Read Racing Manhattan Online

Authors: Terence Blacker

Racing Manhattan (29 page)

Aunt Elaine opens it as he approaches.

‘Prince Muqrin,' she says, a big cheesy smile fixed on her face. ‘What a pleasure this is.'

The prince extends his hand, and glances towards me.

‘This is my Aunt Elaine,' I say. ‘This is Prince Muqrin.'

My aunt actually does a little bob as she shakes his hand. ‘Your highness,' she says humbly.

‘And this is Uncle Bill.'

‘Welcome, prince,' he says. My uncle winks as he shakes the prince's hand.

‘And here's my best friend, Michaela.'

‘Michaela, charming name.' The prince smiles as he shakes her hand, then turns to me. ‘And how's my friend Jay?'

‘I'm fine, thanks, your highness.'

Prince Muqrin addresses us all. ‘I apologise for having to bring my colleagues.' He nods in the direction of the two giants standing by the car. ‘There have been one or two security issues recently.'

‘Shall we have some tea, your highness?' asks Aunt Elaine.

‘Please,' says Prince Muqrin. ‘Call me Tariq.'

We take tea in the sitting room. It is the most awkward ten minutes I have ever had to sit through. Aunt Elaine, perched on the edge of her seat, makes panicky small talk. When Prince Muqrin asks Uncle Bill about his business, there is a brief, awkward silence.

‘Import and export – tough old business, Tariq,' he says.

‘I'm sure.'

The prince, I notice, drinks his tea rather quickly. He nibbles politely at a cucumber sandwich.

‘What fun this all is,' he says when there is a pause in the conversation. ‘Now I know where Jay gets her perfect manners.'

I can't help glancing at Aunt Elaine. Her smile wavers just for a second. ‘We do our best, Tariq,' she says. ‘She's a good girl. In her own way.'

‘Now, Elaine and Bill, Michaela.' The prince's general smile is like a full stop on the conversation. ‘I have one small request. I mustn't take up too much of your busy time. Could I possibly have a moment with my friend Jay? I need to discuss something rather private with her.'

‘Of course, Tariq. Feel free.' Aunt Elaine sits back in her chair.

‘Private,' Michaela murmurs. ‘That means without us.'

‘Sorry, your highness.' Aunt Elaine stands up suddenly. ‘We'll leave you two to chat.'

The prince stands. ‘How kind you are.' When we are alone, he sits down again. ‘What a nice family.' He smiles at me, and seems to relax.

‘Yes. They are. In their own way.'

He laughs, then considers me for a moment while sitting very still. It is as if he has been told that, if you are a prince, you should never make any sudden movements. ‘I hope you don't mind my descending on you, unannounced,' he says softly. ‘I needed to talk to you about something rather important, and I didn't want other people involved. This is just between you and me.'

‘Right.'

‘I think you are aware that I have been having a few problems back home.'

‘Yes. I heard.'

‘I belong to an absolutely maaarvellous family. Al Saud, the House of Saud. Very important in Saudi Arabia. Quite powerful, I suppose. A bit like your Royal Family, the Prime Minister and Parliament all rolled into one.'

‘Great.' It's not quite the right word, but it is the only one that comes into my head at this point.

‘Great, indeed.' He gives a sad, little smile. ‘Tradition is very important in my country. Certain things are expected of one.'

‘Yes.'

‘No need to go into details. I have been very lucky. For my twelfth birthday, the king gave me a ring containing one of the biggest diamonds in the world.'

‘Nice.'

He laughs. ‘Not really – I wanted a PlayStation. So now I've grown up and I have a choice. To be me, living the life I want to live, or to be Prince Tariq Muqrin bin Rashid al Saud, the keeper of tradition like my father and grandfather and his grandfather before him.'

‘I see.'

‘When I saw you on the gallops, and watched on TV how you did with Manhattan at York, it was a moment of revelation for me.'

‘It was?' Something in my voice tells him that I am wondering what all this family history has to do with his visit today.

The prince sweeps a crumb from the table. ‘It wasn't the horse I admired, although I love the rascal dearly. It was you.'

