Read Racing Manhattan Online

Authors: Terence Blacker

Racing Manhattan (19 page)

After first lot the next day, I am in Manhattan's stable when Laura looks over the door.

‘Best behaviour, Bug,' she says. ‘The prince is in the main yard.'

I put on Manhattan's rug, then walk to the archway leading to the main yard. From the shadows, I watch as the visiting party go from box to box.

Ahead of them is Angus, cap in hand, ready to open any stable if required. Trailing behind, ignored by the main party, there is Bucknall, looking unusually smart.

Mr Wilkinson walks between the racing manager Mr Webber and a neat, small man in dazzling white Arab robes. The prince.

To tell the truth, I had expected something different – something a bit more impressive. I watch his face as he chats and laughs. Apart from the way he is dressed, he looks surprisingly normal. He could be a young actor playing the part of an Arab prince on a stage.

Mr Wilkinson leads him to the centre of the yard where some matting has been placed on the grass.

One by one the two-year-olds are led up for him, and stand as their futures are discussed. Then the older horses are brought for the prince to see. We have been told that his two best three-year-olds, Drive On and Ishtagah, are to have a trial this morning, ridden by the stable jockey Pat O'Brian and another experienced professional, Gary Fielding. Both horses have been entered in the season's Classics, and need to be put through their paces before their summer campaign is discussed.

Eight of the prince's nine horses are led before their owner. When the last one is returned to his box, the prince turns to his manager to ask something. Mr Webber points towards the back yard. Seeing me, Angus gives me a nod.

Manhattan time.

I take off her rug and lead her out. She steps through the archway into the main yard, stops then looks, head high, ears pricked towards the prince, as if he is the one about to be inspected, not her. I take a gamble and let her stand there for a moment, even if she is keeping her owner waiting.

Now, just behave yourself. This is the prince, Hat. You do not show him your teeth.

I lead her to the centre of the yard. As we approach, Prince Muqrin smiles and bids me a good morning.

‘Morning, your highness.'

Manhattan stands, gazing into the distance. Powerful, graceful, serene.

The prince is shaking his head. ‘What an awful pity it is,' he says to no one in particular. ‘She looks a champ but she's an awful chump.'

Mr Wilkinson doesn't do jokes, but he manages to force a smile. ‘Had her chance,' he says. ‘Good money after bad.'

The prince is about to turn away, then seems to remember he should say something to me. ‘Bit tricky in the box, is she?'

‘No, your highness. She's lovely.'

Mr Wilkinson frowns, and gives a slight shake of his head.

‘Lovely? I heard that she's a bad lady,' says the prince. ‘She's been nothing but trouble all her life. I just wanted to say goodbye to her.'

‘She's changed, your highness.'

Mr Wilkinson mutters quietly in my direction. ‘Speak. When spoken to.'

The prince raises his left hand slightly, and gives a graceful nod of his head to me. ‘You were saying?'

‘She's a different horse this year, your highness. Not just in the box, but on the gallops. She goes really well. She's incredible.'

The prince smiles. ‘What's your name?'

‘Jay, your highness.'

‘Well, Jay.' He pauses, frowning. ‘You'll discover when you're a bit older that it's no use looking handsome and going well at home. Good horses win races. This one has been an expensive disaster.'

In spite of his strangely posh voice –
aaawful
,
baad
,
discovah
,
disaaastah
– I sense that he wants to believe me.

‘Mare's a wrong 'un.' It is a bark of anger from Mr Wilkinson.

Manhattan turns towards him and gives him a cold stare.

‘Hat's improving, your highness. I think she's worth giving another chance.' There is emotion in my voice now. I have to speak up. ‘She has changed. Every day she goes better.'

‘Hat?' The prince looks shocked, but there is a twinkle of humour in his eye. ‘My horse is called “Hat”?'

‘Nickname,' growls Mr Wilkinson. ‘Silly girl. Treats the mare like a pet.'

‘And you say she's going better?'

‘She's unbelievable, your highness.'

Prince Muqrin turns towards the other two men, his eyebrows raised.

‘Goes nicely for Jay,' says Mr Wilkinson. ‘When it doesn't matter. Had her chance, sir. Let you down. On the racecourse.'

