Read Racing Manhattan Online

Authors: Terence Blacker

Racing Manhattan (6 page)

‘Headquarters', they call it.

Every shop will have something to do with racing. I've read that there are sixty stables around this town, and over 5000 horses – a horse for every six humans who live here. Cars have to give way to horses on the roads. There will be breeches and riding boots and crash-hats and different types of saddles in the windows. The pubs will be named after the great horses of the past – The Eclipse, The Hyperion, The Crepello. In the mornings, strings of racehorses will walk down the high street on their way to the gallops. There will be jobs in racing advertised on the boards of the local newsagents. I'll make a note of the trainers who need lads – there must be a need for keen boys and girls who can ride – and find a place in a yard. I'll soon be on my way.

But when I arrive in Newmarket late that afternoon, I am in for a shock. It is a town like any other. I wander the streets, expecting to hear chat about horses and racing from the people I pass, but there is nothing. There are more bookmakers' shops here than in most towns, but no sign of a horse or lads or jockeys.

I'm hungry now, and tired. I go into a cafe with steamed-up windows and buy a hamburger. As I sit at one of the tables, I notice a man and a girl sitting nearby. They are wearing dark blue breeches and riding boots.

The girl glances in my direction, and I smile. She looks away and says something to the man. They laugh.

Nothing to lose. I ask them if they work in racing.

The man, thin and ferrety-looking with cropped hair, stares at me for a moment, then nods. ‘Jimmy Stafford's yard.'

Stafford is one of the biggest trainers in Newmarket. ‘Clever Jonah,' I say, mentioning one of his stable's best-known horses.

The girl raises her eyebrows. ‘You follow racing?'

I nod. ‘Actually, I'm looking for a job as a lad.'

Now they both smile. ‘Is it that time of the year already?' Ferretface laughs.

‘How d'you mean?'

‘Summer holidays,' says the girl. ‘We get no end of kids rocking up here, looking for a holiday job or a bit of weekend work.'

‘Yeah, the big adventure of the horses.' There is a sneer in Ferretface's voice.

‘I just want to get into racing.'

‘Good luck,' says the man.

I tuck into my hamburger, aware that they're both watching me.

‘Are you running away from home?' the girl asks suddenly.

‘No,' I say rather too quickly. ‘My parents are picking me up later. I wanted to do this by myself.' The lie hangs in the air for a few moments.

‘Get them to ring round,' the man says eventually. ‘Someone will probably need a kid to do some mucking out over the summer.'

He stands up and the girl drains her tea. ‘Racing's not as glamorous as you think, love,' she says to me, a little more friendly now. ‘I'd go home and wait until you're a bit older.'

And they're gone, before I can even ask if Mr Stafford is looking for lads.

I leave the café and walk up the high street. A big clock tower tells me that it is almost six o'clock – too late to look for a job today. I reach for the purse in my back pocket. The train ticket and the hamburger have left me with just over £183. It is enough to keep me going for a few days in Newmarket, but not if I have to pay for a bed.

A sign pointing to Newmarket Heath gives me an idea. I start walking. On my way out of town, I pass closed iron gates with a sign in gold lettering, which reads ‘Elvedon Stud and Stables'. Beyond the gates are neat hedges and lawn, and a drive leading to a big house and stables.

I walk on, past the gallops. There is a small wood at the top of a hill with enough cover to hide me from the world outside. It is early evening but I have been up since dawn and I feel tired to the marrow of my bones. I make a little den in a clearing in the undergrowth, put on a second jersey and make myself as comfortable as I can.

It is a clear, warm night and, as the sun goes down, I can see the gallops of Newmarket Heath sloping down towards the lights of the town. Cock pheasants are calling in the wood, giving it one last shout before they go to sleep. In the distance, I hear a fox barking.

Racing's not as glamorous as you think.
' The words of the girl in the café this afternoon come back to me.

Perhaps she is right. Maybe I am just another silly runaway in love with a crazy teenage fantasy. I had expected Newmarket to feel like home. It would be a place where anyone who loves racing would belong.

Instead, there are neat lawns, trimmed hedges, iron gates closed to the world.

