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.