Authors: Terence Blacker
He reaches into the top pocket of his shirt and takes out a cigar, smaller and thinner than the ones he used to smoke. He lights up. As the inside of the car fills with smoke, I open the tinted window.
âKeep it shut.' The voice is low, threatening. âSecurity.' He inhales deeply on his cigar, then breathes out.
I cough, my eyes water.
As we leave the town, he looks at me for the first time. His eyes are red. There is a cut on his cheekbone. A bit of tobacco sticks to his lower lip. âMichaela thinks you're going bonkers,' he says. âAll you can talk about is that Manhattan thing.'
âThat's not true. I also talk to her about her family heritage project.'
Driving fast, he turns on to a smaller road. âYeah, don't know what that's all about.'
âShe's interested in finding out more about my father.'
He looks across at me, frowning. âThe less you know about him, the better.'
âWhere are we going?'
He takes the corner of the small country lane rather too fast, and swears quietly to himself. âAre you?' he asks. âGoing bonkers?'
âNo.' I look at the countryside through the darkened window. âNo more than usual anyway.'
âNot taking my calls. People don't do that to me. You'd have to be bonkers to even think of it.'
âI've got a ride coming up quite soon. I'm concentrating on that.'
âYeah?' He looks across, and I see rage in his eyes. âWell, you're going to have to do a bit of multi-tasking then.' He glances in his mirror, then swerves into a gateway leading to a field. There is not a house in sight. He switches off the engine and turns towards me. âRemember what I said about being a good girl? Doing what you're told? Do you recall what I said would happen if you didn't?'
âNah. I gave that nag to a local farmer to run with his sheep. Michaela got all emotional about him being sold for dog meat. I worry about that girl sometimes.'
âYou said you'd tell Mr Wilkinson.'
âThat's right. And now you're not doing what you're told.'
I turn towards him. âPlease, Uncle Bill.'
âI need money. And for money I need tips. If you don't give some information now, I'll send the recordings of you talking to me by email in the morning. You'll be out so fast your little feet won't touch the ground.' He puffs on his cigar, and blows smoke in my face.
Blinking, I hold his stare.
âBelieve me,' he says quietly. âI'm a man of my word.'
And I do believe him. Sooner or later, my uncle will send the tapes to the Wilkinsons. They'll know me for the traitor I am.
âManhattan's running in the King George at Ascot.'
âYeah, yeah.' Uncle Bill is unimpressed by this information.
âShe's not the pacemaker.'
He looks away. âThat's not what the press is saying.'
âShe's there to win.'
Uncle Bill turns towards me. A spark of curiosity is in his bloodshot eyes. âBut she's the outsider of the field. Something like eighteen-to-one. Are you telling me she's got a chance of winning?'
I hesitate. Then say the words.
THERE IS A
whole chapter in
about how Petite Etoile got beaten in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes of 1960.
She was a hot 5-2 on favourite but failed to get up to beat the 2000 Guineas winner Aggressor. At the time, some experts said that she lacked the stamina. Others thought that Lester Piggott had ridden an over-confident race on her and had left her with too much ground to make up. There was a rumour that one of Lester's great rivals Scobie Breasley, who was riding one of the less-fancied horses in the race, had boxed him in as an act of revenge.
One thing was sure. After being beaten in the King George, Petite Etoile was never quite the same.
Now, as this race approaches, I notice that Manhattan has become calmer, as if she can sense that the days and weeks of waiting will soon be over. She has even relaxed about her feet being touched since Jean, the farrier, visits her once a week.
The racing press says that this will be one of the greatest King Georges of modern times. The first three horses involved in an epic finish for the Derby â Positano, Mountain High and Ishtagah â are to meet again. Against them will be the winner of last year's Arc de Triomphe, a brilliant French-trained four-year-old called Sweet Dreamer, two other winners of French classics, Mon Desir and Tartuffe, and an unbeaten colt from Japan called Rock Island. Then there is that rank outsider in the race, Ishtagah's stable-mate Manhattan.
