Galloping around the racetrack was all Tom Christmas ever wanted to do. It was in his blood, it was in his pedigree. His father and grandfather were champion jockeys. He grew up with the sweet smell of hay, the tangy scent of sweaty horses, and the beautiful blue grass of Kentucky. He was on course to become the greatest jockey ever, but it wasnâ€™t meant to be.
|Silks and Sand|
Now, sitting on an old a track pony just inside the rail, Tom watched the morning workouts. He was trainer for Evan Stoddard of Stoddard Stables. Having grown up with Evan, the two men shared much in common. Tomâ€™s father, Tim, worked for Edward, Evanâ€™s father. And so it had been for at least four generations. The Stoddards and Christmases were twined into one horseracing dynasty. When the horses were winning, everyone was happy; when they werenâ€™t, things got quiet between them.
The air was coolâ€”far too cool for early April. A heavy frost gathered on the newly sprouted clover and a thin layer of fog hung low on the exercise track. As a horse galloped by, Tom looked at his stopwatch. â€œAh, good, Bradley, ease up and let him breeze another quarter,â€ he hollered over the sound of pounding hooves.
â€œOkay!â€ he replied. The bay colt he rode huffed steam from its nose like a dragon. Tucking the watch in his coat pocket, Tom took off his ball cap and ran his fingers through his short, sandy brown hair. Elsewhere on the track, the other grooms, Miguel de Luna and Tito Vasquez, worked some of the younger horses. The track pony shifted its weight. Tom reached down and gave the old chestnut gelding a pat on the neck. â€œHang in there, Rusty, morningâ€™s almost over.â€
â€œSo, howâ€™s Ziggy doing?â€ Evan asked, resting his arms on the rail.
â€œGood, good. Should have him ready for the meet at Charles Town.â€
â€œToo late for Keeneland.â€
â€œYup, but he wonâ€™t disappoint you,â€ Tom said.
â€œExcellent,â€ he replied, rubbing his hands together. Evan didnâ€™t normally spend much time watching horses work. His job, as owner, was pairing the right horse to the right race, hoping for a win. He didnâ€™t deal with the cold particularly well.
Standing about six feet tall, Evan was a bit on the lanky side; his rugged good looks, dark brown hair, with eyes to match left many women swooning. Still considered a prime target in his late thirties, he enjoyed the attention he received at the track. And he dressed for the occasion: normally a smart business suit, and sometimes boasting a fedora. The women flocked to him. When it was all over, he happily came home to his beautiful wife, Susanne.
But today, Evan found himself quite underdressed for the weather. He wore jeans, paddock boots, a red plaid flannel shirt, and a lightweight gray jacket. â€œHow about Lost Wanderer?â€
â€œHeâ€™s coming along slow after that tendon injury. Iâ€™d lay him up another month.â€
â€œDaddy? Can I ride Rusty with Mr. Tom?â€ a squeaky little voice said. Evan looked down and saw his seven-year-old daughter, Cindy. She was a picture of tiny beauty, a miniature version of her mother. Her silky blonde hair fell in curls about her neck and shoulders; her bright blue eyes sparkling even in the early morning light.
â€œUh, you need to ask Tom, honey.â€
She lifted her head. â€œMr. Tom, can I ride Rusty with you?â€
â€œSure, but heâ€™s only heading back to the barn. His old bones are tired of chasing down youngsters.â€ He reached and offered his hand. Evan ducked under the rail and helped Cindy into the saddle, putting her in front of Tom.
â€œCan I steer him?â€ She tried to get the reins out of his hands.
â€œHold on a minute; we need to wait for the other horses.â€ Tom held the reins out of her reach. He knew she loved to ride, and wondered why her father hadnâ€™t bought her a pony.
Evan stood next to the old gelding, petting his neck. â€œHey, Iâ€™m going to Toronto in a couple weeks.â€
â€œGonna check out the Woodbine meet?â€
â€œYeah. And I was gonna look at a few yearlings before the Keeneland sale.â€
â€œThatâ€™s in September. Gotta ways to go. Most of the youngâ€™uns are still out in the fields covered in mud.â€
â€œOh, thatâ€™s okay.â€
â€œEvan, remember, we have a deal. You said you wouldnâ€™t make any decisions without consulting me.â€
â€œYes, yes, I know. Iâ€™m just going to look.â€
Toronto in late April might as well have been Antarctica in the dead of winter. Evan shivered and pulled his coat closer around his neck. He cursed himself for coming here.
Driving to the track, he swore he saw a few patches of snow. Now as he stood not far from the rail, the afternoon sun did little to warm him. No, heâ€™d never survive in this country, he mused, rubbing his fingers through his gloves. Kentucky winters were bad enough.
The numbness in his fingers persisted. Evan thought about calling it a day. Heâ€™d seen two races and wasnâ€™t particularly impressed with the horses or the jockeys. Tomorrow, heâ€™d venture to one of the stud farms and see a crop of yearlings. He wasnâ€™t feeling very hopeful about the prospects; for some reason, there seemed to be a lack of good horses right now.
As the third race of the day was announced, the trumpet sounded, and the horses came onto the track. Evan looked at the race card, a $70,000 allowance race for fillies and mares.