One hundred and eighty-three pounds. I can survive here for a week, ten days at most. I think of Coddington Hall. The panic about my disappearance will have calmed by now.

I'm almost a grown-up. It is the summer holidays. Will Uncle Bill get in touch with the police? Only if he is truly desperate. The past two years of illegal pony-racing and bunking off school would be bound to come out.

Over the summer, memories of me will fade. Michaela will have her new friends. Aunt Elaine will no longer have to worry about what I am doing to the family reputation. Uncle Bill will go back to his deals. Life without me will be simpler for all of them.

‘I can't go back.' Sitting, my arms wrapped around my knees, I say the words out loud. An owl, in a nearly tree, hoots his reply.

I lie down, pull my spare clothes over me, close my eyes, and soon I am asleep.






by the sound of cantering hooves, horses blowing, the occasional human voice.

From my den, I watch as a string of racehorses canter by. It is cold and my clothes are wet with dew. Steam billows from the nostrils of the horses with every stride they take.

I wait for them to pass. Then, packing up my rucksack, I make my way back to the road.

The sight of horses on the gallops makes me feel stronger. The morning will be a busy time for stables.

I shall make a note of where the yards are. Then, this afternoon, I shall make my move.

‘Paperwork, love. You need the paperwork.' A tall man in a cloth cap, his hands sunk deep in his green jacket, looks down at me with a pitying fake smile on his face. We are standing at the gate to a big stable yard. Beyond him, I can see horses looking over the stable doors. I feel like a small smudge of nothingness.

‘I can ride.' My voice sounds whiney and desperate. ‘I thought that was what mattered.'

‘The reference comes first.' The man is backing away from me, with an I'm-a-busy-man look on his face. ‘We can't just take on any passing kid to work here. We're not a charity, you know.'

And he is off, leaving me to look foolish and pathetic at the stable-yard gates. I turn to leave.

I have been brave today, but it has done me no good. Lads have laughed at me. I have been sent from one person to another. The tall man who has just dismissed me was the assistant trainer at one of the bigger yards.

The story is always the same. They need references from an adult, from my school.

It is mid-afternoon and I am beginning to lose hope. Wandering down a side street, I see ahead of me a small lad pushing a wheelbarrow full of horse droppings down the street, whistling as he goes. The tune he makes echoes off the walls of the houses above the sound of the traffic.

It is such a strange and funny sight that, for the first time today, I find I am smiling. Still whistling, the lad turns down an alleyway and I watch him as he goes. At the end of the narrow lane, there is a small door in a high wooden wall. The lad pushes it open with his wheelbarrow and disappears.

I wait for a moment, then make my decision. Anything is worth a try now. I make my way down the lane and open the gate. It is a stable yard, but less trimmed and tidy than those I have seen today. The lad is nowhere to be seen.

To the right of the stable yard there is a pathway leading to a big, ramshackle house. It is so covered in ivy that it looks as if it has grown out of the ground.

Something draws me to the house. I walk around the edge of the yard, then push a small gate, which opens with a creak. I make my way up the path, up the steps of the house between two grey, crumbling pillars. There's an old sign, with the paint peeling off it. Edgecote House.

I hesitate, then ring the bell. Beyond the door, I hear a stirring of life, then footsteps approaching.


The woman who opens the door moments later is dark-haired, slight and wearing a black trouser suit. She has more make-up on her face than you would usually see in the countryside. She looks like she is on her way to a very important meeting in a big office.

‘Can I help you?'

I open my mouth, but suddenly find myself lost for words.

‘What d'you want, girl?' She has the sort of accent which seems to have been sharpened to a fine point by years of telling people off. ‘Spit it out.'

‘My name is Jay Barton.' There is something caught in my throat. I sound like a sick frog.


‘I was hoping to talk to the trainer?'

‘Don't be ridiculous, girl. What's this all about?'

‘I want to work in a racing stable.'

The woman groans. ‘Now there's a surprise.'

‘I've ridden in pony races. I've had winners. I'd be a good lad, I just know it.'

The woman looks more closely at me. ‘I don't believe this,' she mutters. ‘Write to the assistant trainer, Mr Bucknall. You'll find his details online.'

