AFTER BEING COOPED UP IN THAT BOXCAR FROM Belmont to Saratoga, Fireside seems just about as desperate to run as I am to ride. That horse tugs at the reins in the hopes I’ll let them loose, and he puffs like a steam engine each time his lead leg strikes the ground. Riding any racehorse for its first workout after traveling is like setting off a stick of dynamite—all that energy needing to get out.
And Fireside is no different.
Sure, it’s the morning of opening day and all. Heck, everyone’s excited. But Fireside is jumpier than usual and it makes me wonder if he knows something about this here racing season that I don’t.
“Take that horse through his paces, Jack,” Mr. Hodge calls to me from the rail. “I want him working hard at least six furlongs.”
“Sure thing.” I jerk my knees, and Fireside springs into a canter. You never work a horse hard the same day he’s racing, but the down days are different. They say every extra pound a horse carries takes a length off at the finish line, and boy do they put on weight fast. You’ve got to keep them running or they get a belly on them. As far as I know, Fireside won’t be competing for a few weeks, so it’s extra important to keep him trim.
Fireside is the biggest and fastest horse I’ve ever had the chance to put my legs around. His sleek, gleaming coat is charcoal gray, nearly black, and his chest is as broad as the end of a barn. Despite his size, he’s surprisingly nimble, able to skitter in and out of the pack like a sparrow darting between branches.
“Pick up the pace!” Mr. Hodge hollers, but I can’t barely hear him. He’s already long behind us, swallowed up by the morning mist. It’s my favorite time of day, when the sun peeks over the tops of the pine trees and makes the fog look like a cloud decided to settle itself down on the track.
I give Fireside two taps with the whip and cluck in his ear. By my estimate, we cut two seconds off our next furlong. To top it off, Fireside’s ears are still twitching, which means he ain’t too serious about the run. This horse has a lot more to offer.
As we breeze past the next post, I give Fireside some slack. He takes every inch of those reins and really pours it on. Anyone who says that racing is cruel—that horses don’t like digging down for that mile or so—has never been in the saddle of a world-class Thoroughbred as it’s begging to tear down the stretch. Centuries of breeding’s done it to them. Racing is in their blood. It’s in their blood like it’s in mine.
When we circle around to the backstretch, the only thing sparkling brighter than Mr. Hodge’s pocket watch is his smile. It makes the creases in his leathery face seem even deeper. “Great time, son,” he calls as we gallop past.
Bucky, one of the other exercise boys and my best chum in the horse business, is waiting for me on the outside rail. He brings his pony alongside Fireside, and we loop back, making sure to get ourselves out of the way of other riders coming through. Sweat glistens on Fireside’s withers. “You sure were moving there,” Bucky says. “Let me guess. You were thinking about driving one of those Alfa Romeos in the Monaco Grand Prix.”
“Actually, it was a Bugatti in the Belgian.”
“It’s always Bugattis with you.”
“What can I say? I like Bugattis.”
After we make our way back to Mr. Hodge, I wait for him to look up at me from his notes. “Fireside lifted his head again,” I say. “He was doing the same thing back at Belmont, remember?”
Mr. Hodge takes off his felt fedora and picks invisible lint off it like he does every time he thinks hard on something.
“Given any more thought to that shadow roll?” I ask. A shadow roll is a fluffy pad that rests across the bridge of a horse’s nose. It would block the lower part of Fireside’s vision to keep him from getting spooked by shadows underfoot.
Mr. Hodge studies Fireside while he chews that cigar of his. The smoke smells like the applewood my family burns back home. “Fit him up for one,” he says. “We’ll make a champion out of that horse yet.” Then he looks up at me. “And a jockey out of you.”
That’s just about the nicest thing Mr. Hodge has ever said to me. I smile so big he could stick a muck shovel in my mouth without it touching my cheeks. I snap the reins and head off the track alongside Bucky.
“Did you hear that?” Bucky bounces in his saddle like a puppy waiting to chase after a stick. “Mr. Hodge is gonna bump you up to jockey soon.”
“He didn’t say anything about soon.”
“But someday,” Bucky says. “Someday. Me, I’ll be lucky to shine your riding boots.”
“Don’t talk down about yourself that way.”
“Aw, you know it and I know it, Jack. I’m no better at riding horses than Fireside here is at knitting.”
“Pipe down,” I tell him. “Fireside’s a good knitter. He made me a scarf last Christmas.”
Bucky grins at that, and his two front teeth press down so hard I think he might bite his bottom lip clean off. With teeth like his, Bucky’s nickname didn’t take too much figuring out.
“I grew up on horseback,” I say. “My grandpa used to tell me I came into the world holding the birth cord like it was a set of reins and I ain’t stopped since.”
The thought of my family makes my thighs tense up around my mount. I wonder what my baby sister, Penny, looks like now. I haven’t seen her—or the rest of my family—in over three years, not since I was twelve and my dad sent me off with that rat Tweed McGowan to learn the horse business.