He studied the names and particulars of each horse: age, sire, dam, breeder, owner, and jockey. Horse racing was a gamble for everyone. The breeder gambled that pairing the correct stallion (the sire) and the correct mare (the dam), would produce a wonder horse. In reality, less than 10 percent of the foals would go on to greatness. The owners gambled, hoping their horse was ready to run and win. The jockeys gambled with their livesâ€”piloting one thousand pound animals at forty miles an hour in close company. And the track patrons happily gambled with their money.
Evan watched the horses. One in particular got his interest, a bay filly named Innittowinnit. Her sire happened to be a past winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preaknessâ€”two of the three jewels in American racingâ€™s Triple Crown. No small feat for any horse; he was beaten by a nose in the Belmont.
Yes, this was a horse to keep an eye on, Evan thought as he focused on the jockeyâ€™s silks and tried to memorize the ownerâ€™s colors. As the horse passed, he noticed something oddâ€”a ginger colored ponytail poking out the back of the jockeyâ€™s helmet. He looked at the race program and saw the name: G. de Veoux. G? G who? he pondered. G evidently stood for girl in this case.
The horses were loaded into the starting gate. Evan kept his eyes on number three: Innittowinnit. She stood quietly in the starting gate, looking down the trackâ€”a good sign. The bell sounded, the gates flung open, and a dozen horses bolted away. A blur of colors passed the stands, the thunder of hooves barely audible over the roar of the crowd.
Evan held his small binoculars to his eyes. Innittowinnit took an early lead and appeared strong. The race, at a mile and a sixteenth, meant the jockeys needed to ride their mounts with tactical precision. Let a horse run too fast and you had nothing left for the homestretch. Let a horse cruise along, and you risked getting tangled up in the pack, unable to get free. Evan noticed the jockey for Innittowinnit kept the filly in good position. Theyâ€™d dropped to third in the backstretch, but that had little consequence.
As the horses rounded the turn into the homestretch, Evan saw the filly Innittowinnit in excellent position. The jockey had a left-handed whip, nudging the filly away from the rail and into open sand. They looked to finish strong.
â€œGo! Go!â€ he shouted, happily getting caught up in the moment. Around him everyone hollered at the top of their lungs. â€œCome on!â€ he cheered even louder.
The horses had less than two hundred yards to the finish line. Innittowinnit held on, maybe sheâ€™d pull it out right at the end, Evan thought, his numb fingers crossed. The filly was now second. Just as the jockey raised her whip, the horse on her right veered away from a right-handed whip and cut her off.
To add insult, the horse on her left gave no ground, so Innittowinnit was jostled roughly between horses. Evan held his breath. Most collisions on race tracks amounted to nothingâ€”except some angry jockeys. But on occasion, a horse would get bumped and charge up behind another, clipping its heels. And that was what happened. Innittowinnit clipped heels with the horse in front and stumbled.
Evan watched in horror as the horseâ€™s front legs seemingly disappeared from under her. It would end up being a terrible wreck. The rest of the field bore down behind them. Innittowinnit would go down, the jockey thrown, and both would cause a chain reaction, taking down more of the field.
But to Evanâ€™s utter amazement, it didnâ€™t happen. He watched the jockey pull on the reins and seemingly get the fillyâ€™s legs back, and after an awkward few strides, they were running.
Somehow, they finished third. Evan was quite impressed. How any jockey could manage to turn a nearly devastating event into a decent showing amazed him. Heâ€™d been around tracks long enough and seen some of racingâ€™s best jockeys end up in hospital for less. This jockey piqued his interest.
Making his way toward the back of the grandstand, Evan found the jockeyâ€™s dressing room. It was, of course, guarded by a particularly menacing security guard. Evan didnâ€™t mind waiting; heâ€™d checked the race card and it appeared the female jockey didnâ€™t have any other races that day.
â€œHello,â€ Evan said politely to the security guard.
â€œMay I help you, Sir?â€
â€œYes, is there a way I can speak to one of the jockeys?â€
â€œI can ask.â€ He opened the door and stuck his head in. After a few words with someone inside, he turned. â€œWho do you wanna speak to?â€
â€œUmm, this one.â€ He pointed to the race program. â€œG. de Veoux.â€
â€œAll right.â€ The guard turned back to the door. Evan could hear some of what he was saying. â€œOkay, sheâ€™s getting dressed; sheâ€™ll be out shortly.â€
â€œThank you, thank you very much.â€ Evan found a small spot of sunshine near the door. He didnâ€™t think heâ€™d ever thaw out. Could any place be so cold? He decided that when finished with business, heâ€™d find some sort of outdoor clothier and purchase long underwear. Tomorrow would be spent looking at yearlings, so he figured he had better have warmer clothes.
A few minutes later, a very petite, nicely dressed woman appeared in front of Evan. â€œOui? Vous m'avez demandÃ©, le monsieur?â€ she said in a very thick French-Canadian accent.
His jaw fell open slightly. She was beautiful. Standing perhaps 5â€™2â€ with ginger hair and brilliant green eyes, Evan thought she looked like an oversized doll that his daughter would play with. His heart began to beat faster and he had to remind himself that he was a happily married man. But this little doll was a total knockout.
