Read Racing Manhattan Online

Authors: Terence Blacker

Racing Manhattan (30 page)

I, the little stable girl who dreamed of being a jockey, was heartbroken and left racing, they say, until Magic gave me the call.

Deej tells me that the American press have latched on to my story – the mystery kid, the rookie teen girl taking on the best jockeys in the world. Over here, apprentices are sometimes called ‘bug boys', and so there are headlines about ‘the bug girl called “Bug”'.

From the moment we arrived at Los Angeles, there have been photographers at every turn. At the airport, I was wearing my hoody as I walked beside Mrs Wilkinson, but one photographer caught my face as the cameras flashed like a firework display. I look wide-eyed, scared and excited, more like a kid at Disneyland than a jockey arriving to ride in a great race.

I get used to cameras clicking as I pass, to strangers holding tape machines and shouting questions at me.

They are there now when I meet up with Mrs Wilkinson an hour after Manhattan has worked, to be taken back to the hotel. As we make our way to the car, I walk quickly, head down.

‘They won't follow us far,' Mrs Wilkinson murmurs. She is right, but when we arrive at the hotel a couple of photographers are by the front door.

In the lobby, Mrs Wilkinson buys a racing paper at the news stand. Standing behind her, I glance down at the magazine rack and find myself staring into my own eyes.

On the front cover of a magazine called
Celebrity Confidential
is the photograph of me, taken at the airport. The headline reads: JOCKEY TEEN BABE FLIES IN.

Teen babe? I pick up the magazine. The background to the picture has been faded and make-up has been put on my face. I have been made to look as if I'm posing, like some celebrity on a red carpet.

When I open the magazine, there is an old picture of me at a pony race, standing beside Uncle Bill.

‘Don't bother with any of that.' With a brisk movement, Mrs Wilkinson takes the magazine from me and, with an arm around my shoulder, escorts me towards the lift. ‘The world outside doesn't exist until after the race.'

‘Why do they do that?' I'm muttering. ‘Why do they make me look different? They've photoshopped the photograph.'

‘You're successful, young and' – she gives one of her reluctant smiles as we wait for the lift – ‘passably good-looking. They'll make you look like a celebrity, even if you don't want to be one.'

‘They wouldn't call me a teen babe if I were a boy.'

‘No.' The lift arrives, the doors open and we step inside. ‘They probably wouldn't.'

My hotel room is enormous. Everything is crisp and white. The bed could fit a couple of families in it and someone has left a towel on the pillow, cleverly folded in the shape of a swan.

One entire wall of the room is a window looking towards Los Angeles. I stand, looking down at the world below. The cars move silently along the freeway in the brightness, like a slow-moving silver river. The sun reflects off the windows of high-rise buildings. In the distance, a plane is coming in to land.

Tomorrow Michaela will be flying in with Uncle Bill and Aunt Elaine. Just for a second now, I remember the look on their faces when, standing in the hall, Prince Muqrin told them that if I agreed to ride in America, they would be his guests. The three of them looked at me almost as if a stranger had taken my place.

Funny little thing. Stable girl. Family charity case. Not any more.

There have been times over the past two months since I told Prince Muqrin I would return to the yard to prepare for America when I have wondered whether I was doing the right thing.

The news that Manhattan, ridden by a girl apprentice, was to take on the best horses in the world was suddenly all over the racing press. The bigger story, that a young member of the Saudi royal family is to stand up against the protest and threats and demonstrations, was on the news pages.

Journalists who were nothing to do with racing asked for interviews. Photographs of me appeared in news stories about the Middle East, about the rights of women, about political things I don't understand.

I longed to be invisible once more. Every time that I was recognised by a stranger, I felt less like myself, as if something is being taken from me.

It was racing that kept me sane. Mrs Wilkinson issued a statement saying that Jay ‘Bug' Barton would give no interviews until after the Breeders' Cup Classic. When photographers appeared on the gallops, the lads made sure they didn't get close to me. Even Angus was on my side.

