Authors: Terence Blacker
Deej nods in the direction of the betting ring. âThe public seem to like Dermot. I've heard that a lot of money's going on Manhattan.'
âYeah?' At the back of my mind, I register that Uncle Bill must be at work, getting his money on Manhattan at the last moment. Right now I'm past caring.
âI told Dermot about the whip. He thought I was being a silly little girl, worrying about her horse.'
âNo, he didn't.' Deej nods in the direction of the runners. âDid you see the way he was carrying the whip on the way to the start? Keeping it out of her line of vision. He's not stupid.'
She is one of the first to be loaded into the stalls and, for the briefest moment, I am there in my mind, Manhattan trembling with anticipation beneath me, I am gathering up the reins.
âThey're off!' The announcer's voice breaks in. I look down the straight and see that she is one of the first to break. âIt's Positano and Manhattan making the early running.'
âNot too soon,' I murmur.
Brogan settles her, allowing the other runners to overtake him one by one. After three furlongs, she is going easily, near the back of the field.
Beside me, Deej is watching Ishtagah who is in third place, tight on the rails. âWhat's Brogan doing?' he mutters. âI thought he was meant to be making the pace.'
The eight runners turn away from the stand, taking the long right-hand bend into the back straight. Positano is sharing the lead with the Japanese colt Rock Island and, behind them are Mountain High and Ishtagah. Going easily on the rails is Marcel Dessaux on Sweet Dreamer.
At the end of the straight, Dessaux begins to make his move, switching his horse to the outside as they approach the final bend.
A couple of lengths behind him, Brogan is tracking him on Manhattan.
The crowd roars as the field enters the home straight. Rock Island is falling back and, for a moment, Deej grips my arm as Ishtagah improves his position. But it is Sweet Dreamer who attracts the eye as he glides up to Positano, and hits the front two furlongs from home. Dessaux is looking about him, like a jockey who is surprised by how easy the race has been.
Suddenly Manhattan is there, passing Mountain High, Rock Island, Ishtagah, Positano, no more than two lengths behind Sweet Dreamer. Her ears are forward, and she is gaining with every stride. She is loving it, enjoying her moment. The roar of the crowd is deafening. This is what they have to come to see, a battle to the finish by the best of England and Ireland against the best of France.
It is then that Brogan, following a jockey's instinct, makes his big mistake. He pulls through his whip to his left hand and begins to ride a finish.
âNo!' I say the word so loudly that Deej looks at me for a moment.
Within a couple of strides, Manhattan is a beaten horse. Her ears go back. Her easy action is gone.
Suddenly aware that he is losing ground, Brogan makes things worse. He brings his whip down hard on Manhattan's hindquarters.
The tail starts turning. Ahead, Dessaux is riding out Sweet Dreamer. It is Ishtagah who, with every stride, seems to be pulling him back. The noise of the crowd is deafening. At the post, I'm aware that the French four-year-old has won, just ahead of Ishtagah, but my eyes are on Manhattan. She finishes fifth, some six lengths behind the winner.
Moments later, I am on the course, the lead rein in my hand. The runners canter back down the course towards us. As Sweet Dreamer, Ishtagah and the third horse Positano are led through the excited crowd towards the winners' enclosure, Dermot Brogan dismounts and takes off his saddle.
Before he heads back to the weighing room, he glances in my direction. âRace was too far for her. Didn't stay the distance,' he says, then walks off, casually twirling his whip in his hand. For him, it is just another spare ride that didn't work out.
I lead Manhattan back to the stables. There is a look on her face which I know well. The human world has let her down again, and she has turned in on herself. If winning races means having a small man on top of your back, waving a stick and then hitting you with it, she is not interested.
I don't know, Hat. What can we do with you? You're the world's most impossible animal.
âMare all right, Bug?' It is Bucknall who comes to see how she is.
I tell him that she seems fine.
âBrogan said she didn't stay.'
I keep quiet.
âA mile and half was too far for her.'
âHe shouldn't have produced his whip. He would have won if he had ridden her out with his hands and heels.'
