Homestretch by Girl Bard

Homestretch
by Girl Bard

Part 1

“Riders’ up!” The shrill voice of the paddock announcer rang through the crowded space. My stomach immediately tightens as the groom boosts me onto the tall back of the horse. I’m riding a big gray 2-year old in the first race called Far Away and we don’t stand much of a chance. The horse is talented but lightly raced and large splotches of nervous perspiration cover his body; a sure sign he is using most of his energy in the paddock rather than on the track.

The ring smells of sweat and tension. I gather the reins in my clammy palms and clear my throat nervously as the trainer approaches. Bill Lewis is one of the most successful in the business and I’m thrilled just to be riding for him. My agent called me just this morning to tell me I was needed to fill in for Lewis’ normal jock that was in a spill yesterday. I have mounts for the first two races, one of them the favorite in the race.

“Don’t lose.” Lewis speaks clearly, his voice firm. Laughing, he pats my leg, a fake smile appearing on his face. “Lighten up girl, you’re making the horse nervous. Break quick and keep him in front.”

“Yes sir.” I reply, nodding briskly. The lead rider on horseback trots over and gathers Far Away’s rein, directing us onto the track for the warm-up. I rise in the stirrups, posting to the big gray’s graceful trot.

“Easy mister.” I tell the horse as he pranced across the track, his hooves sinking into the deep mud. It has been raining for the past few days, leaving the track muddy and slow. It won’t suit my gray well; he is large and long-legged, making it more difficult for him to run in the slop.

Easing the horse into a canter, I take a moment to observe the other horses in the race. It is a small field of seven, all of them youngsters who haven’t won a race. Although my jockey experience is limited, I still know that this situation is the most dangerous. A bunch of babies with little racing experience on a muddy track is as unpredictable and unsafe as you can get.

“You okay miss?” The attending rider questions and I swallow nervously.

“I’m fine.” I reply, forcing a smile on my face.

‘Calm down!’ I berate myself internally. ‘Mr. Lewis is right; you’re making the horse more nervous by acting this way. Remember to breathe and keep everyone safe.’ It doesn’t matter how many times I go to post, it still makes me nervous, every time. I’ve asked more experienced jocks if they still feel the same way, even after riding for years. They’ve all told me that something was wrong if I wasn’t nervous. Somehow, that really didn’t make me feel better.

The ride to the starting gate seems too short and I brush back the loose tendrils of blonde hair escaping from my helmet as we prep to load.

“You’re up first, Dietz.” The starter calls as Far Away is led easily into postposition one. Grateful for his compliance, I pat the gray’s damp coat as we wait for the other six horses to load.

Only a few put up a fuss, and for a brief second all seven horses stand unmoving in the starting gate. I take a sharp inhale of breathe as the bell sounds and the gates spring open.

Far Away lunges out of the gate and I am thrown off balance as the big gray struggles to find his footing in the mud. The other horses are sliding all around us and for a moment I honestly think we are all going down. Panicked, I grab onto a fistful of the gray’s mane and push myself upward back into position using the gray’s neck.

Somehow, all of the horses stay on their feet and begin surging down the track. Far Away thankfully finds his stride and I choose to keep him slightly off of the inside rail where the track is at it’s most dangerous.

As they round the first turn, we are fourth, blocked from advancing by two frontrunners and a horse directly to our right. I know I am not following Mr. Lewis’s instruction to keep the gray in front and desperately I search for a hole to slip him through without using the deep inside rail.

The pace is slow, almost maddeningly so. With a half mile left to go, I know I have to make my move. Far Away is becoming angry at the mud flying in his face from the horses in front of him and he begins to pull on the reins, almost jerking them out of my wet hands.

I can’t make out anything except the cloudy forms of the horses in front of us. Using my shoulder to rub my goggles clean, the gray uses this to his advantage and yanks his head to grab the bit between his teeth.