‘The racing world protects its own,' Deej said to me one day as we rode out, and it was true. For all the fights and rows and problems of the past, I was one of them. Together we were strong.

To my surprise, there has been one person in the outside world who has understood all this almost instinctively. When the story first broke, I began to get excited emails from Jim Thurston. We could meet up in America, he said. He would fly to Los Angeles. He was so proud of his daughter. He was in touch with Michaela and was making plans to see her, and Bill and Elaine.

I wrote one email:

Let's get the race done first. Afterwards we can meet. I need to concentrate on this. I hope you understand.

Jay XX

And he did. He left me alone. He wrote me a short email. He said he was the same as me when he was building a house. It's the people who focus in this world who get things done. We had the rest of our lives to get to know one another.

For the first time, I feel close to my father. He understands.

In my hotel room, I turn away from the window, and close my eyes.

Only.

One.

Thing.

Matters.

A
PIECE OF WORK

MY HEAD IS
resting against hers, forehead to forehead, our little daily ritual. Today is the day.

We have been out on the course in the early morning. Laura and I have groomed Manhattan together. Standing on the straw in the barns, the mare seems to have grown over the past few days. The colour of her coat is lighter than it used to be. She glows with health.

I have asked Laura to give us a few moments together. Laughing (‘Blimey, you two'), she has gone for breakfast.

Manhattan has lowered her head to take a carrot from me. I lean towards her, and now, for a few seconds, we are head to head. The next time I see her will be in the paddock before the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Oh, Hat. You rest well today. Ours is the last race. They're noisy, the barns, but you can sleep through it. You can sleep through anything. We've come this far, you and me. Let's show them. Nothing else matters. Not the past. Not the future. Not the world outside. Not what people say. It's just you and me, doing the best we can.

It's quite a good speech, I think, but she seems unimpressed. She nudges me with her nose.

I give her another carrot, a quick pat on the neck, and leave her to it.

See you later, girl.

As I emerge, one of the older American groomers sees me. ‘You show 'em today, Bug,' he calls out. One or two of the others in the barn wish me luck.

I'm waiting at the door of the barn where I have agreed to meet Mrs Wilkinson when one of the exercise riders, Amy, wanders up to me.

A wiry, olive-skinned woman who must be in her forties, she has the look of a woman who has given her life to getting up early to ride horses and doesn't regret it one bit.

‘Hey, Bug.' She stands beside me, as we both look towards the racecourse. ‘Ready for your big day?'

I nod. ‘Yup.'

Amy has been friendly to me since I have been here. She says she has ridden out at Santa Anita since she was my age, that is almost twenty-one years ago. She has talked about how the track's surface has been changed over the past ten years. How it favours some horses and not others. ‘You can only tell when they race,' she has told me.

She asks me if I have been studying the other runners.

I shake my head. I just know that my post position is 12. I should be able to keep out of trouble. ‘Manhattan runs her own race. You can't be tactical with her.'

Amy turns to me and moves a little closer, glancing back into the barn. ‘Word to the wise, kid,' she says quickly. ‘Watch out for Pablo Dominguez. One of the older jockeys.'

‘Is he on one of the favourites?'

‘No way. That's the problem. He's on La Punto, a good four-year-old who qualified at Churchill Downs early in the season, but he's not in this class, and Pablo knows it.'

‘I don't understand then.'

‘He's a piece of work, Pablo. Bitter, right? Once they thought he would be a Hall of Fame jock. Didn't work out – falls, broken bones, booze. He doesn't like young jockeys. He doesn't like foreigners. And he's got a thing about women riding in races.'

‘Ah.'

‘He's been talking about you to the other jocks – saying stuff about your not having the experience to ride in a race like this.'

‘He may be right.'

‘My guess is that if he manages to make you look bad today – stops you from having any chance in the race – that will be as sweet as any winner for old Pablo.'

I look at her, and see she's not joking. ‘Thanks for the tip,' I say.

‘Just watch out for him.' She winks, then ambles away, hands in pockets, muttering almost as if she is talking to herself. ‘He's in the purple colours.'