âHah!' Uninterested, Bucknall sinks his hands in his pockets and wanders off.
THE SUN IS
shining on the yard of âMagic' Wilkinson. The trainer's grumpy face appears in the papers. According to one big article about him, he is âthe old-style master-craftsman of Newmarket'. In an age when racing has become a business, he is a real character. He understands horses and what makes them tick. He kept the faith through hard times, and now he and his main owner Prince Muqrin have a brilliant horse in the yard.
Its name is Ishtagah.
As for the mare Manhattan, the newspaper says that she is an example of Magic's patience. Any other trainer would have given up on her. Instead, he kept the faith and it very nearly paid off.
The business of my losing the ride at the last minute was another example of the trainer's cunning, apparently.
The master of Edgecote House allowed the world to think that Manhattan was in the big race as a pacemaker for Ishtagah. To make sure no one thought the mare was a serious contender, Magic let it be known that an unknown girl apprentice would be on board. Then, using âpolitical pressure' on his owner Prince Muqrin as an excuse, the clever old tactician put top jockey Dermot Brogan on board 48 hours before the race. It was a masterstroke only he would have dared, and it very nearly paid off.
Good old Magic.
The lads are cheerful. We have already had more winners during the season than the three previous years put together. Sometimes, the muscles on Mr Wilkinson's face move into a position which almost looks like a smile.
But Manhattan and I have lost our place in the sun. When I ride work on her, she still looks and feels like a world-beater, but now there is something a bit pointless about her brilliance.
She is all show, people say. Her best performances only happen at home, out of sight, when nothing is at stake. And what good is that?
The first time I am able to speak to Mr Wilkinson after the King George is on the Monday evening, two days after the race, when he does evening stables. He looks at Manhattan, and then asks, in a slightly bored way, how she is.
I tell him she is fine, eating up well. As he is about to leave I say in a quiet voice, âI think she could have won if he hadn't produced his whip.'
He looks at me steadily. âLost the race,' he says quietly. âAll that matters. Good horses don't have excuses.'
âWhat will happen to her?'
âAutumn sales. Sell her as a brood mare. Proved she's good enough to breed from. But not for the Prince. Had enough.' He glances at me, almost sympathetically. âGet you a ride some time. Another lads' race. Missus is looking for a suitable race for you. Eh?'
âYes, sir.' After he has gone, I realise that it is the sort of thing a trainer says to a stable lad with crazy dreams of making it as a jockey.
I am now just waiting for the dream to end. My life as a lad. My ambition of riding as a jockey. Racing Manhattan.
Uncle Bill has left several messages on my phone asking me to call him but, even if he wanted me to continue after giving him such a bad tip, my days as a spy are over. I think of him, his hard blue eyes staring over the fields at Coddington. Any time now, he will dial Mr Wilkinson's number.
The following afternoon, I am in my room at Auntie's, getting some rest before evening stables, when there is a light knock on the door.
âJay, love.' Auntie calls out. âSorry to disturb you but you have a visitor. At the front door.'
I groan wearily. At this point in my life, a visitor can only be bad news.
âIt's Mrs Wilkinson,' Auntie whispers through the door.
I get up, slip on some shoes, brush my hair. When I get to the front door, Mrs Wilkinson and Auntie are chatting like old friends.
âJay.' The smile leaves Mrs Wilkinson's face as I approach. âWe need to talk.'
Auntie steps back into the house. âMake yourself at home, Mrs Wilkinson. You have a good old chinwag in the sitting room.'
âSweet of you, Auntie. Thank you so much, but' â she looks to the blue sky above us â âit's such a glorious day, I thought Jay and I could go for a little walk. All right, Jay?'
It's not a question. I nod. âYes, Mrs Wilkinson.'
We walk down the street. To break the silence, I mutter something about Auntie being quite a character.
âYes,' says Mrs Wilkinson. âIsn't she?'
When we reach the end of the road, she looks about her. âIs there somewhere we can sit down for a chat?' I lead her to the park. We sit at the very place where I used to phone Uncle Bill. My spy bench.
