the beginner’s guide to racing…..
Charlie Clahain was a trainer’s dream. Young, but not childish, well spoken, mannerly and talented.
The owner’s loved him and he sure could ride. As an apprentice, he carried 5 lbs less than the rest of the field but he rode even better than a pro – like a hungry pro.
With Charlie, you didn’t have to wade through the layers of complicated ego that so often surround the best riders and you didn’t have to fight for him with an agent. He was there to ride for you with a smile and an attentive ear. Charlie was a rising star.
The ladies loved him too. His boyish charm, strong straight teeth, tiny gymnast’s frame, and Irish accent had the women squirming for more of his attention. He had a soft voice and a giant laugh. He was small enough that weight wasn’t as much an issue as it was with riders older and taller than he was.
In the jock’s room, he was friendly and funny. The best jockeys liked the fact that he rode well and carefully – not like a lot of hungry, inexperienced bug boys who rode loose or took unnecessary chances with the owner’s horses or with other jockey’s lives. Not once had the older riders had to pinch him off or drive him to the rail to show him how the game was played. He avoided scuffles with other jocks and was respectful when appropriate. Everybody liked Charlie. Everybody hoped that he would stay around instead of drifting off to Canada or to the lesser tracks up north. He was smart enough to ride out his apprenticeship here in Southern California where the purses were high. Once he lost that 5 pound advantage, he may have to make other plans. He made friends easily and yet nobody knew where he stayed at night, which was usually at one girl’s house or another. Other than a good Irishman’s zest for Guinness, he didn’t seem to have any messy habits to clean up after or conceal.
Charlie ticked off wins at a respectable rate. He always gave credit to the horse or trainer and never dismounted without giving the male horses a good hearty pat or gentle kiss on the neck for the fillies. He was garnering a good reputation with important barns and showing no tendency towards billowing into an egomaniac. He took his successes as well as his losses in stride and racing welcomed him.
The Stewards, racing’s state employed umpires, had a responsibility to the betting public to ensure that racing was clean and fair. Every apprentice rider was scrutinized not just for his riding ability (or lack of same) but for personal habits that might make for racing scandal. They were pleased with Charlie. The one time he was called to appear before them for a horse that lugged out in the stretch and interfered with a horse making a move for the finish line Charlie bowed his head and accepted a three day suspension without protest. Even if it was obvious from the replay tapes that Charlie’s horse was tired and that Charlie did all that his 108 pound body could do to maintain a straight course, the impeding cost the betting public an honest win and the Stewards couldn’t let such things go.
During his suspension, Charlie disappeared without a trace. Most sidelined riders hang around the barns or the races, garnering business and complaining about being wronged by the Stewards. Not Charlie. No phone call to his agent, no whining, no walking around the barns kicking dirt – no Charlie at all.
Racing has a tremendous ability to forget those who are not in attendance and not many people worried much about it. Charlie took a full two weeks to re-appear, and with him returned his smile, his laugh and his riding talent. He neither apologized nor explained anything to anyone including his exasperated agent. He resumed riding and winning at a fair clip. Soon, Charlie was very close to losing his apprentice status and several owners, trainers and girls were anxious to know if he planned to stay in Southern California for the summer meet at Del Mar. Charlie managed to duck all of the questions and charmed his way out of long term entanglements with the owners, the trainers and women. When he was only five wins away from “losing the bug” Charlie was involved in a nasty spill and broke three ribs and his collar-bone. The ambulance delivered him to the hospital on a Friday afternoon and by Saturday morning, Charlie had vanished.
Only a couple of grooms knew Roxy was sleeping in one of the rooms above barn 104 since she’d left Tony. She’d scrubbed the urine and beer smells from the floors and borrowed a cot. She’d salvaged two sawhorses and a slab of plywood to place on top for a worktable. Light was a problem. The small barred window let in little daylight and the overhead bulb with it’s stark fluorescent glare threw dark shadows. She’d purchased an outdoor flood light from the local hardware store and other than the uncomfortable amount of heat it generated, it worked.
Roxy unwrapped the block of new clay. She arranged an oilcloth on the table and switched on the lamp. She laid out her precious knives, pointed sticks, sponges and wires and set to work.
The wires would create the frame for her to work around. Finding wire with the perfect balance of flexibility and tension was tricky. Over the years. she’d tried all different gauges of wire and always came back to the wire that bound hay bales. Twenty years ago, hay was wrapped in three strands of wire. These days, hay and straw were almost always bound in nylon twine. She’d hoarded these now special wires in an old duffle bag for as long as she could remember. She took a bundle and started snipping off segments. She arranged them in a pile with some bits up to two feet long and others as small as 4”. Expertly, she began to twist them together and within minutes a stick figure of a horse appeared – neck, back, ribcage, tail, legs, head and even ears were depicted. Roxy held the figure at arms length, assessing – the back was too long. She took it apart and snipped a minuscule amount from one wire, reassembled it and was satisfied. She crimped the wire to indicate joints and parts where legs joined hips, where forelegs became shoulders. She used pliers to create the joining and the joints. She worked from memory and feel. There were no photos of horses on the walls, no models of horse skeletons to use for reference. Horse bodies were part of Roxy’s make-up. She knew their bones better than her own.
She took the clay, slightly warm now from the heat of the lamp, broke off a corner and rubbed it between her palms. It became pliable, softer and alive in her hands. She squeezed and molded. She wrapped the clay around the center wire. Too thin. She removed it, added more clay and repeated the process, forming the back, the legs, the chest, neck, head and tail.
Roxy played with clay since she was a little girl. She made forms with dough, with mud, with the colored plastic-like clay that smelled like crayons. She loved to squeeze and roll and manipulate. She’d tried art classes in school, but drawing bored her and painting was frustrating. She bought some books on sculpture 25 years ago and had been molding and playing ever since. She’d tried to sculpt faces and vases, even a bird, but all that ever came out was horses. She loved making muscles flow over broad backs and creating motion that trickled down the fragile legs but mostly, she loved carving and changing their expression. By swiveling the head or raising it a notch and making nostrils just that much bigger, she could change a relaxed horse to one on alert. By reforming the neck, the horse could become tense or angry. She could show agitation and then make subtle changes to show the animal in repose.
In this space, with nothing but the light and the clay wrapped around wire, she was quiet. She could shut the world out and nothing existed except what she was creating. If she didn’t like the creation she could change it and if she didn’t like that, she could destroy it. This treasured time was hers and hers alone.
Her last few pieces ended badly. She’d had a vision of what she wanted in them but what appeared didn’t measure up. There was no plan this time. Just a burning desire to build something new.
