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"If you're done with that hoof pick, can I use it?" sixteen-year-old Christina Reese asked. She looked over the two-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred colt's back to where her cousin, Melanie Graham, was grooming another chestnut colt.
"Come and get it," Melanie said, setting Rascal's hoof down and holding out the hoof pick. Melanie's hair tie had slipped, freeing wisps of pale blond hair that framed her face, and she swiped at a few strands with the back of her hand.
Christina reached up to tighten the band that held her own long red-brown hair in a ponytail at the nape of her neck. Wonder's Star stood quietly while Christina ducked under his neck to reach for the pick.
Even though it was late summer, the early morning air had a cool edge to it. Like Christina, Melanie was wearing a zippered sweatshirt while she prepared Rascal for his morning workout at the Turfway Park racetrack in Florence, Kentucky.
It was barely five o'clock in the morning, but the two girls had been working on the track's backside for almost an hour, taking care of their horses and helping around the shedrow, the long row of stalls where the Thoroughbreds were housed during racing season.
Rascal struck at the ground and snorted, tugging at the crossties. Christina laughed. "I think he"s telling you he's ready to go now!"
Around them, the furious activity of the backside had both colts alert and excited. Handlers were leading energetic colts and fillies toward the track, where trainers and exercise riders were waiting for them. Other horses were being groomed, while still others paced in their stalls, waiting to be fed. From another shedrow, the sound of a horse kicking itsstall wall echoed around the backside. A groom hurried in the direction of the noise.
Christina turned to Star, who angled his head to look at her, then arched his neck and whinnied loudly, his entire body shaking with the effort. "I guess Star 's ready, too," she said with a grin. Christina was sure anyone who saw Star had to feel the same admiration for him that she did. With powerful muscles rippling under his sleek, copper-colored coat, and bright, intelligent eyes set wide apart in a finely formed head, the colt was magnificent.
"He looks great," Melanie said from behind her.
"He's absolutely gorgeous," Christina said, giving Star an affectionate pat before she began cleaning his hooves.
"Rascal isn't too bad, either, you know," Melanie said as she shifted her exercise saddle on the colt's back. "Are you, boy?" Rascal pawed the ground again, his hindquarters dancing a little as she adjusted the girth.
Christina cast a glance at the other colt from over her shoulder. "Rascal does looks fantastic," she said, then returned her attention to Star. Although both colts had been bred at Whitebrook Farm, the breeding and training farm owned by Christina's parents, for Christina there would never be another horse as special as Star.
When her mother, Ashleigh Griffen, had decided to breed her Derby-winning mare, Ashleigh's Wonder, one last time, Ashleigh and Christina's father, Mike Reese, had decided on Jazzman, Mike's best stallion, as a sire.
But Wonder had developed complications and died after giving birth to Star, and Ashleigh had been devastated, blaming Star for Wonder's death. Her mother couldn't stand to look after the sickly orphaned foal herself, so Christina had stepped in to take care of him, raising Star by hand during his first year.
"Hurry up and get Star saddled. The track's going to start crowding up soon," Melanie said, drawing Christina's attention back to the present.
Christina nodded, picking up a saddle pad. "We'll be right behind you."
Melanie led the Rascal away while Christina adjusted her exercise saddle on Star's tall back. He twisted his neck, looking back at her, and Christina smiled at his eager expression. "Just a minute, boy," she said fondly, fastening the girth. "I know you want to get going, too."
When she lifted his bridle into place, Star practically grabbed the snaffle bit from her palm, shoving his nose into the headstall. "You're really ready to work, aren't you?" She fastened the throatlatch and led the excited colt away from Whitebrook's stabling area. Star pranced beside her, his ears pricked forward and his nostrils flared, as they approached the busy track.
By the time they reached the rail several horses were already being worked on the oval. The morning mist had begun to lift, and the late summer sun was starting to warm the air. Christina spotted Melanie and Rascal trotting counterclockwise along the outside rail behind two other horses. A jockey was galloping his horse clockwise at the inside rail, and Star tossed his head, tugging at the reins as the running horse thundered by.
"Ready to go?"
At the sound of her mother's voice, Christina glanced over her shoulder. Ashleigh Griffen was dressed in worn jeans and a baggy sweatshirt, a Whitebrook Farm baseball cap covering her long brown hair. A stopwatch dangled from a cord around her neck, and she gripped a clipboard in one hand. To Christina, her petite mother looked more like a high-school girl than the well-respected jockey and horse trainer she was.
"We're ready," Christina said as Star danced around, his eyes fixed on the track.
"He looks excellent, Chris," Ashleigh said, giving Star's glistening neck a pat. She let her gaze linger on the colt's muscled form for a moment, then turned her attention to Christina again. "He"s had a good rest since he ran in the Laurel Stakes. It's time to schedule another race for Star..."