Authors: Terence Blacker
THERE IS A
chill in the early morning air on my first day back at the yard. The flat-racing season is almost over. I walk briskly through the gate, eyes straight ahead, trying to look more confident than I am feeling. The last time I saw these lads, I had a pitchfork in my hand.
I may have a diploma now, but reputations stick in the world of racing, and I have a sworn enemy in Pete. There is an empty feeling in my stomach as I walk through the main yard.
On the way to the tack room, I pass Liam.
âHey, the Bugster is back,' he says, half friendly. âHow did it go at Racing School?'
âGood,' I say.
In the tack room, I look at the List. I'm riding out first lot on Ocean Pacific, and then on a new horse called Poptastic for second lot. On the next board, I read my name and see the horses I will be doing: Ocean Pacific, Norewest and a two-year-old called Something Fancy. They are all main yard horses.
I go to the back yard and walk round, box by box. Her stable is empty, scrubbed, smelling faintly of disinfectant.
I stand for a moment, alone in the back yard, gathering my thoughts. Be professional. For the first time, I realise that it is not the Wilkinson yard I've been missing, the riding out, the working on the gallops. It is one horse.
Laura is standing watching me from the passageway between the two yards. She was out last night and this is the first I have seen her since my return. She gives me a careful smile as I approach. âWelcome back,' she says.
âHas she gone?' I try to sound calm, but the crack in my voice gives me away. âDid they take her away?'
She shakes her head. âShe's here, but she's in trouble. I'll tell you all about it when we get home,' she says in a low voice.
âWhat about Pete? Is he still doing her?'
Laura winces. âPete's not going to be around for a while. You have some news to catch up on.'
She holds a finger to her lips and walks off.
I go about my work as best I can, mucking out and grooming Ocean Pacific, taking him onto the walker. I keep myself to myself, but there is none of the old hostility in the lads' eyes.
As we pull out for the first lot, I see Angus for the first time.
âShe's back. Little Miss Trouble.' By his standards, he sounds almost welcoming.
The string walks in sleepy silence around the covered yard. I get the nod from the other lads as they see me. There is no sign of Pete.
Mr Wilkinson enters the ride, shoulders hunched, his usual matchstick between his teeth. âMorning, Jay,' he calls out. âWelcome back.'
As we file out to walk towards the gallops, Amit is behind me.
âSo you did OK, Bug?'
âNot bad,' I say over my shoulder.
âBetter than that, we heard.'
It is a small world, racing. By the time we reach the gallops, I realise that the other lads know that other trainers have been interested in taking me on. I am being treated differently now â almost respectfully. It explains the friendliness from Angus. I'm no longer the joke, the holiday girl.
I am rubbing down Ocean Pacific after first lot when Harry Bucknall looks over the stable door.
âWhen you've done that, pop into my office for a chinwag, will you, Bug?' he drawls.
âYes, Mr Bucknall.'
Five minutes later, I'm knocking on the door of the tiny shed which the assistant trainer likes to call his âoffice'.
He sits behind a small table, studying some paperwork which I notice are the latest feed bills. With a busy-guy frown, he waves to a chair, on which there are some new jodhpurs, boots and gloves. I put them on the ground, and take a seat.
âThose are yours, by the way,' he says. âReplace that old kit you had.'
I look down at the new gear. âThank you. How muchâ?'
Bucknall waves a hand impatiently. âJust check the sizes are right.'
I do. âThey're fine, Mr Bucknall.'
âGood.' He lays down his pen and stares at me for a moment. âSeems you didn't entirely disgrace yourself at the school,' he says, reaching for a sheet of paper to the side of the desk. He sniffs as he reads. â
Natural jockey â¦ excellent hands â¦ strong â¦ professional attitude.
' He taps the paper. âYour end-of-term report. I've seen a lot worse.'
âIt was a useful course.'
He stares at me for a moment. âAren't you pleased?'
Bucknall looks down at the report. â
Conclusion. Has the potential to make a professional jockey.
They don't often say that in my experience.'