She is closing the door in my face when, out of nowhere, desperation kicks in. ‘Please!' My voice is so loud that it echoes around the stable yard behind me.

The woman hesitates. ‘You've got a nerve, I'll give you that,' she murmurs.

‘I really need a job.'

To my surprise, the woman steps back and opens the door. ‘Oh, come in,' she says impatiently. I step into a gloomy hall. ‘Wait here. Do
touch anything.'

She walks down a corridor, leaving me alone. I look around me. On the wooden walls, there are paintings of racing scenes from years ago. An odd musty smell hangs in the air. The place feels more like a museum than a house.

The woman returns. ‘You have a minute.' With a nod of her head, she leads me down the dark corridor, then pushes open a door. I walk ahead of her into a sitting room. A figure, broad and hunched, is at a desk in front of the window, silhouetted by the sun shining into the room.

‘This is Mr Wilkinson, girl. He's the trainer. I'm Mrs Wilkinson, the trainer's wife. You have disturbed our afternoon.'

The man looks up from the newspaper in front of him, and gazes at me wearily. I recognise him from the racing papers Uncle Bill used to have.

‘Magic,' I say.

‘Hm?' The trainer grunts irritably.

‘Magic Wilkinson. The only trainer in history to have trained all five Classics winners in one season.'

Behind me Mrs Wilkinson gives a brief, snorting laugh. ‘Knows her racing, the girl. I'll give her that.' Watching me, she sits at a paper-strewn desk in the corner of the room. Beyond her, on the desk, there is a computer which looks out of place in this old-fashioned room.

‘Ride?' A surprisingly squeaky voice comes from the trainer. ‘Jockey, are you?'

‘I've ridden a lot of winners in pony-racing, sir.'

‘What was your name again?' asks Mrs Wilkinson. ‘Some of the trainers' children ride in pony races.'

‘I was christened Jasmine, but I've always been called Jay. I'm Jay Barton.'

She turns to the computer and taps at the keyboard. ‘They won't have heard of me,' I say. ‘The racing wasn't official.'

Mrs Wilkinson stops typing.

‘Gypsy racing?' Mr Wilkinson looks at me with more interest.

‘They said it was “unofficial”. That's all I was told.'

‘Blinkin' cheek,' Mr Wilkinson mutters to himself. ‘Walk up to my front door. Interrupt. Girl. Job. Bloomin' nerve.'

I keep quiet. He is not at all what I expected a trainer to be like, this confused-looking man with a squeaky voice. When he talks, it is in short bursts, like a mobile phone with bad reception.

‘Wants a holiday job. Pocket money. Be with the 'orses. Same old story.'

‘Would you need somewhere to stay?' asks Mrs Wilkinson.

I nod.

‘We are short-staffed, Clive,' Mrs Wilkinson murmurs.

‘Two lads. Walked out. No notice.' Mr Wilkinson looks at me with fury as if all this was my fault. ‘Muck out?'

Again, I nod.

‘Pay you pocket money. Give you a bed and board.'

‘Yes, sir.'

The trainer picks up a telephone on his desk and dials a number. The person at the other end answers almost immediately. ‘New girl for the yard,' says Mr Wilkinson in his high voice. ‘Calls herself Jasmine.'

There's an explosion of angry noises from the other end of the line. I'm sensing that the person receiving the call is not thrilled by this news.

Now there's so much swearing and shouting down the phone that Mr Wilkinson takes it away from his ear and then, after holding it in the air for a moment, places it in the receiver.

‘I prefer to be called Jay.' I say these words quietly.

He frowns, as if I have suddenly spoken in a foreign language.

‘I've never really felt like a Jasmine,' I explain.

There's a brief bark of laughter from Mrs Wilkinson.

‘See how you get on. Few days,' says Mr Wilkinson.

‘Thank you, Mr Wilkinson.'

‘Got to last the week first. In the yard. Office. Find the assistant trainer. Mr Bucknall.' He suddenly seems full of rage at what has just happened. ‘You're on your own,' he snaps. ‘Remember that. Any problems. Out. No room for silly little girls here.'

He jerks his head towards the door. As I make my exit, I look towards Mrs Wilkinson. She is staring at me, narrow-eyed, with a look I can't quite read.

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