The prince is gazing sadly at his horse. ‘If only she behaved as well as she looks.' He turns to his racing manager and the two men move away for a brief, muttered conversation. After a moment, the prince returns. ‘Jimmy's had a rather wizard idea,' he says. ‘Let's see how she goes with the other two this morning.'

Mr Wilkinson looks even more irritated than usual. ‘Sir, we have only two jockeys booked. Not possible.'

A determined look has entered the prince's dark eyes. ‘Well, perhaps young Jay here could ride her.'

There is a moment of silence, and I am aware that all eyes are on me. I daren't breathe.

‘Saddle her up, Jay,' says Mr Wilkinson. ‘What you waiting for?'

I bob my head in the direction of the prince, and lead Manhattan away. As I go, I hear his words: ‘Last chance saloon for this wicked lady.'

There is no time to lose. Drive On and Ishtagah are already in the covered yard with their pacemaker for the trial, a four-year-old called Gatekeeper. I fetch a saddle and bridle from the tack room and hurry back to Manhattan's box.

No messing around, Hat. They're waiting for us.

To my amazement, she is calm as I tack her up. It is as if she senses that now is not the moment for games. I get on the manger, jump into the saddle and we walk out of the stable.

Angus approaches. ‘Hang on,' he says. He stands back, inspecting me, then fiddles with the noseband. ‘The prince's horses have got to look right,' he mutters. ‘Even this crazy camel.'

I look down and, possibly for the first time since I have been in the yard, I smile at the head lad.

‘Don't let her make a fool of us, Bug,' he says quietly. ‘Good luck.'

‘I won't, Angus.'

I am about to walk on when he calls out, ‘You're a work jockey this morning.' He holds up his whip. ‘You'll be needing this.'

‘I'm OK without it,' I say. ‘But thanks all the same.'

We walk briskly through the main yard and into the covered yard. The three lads who are there – Liam and Amit on the two three-year-olds and Deej on Gatekeeper – look at me in surprise.

‘Manhattan joining you,' Mr Wilkinson calls out. ‘Making up the numbers.'

We're going to show them, Hat. They are in for the surprise of their lives.

I like the way she feels this morning. She knows that something serious is about to happen. The moment for playing, looking about her and showing off, is over.

I follow the three other horses out of the covered ride, down the path towards the heath. Liam and Amit chat to one another easily, knowing that, when we get to the gallops, they will be making way for the jockeys. Deej, who has the serious job of making the running for the prince's horses, looks tense.

When we reach the heath we trot to the trial gallops where three cars are parked – Mr Wilkinson's old estate car, the sleek Bentley with darkened windows which belongs to the prince and Pat O'Brian's flashy red sports car.

The jockeys have arrived.

We circle around the group, which I notice now includes Mrs Wilkinson. All eyes are on the two stars of this morning's show, Drive On and Ishtagah.

Liam and Amit pull in and, as Mr Wilkinson and Bucknall hold the three-year-olds' heads, Pat O'Brian and Gary Fielding – a wiry, hard-eyed old-timer who has won a couple of Group One races in his time – are given the leg-up.

We circle in silence for a moment. O'Brian glances in my direction. Good-looking and a favourite with interviewers, he is not, according to the lads, as friendly in everyday life as he likes to pretend to the outside world.

Mr Wilkinson steps away from the group.

‘Pay attention, jockeys,' he calls out. ‘Serious piece of work. One mile gallop. Ride them out at the end. Proper trial. See what they're made of. Understood?'

We murmur our agreement.

‘And Deej, take them at a good, brisk pace.'

‘Yes, sir.'

We canter down to the start of the gallops, Gatekeeper at the front, followed by the two three-year-olds. The professional jockeys are chatting away as they go, but now and then they glance back at me. I can imagine what they are saying.

At the start of the gallops, we walk in a circle. I stop to check my girths. Then, slowly and firmly, I trace a heart on Manhattan's shoulder. We need the heart trick today.

O'Brian trots past me. ‘Just don't get in the way, right,' he says in a quiet, threatening voice.

I nod, and at that very moment Gatekeeper has gone, followed by Drive On and Ishtagah. Unprepared, I haven't gathered up my reins and Manhattan is left flat-footed. As we pass the first furlong pole, we are already ten lengths adrift of the other three.