The heat has gone out of the California sun by the time we are all in the paddock before the last and biggest race of the day, the Breeders' Cup Classic.

They stand in a semi-circle in front of me, the people who make up Team Manhattan: the trainer, the trainer's wife, the racing manager and, dazzling in the white robes he wears for public appearances, the owner.

They are making small talk about the race which has just been run. Apparently there has been a rough finish, an enquiry, a change in the result. Mr Wilkinson tells me not to jump out of the stalls too quickly.

‘Keep out of trouble in the early stages,' says Mrs Wilkinson. ‘But stay in touch with the field. Don't give the mare too much to do in the home straight.'

I listen, my eyes following Manhattan as she is led, with Deej on one side of her head, Laura on the other, around the walking ring. She is how I like to see her – curious, looking about her, relaxed, saving herself for what lies ahead. I look across the paddock to where a small hunched figure in colours of purple and white hoops is listening to his trainer. Pablo Dominguez.

The bell goes. Manhattan stands before us. Mr Wilkinson is speaking but by now I have zoned out. Everything has already been said.

In the saddle. Ride round the paddock. The outrider leads us out towards the track. Close, yet only a distant voice in my mind, I hear Michaela's voice calling out, ‘Good luck, Jay.' Glance down, smile. Four people looking up at me.

Four?

Uncle Bill, then Aunt Elaine, then Michaela, then a small, tanned man with a moustache.

Who? Could it be? As we pass, I look back. The man smiles, and I know in that moment who it is.

The race. Concentrate. My hand on Manhattan's neck. The noise around is deafening. A band is playing somewhere. It is like a party, a festival. Manhattan senses the excitement of humans.

To the start. She is pulling hard. As we approach the stalls, a horse passes me, too fast and too close. Its jockey, hunched in his purple colours makes a weird, animal-like hissing noise, but keeps his eyes straight ahead.

Circle behind the stalls. None of the jockeys are talking now. Stand for a moment. I see Ted's face when he taught me the heart trick.
Takes their mind off the job.
Slowly, calmly, I make a heart on Manhattan's shoulder. Then again, for luck. I pull down my goggles. We are led into the stalls. Wait. Manhattan is trembling with excitement. I gaze down the dirt straight. From a distance, I hear the racecourse commentator.

‘The horses are loaded for the Breeders Cup Classic.'

There is a click, then the gates clang open. A bell rings. The crowd gives a mighty roar of excitement. A surge of horse power beneath me.

Off.

And.

Running.

T
HE BIG QUESTION

IT IS A
faster pace down the straight in front of the stands than I was expecting. Dirt is kicking in our faces. The noise – thundering of hooves, jockeys screaming and cursing as they jostle for position – is deafening. For a few seconds it feels more like going into battle than riding in a race. Manhattan's ears are flat against her head.

Easy, girl. It's just another race.

Neither of us have experienced anything like this before. From a distance, I hear the racecourse commentator's voice.

‘And Manhattan is dead last. She … is … dead … last.'

Keep calm. It's just you and me and a race to win. We're doing fine. Settle, girl. Wait.

She begins to relax into her stride. As we approach the long leftwards turn away from the stands after the first quarter pole, we are trailing by some fifteen lengths behind the leaders.

She takes the bend well, tight against the rail. I'm expecting the pace to slow a bit as the race reaches the halfway pole down the back stretch, but there is no let-up. The two leading horses, several lengths ahead of the rest of the field, seem to be having a private battle.

But Manhattan feels good beneath me. She likes the feel of dirt beneath her hooves. She is relaxed, almost sleepy, poised, ready for the moment when she has to answer the big question.

The runners have spread across the track down the back stretch.

Not what we wanted, Hat. I was going to take you on the outside.

I see the purple colours in front of me. If I go outside him, Dominguez can easily carry me wide around the last bend so that I will have lost too much ground to recover in the straight. I take the inner.

Let's keep this simple, Hat.

I let her quicken so that now we are on the inside rail at the back of the field, which has bunched up as we approach the turn.

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