Now that the basic structure of a standing horse was made, she began to move it. It stretched forward – running. She lowered the neck and stretched the nose out. Nothing new – a racing horse. Disappointing. She thought there was something fresh in this project. She wanted to happen – something dangerous or fearful. She couldn’t tell what. It was a delicious and exciting burning in her belly that scared and excited her. She’d promised herself to let go and see what appeared. She craved an outlet for the angry and sad energy of her day. Something to take her mind off thinking of the enraged face of Jude Keenan accusing her wrongly after all of her herculean efforts to help – all of her help thrown savagely in her face. She hurt.
What was happening looked like a score of others she’d done. A horse, running hard, stretching. This was a handsome horse for sure. A male horse, a young stallion; thick in the throat and broad in the shoulders. He was big too. Long, athletic and mighty. Her hands reshaped the loins and she started the intricate details such as the protruding veins of a strong, fit and healthy racehorse. She formed the clay for the head, held it in her hands and began shaping it with her knife. He had a chiseled muzzle, she pressed and made the space between his eyes even thicker, his jaws fierce – definitely a young stallion. His expression emerged; his nostrils brought in more air than seemed possible. Her breath caught. She stared. She hadn’t expected it to be Invictus. But there he was in her hand, breathing fire and running. She committed to letting the muse take over. She made the ears slightly smaller and added bulk to the body. She shaped the legs – her mind not seeing, but feeling their shape, the definition of the forearm, the width of the carpus the curve of the sesamoid and the flatness of the hoof. She realized that tears were streaming down her face as she formed the stride she knew Invictus would never take again in real form. She reshaped the size of his chest filled with air that was fueling his muscles.
Where was Invictus now? At the vet hospital filled with tranquilizers as they filmed another angle of his injured foot? Standing under a horseshoer who was attaching an orthopedic pad to his shoe to support his injury? Pacing a stall oblivious to the pain as he tried desperately to figure out where he was and what his new surroundings meant? Packed in a horse trailer en route to a retirement home or euthanized and laying on a concrete floor awaiting the autopsy to determine the full amount of that crazy woman’s insurance settlement?
Where was Jude? In the arms of his Barbie doll girlfriend? At the bottom of an excellent bottle of scotch? At Ann’s bedside telling her all the news of how Roxy Ayers ruined everything? Life trickled back into Roxy’s secret hiding space with a vengeance. Tony, no doubt was fucking his new vet and counting all the money his new owner would bring him.
Roxy pushed back from her worktable. She wanted a cigarette. She wanted a joint. She looked at her creation and it was good. Really good. It was Invictus, in all his rage and power. Roxy thought about the wind whipping through her helmet as the track opened up in front of them. They were flying. Rather, Invictus was flying and she was less than a passenger, she was along for the ride like an uninvited guest. Roxy thought about the moment she picked up the reins. He stomach clenched. She swallowed hard and took the right front leg of her clay form in her hands. Roxy reached over and lifted the chin of the clay model just a hair. She sniffled once and with care and deliberate movement she placed her thumb on the right front knee and felt the wire give. It was bent ever so slightly back. A greasy sweat broke out over her shoulder blades. She had frozen the moment in clay.
Mercy Street snorted and growled all the way to the backside where she was expected at the test barn. Every vein in her body was visible beneath her sweat lathered coat. The groom, a strong and surly man managed her efficiently but was happy to hand her off to the state employed staff of the test barn. He took his seat on a bench alongside the wall and attended to the welt Mercy Street had raised on his arm when she bit him in the winner’s circle. It was already turning purple and the bruise would show through his olive skin for some time. He thought to ask for some ice from the staff but didn’t see anyone who was likely to speak Spanish and so he gave up the idea.
Mercy Street would be awhile in the test barn. They would walk her and give her sips of water as her body cooled, then she would be bathed in warm water and walked some more until her coat was dry and her pulse close to normal. Then she would be taken to a test stall for blood and urine samples.
While the other horses walked, Mercy Street fussed and snorted, pawed the ground and sweated. The State appointed vet on duty, Margaret Nehrlich was called when it was clear to the testing staff that the mare was out of sorts and possibly heading for distress. The staff did their best to get a heart rate reading on the animal who refused to stand still. Dr. Nerlich struggled to keep her stethoscope in contact with the mare’s ribcage, just behind her left elbow but Mercy Street cow-kicked violently at the veterinarian just missing her kneecaps. Maggie jumped away and signaled to her employee to keep the mare walking and offer her water. She pulled her racing program from her pocket and looked up the mare’s racing connections. She expected one of four trainers she knew to have low regard for the rules of racing and was taken aback to find Jude Keenan’s name listed as Mercy Street’s trainer. He had a good reputation, good owners and an excellent track record of little to no problems with the racing officials. This wasn’t making sense. Here was a horse obviously in metabolic distress and it sure looked like a chemical performance enhancement. If she gave the animal a tranquilizer to calm her and save her from obvious distress, her system would be contaminated with the tranq. She’d have to dive in and get the blood samples and hope that she wouldn’t get eaten alive by the agitated 900 pounds of raging muscles currently dragging around each of the test barn’s experienced staff. She’d have to hope that the animal didn’t get worse and that she could eventually get a urine sample. She let the staff know that she’d be back in a few minutes, she wanted to make a phone call or two before ordering them to take the blood sample.
Closing the door to her tiny office, she flipped through her stack of business cards in the old metal desk, found what she was looking for and placed a call on her personal cel phone.
Her old college buddy answered the phone from his van in Florida.
“Seth, this is Maggie calling you from California.”
“Mags! How’s that cushy desk job working for you? I’m still out floating teeth and sewing up cuts.”
“It’s fine Seth. Really fine. Sometimes I miss being out in the field but I’ll never miss 2am colic calls. I’m calling you because I know that you had a run in with some guys from Columbia that were suspected of using that crazy Frog Juice. Did anything ever come of that?”
“Dermorphin? Crazy stuff. Well, they weren’t able to catch the dirty bastards we suspected of it here, but I heard that the lab in Denver at the University has been able to test for it. Hard though. And those horses here ran like raped apes – could hardly get the horses back to the winner’s circle they were so hyped and it was like these jerks were laughing at us, they knew they had tipped the game. But once you see a horse on it, you don’t forget.”
“Really, tell me what they look like?”
“Sweat like crazy, eyeballs rolling around in their heads, won’t cool out. You go back and forth between feeling sorry for the poor beast and wanting anything to get away from them. They bite and kick and strike. Terrible stuff. I heard a bunch of match racing horses died while they figured out how to manage the dose. I can’t imagine what those poor horses went through.”
“Interesting. Do you know anyone at the lab in Denver?”
“Not off the top of my head Maggie, but I’ll find out and email you tonight. Sounds like some of those South American bastards found their way to your fair state?”
“I’m probably not at liberty to discuss. Not until I get a sample tested. Promise me you will send me an email?”