I sit back in my chair, slightly worried now.

‘You've broken out. I've heard all about your dad disappearing, how your mother passed away when you were young. You haven't been terrifically successful at school, I gather.'

‘Well—' I'm about to start making excuses when he holds up a neatly manicured hand.

‘You've escaped from your past.' He pauses for a moment, then leans forward slightly, fixing me with his dark eyes. ‘No one has been on your side. The world has been against you. You've just kept going.' He looks around him, and suddenly seems a bit small in his perfect suit and cufflinks and sober tie. It is as if they have been there all the time, waiting for him to fill them. His cage.

‘I didn't have much choice,' I say. ‘I just like riding horses. It wasn't complicated.'

‘Not complicated maybe, but difficult – challenging.' The prince frowns, silently discouraging any discussion of the matter. ‘And now,' he says, ‘you've given it all up.'

‘I've done enough. It's time to move on, now that Manhattan is safe.' A thought occurs to me. ‘She is safe, isn't she?'

‘Of course. The mare will be fine, whatever happens. You saved her from a nasty end.' He looks out of the window. ‘My family want me to give up too. They think I'm not serious. The press seems to agree.'

‘“The playboy prince”.'

‘Exactly.' He smiles sadly. ‘Some people in my country are very worried about me. They think I have been corrupted by my life away from Saudi Arabia. I actually want a woman jockey to ride one of my horses. A female! Back home, women are supposed to be at home, being good wives, raising a family.'

‘Bit sexist,' I say.

He shrugs. ‘We have different values. Unfortunately, my family saw the idea of you riding a horse owned by me as a slap in the face to our great traditions, our culture. They said I would be giving ammunition to the enemies of my family. Look at al Saud, these people would say, they are as immoral as Europeans, even Americans.' He gives an angry laugh, and sits staring at his fingernails for a moment. ‘It is why I made the decision I did over the King George.'

‘Manhattan went well for Dermot Brogan. If he hadn't shown her the whip, she might have won.'

The prince gives a small, dignified shake of the head. ‘I've seen how she goes for you. Something magical happens when you ride her. You bring out the best in each other.'

‘But maybe—'

He gives me a look which freezes the words in my throat. ‘Here's the position,' he says, suddenly business-like. ‘Ishtagah has been invited to run in the Breeders' Cup Classic in America. The best horses in America, three-year-olds and upwards, will compete. Two European horses have been invited. Sweet Dreamer – the French colt who beat us in the King George – and my horse. Ishtagah's not going that well at home now though, and has never liked travelling. I asked the Americans if I can run the mare instead. They have agreed.'

‘That's great.'

‘I've been thinking a lot recently, Jay. I have to be true to myself, like you – escape from the past. If I compromise now, more compromises will follow. Tradition isn't everything. I want to show the world that there is a new generation in the House of Saud. I am prepared to run Manhattan in the Breeders' Cup Classic … but only if you ride her.'

I must be looking scared by this speech, because the prince smiles.

‘It isn't just politics. I also want to win one of the biggest races in the world,' he says. ‘But I shall absolutely understand if you refuse. If that is the case, I shall probably sell all my horses.' I must be looking shocked, because he adds, ‘There's more to life than horses and racing, isn't there?'

I can't think of anything, but I nod politely.

‘What happens on a racecourse in America – a woman jockey riding for a Saudi prince – could bring change,' says the prince. ‘I will have shown that the House of Saud is not the slave of the past, that it can make history as well as following it. We could make history – you, Manhattan and me. We could draw a line in the sand – the desert sand.'

‘No pressure then.'

He laughs. ‘You can handle pressure, Jay. I've seen that. However the horse runs, everything will have changed by the simple fact that you rode it.'

‘What about all those protests?'

‘Saudis love racing. It will be the perfect way to change attitudes. Sport can go where politics can't.' He looks at a large gold watch on his wrist. ‘That's it, really. I just wanted to tell you personally that, between us, we can do something extraordinary.'

‘I don't do extraordinary things. I just ride. If I do come back, it won't be for some great cause in the world. It will be for me.'