He tried to say something back. â€œJeâ€¦suisâ€¦dÃ©solÃ©...Je que...ne fait pas... parle le franÃ§ais.â€
The woman threw back her head and laughed. â€œIt is okay, Monsieur, I speak English.â€
Evan let out a rather audible sigh and smiled. â€œThank God, because my French is terrible!â€ He struggled to pull off a glove. â€œUh, Iâ€™m Evan Stoddard from Stoddard Stables, Lexington, Kentucky.â€
She took his hand, noting that despite his gloves, they were ice cold. â€œGinger de Veoux of Toronto.â€
â€œPleasure to meet you.â€
â€œWould you like to go someplace warm? Your hands are like ice.â€
â€œYes, please! I donâ€™t really like the cold.â€
She giggled and led him to a small restaurant. Once inside, Evan felt more comfortable. They were seated at a table. â€œSo, Monsieur, why do you wish to speak to me? Do you have a horse here that needs a jockey?â€
â€œWell, I have quite a few horses; unfortunately, none of them are here.â€ He took off his gloves and coat. â€œI saw you in the third raceâ€”â€
â€œOh, that was a tough one.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know how you managed to keep that horse on her feet.â€ He picked up the menu and perused it. â€œBy all accounts, you both should have gone down.â€
â€œI ride with my senses.â€ She pointed to her head. â€œAnd most of the time itâ€™s the brain that tells me what to do long before I know whatâ€™s going onâ€¦I guess you could say I ride by instinct.â€
â€œFascinating. It serves you well.â€
The waiter came by and took their orders. Evan eased back in the chair. He still couldnâ€™t believe someone so beautiful rode race horses for a living. â€œUh, I donâ€™t wanna sound too personal, but as a woman, do you get many rides?â€
â€œNot as many as Iâ€™d like. Some owners dislike female jockeys; they feel weâ€™re not tough enough, or strong enough.â€ She reached her hand across the table. â€œTake my hand.â€
Evan was hesitant. He still fought the battle inside, and he feared anything would drive him mad when it came to this woman. No, no, this is purely business, he thought, you have a beautiful, loving wife at home, and a wonderful daughter; this is just business. He reached and took her hand. Ginger squeezed with all her might.
â€œChrist!â€ Evan gasped.
She held his hand in a death-grip for a moment before releasing. â€œSee, Iâ€™m strong.â€
â€œIâ€™d say.â€ He took his hand back, rubbing it. â€œLook, I know most jockeys have agents and ride for various owners, but I was wondering if youâ€™d be interested in riding for me?â€
â€œInteresting proposal.â€ She took a sip of water and sat back, lacing her fingers together. â€œAnd you would have enough horses to keep me employed?â€
â€œUh, probably not. I have twelve that are runners, and ten that are in training to start this year.â€
â€œNot a very big stable.â€
â€œNo, but itâ€™s an old one, founded in the mid-eighteen hundreds by my great-great-grandfather.â€
â€œMmm, history, and a special place in your heart.â€
Evan nodded. â€œIndeed.â€ He unwrapped his silverware, placing the napkin in his lap. â€œTo be fair, of course, I wouldnâ€™t expect you to ride exclusively for meâ€”just when I have horses running.â€
â€œAnd I would move to Kentucky?â€
â€œThat would make things much easierâ€¦I even have a guesthouse you could use.â€
â€œThis all sounds very attractive, Monsieur Stoddard, but I will have to give it some thought.â€
He fished around in the pocket of his blazer, finding a business card. â€œIâ€™ll be in town for a few more days; my cell phone number is on there. Please, call me if you wish to do business.â€
The next morning felt only a bit warmer than the previous day, and now a steady rain pelted down as Evan navigated to the stud farm. â€œWhat was the name of that place?â€ he said, grabbing a slip of paper. â€œT.C. Westmeath Stud Farm.â€
With some difficulty, he located it, and found a place to park. He got out, and was met by a small, older gentleman.
â€œGood morning, you must be Mr. Stoddard,â€ he said with a light French accent, offering his hand.
â€œIâ€™m Jean MÃ©rcod, the breeding manager.â€
â€œNice to meet you.â€
â€œSo youâ€™d like to look at some yearlings?â€ Jean guided Evan inside a small office. An old potbelly stove in the corner kept the room toasty warm.
Evan pulled a list from his pocket. â€œIâ€™d like to see these horses, if possible.â€
Jean took the list and read over it. â€œFine selections, Mr. Stoddard.â€
â€œWell, thisâ€™s been a family business for over one hundred years; I take my job seriously.â€
â€œYes, it appears soâ€¦Uh, would you care for a cup of tea before we head out?â€
He pondered the thought. Yes, he was still dreadfully cold. â€œThatâ€™d be lovely.â€
â€œRight, lemme put the kettle on.â€ Jean grabbed an old cast-iron teakettle, went to the sink, and ran water into it. â€œWonâ€™t take long to boil, stoveâ€™s quite hot.â€ He set the kettle on top of the stove and took two mugs from the shelf. â€œHow do you like your tea?â€
Evan chuckled. â€œWell, normally itâ€™s iced with loads of sugar. But on a day like this, I think Iâ€™ll have it hot with lots of sugar!â€
â€œAny cream?â€ Jean asked.