“Pinky swear Maggie. Happy to help.”
“Thanks Seth, gotta go. Bye”
She hung up quickly in response to the opening of her door. One of the Horse Racing Board’s investigators, a lazy bureaucrat she despised pushed his way in. Ted Knaak squared his flabby shoulders and puffed his chest to exude authority. “Anything I should know?”
“Nothing Ted. There’s a horse that’s acting like she has a painful tummy ache and I’m watching her for colic that’s all.”
“The boys out in the barn are making noise like we’ve got a dirty one out there.”
“We don’t have anything until we get samples tested and back from the lab Ted. You do remember the premise of the American justice system right – innocent until proven guilty?” Maggie had quit trying to be civil with this man months ago. Her bitterness seemed to have no effect on the man and she had the satisfaction at least of being honest in her dealings with him.
“Who’s the trainer?”
“I didn’t notice Ted, I told you, I’m busy dealing with a horse who looks sick. Will you please get out of my office so I can do my job?”
Ted picked the program up off her desk “Jude Keenan? Hmmm. He’s the one that had that horse drop dead on the track last week. And he just had a big fight in the barn with an owner. Security was there and everything. I heard he totally lost his head. Looks like he’s getting desperate.”
Maggie grabbed the program out of Knaak’s meaty hand. “Did I stutter when I asked you to leave my office? And by the way, get your facts straight, Keenan’s horse was in a head on collision, that’s why it died. It didn’t ‘drop dead’ as you say. As an investigator, you would think you would be more interested in facts than in rumors. Please leave now, there’s got to be something you should be doing.”
“Touchy touchy little lady. I’ve got my eye on you – don’t forget.” Inspector Knaak winked and backed out of the door.
Even in the best of times Mercy Street was a nervous mare. Perhaps she picked up on Jude’s agitation or perhaps the stress of race day was enough to send her into distress was anyone’s guess. Jude cursed again that Ann wasn’t around. At least one of them could be at the barn and one could be saddling this crazed filly. Jude did his best to quiet his body as he placed the tiny vinyl saddle on Mercy Street’s back. She pranced and kicked at him, just missing his kneecaps. He caught himself wanting to punch the mare in the neck. He glared instead at the groom who looked at him with a level gaze that told Jude he knew that Jude’s business was falling apart and that it was doubtful he would have a job by the end of the week. The man’s insolence further enraged Jude and he savagely cinched Mercy Street’s over-girth as tight as it would go causing the mare to launch skyward in surprise. He handed the blinkers to the groom who was struggling to keep the filly from crashing into the other horses already saddled. The man could earn his keep by putting the blinkers on himself. He headed towards the garden where he would meet the jockey, thanking his lucky stars that Abe and his group had politely declined to attend the race. Mercy Street was overmatched in a tough field – a long shot at 15-1. In her agitated state, Jude knew she would be lucky to come in anything but dead last. He refused to care but he focused on the task at hand to keep his mind off the picture in his mind of Invictus sweating in pain, his foot waving in the air.
Charlie Clahain sauntered into the paddock oblivious to the drama. Jocks are sequestered in the jockey’s room between races and word of the incidents with Team Bleau and Jude’s barn had yet to make its way to the jockey’s room. With his characteristic grin Charlie shook Jude’s distracted hand.
“How’s it going to go Boss?” Charlie asked. We’re a long shot, but shot all the same.
“The stupid bitch is in a mood. Keep her quiet as you can. She’s half way to washed out already. Don’t warm up too much, just get her loose and quiet and then get in front and stay in front. She’s only got cheap speed. Let’s hope the finish line comes before she quits.”
“I’d like to thank ye for ridin’ me. I know you have your choice of riders.”
“Yeah, yeah. Thanks for helping out and for visiting Ann. The least I can do is put you on this washy bitch. See what you can do. In fact,” Jude looked at Charlie for the first time “Ann and the barn really need a win. Just get it done, okay? For Ann.”
Charlie straightened the goggles on his helmet. “Bet the house on the little lass, I got this, and we’re gonna get some odds.”
Jude patted the rider on the shoulder then legged Charlie onto the prancing mare. Her blinkers were twisted, impeding her vision. Enrique grabbed the bridle rudely from the groom, straightened the blinkers, patted Charlie on the knee and winked.
What the hell, Jude thought and he made his way to the betting window. One last peek at the tote board showed Mercy Street at 18 to 1. He emptied his wallet placing $500 to win. He had nothing to lose. Enrique who had never left his side, shrugged.
Charlie did as he was told. They watched the TV monitors as he warmed her up away from the other horses cantering lightly and patting her sweaty shoulders. He found a spot in the shade not far from the starting gate and stood her all the while patting and quieting her quivering body. They saw her dilated nostrils flex and snort and foamy sweat run down her hind legs.
“She’s a wreck. She’s always been goofy, but I’ve never seen her like this on race day.” Jude mused.
“No se.” Was all Enrique could say.
“I’m looking forward to a great season. My NEW TRAINER is fantastic!” Lavinia’s voice carried like an arrow through the grandstands. Jude looked over to see her talking to an interviewer for the Racing Times with Clive Ullswater at her elbow looking dapper as always. Jude bristled at the sound of her shrill voice and walked away and toward the closest bar to watch the race.
Like the consummate pro that he was Charlie made excuses to ensure Mercy Street was the last of the seven horses to load in the starting gate. He pretended to need to adjust equipment, knowing that the filly would explode in the gate if left too long. Mercy Street loaded last and the gates popped open with a bang and a ringing of the starting bell.
Mercy Street ran as if someone set her tail on fire. Within four jumps from the start she was in front but running wild. Charlie placed his hands low and breathed deep trying to settle the filly into her stride. Instead of settling the mare dug in harder. Charlie looked between his legs and saw the field fading behind him. He parked his left heel forward and flexed both ankles deeply as he rocked his weight back hard trying to slow the crazed filly to no avail. There were more than halfway through the race now with only three furlongs to go and all he could do now was to avoid fighting the filly and let her go her pace and hope that field wouldn’t catch up with her before exhaustion did. Legs pumping hard and gasping for breath the little mare stabbed the ground with her hooves and won the race by eight horse lengths. Even after the finish line, when the mare should have been spent she fought mightily as he pulled her up. She clawed the air with her front hooves and shook her head violently. Making their way back to the saddling paddock the mare fussed and danced. He managed a look at the tote board that showed Mercy Street raced at 24 to 1.
He finessed her back toward the Winner’s Circle, with her slinging her head every time he used the reins to direct her. Her groom appeared and grabbed the bridle, the mare bit him hard. Grunting he maneuvered her to the winner’s circle where Jude and Enrique were waiting with smiles on their face.
“Charlie my man – what did you do? She’s never run like that before!”