‘And for Hat.'

I laugh. ‘Yes. And for Hat.'

He stands up, reaches into his top pocket and takes out a heavy, embossed business card and lays it on the table. ‘Call me if you want to discuss this.'

He walks to the door and opens it. Aunt Elaine is in the hall, fiddling with some flowers in a vase. I'm pretty sure she has been listening at the door.

‘Elaine,' says the prince. ‘This has been such fun, but I must bid you farewell.'

Uncle Bill and Michaela appear as if by magic from the kitchen.

‘Just one question,' says the prince. ‘How would the three of you like to go to America?'

Clever.

Clever.

Man.

A
MERICAN DIRT

I AM ON
Manhattan with her easy, graceful gait as she trots past the grandstand at Santa Anita racecourse, near Los Angeles. There are people bringing in gigantic flower displays. Already the warm air is full of the sweet smells wafting from the concession stands under the grandstand – hot dogs, popcorn, chocolate sauce and caramel. There are people everywhere, going about their business: groomers, exercise riders, hotwalkers, clockers, jockeys' agents – the world of American racing.

Manhattan shakes her head, and gives a low dragon-snort. There has been no change quite as exciting as this. At first, she is on her guard, remembering bad experiences in her life, but then, as she sees how different it all is, every day becomes an adventure.

She loves it here in America. We have been in the stables – ‘the shedrow' it is called – for three weeks now, and I have never known her eat so well. The colour of her coat has grown lighter in the West Coast sun and her mane and tail almost seem to glow when we are on the track. She senses that the people milling about the racecourse have noticed her, and has a new haughty look in her eye.

The dirt beneath Manhattan's hooves is different from anything she has worked or raced on before. To my eye, it seems more suitable to motorbikes or stock-car racing than horses but this is the American way. An artificial track is preferred to turf.

I have read that one of the reasons why so few European horses have won the Breeders' Cup Classic is that they are not used to this surface. It is tougher, faster, and kicks up in their faces.

Behind two other English horses, which are running in other races at the meeting, I canter down the back stretch. Since she has been here, Manhattan has been getting a feel for the surface. Today, I've been told to let her stride out with the other two horses down the home straight. The American exercise riders call it ‘breezing', and I like that word. On Manhattan, I feel like I am riding the breeze.

Ahead of me, one of the jockeys looks around. ‘Here we go,' he shouts. They turn. I follow five or six lengths behind them. And we're off.

Time to show them your paces, girl.

Manhattan's ears go forward as she breaks into a canter and then, head down and pulling hard, goes through the gears until we are moving at a good half-speed gallop.

The sound of her hooves on this surface is louder, yet more muffled, than on grass. Manhattan likes it. It is as if she can sense that a track like Santa Anita favours a strong gallop, and speed at the finish.

She knows today is little more than a warm-up and is happy to pull up behind the other two horses.

We turn back to Clockers' Corner where the trainers are waiting. I give Manhattan a pat on the neck.

You like it in America, don't you, girl?

Deej and Laura are looking after Manhattan in America, and it is Laura who is there to lead her back to the barn where she lives, and I walk beside them both, past the walking ring, the saddling paddock, the receiving barn. As we go, photographs are being taken, and there is a buzz of interest among the people who seem to hang out on American racetracks throughout the day.

According to Laura, the story of Manhattan and her young girl jockey has attracted the attention of the American press.

There are horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic who have won the greatest races in the world – the Dubai World Cup, the Kentucky Derby, the Arc de Triomphe – but none has a story like that of Manhattan.

A public fairy tale has grown up around her. She was once a wild and flighty filly who, in the hands of the legendary ‘Magic' Wilkinson, has been tamed. Over three years, he has persisted with her, believed in her. It was his clever idea, the story now goes, to put an inexperienced stable girl on the mare, so that she felt she was in charge. It was a masterpiece of patient old-fashioned training – or so the papers say.

Then, as in all good fairy stories, the trouble began. Some say Magic lost his nerve before the King George, and played safe by putting up an older, male jockey. Others say Prince Muqrin made the decision.

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