Authors: Terence Blacker
The roar that emerges from my throat sounds almost inhuman.
As if at a signal, the three other horses lose their rhythm. Two of the apprentices have pulled their whips through and are riding a finish but their horses are unbalanced. I crouch lower in the saddle, driving my horse forward with hands and heels.
As we flash past the line, we've won by half a length.
That's my boy. That's my Tassy.
As we pull up, the apprentice riding on the second horse nods at me as he passes. For the first time since I've been on Poptastic's back today, a smile is on my lips. I've won.
Then, slowly, the excitement of the moment begins to seep away.
Oh no. I realise the reality of what I have done. It is my first ride and I have broken racing's golden rule â I have ignored my orders.
Deej is waiting for me in the centre of the track. He looks worried.
âYou did it,' he says. It's more an accusation than a compliment. Without a smile, he puts the lead rein on Poptastic and we head back towards the stands.
I pull down my goggles. âI got a bit carried away,' I say quietly.
âWe noticed. I hope you've got your story straight.'
Led in by Deej, I pass a small crowd of racegoers, some of whom look at Poptastic and his female rider with curiosity.
In the winners' enclosure, Mr Wilkinson waits with his owner. Neither of them is looking exactly thrilled by their victory. Behind them, I see Mrs Wilkinson. She looks away as I catch her eye. There is a smattering of applause as I dismount. âWell ridden, love,' somebody shouts.
Behind me, I hear Mr Lukic muttering what he thinks of me, mostly in four-letter words. I glance towards him and see that he has a sickly, fake smile on his face. He is not good at pretending to be pleased.
I undo the girth, take off the saddle, and am about to go to the weighing room when Mr Wilkinson puts a heavy hand on my shoulder. His voice is in my ear like a threatening rumble of thunder.
NOT EVERYONE IS
upset after I win my first race.
Auntie, for one, is thrilled. The night after the race she cooks Laura and me a special meal (pizza with curried chicken on top) and opens the half-finished bottle of white wine which has been in the fridge for as long as I've been staying here.
âHer first ride a winner.' Sitting between us at the round kitchen table, Auntie raises a glass in my direction. âAmazing.'
Laura shakes her head, a little smile on her face. I shoot her a warning glance.
âCheers, Auntie.' I take a sip of the wine and almost choke. I had been hoping the wine would take away the taste of the curry pizza. Now I grab a mouthful of pizza to get rid of the wine from my taste buds. Maybe the two will cancel each other out.
âAnd you know what?' Auntie is holding the glass of wine like a trophy. âI think it was Laura who helped you get to that winning post. It's my team, I tell you.'
I smile at Laura, who looks away, rolling her shoulders like a boxer about to get into the ring.
âShe certainly did,' I say.
âMy Jas worked five years in Newmarket.' Auntie tells the story as if we have never heard it before. âNot a sniff of a ride. And he was good â everyone said that.'
âThere's a lot of luck,' I murmur.
âLuck be damned,' Auntie says loudly. A glass of wine in her hand but she has only had a single sip. She's not drunk but happy. âIt's talent. This is the age of the girl.'
Laura winces. âWe may have a bit of a way to go, Auntie.'
âWait.' Auntie leaves the table and goes into the sitting room. When she returns, she is carrying today's edition of the
. âHave you seen this?' She holds the report of yesterday's racing.
âNo,' I say, although I have.
âHere's what it says in the papers in black and white.' She puts on the reading glasses which hang from her neck. â“The highly-fancied Minstrel Games disappointed in the six-furlong Albright Apprentice Handicap, finishing only fifth behind the eight-to-one Poptastic. In a blanket finish, the “Magic” Wilkinson-trained colt prevailed over Divo and Firefly under the powerful driving of newcomer Jay “Bug” Barton. Both horse and jockey are ones to watch.' Auntie pinches my arm. âYou're one to watch.'
âYeah, don't hold your breath about that,' says Laura.