“I told you I had this – we did it for Ann.” Charlie leaned over the dancing mare’s neck and kissed her just as the photographer snapped the photo. He jumped off the horse and patted her again off as the paddock judge affixed the tag on Mercy Street’s bridle indicating a trip to the test barn where samples would be taken to ensure that she didn’t run on any prohibited substances. His valet pulled the saddle from the sweaty mare and handed it to Charlie who proceeded to the large scale for a final weigh in to check again that he carried the requisite weight. As he headed back to the jocks room he found Jude Keenan waiting for him again.
“Looks like I cashed a little gamble as well thanks to you.” Jude beamed.
“Boss, that little mare would have run through a brick wall today. I don’t know what you did, but it worked.” Charlie bounced back towards the showers. A flash of blue caught his eye and he looked over his left shoulder to see a plump woman – an owner he assumed, standing with two security guards and pointing directly at Charlie.
“That’s him I tell you – his name isn’t Charlie Whatever – I saw him at that beautiful track in Mauritius a couple of years ago. He always kisses the fillies and he’s got that adorable dimple! He called himself Isaac Kane or something like that. I KNOW it’s the same guy!”
Charlie blanched white. Turning quickly, he did his best to walk casually back to the jocks room. He steadied his breath and nodded to himself. Time to invoke plan D.
As Mercy Street’s groom readied the jumpy mare for the afternoon’s sixth race, Jude and Enrique watched Invictus on his afternoon walk. Both stood silently studying the pattern of the footfalls, listening for the rhythm, eyeing the expression. Expertly, each took in every nuance of the stride and calculated in a horseman’s mind what it could mean. The horse darted belligerent looks at both of them swishing his tail violently and routinely snatching his head to pull his hot walker off balance.
“Did he eat everything?” Jude asked Enrique.
“He always makes such a mess flinging his food, you never know how much he eats, but it’s the same.”
“Do you think the new pads help his feet?”
The loudspeaker blurted,“20 MINUTE CALL FOR HORSES IN THE SIXTH RACE. HORSES IN THE SIXTH RACE ARE DUE IN THE RECEIVING BARN IN 20 MINUTES.”
Enrique looked toward Mercy Street’s stall. The groom was double checking the bandages and tucking the mare’s blinkers into the bag he would bring with him to the saddling paddock for the race. Enrique felt a pang of worry – the groom was thorough but his shiftiness bothered the sensitive mare. He thought about taking the horse over to the races himself, but there was so much to do here at the barn. He sighed and turned his attention back to Jude and Invictus.
“Think we run him here one time and then ship to France for the fame and the record books or do we try and catch a muddy track in Chicago for the big money?”
“No se. What does la Patrona loca want?”
“She wants what I tell her to want. Don’t worry about that. You keep this nasty bastard happy any way you need to and leave Lavinia to me.”
“I think he misses la chica.”
“We all do.”
“La Patrona esta aqui.”
“Well THERE you are! I’ve been waiting in your office for ages!” Lavinia Bleau was preceded by the yapping and snarling Jason under her arm. He squirmed and broke free darting toward the center of the walking ring where Jude and Enrique watched Invictus. Seven pounds of Jason charged 1,200 pound of Invictus who shied from the tiny snarling dog. Rearing and pulling loose of his groom, Invictus galloped down the shed row – his lead rope trailing.
“You stupid bitch!” Jude cried as he, Enrique and the hot walker scrambled to catch the loose horse.
Invictus bolted through the neighboring barn and out to the main road heading toward the back stable gate. Both Enrique and Jude could hear his aluminum shoes clattering on the asphalt. He kicked wildly at the flailing lead rope while snorting and screaming. Grooms from neighboring barns ran out to the road, their arms lifted to create a human fence around the loose animal. He stopped, spun and headed back the other way to find it blocked by both Jude and Enrique, their arms similarly raised, their gaze directly in his eyes. He wheeled again, trapped. He screamed in rage, pawed the ground and dared any man to approach. His hot walker made his way toward him, eyes averted, hands low. Invictus squealed and struck out a hoof towards the man’s chest only missing because of the quick reaction of the man. Invictus’s ears twirled round and round, waiting for movement from the humans who surrounded him. He growled, neck arched, head low, eyes alert. The hot walker approached again, reached his hand for the trailing lead rope. Invictus wheeled and kicked this time, his hoof finding it’s mark on the shin of the man who fell back bleeding. As Invictus faced the injured man, Enrique stepped in and grabbed the lead rope and touched the shoulder of the red demon. The horse pulled back his lips and bit savagely at Enrique’s face. Enrique stepped in toward the horse, rather than feint back and Invictus quieted. He was caught.
The other grooms dropped their hands and went back to their work. Invictus’s groom limped over and offered to take the rope from Enrique. Enrique told him to go back to the barn and tend to his bleeding leg.
Lavinia Bleu, with Jason in tow, tottered toward the group.
“Jude Keenan! Don’t you ever talk to me like that!!!” She was hardly audible over the snarling and barking of the dog.
“Lavinia, if you don’t go back to my office with that cur this very second, I will ban you from my barn forever!” Jude’s voice carried to Lavinia, but his gaze was locked with Enrique’s. Both were anxious to assess the damage that Invictus’s romp on the asphalt had done to his tender hooves. Both had seen him slip and slide as he galloped and spun.
“Well, you can yell all you want to Jude Keenan, because I was just coming over to tell you that I’ve been thinking since you killed my good filly last week and now that I see you hire hot walkers that can’t even hold on to a horse, I’m taking all my horses over to be trained by someone else.”
“I’ve heard that before Lavinia. Why don’t you just fix yourself a drink and we will talk about it tomorrow? Right now I have to see if your goddamn dog just cost us the fastest horse your daddy ever owned.”
“Oh God, don’t tell me that’s Invictus that your moron of a hot walker just let loose?”
Enrique had started walking the horse forward to keep him from rearing. His limp was apparent to all including Lavinia Bleau.
“Look, you’ve crippled him!” Screamed Lavinia. “I’ll sue you I swear! I’ve never had such an incompetent trainer. First you kill my good young filly and now my stakes horse is useless. I’m taking all my other horses from you right now and bringing them to Tony Montalvo.” She let Jason drop to the ground fished in her bag, pulled out her phone and started dialing as Jason ran around wildly lifting his leg on every corner.
“Security? Yes, this is Lavinia Bleu. I need at least four officers to Jude Keenan’s barn immediately, I’m moving six horses to Tony Montalvo’s barn and I don’t want any interference. Yes, immediately. I want them RIGHT NOW!”
From the loudspeaker: “HORSES IN THE SIXTH RACE DUE IN THE RECEIVING BARN IN FIVE MINUTES. THIS IS THE FIVE MINUTE CALL FOR THE SIXTH RACE.
