Authors: Terence Blacker
Uncle Bill? Can't afford? Those two phrases don't even belong in the same sentence.
âEverything's different around here,' Michaela mutters. âTed's going. All the horses are being sold. We might have to get rid of the house.'
âBut what happened?'
And out it comes, between sniffles and sobs. Uncle Bill has had âbusiness problems'. Something about some tax which hasn't been paid. The police have become involved.
âHe has to pay back this humungous amount or he'll end up in court. He wanders around the house saying things like “I'm finished” and “We're wiped out”.'
For some reason, a phrase Uncle Bill liked to use comes into my mind. Another one bites the dust.
âWhat about Elaine?'
âWhat about her? All she's worried about is that she might have to go back to work. As if that's the biggest tragedy on earth.'
âCome home, Jayster. We need you back here. You're good when life is crap.'
I pause for a moment, trying to work out whether this is a compliment or an insult. Either way, I know my answer.
âI can't, M. I've got a job. It'sâ' I am about to tell her that my work is going well, but I sense that's not the news Michaela wants to hear right now. âIt's important to me.'
âYes, of course,' she says bitterly. âHorses always have to come first, right? I'd better go. I just thought you'd like to know.'
And she hangs up.
Concentrate. Don't get distracted. The news from home is upsetting. It worries me that the world of Uncle Bill, the sunny security of Coddington Hall, is in danger of being shattered, but I tell myself there is nothing I can do.
At times like this, I think of my mother when she was in hospital. I remember the advice she gasped out to me when I was alone with her at the hospital.
Uncle. Bill. Survivor. Gets. By. Do. Like. Him. Own. Life. Be. Strong.
One day in April, I am on Manhattan and, with the rest of first lot, we are circling around Mr Wilkinson, having just done a half-speed gallop up to Warren Hill.
The trainer seems to be taking a special interest in Manhattan. Suddenly he calls out to me, âGoing to run the mare.'
At first I can't believe what I'm hearing. âThis mare?'
He gives a brisk, impatient nod.
We continue to circle. I try to keep the smile off my face. Be professional.
âChanged?' The trainer could be talking to himself. âWe'll see. She's a mare. Don't hold your breath.'
I ride on, saying nothing.
âYork meeting. Mile and a quarter. Middleton Stakes. Group Two. For fillies and mares. Four-year-olds and up. No point in putting her with rubbish.'
We continue to circle in silence, while Mr Wilkinson seems to have drifted off into a world of his own. Then he looks at me sharply, almost as if I have insulted him in some way.
âGot nothing to say?'
âAbout what, sir?'
âThe mare. The race.'
âSounds good, sir. I think she'll run well.'
The trainer looks more displeased than ever. âYou're up,' he mutters.
At first I think my ears are playing tricks on me. Up? It is an old-fashioned term but I know what it means.
âYou deaf, girl? Putting you up. In the bloomin' saddle. For the race. Must be blinkin' mad.'
Yes, yes, yes.
I lay a hand on Manhattan's shoulder. It is all I can do to stop myself leaning forward and hugging her around the neck. I'm aware that the other lads are staring at me.
âMare goes for you,' says Mr Wilkinson. âWe can use the claim. Apprentice on board. She gets seven pounds less to carry. Missus says you should be given a chance.' He stalks off, hands deep in his pockets.
âThank you, sir,' I call out. âThank you so much.'
âDon't thank me,' he mutters as he gets into his old car, slamming the door. As soon as he has driven off, the lads start on me.
âOoh, yes sir. Anything you say, sir,' Davy puts on a sweet-little-girl voice. The others coo and trill like a flock of pigeons.
âShe's blushing,' says Liam.
I laugh. Then I clench my fist, like a boxer. I shout, âGet in there!'
âThe Bugster's back,' says Deej.
Manhattan is jogging restlessly at the back of the string. On an instinct, I pull out and trot past the other horses.
âWhere's she off to?' Davy says as I pass.