In full control now, he surges forward, coming dangerously close to clipping the heels of the horse directly in front of him. I yell a warning, my scream drowned out by the resounding thud of the horses’ hooves in the mud. Sawing the reins in my hand, I desperately try to dislodge the bit from the gray’s teeth. He throws his head in anger and I have no choice but to yank him to the inside rail.

Two furlongs to go, and the gray has a clear path to the wire. I let the reins slip through my hands and Far Away flies past the two front-runners. As soon as we are safely in front of them I directed him back to the firmer part of the track. We are now all alone, and in front.

The roar of the crowd fills my ears, and for a second I actually think we might win this race. Urging him forward with my hands and voice, my legs pump frantically at his sides. I hear the thud of the hoof beats behind us and know the closers are making their move. Far Away responds gamely and as the muddy head of the number four horse appears at the gray’s hindquarters, my horse kicks into another gear and begins to pull away. I wave my whip at my gray, and as the wire grows closer I don’t think we can lose. And then the gray quits.

Like a car out of gas, he staggers and it seems as if we are moving backwards. The other horses surge past him and I bring my whip down on his flanks once, knowing it is to no avail.

I put her whip away. It will do no good to continue to hit him, and instead I concentrated on just bringing him home safely.

Far Away gallops under the wire, beaten by all but two horses. I pat his sweaty neck as I let him cool out, taking careful notice for any irregularities in his long stride. A good jockey should be able to tell even the slightest problem with their horse.

It wasn’t the gray’s fault, I know. He was too worked up before the race began, and the track wasn’t to his liking. After riding him, I think the race was too long for him; he is a sprinter and should race no longer than a mile. Those facts combined with the bad break from the gate, and it was no wonder he lost.

The lead rider meets me on the track and once again takes the gray’s reins. “What a mess.” He comments to my mud-covered form, and I smile.

“Yeah, doesn’t suit him well.” I’m relieved the race is over as I pat Far Away’s neck, adding; “He tried.”

“That he did. Nice job keeping him out of trouble.” The rider responds as we arrive back at the paddock.

As soon as Far Away’s groom takes hold of the horse I dismount and whip my mud-covered goggles off. Smiling at the groom I give the gray one last pat before he is led away.

“What the hell happened?” Mr. Lewis asks, appearing in front of me. Looking up into his angry face, I answer him honestly, telling of the bad break, sloppy track, and the too-long length of the race.

“You dumb-assed girl jock! Don’t you dare give me excuses! I told you to get him out front and stay there. What part of that didn’t you understand?” His raises his voice and I feel my face turn red with humiliation.

It isn’t unheard of for jockeys to be bawled out by trainers, it happens everyday. Trainers blame jockeys for losses and jockeys blame trainers.

“I’m sorry, sir. I felt I would danger the horse by following your instructions.” I reply meekly, but I can feel my anger radiating out of my entire being.

“I don’t give a shit about the horse, I give a shit about winning!” The trainer shouts. “You get your head together for the second race, and don’t even think of disappointing me again.” He finishes, storming off to the barn.

“Jerk.” I mutter to his back as I watch him walk away.

“Nah, jerk isn’t the right word for him.” A low voice responds from over my shoulder. Turning toward the sound, I see a tall dark-haired woman standing behind me. She’s beautiful and dressed elegantly, and I don’t really know how to respond.

The woman smiles, continuing, “I’d say he’s an asshole.”

I laugh, feeling the mud on my face crack. Wiping it off self-consciously, I smile my thanks to the tall woman.

“I really needed that.” I mention.

“Looked that way.” She responds, extending her hand. “I’m Dena Santoro.”

My mouth goes dry as I realize whom I am speaking with. I really shouldn’t be bad mouthing Lewis in front of anyone. I wipe my mud-covered hands on my silks before returning her handshake. “Gen Dietz, but you can call me dumb-assed girl jock.” I add, smiling.

Dena’s smile grows. “So you’re the Dietz I’ve been hearing so much about. Rumor has it you’re the hot new talent Lewis scooped up.”