Jude’s mind was spinning. None of this was supposed to be happening. He looked to Enrique who was leading the limping horse and looking to him to understand where he should go. If only Ann were here, at least she could go and saddle Mercy Street while he calmed this crazed owner and called the vet to see if Invictus’ career was over or if he just needed a rest. Maybe his dreams of running in the Arc or winning a Grade I race might not be over.
“Jude, security is on their way, get your boys to get all my horses out and headed to Tony Montalvo’s barn immediately or I promise you, you will be sorry!” Lavina spun on her pointy shoes and called for her dog.
“You stupid bitch!” Jude screamed “Can’t you see this horse is injured and needs a vet?” Jude gestured toward Invictus.
“My new trainer will handle it, I have every confidence and just so you know, I’m recording everything you say.” Lavinia pointed her cel phone directly at Jude.
“Mr. Keenan,” spoke the stable security’s head “I must advise you to turn over the horses and watch your mouth.”
“Lars? You’ve known me for years, you know I’m not out to make trouble, but this horse is injured and he needs immediate attention. Can’t you see that?”
“My job is to make sure that you deliver the horses to barn 48 right now and without fuss.”
“You mean you aren’t going to let me call a veterinarian?” Jude was incredulous.
“Mr. Keenan, I need you to follow instructions.”
“Lavinia, can’t you see that walking this horse across the entire barn area could cripple him for life?” Jude was pleading.
“I’m not talking to you Jude. You are mean and you are harassing me.” She waved her cel phone under her chins as she spoke.
Enrique and Jude locked glances, both sick to their stomachs. Invictus was now holding his right front foot off the ground pawing the air not daring to put weight on the foot. He was shaking his head and biting at Enrique both in agitation and in obvious pain.
“You get Tony Montalvo to get his ass over here this very second and fetch this horse, neither me nor my staff will take responsibility for moving this animal without an ambulance,” Jude demanded.
Lars Gideon spoke into his walkie talkie. “Jude, we’re sending someone over to get the horse. I’m really sorry about this.”
“You’re supposed to be on my side!” Screeched Lavnia at the guard.
“M’am, I’m trying to protect your horse. Mr. Keenan is too. And your dog is going to get ruled off if you don’t control it.”
Lavinia was enraged “I’m recording you too! I’m on excellent terms with the General Manager of this place and I’ll have your job by tonight if you don’t get my horses to their new barn!”
“Lady, I’m trying to, for your safety and the safety of your animals, I’m asking you to wait at Barn 48. Your horses will be there in a matter of minutes.” Lars was doing his best to control his anger, but the veins in his temples were pulsing and his teeth were clenched.
“You had better get them there NOW!” Lavinia glared and tottered off.
A crowd had gathered of course with all of the yelling and swarming of uniformed security. Among them was Roxy who was now alongside Enrique trying to steady the unruly horse who was nearly out of his mind with excitement and pain.
“YOU!” Jude screamed at Roxy “Get the fuck out of my sight. You got what you came for didn’t you? I knew I couldn’t trust you for a minute and now you’ve got it all, a brand new owner and congratulations bitch, now you have a giant cripple to deal with instead of a stake horse. Are you fucking happy?”
Roxy spun round to meet Jude nose to nose. “What the fuck are you talking about? I came over because I heard that Invictus got loose and now it’s all my fault? What kind of a crazed idiot are you?”
“All of Team Bleau’s horses are on their way to your sweet Tony Montalvo’s barn and don’t even try to pretend that you didn’t know about it!”
“Jude, I’ve taken your shit on and off for 20 years now and I sure as hell don’t know what you are talking about. I haven’t spoken to Tony in weeks and you know it – you think I haven’t seen you flipping through my phone to see if I’ve called or texted him? I told you I was done and I’ve galloped your horses and put up with your shit for no other reason than I’m trying to do for Ann Garrison what I know she would do for me. Well you know, there are some things even I can’t put up with and you are one of them. DICK!” Roxy strode away almost running toward the racetrack hot tears streaming down her cheeks.
Tony Montalvo pulled up with his veterinarian in tow, a young woman hungry for business and still wet behind the ears. “Jude, I’m really sorry about all this. That Lavinia is a nut job, I just heard that she’s bringing horses to me. What’s going on here? Lars just called and said that we needed a vet. And here she is, sweet as Georgia peaches.” Tony reached over and patted the young doctor on her rump, she blushed and swatted him away while she organized a splint and bandages.
“You, you guys are together?” Jude managed to mumble.
“She’s the one I’ve been looking for.” Tony beamed.
“What about Roxy?”
“Roxy who? Skanky bitch. I haven’t even talked to that crazy girl since she walked out weeks ago. She’s all yours pal. Now what’s the story with this horse?” Tony gestured towards the chestnut giant who was now sweating and exhausted.
“He’s the best horse I ever trained and I’ll just bet that he broke a bone in his foot 10 minutes ago. Your problem now bro, I gotta go, I have a horse in the sixth. Go and ask one of my grooms to bring the other horses to you.” Jude grabbed the lead rope from Enrique and handed it to Tony Montalvo. He put his hand on Enrique’s shoulder and they jogged off toward the track. The would need to run in order to saddle Mercy Street for the sixth race. It took Enrique all the strength in his body not to look back at Invictus.
Julie didn’t worry that she was running late. Lateness was a family value. She was surprised to find her father Clive Ullswater waiting for her at Harlow’s. He looked sleepy and she smelled gin on his breath when she lightly kissed his cheek.
“You’re looking well.” He smiled.
“Really Daddy?” Julie wondered how much sarcasm seeped through. As usual, it was lost on Clive.
“Because you were late, I went ahead and ordered for us. I got you some pasta the waiter recommended.”
“That sounds fine.” Julie eyed the bottle of wine on the table and forced herself to reach instead for the glass of ice water. She noticed her hand shook.
“Was there something you wanted to discuss?” Her father topped his off his wine glass and poured Julie’s a hearty measure. Julie sighed and pinched the fragile stem and sipped the wine then pushed it away.
“Nothing specific. We just haven’t spent any time alone together in awhile and I thought dinner would be nice.”
“Very nice. Harlow’s is one of my favorites.”
“I guess, you picked the spot. I think it’s too dark here.”
“I thought you picked it?” Clive engaged in the conversation for the first time.
“No, your secretary told me where to be.” Julie reached for her glass of water.
“Yes, she probably knows me better than anyone I guess.” Clive looked toward the kitchen, inhaled and without moving his eyes from looking over Julie’s shoulder he added, “I don’t think you should see that Jude Keenan guy anymore. He’s trouble and things are going to get sticky for him.”
“Daddy, Jude and I aren’t serious. He’s a good guy and he’s fun.”