âIt's diva time,' says Liam.
When we reach the front of the string, I slow to a walk. Ahead of the other horses, Manhattan points her toes, pricks her ears, and takes us home.
âWhere we belong,' I call over my shoulder.
That night, before I go to sleep, I read about Petite Etoile in my copy of
. The book says that âlike all females, the grey had her little foibles and moods'. One of her habits, according to the author, was that she would sulk when out with the string unless there was a grey horse in front and behind her.
It sounds mad to me. The man who wrote it was always going on about the âladies' and their âfoibles' and their âmoods'. I wondered if he would write the same about the âgreat gentlemen'. Then I think of how much happier Manhattan is when she is at the head of the string, and the other habits that she has â how she likes to stand for a moment or two outside her box before joining the string in the covered yard, how she frets if I am too silent in the stable, and is also sensitive to noise, how she doesn't like her feet being touched, how she hates it when other horses get too close to her, how she distrusts men.
The lads kid me about how I treat Manhattan but, in their hearts they understand. Horses may not be the most intelligent of animals but they are sensitive, and have a memory for what has been good and bad in their lives.
Manhattan senses that things have changed. Now in the main yard, she is the lead horse of first lot, she is more settled, more focused on the job. On our way out or back from the heath, people look at her.
On the gallops, she pulls hard against me, but settles down easily. It is as if she has decided at last to behave like a serious, grown-up racehorse.
I am changing too. All that is in my mind is the big race at York, the Middleton. Every night I am in the gym at the Racing Centre, doing circuits, getting fit. It becomes a bit of a joke down at the centre, the time I spend on the machines, the way I drive myself to exhaustion every evening, but now it no longer worries me if people laugh at me or find me strange.
There is just one thought in my mind. York. Manhattan. If she runs a good race, her life will be saved. Nothing else matters.
Perhaps that is why when something unexpected happens two weeks before the race, it worries me less than it should.
I am on my way home after finishing my workout at the centre. A Mini Cooper with darkened windows is parked by the side of the road. As I approach it, the door of the car opens.
âWatcher, Jay.' It is a familiar voice.
I hesitate for a moment. The man leaning across and looking up at me is unshaven and wears dark glasses. But there is no mistaking who it is.
âHullo, Uncle Bill. What are you doing here?'
âStep in, doll. We need a word.'
I get into the car. Close the door. It is odd seeing my uncle in a tiny car. He looks uncomfortable, like a man who is wearing a suit that is a couple of sizes too small for him.
âHow's it going, girl?'
The voice is rougher than it was, and Uncle Bill looks older. He is unshaven and, behind dark glasses his face glows pale and grey in the dashboard lights of the car.
âNew motor?' I say.
He looks almost embarrassed. âOld motor,' he says. âI decided to downsize a little.'
âMichaela mentioned something about that.'
âJust that things were a little tough right now.'
âTough.' He shakes his head, as if trying to get rid of a poisonous thought in his brain, then looks me hard in the eye. âRemember what I said to you last time? About you owing me?'
I nod, a cold chill of dread in my heart.
âYou're doing well now. Going places. Wilkinson says he's giving you another ride.'
âThere's this horse, Manhattanâ'
âYou. Owe. Me.' He points a finger at me, stabbing the air.
âI've left home now, Uncle Bill.'
âWhen your dad got your mum into trouble, I sorted it. You lost your mum â I was there. I took you in, looked after you. I know your Aunt Elaine wasn't too happy with you sometimes but you did your riding, right? Thanks to me, yeah? And then there was the pony-racing.'
âI sorted out the school when you came here. Not easy, but your old uncle was there for you.'
âWhat d'you want from me?'
He smiles, and I notice that his teeth are yellower than I remember them. âIt's payback time. I need some money fast, and you're going to help me.'
âShut up and listen.' He reaches into his jacket pocket, takes out a mobile phone and gives it to me. âPresent for you, doll. You are going to call me on this every couple of days or so, and give me information. Which horses are going well on the gallops. Who's worth a bet. Maybe some of the gossip from the other yards in Newmarket.'