âHonestly, you're so negative sometimes, Laura.' Auntie pours us both some more wine, although neither of us has managed to drink much. âJay's ridden a winner. First time on a racecourse. Can you believe that?'
âNo.' Laura gives me her most innocent look. âNone of us could believe it.'
Later that night, just before I am going to bed, I get a call from Uncle Bill.
âYou're a dark horse, girl.' There's a throaty chuckle in his voice. âYou don't even tell your own uncle when you're riding in your first race.'
âLuckily, I've got a finger on the pulse. Spotted your name. Had a little bet and, blow me, you bolt up at eight-to-one. Couldn't believe it, doll.'
âIt was Poptastic who did it,' I mutter, but my uncle is not in a listening mood.
âI thought they liked to have a gamble at Wilkinson's. I'd have expected you to be one of the favourites.'
âThey didn't expect me to win.'
âNever under-estimate a Barton. I sent Michaela a text at her school. She'll be thrilled.'
âJust one more thing, doll.'
âYes, Uncle Bill.'
âNow you're on the inside, I'll be expecting a little bit of information. I'd like a few more eight-to-one winners, if you know what I mean.'
âI'll try to remember that.'
âNo. You won't
to remember. You
remember.' Suddenly the warmth has gone out of my uncle's voice. âThings haven't been so clever on the business front recently, doll.' He clears his throat and, for the first time, I realise that he sounded slightly odd throughout this call â a bit too loud and cheerful, like a man trying to keep up appearances. âJust remember you owe me,' he mutters.
And with that, he hangs up.
That week at the yard, there is a strange atmosphere. I'm respected, yet pitied. No one can say that I rode Poptastic badly, and yet I have done the worst thing. I've won, but I'm a loser.
I still gallop the horses, carry a whip, ride upsides, but everybody knows that I am no longer a jockey of the future. I am just another work-rider â good with horses, useful to have in the yard, but unreliable on the track. I have become another of racing's might-have-beens. I could have made it, but on the racecourse â the only place where talent really matters â I blew it. I did the one thing my trainer told me not to do.
There is a coldness in the way Mr Wilkinson watches me. The better I ride, the more disappointment there is in his eyes. Bucknall, on the other hand, has suddenly become chummy and jokey when I am around. My disaster has been the best thing to happen to him for weeks.
When things go wrong in a yard, the lads close ranks. When I am around, no one mentions my race. People are friendly but they keep their distance, as if failure is catching.
A week after the race, a horsebox arrives at the yard. Mr Lukic has decided to move Poptastic and his other two horses to John Collings, a big trainer in Epsom.
We box them up. I say a last farewell to the horse who gave me my first (and probably my last) winner. As the lorry trundles down the road, I stand beside Liam, the lad who did the other two of Mr Lukic's horses.
âGood riddance.' He smiles in my direction. âWe don't need owners like that.' He trudges back to the yard.
But we do. Every lad knows that. The Wilkinson yard needs any owner it can get. We have just lost three horses.
A week later, another couple of owners are gone. One is having money problems, the other wants his horses nearer where he lives. Coincidence? Of course not. There is talk of lads being âlet go'. Suddenly, the Wilkinson yard is on the slide.
And it is all my fault.
I spend more time with Manhattan. Like me, she has been written off by the trainer. We are both also-rans, outsiders.
As the days grow longer and winter slowly makes way for spring, she begins to shed her winter coat. Her colour becomes lighter, as if the sun is trying to break through those dark, dappled clouds on her neck and her flanks.
Her character changes too. In her new stable, she is less grumpy in the mornings. When I see her, she is looking out at everything that is going on in an interested, slightly superior way. She no longer lays her ears back when lads pass by the box.
For the first time since I have known her, she is enjoying life. When first lot pulls out, I can hear her pawing at the ground impatiently. Once, when there are not enough lads for the horses who have arrived for the new flat season, I ask Angus if I can take Manhattan out alone during the afternoon. To my surprise, he agrees, and soon these afternoon rides, while the other lads are resting, become a daily ritual.