“Listen to me Julie, I don’t ask you for much. Jude Keenan is an arrogant man who is asking for trouble.”
“Why are you all of a sudden interested in my love life?”
“I’m not. You just said that it isn’t serious, just stop taking his calls. That’s all. Is that so hard?
“Did he step on one of your friends’ toes Daddy? Did he win too many races? What’s the story? Are you going to do one of your famous ‘convince an owner to move their horses because someone pissed you off?”
“No, no my dear. The media and the animal rights folks need a bone thrown to them. They are all up in arms about that wreck on the track last week where the horses died.”
“And that wreck is Jude’s fault?”
“No, it was probably that cute little gallop girl he uses.”
“Ann? It’s her fault that she’s out doing her job and gets hit head-on and is laying in the hospital with God-only-knows how many injuries? Besides she’s his assistant trainer and just happens to be a really nice person.” Julie couldn’t believe that she was defending Ann Garrison at a table at Harlow’s to her father.
“Who cares whose fault it is? I’m just saying that Jude Keenan is in the line of fire. His big owner asked me about other trainers and I don’t want you in the middle if things get ugly.”
“Jude Keenan is his own man Daddy, he will come out of all of this smelling like a rose.”
“Julie, if you don’t listen to a subtle suggestion, let me just come right out and say it; get out of this guy’s life. ”
“You really do have something up your sleeve. What if I told you that I was in love with Jude Keenan? Would that make a difference?”
“Julie, you are acting like your mother. Be reasonable and listen to your father for a change. You have too much going for you to be caught up in this storm.”
“Too much going for me ‘eh Daddy? Like what? What do I have going for me? I’d love to know.”
Clive threw a haggard look at Julie. “Now you really sound like your mother. If you aren’t happy with your life, don’t blame me. I gave you girls everything you wanted.”
“If by ‘everything you wanted’ you mean vacations in Europe with a nanny, boarding school and a taste for expensive shoes, then yes, that’s exactly what we got.”
“Bravo my golden daughter. Yes, you are a victim of too much privilege and free time. Am I supposed to apologize?”
“ I would never expect an apology from the great Clive Ullswater.”
“Spare me the drama. Lets get this straight, you are to avoid Jude Keenan and his barn. Do you understand?”
Julie finished her wine, stood up from the table almost knocking over the waiter bringing their dinner. “Of course Daddy. Anything you say. I simply couldn’t live without your approval. Are there any more of my friends that you want me to throw over while I’m at it?”
“Julie honey, don’t be like this. Really.”Clive massaged his forehead covering his flushed face.
“Sorry Daddy, it just seems that I didn’t inherit your unique sense of loyalty.”
“Our dinner is here, just sit down and eat with me. We can do that can’t we?”
Julie sat down, looked at her hands in her lap and spoke between clenched teeth “This is the part where I cow down and laugh and we have a lovely dinner and some wine. You kiss me on the cheek and we go back to our cushy lives. Only this time Daddy, I’m not doing it. I’m an alcoholic Dad and worse. I’m a selfish, unhappy bitch with a hollow life. So I’m not going to pretend it’s all okay and for once in my life, I’m going to stand up to you. Maybe I’m doing this because I’m in love with Jude Keenan but maybe I’m doing it because there has to be something more to life than your schemes and my easy lifestyle. Don’t fuck with my friends Daddy or I’ll fuck with you.”
“Watch your words young lady. This world is bigger and more cruel than you know. You might think that you’re being a hero, but you are only getting yourself in over your head. If you need a cause to take up, make like your sister and volunteer at a food bank.”
“Of course, wash my soul in some volunteering. Maybe I could become a real Catholic and just confess my sins weekly and everything will be okay. Hey, maybe I could confess your sins while I’m at it and save you the trip?” Julie tried her best to manage her tone of voice. She hated being out of control and felt her anger taking over making her shrill.
“Julie, what do you want from me? I’m trying to save you some trouble and all I get is the mushy feel-sorry-for-myself crap. Pull yourself together. You’ve dated much better men than this horse-trainer.”
“This horse-trainer is a good guy, working hard, doing his thing. His staff adore him and he keeps his nose clean. You never hear of him with a shady deal or a dirty testing horse.”
“They’re all dirty Julie. Each one does what he has to to have an edge on the competition.”
“Why is it that you can’t believe that anyone is on the up and up? Is it because you can’t imagine anyone working for a living and doing their best? You can’t figure that anyone isn’t looking for the first chance to screw someone else over because that’s all that’s on your mind all the time?”
“Julie! Grow up. This whole business is about competition. Only the strong and the fastest survive. That’s all it is. Win. It’s not about how you play the game it’s how much and how often you win. Plain and simple. Jockeys, owners, trainers, breeders, gamblers – everyone. Every moment is about who crosses that finish line first. Nobody cares about the losers. And when the stakes are this high, when there are fortunes to be won and lost, it brings out the worst in people. I’ve been in this business too long to think that it’s about anything else.”
“You’re right. You always are. Guess I’d better figure out who’s winning and go and be with them while you ruin someone’s career. I wonder what you’re going to win from all this? Now that you’re too old to fuck the wives of jockeys anymore and I heard there’s a new boss coming in. When the new guy takes over – will you be a winner or a loser Daddy? And even if you win again, what will it get you? I’ve spent the last 24 hours looking at my life and making myself sick. Now I look at your life and it makes me even more sad. I don’t know what I’m going to do Daddy, but for the first time in my life I do know something, I sure as hell don’t want to be you.”
Julie stood, trembling and walked out of the restaurant. The valet dashed for her car when he saw her coming. “Don’t bother,” she told the valet handing him $20. “I’m going to walk.”
Metta’s legs were healing faster than Dee’s knee. The mare was steadily putting on weight, her rough coat was showing patches of a red gold sheen. Her hipbones were finally covered in flesh and her chest, once sunken and weak, was deep and defined. The oozing sores on her legs had closed but the scars would remain. Some scars would be strips of white hair, but several spots would never grow hair, just rough patches of gunmetal gray skin.
Metta loved Joey, her constant companion. Dee let them wander around the ranch loose after the kids left. After double checking the ranch gate to keep them from wandering onto the road, they could graze and explore at will. They did get in to mischief, knocking over trash cans, pushing open the tack room door and scattering the cat food inside. They ransacked Dee’s beloved strawberry patch, trampling the fence and the tender young plants. They loved scratching their itchy bottoms on the hitch of the horse trailer, once even knocking it off it’s block. Dee had to use the tractor to right it, but for all the trouble, she continued to let them wander free, unfettered and curious. It brought her peace.