We are the curiosity of the race. Journalists write about Manhattan's âsporting owner Prince Muqrin' â it's their way of saying he doesn't know what he is doing. Then there's âMagic' Wilkinson âthe wily old-timer' â which means he's past it. As for Manhattan, the words they use are always the same. She's âmoody Manhattan', âmercurial Manhattan', âthe mare with a suspect temperament'.
Of course, there is a bit of curiosity about the âpint-sized girl jockey' who will be riding the âgiant mare'. One newspaper â strangely, it seems to me at the time â writes about âthe growing controversy in the Arab world of a Saudi prince using a girl jockey'.
Noise. Rumour. Gossip.
The best advice Mr Wilkinson has given me is to avoid talking to anyone of the press. In the days before the race, I get used to strangers calling out my name as I ride past with the string, or even on the street.
Two days before the race, I am collecting my tack for second lot when I find a copy of a trashy tabloid in the tack room. It has been left open on the show-business page.
There is a photograph of me, riding Manhattan on the way to the heath. I must have been surprised by the camera, and I'm looking at the photographer with a scowl on my face. The caption beneath the picture reads:
TENSION GETTING TO YOU, BUG?
Riding the mercurial mare Manhattan in Saturday's clash of champions at Ascot, girl apprentice Jay âBug' Barton, 16, seems to have been taking lessons from her horse. Sources at racing HQ say that the teenager refuses to talk about the race and has taken to snubbing the ordinary folk of Newmarket.
âShe acts like she's a celebrity these days,' a former friend has revealed. âJust because her name is in the papers now and then, she seems to think she's too good for the rest of us.'
And what exactly are the chances of the tetchy teen winning tomorrow? Bookmakers are quoting 18-1!
I shake my head, reading this nonsense. There is a world out there, looking for exciting, entertaining stories about fame and happiness and heartbreak. Almost always, the stories are lies.
It is evening stables the day before the big race. When Mr Wilkinson visits Manhattan's stable, he is grumpier than usual. I have stripped the mare down and she seems to fill the stable, big, strong and arrogant. The trainer gives her no more than a glance, then nods. âPut her rug on and let her down. Need to talk, Jay. Now.'
He walks out of the box without another word.
He knows. That is my first thought. He has discovered that I am the stable spy. It is the end.
With a sick feeling in my stomach, I throw a rug over Manhattan's back and fasten the straps. I give her a pat, and leave the stable to face my fate.
Mr Wilkinson is standing on the green in the middle of the yard. He is gazing downwards at the grass, deep in thought, his hands in his pockets. As I approach, he looks up at me. To my surprise, it is not anger I see in his eyes, but sadness, maybe even embarrassment.
âJay. Wanted to talk to you,' he says. âDisappointing news.'
He clears his throat and sniffs. âChange of plan tomorrow. Putting Dermot Brogan on Manhattan.'
The words are muttered hurriedly in a matter-of-fact voice, and at first I think I must have misheard.
âNot my decision,' he says. âOwner's.'
âAre you saying I'm being jocked off? The day before the race?'
âPrince Muqrin. Problems back home.' Mr Wilkinson seems to be talking to himself. âCrisis. Got enemies. Religious stuff. Demonstrations. Death threats. Big fuss. They're saying member of royal family? Putting up a girl jockey? Not right? Bloomin' sinful.'
âI don't understand.'
âRead the papers, girl! Get off the blinkin' racing page now and then. Saudi Arabia. Funny sort of place. Women should stay at home. Marry. Bring up children. Know their place.'
âLife's not racing, Bug.' He sighs. âMore's the pity. My view.' He tries for a smile, but manages no more than a wince. âYour time will come. Mr Webber rang this afternoon. Lucky for us Brogan's available. Former champion jockey. Couldn't ask for better.'
âButâ' I'm feeling so sick in my stomach that for a moment I'm afraid that I might throw up right there, in the middle of the yard. I try to think of something to say, but the only words I can think of â âIt's not fair', âYou promised', âPlease please please' â seem pathetic and childish.