I settle on Manhattan, my hands moving down her neck, my body in the low crouch that I now find natural when I ride. The mare is going easily within herself. It is as if she has been waiting for a serious test, and knows that now is her moment.

Yeah, that's it. Easy, girl. This is where it's all going to change for you.

We pass the four-furlong pole. Halfway. We are now only five lengths behind the two three-year-olds who are closing on Gatekeeper.

Three furlongs. Gatekeeper is losing ground. His job as pacemaker is done. Drive On and Ishtagah ease past him. I notice that O'Brian has begun to niggle at Drive On. Fielding has yet to move on Ishtagah. Manhattan is still as relaxed as a pony going for a canter on a beach.

Two furlongs. I pass Gatekeeper as if he is standing still, catching Deej's startled look as I go. I'm upsides Drive On. O'Brian glances across at me, almost doing a double-take as he sees that I have yet to move on my horse. One furlong. Ishtagah is a length in front of me and Gary Fielding is riding him out, going for home. I change my grip on the reins, and suddenly it is as if Manhattan has decided to get serious.

She lengthens her stride, and I feel a surge of astonishing power beneath me. For the first time, I experience what she is like at a full gallop. In a matter of yards, we are at the front of the field.

Manhattan's ears go forward. She is like a caged animal who has tasted freedom after a lifetime of waiting. She stretches her sleek body and – I can't help it – I give a whoop of joy as she accelerates.

Go, girl!

As we flash past the group standing at the end of the gallop, I take a quick look over my shoulder. Ishtagah is a good five lengths behind me, and Drive On is well beaten, several lengths behind him. Manhattan is moving as if she fancies going another mile.

That's it, Hat. Easy now. They've got the message.

I pull up and turn to canter back towards the trainer and Prince Muqrin. Fielding and O'Brian pass me on the way, staring straight ahead, as if I don't exist and that getting totally hammered by Manhattan was all part of their plan.

Suits.

Me.

Just.

Fine.

P
AYBACK TIME

MANHATTAN IS NOW
in the main yard. I ride her out every day with first lot. Even when one of the lads, trying to provoke her, bumps against us in the string, or waves his hand in her face, she is as dignified as a queen might be if one of her subjects had behaved badly in front of her.

That's my girl. That's my Hat.

She trusts me. As long as I am with her, she is above it all. Together we grow stronger and more confident every day.

Sometimes, just for old times' sake, she misbehaves for a few seconds while working, throwing her head about like a yearling being broken, or pretending to take a bite out of a horse galloping too close to her.

Cut it out, Hat!

And she settles down. It is as if, hearing my voice, she remembers how life used to be before I looked after her.

Deej and I laugh about how quickly the lads have changed their attitude towards her. Group memory loss, he calls it. Once I was a funny little Bug who fell off horses and Manhattan was something out of a zoo – the crazy camel, the psycho giraffe, Nelly the elephant.

Now the joke changes. My name is still Bug, but no one quite remembers why. They call Manhattan ‘the big mare'. One morning, when we make our entrance into the indoor school, Liam calls out, ‘Here they come, the darling divas.'

Manhattan pricks her ears and shakes her silver mane in a way which, I have to admit, has a touch of the film star to it.

I smile. For most of my sixteen years, I have done everything I could to stay out of sight. Yet here I am, riding high, a darling diva.

Then, one evening, I get a call at Auntie's.

‘Hi, Jay.' Michaela has never been one to hide her feelings. Now she manages to get more despair into those two words than in all the miserable books and songs and plays ever written. ‘How's it going?' she croaks.

‘I'm fine. What is it, M? You sound terrible.'

‘I'm not going back to school.'

‘But it's holidays now.'

‘Ever,' she says tragically. ‘No more Lodge.
Ever
.'

‘What? Have you been expelled? Was it the Jean-Paul thing?'

She gives a bitter laugh. ‘No. Just for a change, Jay, it's not my fault. It's Dad. He says he can't afford the fees. I've got to go back to the high school.' Her voice cracks. ‘I hate that school, Jay. And you won't be there either.' She starts crying.

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