â€œHmm, never had it that way.â€
â€œWould you care to try?â€
â€œSure. Iâ€™m up for an adventure.â€ He eased himself into an overstuffed chair closest to the stove. Oh, the warmth felt good.
They drank tea and discussed horses, breeding, and bloodlines. When the mugs were empty, Jean escorted Evan out to the barn where the farm stallions were housed. Five lovely heads looked over stall doors.
â€œThis hereâ€™s Bold Nâ€™ Flashy; he was from the 1989 crop of Bold Ruckus,â€ Jean said, giving the stallion a caress on the muzzle.
â€œNice,â€ Evan replied, wandering down the row. He stopped in front of a bay stallion. The horse seemed rather plain, no fancy white markings on his face to distinguish him. His eyes, however, although appearing quite calm, held a fire deep inside them.
â€œOh, thatâ€™s War Cry.â€ Jean wandered over. â€œHeâ€™s by Unbridled out of Words of War.â€
â€œGood lines. Traces back through Mr. Prospector to Native Dancer, right?â€
â€œYes, yes, he does. You know your bloodstock, Mr. Stoddard.â€
â€œAnd to Nasrullah and Ribot on his damâ€™s side.â€
Evan smiled. â€œKnowing is all part of the business.â€
â€œWell, unfortunately this fellow sustained an injury as a two-year-old. He raced only twice. Didnâ€™t win anything, but we think with his background heâ€™ll be a great sire.â€ Jean reached into his pocket and took out a sugar cube. He winked at Evan. â€œShame on me.â€ Offering the sugar to War Cry, he gave the stallion a pat on the forehead. â€œHeâ€™s a good one.â€
â€œDoes he have any foals on the ground?â€
â€œOui, youâ€™ll see one.â€ Jean led the way out to the paddocks. He held up Evanâ€™s list and pointed. â€œHereâ€™s this one. Heâ€™s by Bold Nâ€™ Flashy.â€
Evan watched as the horse meandered around the field. â€œNice, looks well put together for a yearling.â€
Behind, the thunder of hooves and squealing of a horse made Evan spin around in alarm. Next to them, a large, chestnut horse careened around the muddy paddock like a maniac.
â€œGeez! What the hell is that?!â€
Jean shook his head. â€œThatâ€™s War Monger.â€
Evan watched the animal. It was in a full-on gallop, not giving thought that its hooves barely touched the ground. The horse neared the fence, and in an instant, changed directions and was off and running again. â€œOne helluva horse.â€
â€œHeâ€™s to be sent to Keeneland.â€
â€œOh? So heâ€™s for sale?â€
â€œYes, of course. A long-yearlingâ€”born January second last year. Thatâ€™s War Cryâ€™s colt.â€
Evan observed as the horse flew around the paddock for what seemed hours. The horse never faltered; he was pure speed and stamina, the mud was doing little to slow him down. â€œWhat do you think heâ€™ll go for?â€
â€œMmm, not sure; War Cryâ€™s not very well known in America. His breedingâ€™s sound, but I donâ€™t know for sure what the owner was thinking with this cross.â€
â€œHeâ€™s well put together: big, solid, good bone and muscle.â€
Jean leaned against the fence as they watched the spectacle. â€œThat, he is.â€
Evan continued to watch. â€œWhen we get back to the office, Iâ€™d like to look more at his pedigree.â€
â€œCertainly. Although I do warn you, heâ€™s quite spirited, and for some reason, highly opinionated about what goes on with his life.â€
â€œI see. I like a bit of fire in my horses.â€
â€œHey, boss?â€ Tito said as he came into the stable office. He was another member of the Stoddard dynasty. His father immigrated from Mexico years ago and found work from Edward Stoddard. Tito had been born on the farm, his mother having gone into unexpected labor. Despite his Mexican heritage, he proudly defined himself as an American. This was his country, and he loved it.
Tom looked up from his paperwork. â€œWhat?â€
â€œDo you want me to poultice Wandererâ€™s leg?â€
â€œYes, thank youâ€¦And can you take Ziggy out for a walk?â€
â€œOkay, how long?â€
â€œUh, twenty minutes should be fineâ€¦And cold hose him after.â€
As he returned to work on the training schedule, Tom wondered how Evanâ€™s trip to Toronto was going. Normally, by now, Evan would have called once or twice wanting approval to purchase a horse. The phone had been eerily silent. Perhaps he wasnâ€™t finding anything, he thought, making an annotation under one horseâ€™s name.
Tomâ€™s life as a trainer wasnâ€™t particularly bad. Sure the hours were long, the work difficult, but that didnâ€™t bother him in the slightest. His job at least kept him near what he loved: horses.
At the age of sixteen, he got his apprentice license, which allowed him to ride in organized race meets. Before that, it had been back road dirt tracks, the occasional pony race, or exercising horses for his father. Heâ€™d basically been born on a horse. The earliest photos his father had of him were sitting on the saddle in front of his pappy. He learned to ride before he could walk, and his horse sense was incredibly keen.
