“Good morning Roxy.”
“Uh huh.” Roxy sounded terse and she regretted it. She promised herself she would leave her own bullshit behind and just do the job. For Ann, for the horses and she would ignore the fact that she was working for an asshole.
“You didn’t post the gallop schedule on the board. I left you the training charts.”
Roxy was busy pulling the saddle off a sweaty horse. It gave her an excuse to keep her back to Jude.
“I thought Enrique would do that.”
“If I wanted Enrique to do it, I would have given him the training chart.”
Roxy swirled around with a saddle in her arms “Look, I’m not Ann. Let’s just face facts. I signed on to exercise your horses and that’s it. I’m not your assistant, I’m just a fucking gallop girl!”
Both Roxy and Jude turned away from each other and stormed off to their neutral corners.
“Hey slim, what’s got you so pissed off? How many do you have for me today?” Charlie Clahain strode into the barn whistling and petting horse noses, his usual cheerful self.
“The prick is in his office and he’s got the training chart. I’ve got to get that Red MotherFucker to the track, so go ask him yourself.”
“You know sweet darling, I’m always amazed that you can still eat with that mouth.” Charlie flashed grin and whistled his way to the opposite end of the barn towards the office.
Roxy steeled herself for her next ride. Invictus was scheduled to work four furlongs on the grass. He was in peak running shape. It was critical that she allow him to run just fast enough to stretch his lungs and not fast enough to take anything off of his next race. Just a good strong stretch, not a blow out. But Invictus was breathing fire.
Invictus was already tacked and waiting in his stall. Generally, Jude would have a hot walker walking a horse on the work schedule for 10 to 20 minutes before he went out to work, but Invictus was so unruly it was too dangerous for man or beast to have him in the walk ring before a workout.
Tied in the back of his stall, Invictus pawed the ground and rolled an eye Roxy’s way. She reached to stroke his face and he drew back and bared his teeth with an open mouth.
“Fuck you, you big bastard.” Roxy laughed. “If meanness equalled run, you could run a hole in the wind, couldn’t you?”
Invictus swished his tail hard and cocked a hind leg and fired out at nothing in particular.
Roxy checked the tack expertly. Every gallop girl knew that a slipped saddle or a busted stirrup leather could mean tragedy. She checked the tightness of the wraps on the colt’s legs. They were wrapped perfectly, as well they should be for an animal of his caliber. They had an appointment to work on the grass at 8:35 this morning and timing was everything. She picked up his oversized platter shaped feet and sighed. The walls of his feet were brittle and shallow, weak and pale. How could these hooves support this giant and powerful body?
Leading the horse out of his stall was tricky business, you had to check and make sure that nobody was coming up or down the aisle, you went straight out of the stall and towards the walk ring, once around the walk ring and Enrique would take the reins while giving Roxy a leg up, all the while moving and then straight to the racetrack. Ann had given her strict instructions and Enrique had echoed the same. Roxy took a deep breath, unbuckled the colt’s halter and, realizing she had forgotten to look for cross traffic, led the red demon out of the stall on faith alone. Fate was kind to her – she encountered no traffic. She marched briskly around the walk ring as Enrique joined her. With no time to waste, he lifted her up on the muscular back and they were off to the track. The colt shook his head and played while Roxy sat as quietly as she could. Mustering every bit of calm to nonchalantly check her girth for tightness and adjust her stirrups to the correct length while Enrique, whistling all the way, hustled them onto the track. He took one look over his shoulder to make eye contact with Roxy, Enrique winked once, she nodded and he let go of the reins. The colt bounded onto the track flinging his head and grunting like an enraged gorilla. Ann’s words played in Roxy’s head – “don’t take a big hold of his reins, it’s what he wants you to do, just let him go forward and he will line out. If you start a fight with him, he will finish it.”
Roxy placed her experienced hands down upon his withers, stood in her stirrups and let her weight sink through her heels. Her lower leg pressed into Invictus’s sides and he trotted down the racetrack, head bowed, muscles engaged and as businesslike as any horse on the track. Roxy remembered to breathe. She jogged the horse, letting him stretch his legs and feeling his lungs expel and then rip the air from around him. She’d never felt such a powerful ribcage flex underneath her. His neck arched in front of her and the morning sunlight gleaned off his coat making it look even more like fire. There was a hint of tentativeness in his step and she remembered his feet. She looked up and saw the gap some 220 yards ahead of where they would enter the grass course and she could get him off of the synthetic track that caused him pain. The gap got closer and the colt got stronger. She managed to finesse him to a quick halt and turned him onto the inner course where the smooth green grass was maintained only for a couple of races per day and for the occasional morning guest, such as he was today. She nodded at the gatekeeper as she passed, when he went to wave, the colt leapt up striking and plunging, perhaps he thought the man was reaching for his bridle intent on denying him his well earned and much needed run. The man jumped back and Roxy held on for all she was worth praying that this tantrum would end soon. Every nerve in her body told her to take ahold of the reins and pull him into control and every brain cel in her body warned her not to.