The one problem – Joey was becoming useless for lessons. Whenever he and Metta were separated, they screamed for each other and Joey wouldn’t pay attention. This frustrated or scared his riders. Dee couldn’t afford to lose a good lesson horse. She tried holding Metta in a halter in the arena during lessons, hoping if Metta and Joey could see each other, they might relax. But Dee knew that she needed both hands ready to fix a stirrup length, tighten a girth or a million other things that a riding instructor needed to do. To try and do that with a fidgety and unpredictable mare was neither safe nor wise.
She promised herself that Metta was not to be ridden. The mare had more than paid her debts to humans several times over. But if she worked slowly with the mare and found out what the mare wanted to do, like most horses, she might be happy with a job.
She decided to train the mare in secret. She didn’t want the girls to get their hopes up that Metta may be some champion something as young girls do. She would go slowly and be willing to back off at any sign that the training was causing the mare stress. At first, she began by riding Joey and leading Metta. The mare came along willingly, even happily. Dee would stroke the mare’s head and neck and pat her shoulders and back. The mare let Dee’s hands go where they would but the mare’s held breath told Dee that she was working hard to bear the touch, she would not accept her touch as comfort. Dee backed off.
Dee missed her mentor Sela. Sela would know what to do. Sela’s father was one of the best Vaquero style reinsmen of his time. Her uncle was a horse trainer for the circus. Both were quiet, patient and joyful men. Dee sat on the porch, exhaled loudly, which brought two curious hounds to her side. She stroked them absentmindedly and channelled Sela.
“I can’t afford to just turn her out with Joey, one of my best lesson horses. If she’s going to stay, she needs to do something and I just don’t know what that is. After all she’s been through, I don’t want to send her away anywhere because she’s one of those hard luck horses that will haunt my dreams wondering where she ended up. She’s here for a reason I know. I just don’t know what that reason is.”
Dee didn’t believe in signs, but she wished for one anyway. She did her best to sit quietly, not even waiting. But it was difficult. Her mind would fill with all the chores to be done, the bills left unpaid, the things that needed attending to. Carefully, she breathed and she waited.
“I’m a creature of movement kids”, she told the dogs. Let’s get moving. If I’m going to have an idea, it’s because I’m going somewhere.
She saddled Ivy, called for the dogs and headed toward the woods.
The woods were glorious. Dee, Ivy and the dogs took pleasure in the crisp air, the soft gushy pine needles covering mud puddles, the occasional copper colored salamanders strutting toward the creek. Fat yellow banana slugs hung on shiny wet vinca vine leaves, their brilliant purple flowers dotting the hillside. The alien looking horsetail shoots were peeping up through the ground like asparagus spears and the world’s most perfect flower, the tiny blue forget-me-nots peppered the trail side for anyone to delight in. In the sunshine at the edge of the meadow, the ceanothus trees – the California lilac were close to full bloom. Their powdery lavender blossoms smelled like freshly laundered bedsheets. Dee inhaled and smiled.
The mare pranced, not sure what Dee might want. It was rare that they went out alone without a gaggle of kids along. She was a lead mare to be sure, but that also meant she was uncomfortable going out alone.
“No worries girl” Dee patted her on the shoulder. The mare snorted, snatching the bit and pulling hard toward the ground. Dee let the reins slip through her fingers, allowing the mare all the rein she might need. The mare jigged and Dee laughed. “Is it a run you want?” The dogs sensed the possibility as well and began jumping and spinning, looking at her with bright eyes and open smiling mouths. “Let’s jog across the bridge and have a go at heart attack hill – shall we?” As if on cue, the mare picked up her head, spread her nostrils wide and headed out at a brisk hoof-flicking trot, head high, ears alert. Dee kept her knees alongside the saddle and her heels firmly planted as it wasn’t unlike Ivy to spook and spin. The mare stopped short in front of the little bridge. She offered to spin and head home but Dee held her steady, facing the bridge. “You’re right friend, it’s too slick for a trot across, let’s take our time and walk, our gallop is around the corner.” The mare snorted, eyes wide. The dogs grinned from the other side of the bridge, begging them to cross. The spring run off was powerful and the water raged beneath the bridge muddy and impatient, crashing over downed trees and rocks.
Ivy locked her knees refusing to go forward. Dee instinctively closed her calves against the mare’s sides and the mare revolted, curling her spine and digging in harder. Dee normally rode with spurs so a well timed and well placed tap could communicate to the horse direction or bend – she had none today. Anger rose in her throat and she found herself growling at the stubborn mare. “For Christ’s sake you stupid beast, it’s a bridge we’ve crossed a million times!” The mare rooted at the bit, her ears spinning wildly around.
Dee inhaled slowly. Time and experience proved that violence against horses rarely produced good results. This mare in particular had a stormy fight response to pressure. It’s wasn’t a result of bad training, it was exactly who she was – strong, independent and stubborn. In a herd, these traits would serve her well, until a younger and stronger mare with the same qualities supplanted her position as protector and enforcer. What the mare needed was leadership, someone to trust as strong and courageous. While Dee didn’t feel either at the moment, she knew that if she gave the mare what she needed, the mare would reciprocate and what Dee needed was a gallop in the woods.
Dee hopped off, took the reins over Ivy’s head, patted her neck and led her across the bridge. The mare snorted and danced but kept an eye on Dee. With a grunt and a curse, Dee remounted. The mare was still agitated and didn’t want to stand still.
The release was sweet for both woman and horse as soon as they were galloping up the hill, bounding hounds in front.
Heading back home, the mare walking with long relaxed steps, Dee’s mind found the clarity it sought. The problem was Metta and what to do with her. Metta’s legitimate distrust of humans meant she would never be a reliable saddle horse. Her insecurity was ruining Joey, one of her best lesson horses. Luckily, the mare seemed healthy now that she had recovered a reasonable amount of weight.
“Nate!” She yelled out, surprising Ivy and the dogs. She smiled at her stroke of brilliance. Nate Hamer ran a rescue in the foothills above San Diego. It would be a haul, but she could adopt a young horse from Nate, something for Mary and Colette to train up and in exchange, she could convince Nate to give Metta a sanctuary running around the pasture with dozens of other retired horses. She’d call him right away. Nate never turned down a chance to give a horse like Metta a sanctuary. It wasn’t fair to dump the animal on the Hamers but she would relieve Nate of trainable ex racehorse she could sell the following year.
As if on cue Ivy rooted obnoxiously at the bit pulling Dee forward.
“Yup” she laughed, “a one year ‘project horse’ just like you Ivy.”
Clive Ullswater had work to do. He’d met with the group that was purchasing the track. He wined and dined them at an intimate Italian place in West Hollywood. There were always notable stars at one dark table or another and the group were thrilled to be in and amongst the famous and the beautiful. Clive knew they had a young and ambitious executive queued up to take his place but if he played his cards right, he could supplant the young interloper and stay right where he was. He just needed to find some hole in the upstart and exploit it publicly.
