Read Racing Manhattan Online

Authors: Terence Blacker

Racing Manhattan (21 page)

And here is the problem. When a horse races, it has to wear light shoes called ‘racing plates'. Made of aluminium, they are too soft and fragile to be worn for any time, except in a race.

In other words, Manhattan will have lost her race before she even leaves the yard – at the moment the farrier arrives the day before to put on her racing plates.

I have no choice but to mention the problem to Mr Wilkinson when he does his rounds with Angus that evening.

To my surprise, Angus backs me up. ‘Bug's right,' he says. ‘The mare is good for nothing after Ivor's been here. She'd be too upset to race.'

The guv'nor shakes his head. ‘Trouble,' he says, eyeing Manhattan. ‘Nothing's ever simple. Bloomin' mare.'

‘The Tetrarch used to have his own farrier,' I say. ‘Hating blacksmiths goes in the family.'

Both men stare at me. Stable lads are not meant to know this kind of stuff. ‘I learned it at Racing School,' I say weakly.

‘The Tetrarch? He was a champion two-year-old. A hundred years ago.' Mr Wilkinson gives a great sigh. ‘Big difference.'

He moves towards Manhattan and, standing by her head, I sense her tensing up. When he runs a hand down her near fore, she arches her neck and, in a casual threat, lifts her hind leg.

The trainer jumps back, moving more quickly than I have seen him move before.

Easy, Hat.

‘Bloody animal.' Mr Wilkinson has turned quite pale.

‘It's only when her feet are touched,' I say.

‘Horse not racing in plates? Heard it all now,' Mr Wilkinson murmurs to himself. ‘Bloomin' Queen of Sheba.' He glances at Angus. ‘All right,' he mutters. ‘Tell Ivor. Leave the mare this time.'

With a nod in my direction, he walks off, followed by Angus.

‘Does that mean she's in with a chance?'

Every night after dinner, my Uncle Bill calls. I make small talk to him, then wander casually out to the garden. There, away from the ears of Auntie and Laura, I give him the information he's looking for.

‘I don't know, Uncle Bill.'

‘Thirty-three to one. Those are pretty good odds. I could make some serious money here.'

I glance back at the house and notice Auntie looking out of the window. She knows me well enough by now to see that I am not enjoying this call.

I drop my voice. ‘I can't talk to you here.'

‘Your problem, kid. Maybe you should call me from a safe place. Is there a park nearby?'


‘Well, then. Pretend you've got to see someone – a boyfriend maybe. Call me from there.'

‘No one would believe I've got a boyfriend.'

‘I need some winners, Jay.' Uncle Bill puts on his scary, take-no-prisoners voice. ‘You've given me a couple of half-decent tips. Now I need to know about this Manhattan nag.'

‘She's not a nag.' I hesitate, then dive in. ‘She might be worth a little bet but she's a bit of a character. She needs to be in the right mood.'

For the first time in our conversation, Uncle Bill laughs.





sun looks down on us as we arrive at the York racecourse stables. Mr Wilkinson's other runner, a three-year-old called Whirling Dervish, is first out of the horsebox, led by his lad Tommy.

Then I bring out Manhattan. She walks down the ramp carefully, then looks around her. Ears pricked, her dark eyes alert, she snorts in the air.

That's it, Hat. You're a dragon today.

She lowers her head in my direction, too proud to ask for a carrot but prepared to accept one if I just happen to have one in my pocket.

And you don't even think of behaving badly. Right?

I give her the carrot.

It is late morning and I am in racecourse stables. I have walked the course with Deej. I am giving Manhattan a last relaxing groom with a body brush when I am interrupted by the sharp, irritated voice of the trainer.

‘Not a lad now. Jockey.'

‘I'm just helping Deej, sir. I had nothing else to do.'

Mr Wilkinson nods in the direction of Manhattan. ‘Rug her up. Talk. Outside.'

I throw Manhattan's rug over her back, fasten it and give her a pat.

Outside the stable, Mr Wilkinson is standing, hunched, hands in the pockets of his scruffy jacket. He is gazing, as if in a dream, towards the racecourse.