Unfortunately, a late teenage growth spurt left him out of the racing light forever. Sprouting from 5â€™4â€ to 5â€™7â€ did not help his career. He also battled with his weight. After ending up numerous times in the hospital for malnourishment or dehydration, Tom realized there was no way to follow his dream. Too tall, and too heavy, he turned to what he knew second best: training.
Now, at age thirty-eight, Tom knew just how his life would play out. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been successful trainers after their racing careers ended.
Outside the office was the sound of hooves on the packed dirt barn aisle. Tom glanced up to see the large gray head of Lost Wanderer sticking in the door. â€œHey, boss?â€ a voice said.
He smiled. â€œWhat?â€
Tito ducked under the horseâ€™s neck. â€œCan you take a look at this? Iâ€™m not liking what I see.â€
â€œSure.â€ Tom got up and went out. Tito had removed the bandage from the horseâ€™s right hind leg. It was swollen and warm to the touch. â€œOh, not good.â€
â€œI had a look in his stall; I think he lay down last night and might have gotten castâ€”there were hoof scrapes on the wall where he tried to get up.â€
â€œBut he was up this morning, right?â€
â€œYes, yes. He was up, waiting for his breakfast. I bet he banged his leg when he got up.â€
Tom sighed. Wander was one of their better runners, not to mention a terrifically sweet horse. Everyone at the farm believed the big gray had a heart of gold. Heâ€™d been in nineteen races, winning a fair amount of them. Now, as a four-year-old, the gelding still had plenty of run left in him. But one day while out galloping, heâ€™d strained a tendon in his leg quite badly. Evan didnâ€™t even cringe at the hefty vet bills, he loved Wanderer too. The horse had won him close to a million dollars; he was worth keeping around.
â€œOkay, take him to the wash stall and get the hose runningâ€¦Iâ€™m gonna get some Bute to help with the pain and swelling.â€ He reached up and gave the gelding a gentle caress on the forehead. â€œWeâ€™ll get ya feelinâ€™ better, my friend.â€
Four days later, Evan returned from Toronto. He pulled into the driveway just after dinner on Friday evening. Cindy ran out to meet him. â€œDaddy! Daddy!â€ She leapt into his arms.
â€œOoohh, hello my little Southern belle!â€ He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a kiss. â€œHave you been a good girl?â€
â€œYes, Daddy, of course! Whatâ€™d you bring me?â€
â€œBring you?â€ He decided to play a little game.
â€œDaddy, you always bring me something when youâ€™ve been away.â€
â€œWell, what if Daddy was busy and didnâ€™t get the time?â€
She frowned. â€œBut you always make time!â€
He set her down, went to the back of the dark green Land Rover, and opened the rear door. Digging through his suitcase, he produced a small box. â€œItâ€™s another one for your collection.â€
Cindy took the box. â€œThank you, Daddy!â€ She carefully opened it. â€œOh, pretty!â€ Reaching in, she removed a small, brown ceramic horse. Even at age seven, she knew it was delicate and needed to be handled with care. â€œI love it!â€
Evan saw Suzanne come out. He was very happy to see her. The last two days had been spent with Ginger, working out the particulars of her employment. All that time with a beautiful woman and he felt terribly hot under the collar. He hoped Suzanne would oblige him. â€œHello, sweetheart,â€ he said with a broad smile.
â€œHave a good trip?â€ she asked, giving him a peck on the cheek.
â€œNot bad.â€ He zipped the suitcase shut, set it on the ground, and closed the door. â€œBusiness as usual.â€ Picking up the bag, he headed into their 150-year-old house. It was a stately, white antebellum mansion modeled in the style for the period. Over the years, improvements had been made, but great care was always taken to keep the structure as original as possible.
Suzanne followed him inside. â€œHave you had dinner, dear?â€
â€œYeah, had a bite after I landed.â€ He stopped and turned, giving her the sexiest look he could muster. Evan might have been tired from all the travel, but he wanted his wife in the worst way. Heâ€™d find the energy for that. â€œHow about we go upstairs?â€ he said in a husky tone.
She knew what he had in mind, and debated if she felt up to it. â€œNow?â€
â€œCindy, why donâ€™t you get ready for bed?â€ Suzanne gave her a shooing off.
â€œAw, do I have to? I wanna spend time with Daddy.â€
â€œYou can spend time with him tomorrow.â€
â€œOh, okay,â€ she huffed and stomped up the stairs to her room.
Evan wasted no time. He hurried up to their bedroom, dumped his suitcase on the low-backed settee at the foot of the bed, and commenced to undressing.
Suzanne wandered in a few minutes later. She made sure Cindy brushed her teeth and headed to bed. â€œWhatâ€™s the hurry?â€ she asked, closing the door and turning the lock.
â€œI missed you.â€ Evan slipped out of his briefs and stood naked in front of her. â€œI really missed you.â€ His state of arousal quite apparent, he went over and put his arms around her, feeling the soft fabric of her dress. â€œMake love to me, my beautiful wife.â€
Images of Ginger flashed into his head, and Evan fought to get them out. Suzanne was his wife, and he loved her. He took his vows of marriage seriously and never even dreamt of cheating on her. But Gingerâ€™s face kept appearing in his mind.
