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Thoroughbred #03 Wonder's First Race
By Joanna Campbell
Rebound by SagebrushCopyright © 1991 Joanna Campbell
All right reserved.
"Hold her!" Charlie Burke growled to the fourteen-year-old girl at his side. Ashleigh Griffen took a firmer grip on the lead shank of the prancing chestnut Thoroughbred. "Just take it easy, Wonder," she said to the horse. Then she turned to the old man who was trying to tighten the girth on Wonder's saddle. "She can't help being excited, Charlie. Today's her first race. She knows how important it is. Don't you, girl?"
The beautiful filly steadied, then pushed her nose against Ashleigh's shoulder. Ashleigh felt her own excitement growing as she gazed around at the commotion in the saddling area of Churchill Downs Racetrack. She could hardly believe that she and Wonder were finally here. The road to this race had been such a hard one, and Wonder's trials weren't over yet. So much relied on her doing well in her first race.
There were beads of sweat on Ashleigh's forehead, and although she'd pulled back her dark, shoulder-length hair, damp tendrils were already clinging to her cheeks and the back of her neck. If she was feeling the heat, she knew Wonder would be feeling it even more.
The filly's coat gleamed copper in the July sunshine. Her long mane shimmered in a silky wave as she tossed her head and fidgeted on slender,powerful legs.
Charlie finished buckling the girth, checked its tightness with his fingers, and dropped the saddle flap into place. He stepped back a few feet and inspected Wonder, nodding and pushing his rumpled felt hat back on his head. From his baggy cotton shirt and trousers, it would be hard to guess that he was a respected trainer. "She'll do,"' he said gruffly. He turned to study the other two-year-old fillies being readied on the lush grass by their trainers and grooms. There weren't any big races on the card that hot July afternoon, but there were still plenty of spectators standing around the saddling area. Their voices mingled with those of trainers, grooms, and jockeys preparing to go to the walking ring.
"You should have heard them before we left Townsend Acres this morning," Ashleigh said. Her ears were still ringing with the negative comments of some of the staff at the famous racing stable. "Jennings said to me, 'She's not going to live up to her sire. You and Charlie are living on daydreams." Ashleigh accurately mimicked the assistant trainer's voice.
"What do you expect from Jennings?" Charlie snapped. "He nearly ruined her in her early training with that heavy handling." Charlie brushed his hand across his forehead and looked around. "She's not sweating up like some of them,"' he said, "but we won't know what they've got till we get out on the track. Mere's Jilly?"
No sooner had he spoken than a slim young woman wearing the green-and-yellow racing silks of Townsend Acres rushed across the grass. Her blond hair was braided into a single plait that hung between her shoulders, and she carried her helmet under her arm. At twenty-two, Jilly had been riding as an apprentice jockey for Townsend Acres for almost a year. Today she'd be trying for her first win.
"Sorry I'm late," Jilly said breathlessly. "The other jockeys were kidding me after I weighed in-asking me how I expected to get a green horse around the track without a crop."
"Ignore them,".' Charlie said. "You know she'll back right off if she so much as sees a crop."
Jilly put on her helmet and adjusted the chin strap. "How do you see the race playing out?" Ashleigh noticed there was a nervous catch in Jilly's voice, but outwardly, Jilly seemed calm.
"The first thing to remember," Charlie said, "is that all of the fillies in this race, except Wonder, have raced before. None of them has won, or they wouldn't be in a maiden race, but they have an edge on her there. They know what it's like to be out in front of a crowd, running in a big field. You're going to have to watch that Wonder doesn't get distracted. Remember this first race is really a testing ground," Charlie added. "Let the filly get her feet wet. It'd be nice to win, but we may not. just get her to run the best race she can." Charlie glanced up. "Looks like it's time to head to the walking ring. You ready?" he said to Ashleigh.
Ashleigh nodded, but her throat was tight. She'd never done this before, and she was only too aware of the spectators studying the horses as they were led forward. They were looking at pre-race behavior -- overexcitement or listlessness that could indicate a horse's chances of winning. Charlie gave Jilly a leg into the saddle. Ashleigh straightened her shoulders and led Wonder forward into the ring.
When Wonder eyed the crowd, she immediately flared her delicate nostrils and snorted. "'Just take it easy," Ashleigh said, glancing over to the horse. Wonder's neck was arched, and her ears were pricked. Her hard muscles rippled under her gleaming chestnut coat. Ashleigh knew the filly was as tense about her first pre-race experience as she herself was. Wonder"s bright coat was darkening with nervous sweat.
"I know how you feel," Ashleigh whispered soothingly. "But everything's going to be fine. You're going to go out there and show them just how good you are!"
Wonder flicked her ears, listening to Ashleigh's familiar voice, but she was too keyed up to give her full attention. She tossed her head and toe-danced across the grass at the end of the lead shank.
"She'll be okay once we get out there," Jilly assured Ashleigh as the trainers came into the ring. It was time for the horses and jockeys to go to the track...
Excerpted from Thoroughbred #03 Wonder's First Race by Joanna Campbell Copyright © 1991 by Joanna Campbell. Excerpted by permission.
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