Quality time, eh, Hat?
We are both better alone. She is on her toes and excited as I tack her up. I get on her in the stable. We walk out into the yard. She takes two steps, then stops to look around her, ears pricked, head held high. Then we walk through the yard, her beautiful silver mane moving like a wave in the sea with every brisk step that she takes.
I love those afternoons, riding Manhattan. She has a way of walking, with a giant stride where her hooves seem to hover over the ground before she lowers them as if there is something delicate in front of her that she is anxious not to crush. It feels like walking on air.
Although she likes routine, Manhattan, I discover during our rides alone, is also excited by change. If I take her on a different path to the heath, or we go to a new part of the little wood on Warren Hill, she looks about her, snorting the air.
You were bored, weren't you, Hat? That was one of the reasons why you behaved badly. You're intelligent and need to be kept interested.
We walk the perimeter of the heath, trotting occasionally. One afternoon, when a hare gets up in front of us, Manhattan shies and then, just for the hell of it, shakes her head, squeals and does a mad little sideways dance.
I laugh. The heath stretches before us. The late afternoon light is fading. The only person in sight is a woman walking her dog a few hundred metres away.
Come on, Hat. Let's have a bit of fun.
I click my teeth and give her the lightest of kicks. With a low grunt of relief and pleasure, Manhattan puts her head down, takes a hold of the bit, and we are off.
There is no feeling in the world quite like this. Although we are only cantering, I can tell by the way the wind whistles in my ears, and how the ground has become a blur beneath our feet, that I should not be fooled by Manhattan's easy action. Her canter is faster than the gallop of many horses.
It becomes a daily event, and one that we both love. Every day, when we reach a clump of trees, I look about to check that we are not being watched, and then give the mare her daily treat.
We may both be alone in the world. We may have been written off by everyone who knows us. But we still have this.
THE FLAT SEASON
is approaching. There is warmth in the March sun. One morning a stocky man with sleek blond hair is with Mr and Mrs Wilkinson to watch first lot.
The lads know him well. It is James Webber, once a jump jockey, now Prince Muqrin's racing manager. His presence usually means only one thing. A royal visit cannot be far away.
The atmosphere in the yard changes. The hedges are trimmed. Frank, the yard man, brushes corners in the back yard which he usually ignores. The lads seem chirpier, smarter. Prince Muqrin is rumoured to be a good tipper.
On Tuesday morning, after first lot, Angus tells us the news. The next day, the prince will be looking at his horses. Two of them will be working.
It is the moment of truth for Manhattan. Over the past few weeks, I have tried to forget the death sentence hanging over her, but now I know that today is when her future will be decided. During the afternoon before the prince's visit, I take her out for a shorter ride than usual, then spend two hours grooming her, washing her tail, pulling her mane, oiling her hooves. Her new summer coat is coming through and she seems lighter in colour than she was last year.
Our winter rides have changed her. There is a brightness about her, a light in her eyes. The daily exercise she has taken has made her leaner, more muscular. She feels more confident in herself. She is a princess. She knows it, even if no one else does.
After evening stables, I'm surprised to find Laura in the tack room. Sitting on the blanket chest, she is cleaning her saddle. It's such an unusual sight that I have to laugh.
She glances up. âYou'd be wise to do the same thing, Bug,' she mutters. âThe Saudis like things to look just right.'
I look up at my saddle on the rack above my head, and take it down. When Laura is prepared to put in overtime, I know things are serious.
Gouging out some saddle soap with a sponge, I give the saddle a quick once-over.
âI've been grooming Manhattan,' I say. âShe looks amazing. No way will she be sent to the vet's.'
Laura sniffs. âI wouldn't count on it.'
âWhat's he like, the prince?
âHe's all right.' She stands up and, head on one side, looks at her saddle. âQuiet, polite, more English than most Englishmen. He was educated at a posh public school.'
âSo you reckon he'll give Hat another chance.'
She laughs. âI didn't say he was mad, did I?'