He kissed Suzanne with passion, his hands moving over her body. Pulling her close, he wanted her to feel his fullness against her, to know his desires. They had a good marriage; Evan thought perhaps a little more time spent making love would be better, but they were both very busy. So when the opportunity presented, he didnâ€™t hesitate to take advantage.
Suzanne slipped from his arms and started undressing. Evan lay across the bed, watching her with enthusiasm. He fought to replace the images of Ginger with those of his wife, now in all her naked glory.
She was considered by most to be a â€œtrophy wife,â€ fairly tall at 5â€™10â€, buxom, with flowing golden hair that Evan, with his horse-mindedness, thought resembled the silky, fine, flaxen mane of a chestnut horse. Her eyes were the deepest cobalt heâ€™d ever seen, her body perfect, even after one child.
Joining him on the bed, Evan greedily took her in his arms again. He kissed her hard, his passion swelling even greater. Lifting her slightly, he placed her on her back. His hand slid down between her legs, his finger moving gently. Suzanne moaned and opened her legs. Evan felt her warm moistness calling to him; he was almost beside himself.
Nudging her legs farther apart, he adjusted his position, and slowly entered. Her body enveloped him with familiar comfort. This was the woman he loved, not Ginger. As he began to move, he gazed down at his wife; she had her eyes closed, seemingly enjoying his attentions.
Evan closed his eyes, battling to get the thoughts of Ginger from his head. But the harder he tried, the more she appeared, stirring him into a frenzy with his lovemaking.
His strokes came harder, he plunged deeper into Suzanne, his tension building to climax. She felt his sense of urgency and opened her legs wider. Despite his roughness, she derived her own pleasure, moaning and writhing under him. Her body responding, muscles tightening around him like a vice.
Evan moved faster, his breath coming in short grunts, the tension in his body building deliciously. In his mind, the images of Ginger refused to fade. He didnâ€™t care right now, his beautiful wife was lying beneath him and he was going to show her how much he loved her.
Fighting back his climax, he tuned his senses into her body. Her muscles were so tight, squeezing him with every stroke. Suzanne moaned louder, reaching down, she let her finger play around, pleasuring herself even more. He leaned and cupped one of her soft, full breasts, taking the nipple in his mouth. Sucking greedily, he kept in time with his movement, his tongue playing over the firm flesh.
He dove deeply into her, slowing slightly; her special spot was somewhere close. Evan longed to find it and send her over the edge. Rising up more on his knees, he plunged deeply into her. Suzanne could take every inch of him and he wasnâ€™t complaining. She cried out in ecstasy as he found the right spot. Picking up his pace, he used his body, his own gift to pleasure her, all the while fighting his urge to climax.
When the tension reached a pinnacle, Suzanne gasped and cried. A wave washed over her body, the flood of feelings and sensations were amazing. Evan fed off her climax. With a few solid thrusts, he pushed as deeply as he could go. He came, throwing his head back and letting out a loud growl. Finishing with a few slow, deliberate strokes, he worked to catch his breath. Gazing down at his wife, he smiled. â€œI love you.â€
The next morning, Tom walked Rusty back to the barn. It wasnâ€™t a fancy barn by any standards. Built probably 70 years ago, it had 24 stalls: half on one side, half on the other, backing up against a common wall. An outer, covered aisleway allowed horses to be walked when the weather didnâ€™t cooperate. The white paint was peeling in quite a few places, some of the boards had begun to rot, and dust covered much of the surfaces.
With the morning workouts accomplished, it was time to tend to the horses and review the training schedule.
Tom untacked Rusty, gave him a good brushing, and put him away. Picking up a hay net, he affixed it to the screw eye on the top of the Dutch door. The horse grabbed a mouthful and munched away happily. â€œOkay, pal, Iâ€™ll check on you later,â€ Tom said as he headed toward the office.
The noise of an approaching truck got his attention. He waited to see what it was. A large horse van pulled into the yard. A lot of crashing and banging noises emanated from inside it. The driver hopped out and approached Tom. â€œHi, got a delivery for a Mr. Evan Stoddard.â€
â€œGot a horse, a colt that Mr. Stoddard purchased. Where can we unload him?â€
Tom scratched his head. â€œUh, there is fine.â€
The driver turned and hollered, â€œOkay, boys, you can take him off!â€
One of the grooms climbed out, hurriedly opened the door, and brought down the ramp. Another groom wrestled with the horse inside. More crashing and banging went on amidst some hollering and the occasional swear word. Finally the horse came into view. He was a large coppery chestnut with a long stripe down his face. Tom could see fire in his eyes; this horse wanted to explode.
As the groom led him down the ramp, the colt got his feet on the soil, and promptly reared, yanking the groom right off the ground. Tom noticed that the Chifney anti-rearing bit attached to the horseâ€™s halter had little effect. The colt screamed and boxed with his front legs. His eyes ringed white with anger. This horse had issues.
â€œWhere do you want him?â€ the driver asked, trying to help get the colt down on all four feet.