‘Sir.' I stand beside him.

‘Big difference. Lad. Jockey. State of mind. Winner.' He looks at me sharply. ‘You a winner? Are you?'

‘Yes, sir.'

‘Grooming? Not Pony Club camp.' He frowns. ‘Got to carry a whip today. Jockey. Professional.'

I was hoping that he would forget about that. My plan – ridiculous now I think about it – was to arrive in the paddock not carrying a whip, and hope no one would notice. After all, it is how I ride Manhattan at home.

‘Sir, she really hates—'

‘Carrying a whip today!' It is an angry bark. The trainer stares at me, his eyes dark and small in his face. ‘Letting me down already. Shouldn't have listened. Need a pro on board. Still could, you know. Change jockeys. Not too late.'

‘No, sir. I won't let you down. And I'll carry a whip.'

‘Jockeys have whips. People talk. Apprentice riding in the Middleton? Not even carrying a whip? Trainer must be mad. Makes the owner look bad. Understand?'

‘Yes, sir.'

‘See you at the weighing room.'

The crowd gathers. I watch the first race from the jockeys' stand. I tell myself that I want to get a sense of how the horses are travelling on the ground today, but I know I am just killing time – my mind is on the race ahead.

Two races before mine, I change into the prince's colours.

When I weigh out, Mr Wilkinson is there to take the saddle. Standing outside the weighing room, he tells me to let the mare settle and not to make my move too soon. ‘We don't know whether she stays this distance. Her speed is what matters. Horse to beat. Touch of Class. Good handicapper. Stays on.'

There is a phrase racing commentators like to use. ‘Caught the eye in the paddock.'

Manhattan certainly catches the eye. She looks bigger, paler, prouder than the other runners, almost as if she belongs to a different species.

I am in the centre of the paddock, tapping my whip nervously against my leg as Mr Wilkinson and Mr Webber discuss Ishtagah, one of the prince's other three-year-olds, who is not even racing today. Looking up at them, wearing the prince's colours, I feel like a small, exotic bird. I long to be out on the racetrack, on Manhattan's back.

When the announcement, ‘Jockeys, get mounted,' is made, Deej leads Manhattan to us.

Hey, girl.

She looks about her and then snorts, her nostrils dilated.

You're in the mood to race, aren't you?

She seems to arch her back slightly as I am legged up. Deej leads us round the paddock, and I am distantly aware of the spectators looking at us.

I hear a child's voice in the crowd. ‘Look at that one, Mummy.'

I look down and smile at a boy, about eight years old. Yes, look at this one.

We are last of the six runners on the racetrack. I notice Manhattan's right ear is twitching, as if she can hear a distant sound.

All right, Hat. Relax girl.

‘She's not right,' I say to Deej. ‘Something is bothering her. I can tell by her ears.'

Deej reaches to unhook the lead rein, and glances back at her as he holds her by the rein.

‘She's fine.' He looks up at me and smiles. ‘Relax. Just treat it like a piece of work at home.' He lets us go. As I turn Manhattan to canter down to the start, he calls out, ‘Look after yourself, Bug.'

I turn and click my teeth, expecting Manhattan to launch herself as she usually does. Instead she trots slowly, then canters, stiff-legged and reluctant. A man in the crowd laughs. ‘Glad I didn't put any money on that one,' he says loudly.

Come on, Hat!

Not thinking, I slap her gently on the shoulder with the whip. Her reaction is immediate. She goes even more slowly. Both ears are half back now. She has become the Manhattan of old. The mare who hates racing.

I have such difficulty getting her down to the start that the rest of the field is already circling behind the stalls when I arrive.

A couple of the jockeys glance at me coldly. What, they are wondering, is a girl apprentice doing in a race like this?

I check my girths. Manhattan's attention is on me, not the other horses or the race. Her ears are trembling as if there is some kind of electric current going through them.

I think of Deej's words. Treat it like a piece of work at home.

Suddenly, I understand.

I call to one of the starter's assistants. As he approaches, I hold out my whip.

‘Could you hold this for me, please?'

The man takes it.

