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"I'll only be a minute, promise," Melanie Grahm said to her friend Kevin McLean as she opened the door of his pickup truck. Kevin had parked beside the gates that led into the backside of the Keeneland racetrack.
"A minute?"' Kevin laughed. "I doubt that." Turning off the motor, he slid down in the driver's seat and pulled the brim of his baseball cap over his eyes. "Wake me when you get back."
Rolling her eyes, Melanie hopped from the truck and shut the door. Kevin was probably right, she thought as she hurried across the asphalt. She would be more than a minute. But not much more. Vince Jones had ordered her to stay away from his stable area, so she would have to make her visit with Image brief.
It was eight o'clock on a Tuesday night, and the backside was empty except for a few workers. Tall lights illuminated the area, casting eerie shadows over the rows of barns. Nervous, Melanie jumped at every sound. She hated sneaking around like this to see linage, but she had to.
Not seeing her beloved filly wasn't an option. Ever since Image had been whisked away from Tall Oaks, Fredericka Graber's farm, to the track, Melanie had missed her desperately. This would be the first time Melanie had seen linage since the horse had been at Keeneland. It had been only five days, but as far as Melanie was concerned, five days was way too long.
With Kevin's help, Melanie had worked with linage at Tall Oaks every day for the last three weeks of summer. They had made terrific progress, and Melanie's dream of being the first to ride Image was about to come true when Vince suddenly ordered the filly back to Turfway Park, where his otherhorses were racing at the time. Melanie knew the filly wasn't ready for the track, but in his eagerness to get the two-year-old ready to race, the stubborn trainer had ignored her protests.
Vince doesn't understand, Melanie thought. She had worked hard to gain the filly's trust. Slowly that trust had turned into a special bond. But that was hard to explain to an old-fashioned trainer such as Vince. To him, Image was just another Thoroughbred.
As she hurried past the track kitchen, Melanie glanced around nervously. If Vince caught her, he'd be so furious he'd probably tell security not to let her on the track. On Monday, when the trainer had moved Image from Turfway Park to the Keeneland track, he'd made it clear that Melanie was not welcome at Keeneland, either.
Which isn't fair, Melanie said to herself. Okay, so maybe it had been stupid of her to tell Vince Jonesthe premier trainer on the East Coast-that he didn't know how to handle Image. Image wasn't even Melanie's horse. But couldn't Vince see her side?
Obviously not, Melanie thought as she made her way toward Vince's barn. Vince Jones would never admit that he didn't know how to handle Image, even though the disastrous weeks at Turfway had proven it. The feisty, strong-willed filly had broken away from her handlers and trampled her grooms. No one could get close enough to Image to come anywhere near riding her. But not only had Vince refused to listen to Melanie's advice, he'd finally gotten sick of Melanie's arguing and interfering. That was when he'd told her she couldn't see the filly anymore.
When she reached Barn 15, Melanie stopped by the side of the building and took a deep breath. She knew there would be at least one groom on duty. Thoroughbreds were too valuable not to have someone watching them every minute in case one got colic, or cast in its stall, or went off its feed. Melanie could only hope that the worker would be sitting in the barn office or, even better, off at the track kitchen getting a snack.
Peering around the side of the building, Melanie could see the office door, which was halfway closed. She didn't see anyone inside, but when she listened carefully, she heard voices. Maybe the groom had a friend visiting, or was talking on the phone. Either way, Melanie was pretty sure she could get to Image's stall without any problem.
As she jogged down the row of stalls, the horses snorted and started. A few hung their heads over their stall guards, hoping for attention. Since it was the beginning of October and the nights were cool, most of the horses wore light blankets.
"Sorry, guys, can't visit," Melanie whispered as she hurried past. When she reached Image's stall, she took one last look around before unlatching the top door. Unlike the other horses, who had nylon stall guards or wire mesh half doors, Image's stall had a bottom door of solid wood and a top door of steel wire mesh. The filly had proven to be an escape artist; the only way to keep her in was to put her in this jail cell of a stall.
"It's me, pretty girl," Melanie murmured as she swung open the top door. Immediately Image popped her head over the lower door. Her brown eyes were huge, her nostrils flared. Throwing up her head, she sucked in the night air, then let out a plaintive whinny.
"Shh." Melanie put a finger to her lips. The filly stared into the night, a half-wild look on her face.
"Oh, Image." Melanie ran her hand down the filly's neck. "Whats happened to you?"
A pang of sadness filled Melanie. She knew Image hated to be closed up in a stall. At Tall Oaks the filly had been turned out night and day in her own pasture...