Tom pointed. â€œThe end stall right there.â€ He whistled to one of his grooms. â€œHey, Bradley, get the door on twenty-four!â€
â€œYes, Sir!â€ Bradley called as he hurried to open the door. The driver and groom fought the angry colt all the way to the stall. Along the way, the horse managed to lash out and kick the groom in the thigh. He bellowed in pain, but refused to give up his grasp on the lead.
Tom stepped forward to help. In the blink of an eye, the colt snaked its head out and bit him on the right arm, tearing a large chunk of material from his jacket sleeve.
â€œSon-of-a-bitch!â€ Tom barked, trying to get away from the wild beast. â€œGet that damn horse in a stall!â€
â€œWeâ€™re trying!â€ the groom called and he was bashed around by the colt. Hooves and dirt were flying everywhere.
Once inside, they quickly removed the bit and lead ropes, and made a hasty retreat. Bradley slammed the door just in time. The colt shot its head out, teeth gnashing, ears pinned. He commenced to kicking the daylights out of the walls of the stall.
Tom couldnâ€™t believe what he saw. This horse was nuts. Why did Evan go and buy a horse like this? And without consulting him first. They had a deal, didnâ€™t they? He looked at the sleeve of his jacket. The fabric was gone and the white poly stuffing hung out in shreds. The driver approached with a clipboard. â€œHey, can you sign here?â€
Tom checked the information. â€œYou sure this is the right horse?â€
â€œYes, Sir, the vet verified the tattoo at the time of boarding. Do you wanna check it to make sure?â€
He looked at the stall, the amount of crashing and kicking had not stopped. The colt frantically bashed away and squealed in anger.
â€œUm, no, Iâ€™ll leave that to the new owner.â€ He signed the invoice and handed it back. The driver nodded, gave him a copy, and returned to the van. The groom had already put the ramp up and closed the door. They seemed quite relieved to have the demon off their hands.
Tom walked to the main house. He knocked three times on the heavy oak door and entered. Since the two families went back a long way, there wasnâ€™t much formality needed when going into the house. He found Evan in the study, behind his desk. â€œEv, are you out of your mind?!â€
He looked up from his work. â€œI take it War Monger has arrived.â€
â€œWar Monger? Yeah, appropriateappropriate name all right.â€ He walked in circles in front of the desk. â€œLook, Ev, I thought we had an agreementâ€¦When you took over for your pappy, and I took over for mine, we agreed thereâ€™d be no surprises.â€
â€œAnd so far, there havenâ€™t been.â€
â€œSo whyâ€™d you start now?â€
Evan shuffled through some papers. â€œWhen I was in Toronto the other week, I went to a couple of farms. One of them had numerous yearlings that interested me. They had some fine racing stock there. I was shown a crop of youngsters being primed for the Keeneland sale. War Monger was among them. Thereâ€™s something about that horseâ€”â€
â€œYeah, heâ€™s nuts!â€
Evan picked up a piece of paper and offered it to Tom. â€œHereâ€™s his pedigree. He was born a champion.â€
Tom studied the names. â€œWell, heâ€™s got all the right members in his familyâ€¦Yes, some of the best bloodlines in racing historyâ€¦But you got one problem.â€
â€œTom, weâ€™ve taken on some difficult horses and made â€™em winners. Whatâ€™s to say we canâ€™t do this with him?â€
â€œI dunno. But as we speak, heâ€™s taking apart your barn one board at a time.â€
Evan rested his elbows on the desk, putting his face in his hands. â€œOh, dear.â€
â€œTell me, how much did you pay for that thing?â€
He looked up, pulling his fingers through his hair. â€œUmm, no, one hundred thousand.â€
â€œEvan! Are you out of your mind?! That money couldâ€™ve bought two or three yearlings at Keeneland.â€
â€œThereâ€™s a champion in there, I know it.â€
Tom folded his arms. â€œThen maybe you should train him.â€ He turned slightly. â€œLook, the bastard took a chunk out of my jacket.â€
â€œHow on earth do you plan on making a runner out of him?â€
â€œThere has to be some way. Running is in his genes.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve known each other all our lives. But you have to understand thereâ€™s only so much Iâ€™ll do for that horse. If in the end, heâ€™s untrainable, then you need to make a decision.â€
Tom turned to leave.
Evan stood. â€œTom?â€
He stopped. â€œWhat?â€
â€œWell, as long as youâ€™re already mad at me, I got one more surprise.â€
â€œI found us a good jockey.â€
â€œWhat is it with you? Your pappy was crazy with ideas and money; I donâ€™t know how he didnâ€™t manage to run this stable into the ground.â€
â€œYes, my pappy gambled and took chances. And your pappy was a great trainer. Together, they built this racing empire on chancesâ€¦ Look, Iâ€™ve been conservative for many years, and while we do well at the meets, thereâ€™s been a lack of great horses coming out of this barn.â€
â€œWhoâ€™s the jock?â€
â€œHer name is Ginger de Veoux.â€
Tom threw his arms in the air. â€œYou got a chick jockey?! Oh, you have gone nuts!â€
â€œSheâ€™s good, I tell you. I saw her in a race that was pretty rough. She stood her ground.â€
â€œDid she win?â€
â€œTook third, but I liked the way she handled herself.â€
â€œAnd when does she show up?â€
â€œNext week. Sheâ€™s just finishing up at Woodbine.â€
Tito and Miguel stood several feet away from War Mongerâ€™s stall; neither wanted to venture any closer. The colt whirled around the stall, kicking and bashing. Heâ€™d been at it for over an hour and showed no signs of stopping. â€œWhoâ€™s gonna go in and give him water?â€ Tito asked.