Is that better, Hat?

I sit forward in the saddle, laying both hands on her shoulders, so that she can feel that they are empty. Then, slowly, firmly, I trace a heart on her right shoulder.

We stand, motionless, for several moments. One of the jockeys nods in my direction and says something as he lowers his goggles. Somebody laughs.

Her ears stay back, trembling slightly.

It's gone, Hat. No whip. Just me.

I'm not getting through. I can feel it the tension in her.

You're a princess. Remember that.

One of the other starter's assistants takes her head to lead us towards the stalls.

‘Hey, jockey.' I hear a voice behind me. ‘What about your stick?'

‘I'll collect it later.'

Beside me one of the other jockeys looks at me in surprise. Riding a race without a whip? he is thinking. I've heard it all now.

We won't need it, will we, Hat?

We are first into the stalls and, during the moments while the other five runners are loaded, I drop the reins, hold each side of her neck, palms flat against her coat.

It's gone, Hat. No whip. Understand?

There are two more horses to go into the stalls. I gather up the reins, and feel Manhattan tremble beneath me.

A click, then a crash of metal as the gates are open and the racecourse stretches before us.

The horses on each side of me are quickly out of the stalls and into their stride.

Manhattan is flat-footed. For a crucial couple of seconds, she seems frozen to the spot.

Come on, Hat.

Then she is out of the stalls, a good five lengths behind the last runner.

The five is soon ten. Manhattan is sticking her toes in. With every stride, the rest of the field is moving further away from us.

There is an almost irresistible temptation to scream and ride her out. Instead, I crouch lower in the saddle, placing a hand on each side of her withers.

It must look ridiculous, a jockey sitting low in the saddle, still and motionless as, with every stride, her horse loses ground.

OK, Hat, game over. It's your time now.

I feel the slightest easing of movement below me, as muscles are slowly relaxing. The field is now fifteen lengths ahead of me, approaching the bend.

It's all right, Hat. We're going to win.

A group of onlookers is standing on the inside rails. Strangely, the face of one of them – a man in his forties – comes into focus as I pass him. He is laughing at us.

We're going to win. We've going to show them, Hat.

We must have gone three furlongs before Manhattan begins to remember where she is. She takes a light hold of her bit, stretches her legs. Her ears relax, going forward and back with every stride.

Time, Hat. Time.

I'm tempted to let Manhattan make up the fifteen lengths down the back straight, but I know that the effort of doing too much too early will make her tire at the end of the race.

She is beginning to enjoy herself now. Her ears are pricked, as if she has heard a distant sound which is calling her. She feels as full of her own strength as she did when we were out together, alone on the heath on those cold February afternoons.

Her giant, effortless strides are eating up the ground.

Wait. Wait. Wait.

By the end of the back straight, the two stragglers of the field, both under pressure from their jockeys, are five lengths in front of me.

Not so fast.

As the bend approaches, I am aware that we are making up ground. Manhattan has started to race.

We pass them as if they are standing still, then take the bend well. The four other horses are a good eight lengths ahead of us. Their jockeys are beginning to ride them out.

Beyond them, the grandstand looms into view. I hear the sound of the crowd, still as low as a murmur.

Two furlongs. I switch Manhattan to the outside away. She sees the lush green of the finishing straight ahead of her and begins to lengthen her stride.

One furlong. Now it is as if there are two races taking place. In one, four horses with barely a length to separate them are involved in a driving finish. Four lengths behind them, on the wide outside, a great grey ghost, her ears pricked, is coasting forward, showing the world, for the first time in her life, what she can do.

Go, Hat.

I crouch lower in the saddle, like a cat about to pounce.

Three lengths adrift, two. We pass one horse, another. The two leaders are battling it out ahead of us. Manhattan is still accelerating but the winning post is approaching fast.

The crowd's roar is a cauldron of sound all around us, and Manhattan responds to it.

Half a length. A neck. We are almost upsides the two horses for what seems like no more than a second, then the winning post flashes past.

‘Photograph.' I hear the racecourse announcement as I begin to pull up, but I know in my heart what the result is.

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