âGreat,' I say.
âSoâ' He pushes the Racing School report to the side of the desk. âYou'll be riding work on a regular basis from now on. We want to get you a licence as an apprentice. All being well, you might get a ride in a few lads' races â up against other apprentices. See how you get on. One or two other trainers have been enquiring about your services so there could be the odd outside ride. You'll have to do the Apprentice Licence course at the Racing School. It's just a week. We don't want to take you on too quickly.'
âYou might find that some of the staff â the lads â are a little jealous. I don't want you getting into trouble, like before, with poor old Pete.'
âI was just defending myself. I don't fight normally.'
âSo you say.' Mr Bucknall pulls the feed invoices to him, now bored by our conversation.
âWhy “poor old Pete”? Where is he?'
Bucknall does one of his odd gestures â a blink, and a sudden jerk back of the chin, as if someone has squirted water in his face. âYou haven't heard?'
I shake my head. âHeard what?'
âPete's in hospital. Smashed leg, three broken ribs, punctured lung and a fractured skull.'
âDid he have a fall?'
âGood lord, no. He was attacked by a vicious brute of a horse. He would have been killed if Angus hadn't dragged him out of the box.'
And suddenly I know what is coming.
He nods, reaching for a copy of the
on his desk. âNasty animal. One morning she just went for him â teeth, kicking, snorting, trying to crush him against the wall. She's been put in a bull-pen in the old cowsheds until she's disposed of.' He glances up at me, and smiles coldly. âShut the door behind you.'
AT FIRST, I
can see only little bruises of light in the darkness at the back of the bull-pen.
It is a cast-iron cage at the back of the cattle shed. From the sunlight through the main door of the shed, I can see the thick bars from floor to roof, the heavy reinforced door. And in the murk beyond there is a still, dark-grey shape.
Oh, Hat. What have they done to you?
No reaction. No movement.
I'm here, girl. It's me.
I slide back the heavy bolt on the door and walk stealthily into the pen.
The bedding beneath my feet is wet, and a sharp ammonia smell rises when I tread on it. No one has mucked out the pen for days, maybe weeks.
My eyes are becoming accustomed to the darkness. Manhattan has her back to me. Her head, held low, is in one corner of the pen. She looks like an old, exhausted workhorse who has reached the end of its days.
OK, girl. There's no need to be afraid. I understand.
Manhattan gives a low sigh, and ignores me. Watching carefully for any movement in those hind legs, I move towards her.
He got back at me through you. The man who was meant to be looking after you was angry with me. I made him look small. He knew how to get his revenge on me â by hurting you.
Two steps closer.
And you couldn't take it. You wouldn't take it.
I'm beside her hindquarters now. Her coat is dull, and there are marks on it, which might be muck or scabs where she has been hit.
I long to touch her, but I mustn't startle her.
You're going to be all right, girl.
She turns her head towards me, as if noticing for the first time that I am there. The only sign that she has recognised me is that she is showing no fear.
I stroke her neck as softly as I can. Then, when there's no reaction, I put both arms around her neck and rest my cheek against her matted coat, breathing in the sharp, ungroomed smell of her, feeling the warmth of her. We stay like that, perfectly still, for a minute, maybe two.
I'm aware of a heaviness within me lifting. The noise in the world outside the yard. There seem to be tears in my eyes. My nose is running. I sniff and wipe it against Manhattan's neck. She stirs, then gives a long, heart-worn sigh.
Maybe I've got a carrot.
I'm reaching into my pocket when her head goes up, her ears flicker back. The sound of brisk footsteps echo on the concrete floor of the cattle shed.
They won't touch you, Hat. I'm here now.
âWhat in the mother of mercy's name do you think you're blazing doing, Bug?'
As the unmistakeable tones of Angus echo through the cowshed, I feel the muscles in Manhattan's neck tense. She moves, swishing her tail and lifting one of her hind legs.
Easy, Hat. Easy.