â€œMaybe we should tell Mr. Stoddard to do it, being itâ€™s his horse.â€
Miguel scratched his head. â€œWho, amigo? The horse or the owner?â€
â€œIâ€™m not going in there; maybe we can get Bradley to do it.â€
Tom walked down the aisle. â€œWhatâ€™s the matter?â€
â€œCrazy horse hasnâ€™t stopped yet. Weâ€™d like to give him hay and water, but weâ€™re afraid to get near him,â€ Tito said, waving his hand.
â€œHmm, wellâ€¦â€ Tom walked closer to the stall. The horse shot its head out and snapped at him.
He jumped out of the way. â€œI say we leave him in there until he settles down.â€
â€œWithout food and water?â€ Miguel asked.
â€œRight now, he doesnâ€™t seem to want it.â€ Tom headed to the office. Going to a bookshelf, he took down a copy of the stallion registry from a few years ago. Sitting down, he flipped through pages until he found the horse he was looking for: War Mongerâ€™s sire. While the sire wasnâ€™t impressive, his bloodlines traced back to some of the best race horses in American history. Mr. Prospector, Raise a Native, Native Dancer, Buckpasser, Ribot, Nasrullah, all stallions that proved themselves on the racetrack and in the stud shed. So what was up with this horse? The breeding was there, but the temperament wasnâ€™t.
Tom got up and walked around. He had no clue how to deal with a horse this angry. Stopping at a mirror that hung on the wall, he gazed into it and realized there were quite a few gray hairs showing up around his temples. He didnâ€™t consider this a stressful job. Yes, there was the occasional drama, but for the most part, everything ran on a schedule.
War Monger, however, was threatening to give him lots more gray hair. And what about this female jockey? He couldnâ€™t believe Evan would go off the deep end and not consult him on business deals and horse purchases; what was going on in his head?
Returning to the desk, Tom went back to his paperwork. He guessed maybe three hours passed; the noise from stall 24 finally lessened. War Monger must be tiring, he thought, getting up and stretching.
Around the barn, horses whinnied, indicating feeding time. Then there was the noise of buckets being filled and hung in stalls. Some horses were unsettled eaters, diving into their grain, getting a mouthful and bashing the bucket against the wall with their heads. All familiar mealtime sounds.
Wandering out of the office, he headed to stall 24. War Monger stood with his head out, a sour expression on his face, and bashing the door with his front legs. â€œCome on, fella, how about some peace and quiet?â€
War Monger pinned his ears, and gnashed his teeth. Tom saw the hay net sitting a few feet from the stall door. Keeping his eyes on the beast, he bent down and picked it up. The horse stopped. He stood, waiting for food. War Monger was covered in dried, crusty sweat. Tom would have loved to have given the horse a nice warm bath and a thorough grooming, but for now, just getting close to the beast was enough of a danger.
â€œOh, you want this?â€ Tom said, gingerly moving closer. Reaching out, he held the net filled with hay between himself and the horse. War Monger stretched his neck out and grabbed a mouthful.
â€œGood, eh? We got first-rate Kentucky hay here.â€ He held it so the horse could eat. Tom didnâ€™t feel comfortable with the thought of having his back to the horse while he tied up the net.
Tito walked by. â€œBoss? You crazy?â€
â€œNo, heâ€™s hungryâ€¦Trying to settle him down and make friends.â€
â€œHow are we gonna get him water?â€
Tom rubbed his face with the back of his hand. â€œCan you get me three more flakes of hay?â€
â€œSure.â€ Tito disappeared and came back with a large armload of hay.
â€œOkayâ€¦Now, can you pitch it over his head to the far back of the stall?â€
He shifted the hay around. â€œIâ€™ll try.â€ Edging a little closer, Tito lined up and hurled the hay through the door, over the top of the horseâ€™s head. War Monger spooked, snorted, and ducked back into the stall.
Tom stepped away, letting the horse go to the hay in the stall. â€œGimme the hose, will you?â€
â€œComing right up.â€ He went down the aisle and pulled the hose back. â€œOkay, boss, itâ€™s on and ready to go.â€
â€œThanks. Iâ€™m gonna go in and try to fill the water buckets. I want you to grab a manure fork and stand guard.â€
â€œYouâ€™re the only one out here right now.â€
â€œOh, lucky me!â€
Tom watched the horse tearing at the hay, yes, he was hungry, very hungry. His hour upon hour of kicking and bashing probably wasnâ€™t good for his legs, but right now, Tom wasnâ€™t concerned with that.
Quietly loosening the catch on the door, he opened it. War Monger looked up from his meal, but didnâ€™t charge.
â€œCome on, Tito,â€ he whispered as he slid carefully into the stall. Tito came in and positioned himself between the horse and his boss.
* * *