My first thought is that my uncle must be pretty desperate to be asking for my help. My second is that I'll get into trouble.
âIt's not allowed, Uncle Bill. Lads can't give information to outsiders. I'll get sacked.'
âYou can do it, doll.' Uncle Bill turns to me in his seat. I see my face, still flushed from my workout at the gym, reflected in his dark glasses. âInformation. Good inside stuff. Call me next week.'
âUncle Bill, please.'
âYou remember what you said to Michaela after the first race you rode on Dusty?'
âCourse you do. You said you had to win. You tried to explain to her that it was just within you, something you couldn't do anything about. Like a disease.' He lowers his dark glasses and fixes me with his piercing blue eyes. I want to look away but somehow I can't. âYou and me, babe.' He says the words softly. âFamily. We're the same. I know how you felt. That rage. That need to show the world, even if it means not playing by the rules. Winning, whatever the cost. That's you. But that's me too.'
âI'm not like you, Uncle Bill. I'm really not.'
He laughs bitterly, and pushes his dark glasses back into place. âIt's not such a bad thing to be, like your old uncle.' The laughter dies. He reaches forward, and holds my chin. His face is so close to mine that I can smell his stale breath. âUnofficial. Just like the old days.' He pushes me away, then starts the car. âGoodnight, Jay.'
I step out and watch as he drives off.
IT IS FOUR
days before the race. The
publishes the runners declared for the Middleton Stakes. The race is one of the biggest of the York meeting. It's for fillies of four and upwards and the small field includes several winners of good races last season. Beside their name is their past form, showing whether they have won or been placed in recent races. The favourite, Touch of Class, reads â11221', meaning she has won all of her last races except two, where she was second.
Beside Manhattan's name is her form: â00000'.
Unplaced in all her races, and ridden by an unknown apprentice, Manhattan is the outsider of the field, with odds of thirty-three to one.
âI'm not surprised with that form.' Deej is going over the runners and riders as we have lunch at the cafÃ© three days before the race. I sip at my soup, looking hungrily at his hamburger. I need to watch my weight before the race.
The row of noughts beside her name give me a twinge of worry. What is it that makes me think I can succeed where other jockeys have failed?
âShe loves galloping,' I murmur. âSo why does she hate racing?'
âShe's difficult,' says Deej. âShe thinks too much. You could tell as we loaded her into the horsebox for races in the past. She wasn't in the mood for it.'
âYou think it's the travelling?'
âShe's calm when we arrive. It's not that.'
Deej's words get me thinking. I have always assumed that Manhattan's problems when racing in the past happened on the course. Now I am wondering whether the problem starts at home, as she is being prepared.
I look through the notes I made at Racing School about Manhattan's ancestor The Tetrarch. Perhaps there is a clue there. I had taken a copy of âThe Spotted Wonder of the Turf', the article I had found online. Near the end, I find these words:
Only two things could make The Tetrarch's rage flare up: being shod by a stranger and taking medication. To avoid the first, he had his own farrier who travelled with him.
I might be reading about Manhattan. I think of how she hates to have her feet touched, even by me. Picking out her feet and oiling her hooves have become a daily game between us, with much flashing of eyes and swishing of tail from her and quiet persistence from me.
The game becomes more serious when Ivor, the farrier who shoes all the horses in the Wilkinson yard, visits every month. Ivor is, like many blacksmiths, a big, muscular man. As soon as he enters the stable in his heavy boots and leather apron, she becomes upset.
Ivor refuses to go near her unless I hold her with a twitch, a painful device which involves putting a tight rope noose around her nose. The more she plays up, the more painful her noose. It quietens her. She looks at me, wide-eyed and enraged, as Ivor works on her feet. After he has gone, she sulks. When I ride her out, she is moody and difficult. Sometimes it takes days before she is herself again.