âThis is nice.' Mrs Wilkinson looks around her, then fixes her cold smile on me. âI wanted to talk about where we go from here.'
And suddenly I know it is all over. Uncle Bill has made the call he threatened to make if I let him down.
I'm a man of my word
, he said, and he is. I glance at Mrs Wilkinson now. Her face seems sad somehow â disappointed I have let her down, and Mr Wilkinson and the yard. I have betrayed everyone. Sitting here in the park, watched by the cold eyes of the woman who once believed in me, I feel the guilt washing over me.
âI'm sorry!' The words come out in a shout. âI didn't have a choice.'
Mrs Wilkinson frowns. âSorry?'
âI hated doing it but my uncle was in trouble. He told me I had to give him information from the yard. First he said he was going to sell the pony I ride for horsemeat in Spain. Then he threatened to tell Mr Wilkinson that I had been snitching secrets. I was trapped.'
âIt was me who was the spy, Mrs Wilkinson. I know I've let you down and I've lied and everything. I just didn't know what to do.'
âReally,' she says quietly.
âThat was what you wanted to talk about, wasn't it?'
She shakes her head. âI actually wanted to talk to you about your future. I wasn't expecting a confession.'
âWhat?' I shake my head. âI assumed Uncle Bill called you.'
âNo. We haven't heard from your uncle for a while now.' She smiles coolly. âWhat was all that stuff about a pony and horsemeat?'
âDusty. He's the best pony in the world. I won my first race on him.'
To my surprise, Mrs Wilkinson laughs. I've heard her angry laugh, and her I'm-just-being-polite laugh, but this one sounds genuine. She looks at me, shaking her head. âA pony?'
âSometimes I forget how young you are.' The smile leaves her face. âYou have many talents, Jay, but lying is not one of them. We suspected the spy must be you when a lot of money went on Manhattan at Ascot. Only one person could have leaked the information that she wasn't a pacemaker.'
âWas that why I was taken off Manhattan?'
âNo. It was as we said â the prince had problems at home. It was political.'
A woman with a terrier is walking down the path behind us. She looks at me disapprovingly as if she knows my secret.
âSo. I'm finished.' I close my eyes. Right now, I feel as if I want to sleep for a million years.
âMy husband certainly wanted you to go. As you know, he has an old-fashioned belief that people should tell the truth. He trusted you. All the suspicion was bad for our reputation. He was all for kicking you out.'
I shrug miserably.
âI disagreed with him.'
âAnd that means you're staying. I don't want to lose you. You can work out this season as a lad. Maybe we could get you a few rides over the winter. Then go for the apprentice races next season.'
I must be looking uncertain, because Mrs Wilkinson adds in a quiet, girls-together voice, âDon't worry. Clive agrees with me. He always does.'
âI'm not sure. After all that's happened.'
Mrs Wilkinson brings her hands down on to her knees in a brisk, impatient movement. âThis is what I wanted to talk to you about, Jay. You've done pretty well since you've been at the yard. Everything has been against you, but you've kept going.' She looks me in the eye. âYou've got drive,' she says. âLots of people can ride nicely, get horses going well on the gallops, but the best jockeys are not always great horsemen. They've got drive. If you've got both horsemanship and that will to win, then just possibly you might make it as a jockey. I think you can.'
âThank you, Mrs Wilkinson.'
She looks away, like someone embarrassed by what she is saying. âYou've been a tonic. For Edgecote. The way you've ridden, how you've stayed loyal to that impossible mare. I don't know quite how you've done it, but you've shaken us all up. Just being you.' She looks at me, and smiles. âYou're too important to the yard for us to let you go. And if you tell anyone I said that, you really will be fired.'
We sit in silence for a few moments.
âI know it's been tough, Jay. Tougher than if you were a boy.'
I nod, relieved that she understands. âIt's as if I have to be twice as good as the others. And the way I look is such a big deal. No one worries what boys look like. If I complain, they say I can't take it â I'm being girly.'
Mrs Wilkinson sighs. âThat,' she says quietly, âis the game we have to play.'