Angus is swearing quietly beyond the door. âRight then,' he says eventually. âMove very slowly away to the side.' He's talking quietly like some bomb-disposal expert in a war. âI'll come round to that side and cover you though the bars with this pitchfork.'
I hold Manhattan closer to me.
I'll be back soon, Hat.
Then I pat her, stand back and face Angus.
âA pitchfork will only frighten her.' I speak in a low voice.
To my surprise, the head lad leans the fork against the wall. I move calmly past Manhattan's restless hindquarters to the door, and out.
I bolt it behind me and face Angus.
âThis isn't a blazing petting zoo, girl' he says. âIt's a racing stable.'
âI'd like to do her, Angus. In addition to my usual work.'
âGot a death wish, have you, lassie?'
âShe's not a bad horse, Angus.'
âAye, she's not.' The head lad looks into the bull-pen. âShe's a lot worse than that. She's a bad mare.'
âMares don't change, girly.' His voice takes on a steely tone. âYou'll learn that when you've been in the game as long as I have. If you have a colt or gelding who's developing bad habits, you can sort them out. They learn. Once a mare goes to the bad, there's only one thing you can do. Try to break her. Show her who's boss. Doesn't always work.'
âThere's another way. You saw how Pete treated her. She was just fighting back. Let me talk to Mr Wilkinson about it.'
âYou can, as it happens. That was why I was looking for you. The guv'nor wanted to see you at the big house.' Angus's mouth does an odd little twitch, which may or may not be a smile. âYou don't know when you're beat, do you, girl? You're a tough little thing â for a lassie.'
âI'm not a lassie, Angus. I'm a lad.'
âOch aye.' He turns away, but not before I see the smile he is trying to hide.
When Mrs Wilkinson opens the front door, she actually seems pleased to see me.
âJay. And how was the course?'
My mind is still in the bull-pen. âIt was good. Can we talk about Manhattan?'
âNo.' The smile leaves her face as she turns to lead me across the hall. âWe have more important things to discuss.'
I follow her into the dining room. Mr Wilkinson is at one end of a long table, reading a copy of the
âJay Barton is here, Clive.'
The trainer, in a world of his own, glances up at her, then sees me. He makes an odd mumbling noise, which could be a groan or a grunt of welcome.
Mrs Wilkinson takes her place at the other end of the table to her husband. She nods in the direction of a spare chair. âJay wanted to talk about Manhattan, Clive. I told her we needed to discuss something else.'
âI just wanted to ask if I could do her,' I say. âIn addition to my normal work.'
âShe's rather blotted her copy book, that mare.' Mrs Wilkinson sounds more bored than usual. âOn the whole, it's not thought to be a terribly good idea for a racehorse to try to kill someone. People tend to disapprove.'
âJust give me a few weeks. It'll be my risk if anything happens to me.'
âDeath wish,' mutters Mr Wilkinson, turning a page of his
. âTalk about. Something else. Reason you're here.' He looks at me, like a sorrowful toad. âPut you down. Lads' race. February. Poptastic. Six furlongs. Kempton.'
âLingfield,' says Mrs Wilkinson.
âLingfield, yes. Ride the horse second lot. Bit green. Never raced before.'
I'm staring at him in amazement. âThank you, Mr Wilkinson. I won't let you down.'
âBetter blinkin' not.' He reaches for his paper.
âSo maybe now that you're going to be a jockey, a few second thoughts about Manhattan are in order.' Mrs Wilkinson gives me one of her polite society smiles. âThe last thing you need is an injury before your first ride.'
I don't even have to think. âI'll do both. I won't get injured.'
Mrs Wilkinson looks at me, surprised. âAnd if we say you have to choose?'
âI'll take Manhattan.'
The trainer shakes his head, as if his worst suspicions have been confirmed.
âIt would solve a problem, Clive,' says Mrs Wilkinson. âPete's decided to get out of racing, and none of the lads want to do the mare. We can't have her looking like a hat-rack if the prince comes down. Maybe we should take Jay at her word.' She looks at me, a chilly smile on her face. âAll your Manhattan work will be in your own time.'