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"Stardust?" ten-year-old Ashleigh Griffen called as she stepped inside the barn, a Ziploc bag of apple pieces in her hand. "Ready to ride?"
Ashleigh's pretty chestnut mare hung her head over her stall door and let out an eager whinny in response. Ashleigh laughed and hurried down the aisle. After being grounded from riding for nearly a month because of a bad math grade, Ashleigh was finally being allowed to get on a horse again. She could hardly wait.
Farther down the barn aisle, she saw her father, Derek Griffen, holding Wanderer, one of the Griffens' prized broodmares. Jonas McIntyre, their stable hand, was crouched down, running his hands over the mare's black legs. Wanderer's new filly, Velvet, stood by the mare's side, watching the humans with deep curiosity, her fuzzy brown ears twitching.
"Is everything okay?" Ashleigh asked. She tucked her long brown hair behind her ears and eyed Wanderer anxiously. Every one of the ten broodmares her parents owned was important to the success of Edgardale, their small breeding farm, but Wanderer was the most valuable. One of Wanderer's colts, nicknamed Slammer, had brought $200,000 at the Keeneland yearling sale last year. But Wanderer had been going through a streak of bad luck: She'd almost died of colic not long ago, and her last colt, Midnight Wanderer, had had to be put down because of a broken leg.
"She's fine" Mr. Griffen said. "We just wanted to check her over."
Mr. Griffen gave Wanderer's shoulder a pat, then nodded to Jonas, who unclipped the mare from the crossties and led her out of the barn.
Ashleigh headed for the storage area, where the wheelbarrow andpitchforks were kept.
"And where do you think youre going?" Mr. Griffen asked, folding his arms across his chest and narrowing his eyes.
Ashleigh's stomach dropped. That morning her parents had told her she wouldn't be grounded anymore. Her father couldn't have forgotten already.
"But I got Bs on my last two math tests, and an A on the last worksheet, remember?" She faltered. "As soon as I get my stalls cleaned I was going to ride."
Her father frowned, and Ashleigh bit her lower lip. He couldn't have changed his mind. She held her breath and waited.
"Cleaning the stalls could be a problem," he finally said.
"Why?" Ashleigh asked.
Her father smiled and winked at her. "Because Jonas and I cleaned them for you."
"You did?" She flung her arms around him. cc Thanks, Dad. And I'm not grounded anymore, right? I can ride Stardust?"
"Yes, you can ride," Mr. Griffen said, hugging her back. "Your mother and I are very proud of how hard you've worked on your grades'
"It really helped when Peter Danworth showed me how math can apply to horse things, too" Ashleigh said.
"Then at least one good thing came of your adven-ture in Florida last month , " her father replied.
Ashleigh felt a blush start up her cheeks. She'd been reluctant to leave Stardust and go to Florida to visit thirteen-year-old Peter Danworth and his parents. The Danworths owned Aladdin's Treasure, a beautiful black colt bred at Edgardale. While the Griffens were visiting the Danworths, Ashleigh had sneaked a ride on the racehorse. Even though she had fallen off, it had been a thrilling ride, but it would be a long time before she even thought about disobeying her parents again.
"Aladdin's racing at Keeneland next week, don't forget. We'll get to see for ourselves how fast he's running now," her father said, pulling her thoughts away from her wild ride on the beach.
Keeneland was a racetrack only twenty minutes from Edgardale, and Ashleigh had been to lots of races there. I can't wait," she said. I want to go to the track every day to see him."
Ashleigh wanted to be a jockey, and she loved racing more than anything. She watched nearly every race aired on TV, but nothing compared to seeing a race live. A pack of sleek and powerful Thoroughbreds bursting from the gate as the bell sounded, their legs working like pistons as they thundered around the track ... jockey and horse working in unison to win the race and set a new record ... the roar of the crowd as one horse found yet another gear, surged ahead, and ran its heart out down to the wire ... Ashleigh could watch a race every day of her life and never tire of it. And one day she would be racing herself.
"Don't worry," her father said. "We won't miss a minute with Aladdin. Now go and get Stardust. You've been out of the saddle long enough -- I bet you cant wait to gallop."
"Thanks, Dad!" Ashleigh said, and hurried down the aisle to Stardust's stall.
Stardust was dozing, her head hanging low in the shaft of spring sunshine streaming through her stall window. When Ashleigh called her name, the chestnut mare's head popped up and she whickered softly. Ashleigh fed her some apple pieces, then slipped her halter on and led the mare out into the aisle.
She put Stardust in crossties and got the bucket of grooming tools from the tack room.
"It won't take long to get you ready to go," she said, picking up a brush. Stardust's copper-colored coat already glistened like a new penny. Even though she hadn't been able to ride, Ashleigh had groomed her mare every day.
Stardust gave her a nudge, and Ashleigh laughed. "You want to get out and go as much as I do, don't you?"
She settled her saddle on Stardust's back and tightened the girth. When she put the bridle on, Stardust took the bit willingly. Ashleigh fastened the throat latch, then slipped her helmet on and buckled it, and led Stardust outside.
Ashleigh 6: A Dangerous Ride. Copyright © by Joanna Campbell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.