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"We're here, Star," Christina Reese called out.
The rising sun was barely a sliver of light on the horizon as she stepped from the taxi near the back gate to New York's Belmont racetrack. She waited impatiently while her parents, Ashleigh Griffen and Mike Reese, paid the driver.
"We're going to get a cup of coffee," her mother said, joining her. "Do you want to come with us?"
Christina shook her head. "I'm going straight to Star's stall," she replied. The Reeses had just flown up to New York from Kentucky for the weekend, but Wonder's Star, their two-year-old Thoroughbred colt, had been at Belmont for nearly a week. Christina hated being away from Star, but she knew it was important for the colt to have a chance to adjust to the new setting before she raced him on Sunday. Now that she was here in New York, too, she couldn't wait to see Star.
"We'll be over to his stall in a while," Mike said, draping his arm over Ashleigh's shoulders.
Her parents headed for the track kitchen, and Christina strode toward the barns, eager to get to her colt. Even though it was barely five o'clock on Saturday morning, the backside hummed with activity. Christina made her way around grooms pushing wheelbarrows of soiled bedding and past sleek Thoroughbreds being tacked up for their morning works. From some of the stalls came the soft rustling and crunching sounds of horses eating their breakfast hay, while the clattering of dancing hooves, loud snorts, and excited whinnies carried through the cool air of the late September dawn.
When she neared the stall assigned to Whitebrook, her parents' farm, Christina could see Star's coppercolored nose pointingin her direction. The chestnut colt gave a throaty nicker when he spotted her. She sped up, covering the last several yards at a brisk pace. She slipped inside the stall and wrapped her arms around Star's neck. The colt nuzzled her, clearly happy to see her.
"Oh, Star," she murmured, running her hand along his shoulder. "I really missed you, boy. I wish I could have been here to help you get settled, but I know Dani's been taking good care of you."
Star felt warm, his smooth coat sleek and soft. tins pressed her face into his neck, inhaling his scent deeply. Star upped at her hair, chuffing warm, heavy breaths into her ear, making Christina laugh.
"Of course I brought you something, spoiled boy!" She dug into her jeans pocket, producing a handful of Carrot chunks. Star happily crunched on the treats while Christina stroked his sleek, muscular neck. Christina was Star's jockey, while Brad Townsend and Christina's parents shared the colt's ownership. Still, Christina would always think of Star as her own. If only that were so.
Christina's dream was to earn enough money to buy the half interest in Star held by Brad Townsend. Townsend Acres was the farm where Star's dam, Ashleigh's Wonder, had been bred. Every one of Wonder's offspring, including Star, was half owned by the Townsends. Christina wanted to break that tradition. But first she needed to convince Brad and Lavinia Townsend to sell their interest in Star, which was close to impossible. Then she had to have the money. Even by saving every penny of the purses she had been winning as a jockey, it could take her a lifetime to earn enough. But, she comforted herself, massaging Star's poll, at least she was able to race the colt, who was rapidly gaining a reputation for his ability on the track.
Star finished his carrots and began nuzzling Christina all over, searching for more. "That's it, greedy" She laughed fondly, rubbing the white star on the colt's gleaming forehead, and glanced around his stall. Star's groom, Dam Martens, had already given him fresh water, and his full hay net hung in the corner.
Christina looked up to see Cindy McLean at the stall door. The adopted daughter of Whitebrook's head trainer, Cindy was a well-known jockey in New York. Cindy had grown up at Whitebrook, but Christina had been only four when she left, so she barely knew the small blond woman, although she had heard a lot about her. Ashleigh had arranged for Cindy to work Star during the week, while Christina was at school.
"He's all set to race tomorrow," Cindy said approvingly. "It was a real kick to work him for you this week. It's been almost twelve years since I rode a horse for Whitebrook. I wouldn't mind racing him tomorrow myself."
"Star's pretty amazing," Christina agreed. "I can't wait to show him off tomorrow. We're going to win, aren't we, boy?"
Cindy raised her eyebrows. "He's a strong runner," she said. "But don't get too arrogant. You never know what could happen during a race."
Christina shifted Star's light sheet, settling it smoothly on his back. "I'm not worried," she said confidently "Everyone is saying he's a sure thing for the Kentucky Derby. Tomorrow's race is just one more chance for Star to prove himself."�
"I hope you're right," Cindy said. "And if you ever need a replacement jockey for him, just let me know."
"Thanks for offering," Christina said, flashing Cindy a quick smile. "But I hope I'll be able to ride him all of his races." She glanced at her watch. "You get to your breakfast, Star," she said, giving the colt a wing rub. "I'm going to check on Gratis." She gypped out of the stall and latched the door.
"Don't you have any horses to work this morn?" she asked Cindy. "At home it seems like I'm on track breezing nonstop until they close it for the tees." Since most jockeys took advantage of exercise riding to keep in shape and get to know the horses they were going to race, it surprised Christina that Cindy a regular jockey at Belmont, didn't have a of horses 'to ride that morning.
Cindy tucked her short blond hair behind her ears shrugged. "Not this morning," she said, glancing tend the stabling area. "I'm taking it easy for this afternoon I have three races scheduled. That should wear me out."
It'll be great to see you ride," Christina said.
"Just another day on the job," Cindy said casually. But Christina heard an edge of excitement in Cindy's voice, and she understood it. Although she been racing for a year, she always felt a thrill before race. Lucky for her she had a warm-up before Star's race the next dayshe would be racing Gratis for Vin Jones in only a few hours.
They crossed the wide aisle to where Vince Jones horses were stabled. Vince, one of the top trainers the United States, had brought Star up from Kentucky for the Reeses, along with several other horses he was working for his clients.
"Gratis must be getting a bath," Christina said when she peered into the bay colt's empty stall. I haven't talked to Vince yet, since we got here so late last night. I hope Gratis's exercise rider didn't have to much trouble with him this week." Christina start for the end of the shed row, Cindy beside her.
"I didn't hear any of the other jockeys complaining about him," Cindy said. "He must not have been too rambunctious."
"That's good," Christina said. "I don't want to fight him this afternoon. Vince still isn't so sure he should have a bug racing for him. I'm just lucky Grace decided he would put up with me."
They found the big bay colt tied at the wash rack Gratis kept twisting his head as he tried to keep a wild looking eye on the groom who was bathing him.
The girl shot Christina a pained look. "I think you and Mrs. Graber are the only people in the world this horse likes," she said, rubbing her soapy wash mitt against the handsome colt's glistening wet shoulder. She took a quick step back as Gratis stamped his front foot, missing her booted toe by inches. "See what I mean?" She glared at the irascible colt, who pinned his ears in response.
"Knock it off!" Cindy snapped at Gratis, taking a bold step toward the horse. Gratis's ears flicked forward and back and he stared at Cindy, who shook her head in disgust.
Christina froze, shocked at Cindy's tone. Then she stepped forward, holding out her hand. "You're just a big fake, aren't-you?" she said sweetly. Gratis swiveled his head toward her, and she rubbed his jaw with her fingertips. He took a quick nip at her arm, his lips popping together just short of her skin.
"You know better than that," she scolded gently, giving the corner of his mouth a flick with her fingers. Gratis snapped his head up. Christina tried not to chuckle at the colt's shocked expression. Gratis was smart and fast on the track but had few manners to speak of. His owner, Fredericka Graber, hated to see her horses disciplined in any way. Christina knew a horse that didn't respect its handlers could be dangerous, but Gratis responded well to gentleness.