Everyone had dirt if you knew where to look. Whoring and some drug use weren’t interesting to racing. His own philandering was often enough discussed and tolerated.
A racetrack executive could be incompetent, as long as he was charming, he could be a tyrant, as long as he surrounded himself with loyal people. Like a thoroughbred stallion, he could be lazy, he could be malicious, he could be sullen. What he couldn’t be was female, of mediocre pedigree or homosexual. Nor could he be a gambler. Such were the rules of racing.
Clive had resources. Friends. He’d find something.
There were other things on his plate of course. There was talk in the barns of a possible deadly bacterial infection that might quarantine some prominent barns. Perhaps there was some opportunity there as well. If he could protect some key barns run by trainers and owners to whom he owed favors, his position would further solidify. He could leverage it to quell a couple of upstart barns as the same time. That Canadian barn was winning too regularly.
Last week’s morning training accident had brought out the animal welfare folks en masse. There were still a couple of diehard protesters by the south entrance. Racing never minded them much. They always went away eventually after their ire was spent or when they found another chalice to bear – some dogfighting scheme up in the hills or wild horses being shot for sport in Nevada. Racing had endured them for a long time and would continue to do so.
He’d sent a personal condolence note to that shrew Lavinia Bleau. He might have called but the woman’s voice made his skin crawl. He knew the Irish jockey was unhurt and he’d heard that Kenan’s assistant, the cute little hard body that galloped for him was hurt but would recover. But the local papers had a heyday with the story. He’d have to look into some damage control there. Throwing the media a scapegoat like Keenan would suffice.
He’d heard that Pete Stone died. Pete was in his riding prime when Clive had his first job here, as the young second in charge of the parking lot and program selling operation. Clive’s father wanted him to work while attending USC and had gotten him a job at this very track. Clive admired Pete’s verve with the women and his easy rapport with everyone at the track. And yet Peter Stone died alone in a trailer park. Clive remembered that there was a time when their wives were good friends. Until Peter got too old to ride and began to take any job at the track that would have him while Clive rose through the ranks of management. Pedigree counted.
Clive’s secretary interrupted his reverie with a soft knock and a stack of papers to sign. While he was signing them, she brought in a freshly brewed espresso and his afternoon medication.
“Lavinia Bleau left a message. She’d like to meet. And Julie called. She was hoping to have dinner with you.”
“She didn’t say, but I got the feeling she meant tonight.”
“Is it on my schedule? Did you screw it up?”
Zola Shanti didn’t flinch. In fact, she rarely did. Hers was a job that kept regular hours, decent pay and good benefits. She had, over the years accepted that her boss was a self-absorbed, lazy, skirt-chasing ass and there was power in accepting this and not letting it affect her life.
“She just called ten minutes ago. I told her I would let you know she called. Can I take those off your desk?”
“What? Oh, yes and hold my calls for the rest of the day. A man needs to think.”
“What should I tell Julie if she calls back?”
“Tell her to make a damn dinner reservation! Don’t you hear anything I say?”
“I’ll do that.” Zola walked not too quickly and none too slowly from the Executive office. The pointy heels of her shoes left imprints on the emerald green carpet. She silently closed the heavy oak door behind her.
At her desk, she divested herself of the signed paperwork, reserved a lunch table in the turf club for Thursday afternoon, sent an email to Lavinia Bleau to confirm and dialed Julie’s cel number.
“Julie? It’s Ms. Shanti. Your father would love dinner with you tonight and he wanted me to make a reservation at Harlow’s for you both at eight. Would that be okay?”
“Great. Thanks. Bye.”
Zola cleared her desk, made the dinner reservation and planned out Clive Ullswater’s following day. If she left now at ten minutes to five, she would beat the bulk of the traffic and be home in her Echo Park garden tending to her azaleas by 6pm.
The phone buzzed – she tapped the button. “Zola, there’s a Lavinia Bleau down here in the lobby to see Mr. Ullswater.”
“Mr. Ullswater isn’t seeing any appointments this afternoon, I’m sorry.”
Zola heard the Clive’s door open behind her. “Lavina? How simply marvelous!” Clive Ullswater twisted his dry hands thinking and smiling.
“Would you like me to invite her up to your office?” Zola tried to hide her surprise and aggravation. Her azaleas would have to wait.
“Absolutely Zola. Brew us some coffee?”
Zola sighed, informed the receptionist to send Ms. Bleau up the stairs to the executive office and started the coffee.
“Helooooo?” Lavinia Bleau rapped on Clive’s door. Zola wiped her hands hurriedly and trotted to meet the visitor before she opened the door.
“Hello Ms. Bleau, sorry, I was in the back brewing some fresh coffee for you.”
“Ew,I never drink the stuff , it’s terrible for my skin and it wrecks my sleep. What I need is a stiff gin and tonic, make sure it’s Old Raj or Junipero and not any of that cheap stuff. I’ll just be in here.” Lavinia reached past Zola for the doorknob.
Zola did her best to interfere, but Lavinia was determined. She braced for the reprimand that would surely follow Zola allowing someone to barge in to Mr. Ullswater’s office. She was again surprised to find Clive striding across his office taking this Lavinia’s arm and guiding her toward the couch along the side wall of his spacious office.
“Is it a gin and tonic you want? Sounds perfect my dear. Zola, call the Turf Club bar and have two delivered tout de suite.”
Clive turned all his charm toward the woman on the couch. “You’re looking well. What can I do for you?” Clive seated himself in his chair, stretched his legs and propped his crossed feet on the corner of his desk, fingers laced behind his head as he leaned back. “Or is this a social call?”
Lavinia squirmed with pleasure. Clive didn’t stop. He took his feet from the desk, stomped them hard on the floor and leaned in with concern. “Pardon me Lavinia, I’m so thoughtless, I should be consoling you for the loss of your filly on the track the other morning. You did get my note didn’t you? Was that one of the ones you and your father bred?”
Lavinia touched her lapis lazuli necklace and held it against her ample bosom. “Thank goodness no, she’s one that my father bought through that bloodstock agent at Saratoga. It’s so kind of you to comment. It must be so difficult to keep up with all of the news around racing.”
“Possibly darling, but it’s easy to keep track of the people I think highly of.”
Zola entered and left the office silently leaving a tray of two drinks, a bowl of nuts and a plate of cucumber and shrimp sandwich wedges. Clive proffered the tray toward Lavinia who imbibed heartily.
“Clive,” Lavinia chirped between bites and gulps, “what do you think of Jude Keenan? I mean really, promise to give me your honest opinion.”
Clive Ullswater again leaned back, placed the back of his head in his hands, stretched and propped his feet onto his desk. This…. This was going swimmingly.