“The first thing you gotta do if you want to start riding better is raise those irons up,” I say to Bucky, pointing to his stirrups. “You ain’t never going to get comfortable if you keep riding Western like you do.”
Bucky ignores me. “You watch,” he says. “You’ll be bumped up to bug boy, win your first forty races right in a row, and be a full jockey in no time. Then, you’ll forget all about the rest of us.”
“How could I forget about you?” I say. “You owe me a quarter.”
“A quarter? When you start riding for real, you won’t bother stooping down for a crisp, new Ben Franklin, let alone a quarter. Things are going to take off for you, Jack. I can feel it.”
“Does that mean I’m not getting my quarter?”
Fireside gives a little buck right then, and I hunch forward so as not to get tossed. I pat him on the neck and he seems to settle down some. When he bucks a second time, I know someone must be coming. Fireside gets jittery around strangers.
Then I see him.
In his gray suit and black fedora, the man is dressed too fancy to be a track worker. Even so, I can tell he ain’t no pencil pusher. His nose is pushed in so bad it looks like he took a few too many shots to the snot locker. A few thousand too many.
“That’s one fine horse you’ve got there,” the man says.
One of the first things Mr. Hodge told me when I started working with Pelton Stables was never to converse with strangers who show up around the stable. He said folks like that are always looking for trouble. I nod to the man out of common politeness and guide Fireside to the far end of the shed.
“Yes, sir,” the man continues as he trails alongside me. “That horse looks as sure as a Roosevelt dollar, he does.”
As usual, Niles, Fireside’s groom, is waiting for us. Niles always wears the same getup: a white, long-sleeved shirt and baggy pants with suspenders. He always wears the same eyes too—the kind that tell you his mouth is smiling just a few inches below. Even though I’m the one supposed to do it, Niles always hot-walks Fireside. He says the walking is as good for him as it is for the horse. Niles can say what he wants, but I’m glad to hand the bridle over. Leading a horse around and around in a circle until it cools down is a bigger bore than watching McIntoshes grow on the branch during a drought. Not to mention that all you need to do it is one good arm and the ability to turn to the left.
“Everything all right there, Mr. Jack?” Niles asks. His eyes flick toward the shifty guy.
“Fine,” I say.
Niles helps me to the ground. After I thank him, I start toward the barn. Most of us workers sleep at local boardinghouses, but if there’s a free stall at whatever track we’re working, I take it. The chirping of the crickets and the snorting and stomping of the horses set me at ease.
When I get to my stall, I make sure everything is the way I left it. My unmade cot sits against one wall. Spoons, the spider monkey I picked up in a dice game down at Hialeah, is rolled up in the blankets, snoring away like an idling twostroke engine. He has pulled off his black cap, but he’s still wearing the purple and white striped silk jacket Mrs. Dalton, the boardinghouse keeper down in Belmont, made for him. Sure, that monkey is a pain in the keister, always stealing fruit and knocking things over, but his beady black eyes and the fuzzy ring of white fur around his wrinkled old-man face grow on you. Not to mention that he settles the horses down something serious.
The apple crate next to my cot is stacked high with things I like to look at before I go to sleep: old horse journal clippings, some car brochures, a few comic books, and some French postcards. I begin to straighten out the piles.
Someone clears his throat behind me. The phlegmy rattle sounds like one of those newfangled chain saws I saw at the fair ripping through a log. “So, what do you think of Fireside?” the guy in the suit says.
“Who are you?” I say right back. “You ain’t even supposed to be back here.”
He holds out his hand. “Name’s Jasper Cunningham.”
I don’t want to shake on account of I don’t trust the guy, so I spend some extra time taking off my helmet and hanging it on the hook I’ve nailed to the wall. The helmet’s seen better days. The silk is frayed to bare threads, and the cardboard skullcap is tattered and soggy. Nevertheless, it was my first helmet and the thing’s brought me nothing but good luck. And a new one costs two and a half bucks. Who’s got that kind of money?
Jasper gets the hint and slips his hand back into his pocket. “Listen, kid,” he says. His voice goes quiet and he steps toward me. “I know what life is like for you exercise boys. You’re treated worse than these here horses. What are you, fourteen?”
I want to correct him, to tell him I’m fifteen, but I keep my mouth shut and take my good old time hanging up my crop. Neither of us says a word for a while, but being around the track so long, I know the sound of fingers riffling through cash.
I turn around.
Jasper’s smile wrinkles that lump of a nose of his so bad it looks like a chewed up wad of gum. He knows he’s got my attention. “Look, I have an offer for you, kid,” he says, stepping close enough that he could grab me if he wanted. “I have an offer for you, and I think it’s one you’ll have a hard time turning down.”
Copyright © 2009 by Eric Luper All rights reserved