âNothing more to say. Announcement's been made. Don't talk to the press.' He looks at me, and I can see the sorrow in his face. âYou be all right to lead her up at Ascot?'
âGood girl.' He walks away, across the yard, leaving me standing there.
I FEEL THE
eyes of the crowd on me as I lead Manhattan around the paddock at Ascot, before one of the biggest races of the season. Now and then I hear what is being said.
That's her. That's the girl in the papers. Poor kid. She must be so disappointed. Looks like she should be at school.
I stare ahead. The world has gone slightly mad since the announcement was made yesterday that Dermot Brogan was going to replace an unknown girl apprentice on Manhattan.
Last night, as I walked through the door at my digs, the phone was ringing. It continued until Auntie took it off the hook. Anyone could guess that I was upset but the papers seemed to want know exactly
upset. They needed a taste of my misery to share with their readers.
Looking through the racing pages as we travelled to the races in the horsebox this morning, Deej told me a few of the experts had decided that, if the great Dermot Brogan was riding Manhattan, she may be a bit more than a pacemaker. One or two of them suspect a clever, tactical plan by cunning old fox âMagic' Wilkinson.
In the paddock, Manhattan is striding out so fast that sometimes I have to stop her in order to avoid walking into Positano in front of us. She loves a crowd, and is picking up on the excitement of the moment.
The seven other horses in the paddock are some of the best thoroughbreds in the world. Standing nearby, the royalty of racing has gathered â successful trainers from England, Ireland, France and Japan, the sheikhs, princes and millionaires who own them. Above us, the stands are packed. The Queen is here.
This is as good as it gets. The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. All eyes are on us. And I am utterly numb.
We stop the horses as the eight jockeys enter the paddock. I see Marcel Dessaux, the French champion jockey who is riding the favourite Sweet Dreamer, and Johnny Finnegan, a veteran who has ridden more Classics winners than anyone riding today. Pat O'Brian and Dermot Brogan walk in together, both wearing Prince Muqrin's purple and white silks but with Pat in a white hat and Dermot in a black one. They laugh and chat, as easily as if they are taking a stroll down to the pub for Sunday lunch.
The bell rings. I lead Manhattan to where Mr and Mrs Wilkinson stand with Prince Muqrin and Mr Webber. They gather round Ishtagah, who is being led up by Deej.
When Dermot Brogan walks towards Manhattan, he nods in my direction, with the smallest of smiles. He is a man in his forties, who has won big races in the past and has a good reputation in the racing world.
As I stand in front of her, a hand on each rein, I hear a familiar voice behind me. âAnd how is Jaaaay today?'
I half turn, giving a polite little nod. âI'm all right, your highness. Thank you very much.'
âI'm so glad.' He sounds almost concerned.
Brogan is given the leg-up by Mr Wilkinson. I lead her away, watching her face, her ears. She is caught up in the excitement of Ascot on big race day. She looks about her, ears pricked, ready to show the world what she can do. Brogan pats her.
As we make our way out towards the racecourse, he looks down at me. âSorry about the ride and all that.'
I shake my head. âNot to worry.'
âIs she any good, this one?' he asks. âThey say she can be tricky.'
âShe's got a lot of speed but doesn't like to be bumped around in a race. You want to give her a clear run. And you mustn't carry a whip.'
âNot carry a whip?' He laughs as if I have made a joke, and I feel smaller than usual.
âIf you do,' I say, âdon't let her see it.'
Brogan is staring at the racecourse ahead. I no longer exist for him.
âThat,' he says, as if talking to himself, âis going to be up to her.'
I let slip the lead rein.
Go, Hat. Do your best. Today's your day. Do it for me.
I am standing on the course, watching her walk away from me as the runners parade in front of the grandstand when someone takes my arm.
âLet's get a place in the stand,' he says.
We climb the steps to the part of the grandstand reserved for stable staff, and watch in silence as the runners turn and canter to the start. Manhattan's ears are still pricked and she seems to move across the turf like a ballet dancer in a way that reminds me of a famous photograph of Petite Etoile and Lester Piggott. I notice that Brogan has his whip tucked under his arm.