Roxy could feel the eyes of Jude upon her from the grandstands. His binoculars were pointed at his prized colt and Roxy knew that she absolutely could not let this horse out of her control. Roxy’s pride gave her the extra fortitude she needed to stay focused and ride out the storm. She breathed as deeply as she could, ignored the beads of sweat forming under the brim of her helmet and kicked on, urging the colt to go forward on a long rein. He shook his head violently, daring her one last time to take up the slack in the reins and then headed down the track covering the spongy grass with bounding strides. Roxy still had half a mile to go to warm him up before she could let him run; with Jude’s binoculars watching her every move. If she could just keep him quiet and focused this would be easy. She eased the horse to the center of the racetrack and looked ahead for the smoothest path. The grass at the inside rail was a little bit rough and she glided him just right of the center of the track, each bounding stride getting bigger, each giant breath he took felt like bellows feeding a fire. The flames inside the beast grew with each inhale and Roxy tried to soothe them with the breathing from her tiny lungs. Invictus glided over the grass, his feet no longer stinging, the embers of his fire building. 400 yards to go until she could release this torpedo, if not at full speed at least enough to quell him. The colt lowered his head, trying to drag Roxy up onto his powerful shoulders, but Roxy was wise, she lengthened the rein even more letting his nose dip towards his knees. 220 yards to go and her thighs began to burn. She knew one move, one shift and this devil would throw his head in the air and bolt. She dug in and found the strength to keep perfectly still, her knees, ankles and hips all at the exact angle to balance this animal at this speed. He waited for her to close those angles, to give him an excuse to explode. The binoculars she knew were watching for what Invictus was waiting to feel and she waited. 50 yards to go – 12 strides, now eight and four and
She crouched just a whisper, the moment Invictus craved, the grip on the binoculars tightened and Roxy let the fire burn. Invictus took wing. His feet no longer touched the ground, the jerkiness that most horses achieve at speed didn’t exist here there was just air rushing by and green track unfolding in front. Roxy smiled in their weightlessness and the poles ticked by over her left shoulder. Roxy’s internal clock was precise and she estimated that each pole, marking a sixteenth of a mile was going by in six seconds plus a heartbeat, a perfect workout. There were only three poles left to go as she entered the final turn and she counted the seconds. They were flying by in less than five seconds each. Way too fast. In a panic she stiffened, took ahold of the reins and rocked back. The surprised colt was caught off balance and he braced and she felt it. Just one step, one bobble. Her heart stopped, her gut twisted. Invictus caught himself and steadied. No longer flying he galloped uneasily and crookedly across the finish line. The binoculars lowered.
Roxy never touched the reins after the finish line, she let the colt slow himself, she was too worried that any pressure from her would incur the limping that she was sure must follow. She never heard a crack and the colt never faltered, he just slowed. He came to a walk of his own accord and even stopped when Roxy sat on the saddle. He snorted loudly at the horses on the main track, shook his head and headed off the gap. Neither Roxy nor Invictus acknowledged the worker who opened the gate to let them off the track, both lost in their thoughts. Roxy waited for a limp, but it never came. Maybe she had imagined the bobble, or maybe his shoe had come loose. Maybe it was something that could easily be fixed and maybe, just maybe Jude didn’t see her pick up the reins. Roxy knew that it was all just false hope. She knew that something had gone wrong and it was all her fault. Enrique was waiting to take them back to the barn.
“I couldn’t see his work, but the clocker says it was really fast.”
“Too fast Enrique.”
Roxy saw Jude, binoculars in hand, headed back to the barn. He would beat them there and he’d be waiting. Waiting to hear how she had destroyed the best horse he’d ever trained. Waiting to hear her excuse about why she couldn’t listen to a single instruction. Waiting to tell her what a failure she was and how she couldn’t ride a lick. Roxy thought about jumping off the colt’s back and running for the ladies room. But the track was too small. She had to face the music.
Invictus carried Roxy back to the barn. She hopped off, not looking around while she unbuckled the girth from the giant ribcage.
“You looked pretty good out there. I didn’t think you could get him to the track, let alone to the pole and across the finish line. You went too fast for the first part but you managed to get him to slow down. Good job.”
Roxy froze. Didn’t he see it? She mumbled something that sounded like “Thanks” and went to put the saddle away, stopping to strip the sweaty saddle cloth and drop it in the laundry pile. Didn’t he see it? She peeked at the colt taking a long drink of water before he moved off to a warm bath. He had his usual mincing step on the hard ground, but nothing unusual. Maybe he was okay? She watched Jude as he watched the horse. She did her best to study the horse as she watched Jude’s face. She saw only admiration of the man for a great horse. Invictus nipped his hot walker hard on the thigh, threw his head in the air and pranced, thrilled with himself in his naughtiness. Roxy excused herself to the track kitchen, it was time for coffee.