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"Ready, girl?" Christina Reese asked her gray Thoroughbred mare, Sterling Dream. She unhooked Sterling from the crossties and led her down the long aisle of Whitebrook Farm's broodmare barn. The mares munched their morning hay, watching quietly as they passed by.
Outside, Sterling stepped gingerly over the snow-covered ground, until Christina tugged her to a halt so that she could tighten the girth and mount up. The leather saddle felt cold as ice through Christina's thin dressage breeches. It had been so frigid recently, it was hard to believe it was February and spring was actually on its way.
"Whoa," Christina murmured as she gathered up her reins and adjusted the navy blue wool cooler that covered Sterling's dappled hindquarters. She pulled the cooler over her legs, tucking it between her knees and the saddle. That way, neither she nor her horse would get a chill on the twenty-minute hack over to Whisperwood, the farm run by Christina's riding instructor, Samantha Nelson, and her husband, Tor.
Despite the wool cooler, Christina shivered with excitement. This weekend Whisperwood was hosting a twoday dressage clinic taught by Lars Stockholm, her three-day eventing idol. She'd been looking forward to the clinic for months and was secretly hoping that Lars would ask her to train with him down in Florida the next winter. Lars Stockholm had started the Young Ridersa special program for young three-day event riders who hoped to compete internationally. Getting onto a Young Riders team and going to the North American championships was a big step toward becoming an Olympic riderChristina's ultimate aim. The YoungRiders had to be at least sixteen, so she had only one more year to go. Actually, Christina had only just turned fourteen on Christmas day, but in the eyes of the United States Combined Training Associationthe USCTAshe was considered to be fifteen as of January 1. It was the same way with racehorses. Each Thoroughbred officially turned one year old the January 1 after it was born, no matter what month it had really been born in.
Christina nudged Sterling forward, down the wide tractor road between the two back pastures. The mare responded willingly, her head cocked and her ears pricked toward the big oval training track down the hill to their left. Though it was early morning, everyone at Whitebrook Farm, the Thoroughbred breeding and training farm owned by Christina's parents, Ashleigh Griffen and Mike Reese, was already hard at work. She could just make out the chestnut filly, Missy, jogging around the far turn, with Christina's cousin, Melanie Graham, aboard. Suddenly Missy came to a complete standstill, throwing Melanie up onto her shoulders. Christina chuckled. Missy's full name, Mischief Maker, was entirely appropriate for her, and her cousin had her work cut out for herthe two-year-old was a handful. Christina had broken Missy to a halter and lead line, and she had almost lost her patience more than once. But Melanie seemed to have a knack with problem horses, so when Missy was ready to begin her race training, Ashleigh and Mike had assigned Melanie to exercise-ride her.
"Don't watch, Chris. It might give Sterling ideas."
Christina turned at the sound of her mother's voice. Ashleigh was riding her favorite mare, Ashleigh's Wonder, bareback, just inside the snow-dusted pasture. She looked like a little kid with her blue-jeaned legs dangling around Wonder's bulging sides and her long brown hair tucked into her old jockey's cap. Wonder seemed happy, too, with her head up and her ears pointed eagerly forward. Her blaze and four white stockings were striking against her coppery chestnut coat, which gleamed from over twenty years of special attention and warm Kentucky sunshine. If Christina focused on the mare's finely chiseled head and elegant neck, she could almost see the younger Wonder, the racehorse that stood proudly in the winner's circle with Ashleigh in so many of the framed photographs scattered around their house. But when she looked at the broodmare's back, swayed from years of carrying foals, Christina found it difficult to believe that Wonder had once been the proud winner of the Kentucky Derby.
"She looked so bored in her stall that I decided to take her on a little hack," Ashleigh explained as Christina walked Sterling over to the pasture fence. "I know what it's like to be pregnant-you feel fat and lonely. I don't want her to get depressed."
Christina laughed. "Wonder can't be lonely, Mom. You practically live in her stall."
In fact, Ashleigh had been by Wonder's side ever since the mare was born at Townsend Acres, the huge Thoroughbred farm where Christina's grandparents had once worked. At birth Wonder had been sick and weak. If Ashleigh hadn't looked after her until she was strong, Wonder would have died. Then, when no one thought Wonder would ever even race, let alone win, Ashleigh stood by her, eventually becoming a jockey and riding her to victory herself.
"I don't make very good company, though," Ashleigh said. "Wonder's happiest when she has a foal at her side. I just wish this foal would hurry up and get here."
"Only a few more weeks," Christina said. Wonder
had been bred first, so her foal would be the first of the season.
"I can't wait." Ashleigh smiled and ruffled Wonder's coppery mane fondly. "Have a nice ride!" she added before squeezing her legs gently to urge Wonder on. Christina watched her mother ride away, trailing her fingers along the chestnut's hindquarters in a familiar caress. Obviously Ashleigh had forgotten all about Christina's clinic with Lars Stockholm. But Christina didn't mindshe was used to her mother's absentmindedness.