I blush, ducking my head. “I don’t know if I’d call me the hot new talent after that ride.” I answer.

“Nonsense.” She chides gently. “Believe me, Lewis is an asshole who doesn’t know anything about his horses. His horse shouldn’t have even run today, the race is far too long for him and he can’t handle the mud. He should be thanking you that his horse didn’t break his neck.” Dena pauses, smiling again. “Or yours either.”

“I guess.” I respond, feeling like an idiot. Here I am talking to a trainer, a potential boss, and I can’t even think of anything intelligent to say. I see my dirty reflection in her mirrored sunglasses and realize just how disgusting I look. “I’ve really got to be going, I’m up in the second race.”

Dena grins. “I know. You’re racing against my best filly. Take it easy on her, okay? She’s my future Derby winner.”

I can’t help but smile back at her; she’s just so beautiful. “Future Derby winner, huh? You’re not aiming her for the Oaks instead?” I question, knowing that in the 129 years the Kentucky Derby has been run, a filly has won it less than ten times. Most trainers aim their fillies for the Kentucky Oaks, a race run a day before the Derby.

The tall trainer gives an enigmatic smile, shrugging her shoulders. “Who knows? Every girl has her day, right?”

I nod my head; completely entranced by the way her round lips caress each word. “Yeah. Good luck.” I tell her before practically running to the jockey’s room.

The entire way there, Dena Santoro dominates my thoughts. I’ve seen her around the track from afar, but never realized how beautiful she is. She’s not well liked by many of the other trainers; her methods of training are a bit unconventional and she’s very outspoken in her beliefs. But I like what I’ve heard about her, she’s humane and always puts her horses first. I guess she’s ripped a few jocks a new one when she thinks they’ve ridden her horses too hard during a race. From what I’ve seen of in her icy exchange with Lewis, I certainly wouldn’t want to be on her bad side.

In record time I strip off my soiled silks and pull on the fresh ones neatly laid out for me. Snapping the thick rubber bands around my wrist to keep my sleeves from becoming bunched, I secure my helmet and pull on my tall boots.

The weigh-in goes smoothly, and I easily make my weight. I’m lucky in the fact that I’m naturally small and can make the lightest weights, unlike some of the bigger male jocks. They spend their days in the steam room trying to squeeze off those extra pounds.

Soon I am nervously standing in the paddock waiting for my horse and I sneak a look to where Dena is saddling her impressive filly. She’s a small horse, smaller than most Thoroughbreds I’ve seen, but there’s something about her that is commanding. She’s a bright bay, a fiery auburn color with a coal black mane and tail. What is most striking are the large amounts white that splash her legs and face. She’s beautiful.

Dena moves with a fluid motion as she saddles the filly. The filly, in turn, stands perfectly still observing the crowd. She doesn’t seem excited or worked up, but the brightness in her eyes conveys she knows exactly what will happen today. The filly’s name is Foxfire, and I think it suits her perfectly.

Inwardly I groan as I see Mr. Lewis approach. I plaster a smile on my face as he walks up to me, hoping to avoid any conflict about the last race.

“Ready?” He asks me as my horse is led over. I nod and am boosted into the saddle. I really like my horse, I’ve seen him run a few times and was surprised by his speed and determination to win.

“This is the best horse you’ll ever ride, girl.” Lewis tells me rudely. “He breaks slow, but likes to run at the back of the pack. Keep him there until two furlongs remain and make your move. There isn’t a better horse in the field, you should win easily.”

At his words, I glance to Dena’s filly. The two horses are complete opposites, the filly small and brightly painted, and my colt big and plain. But looks don’t matter in horse racing, speed does.

“How will the race play out, sir?” I ask as I straighten myself in the saddle.

“The filly will break fast and go to the front, the rest of the horses will be bunched together. You should be behind all of them.” He answers abruptly, already turning away.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s rudeness. And Mr. Lewis is just plain rude.

At the gate, I wait patiently on my chestnut colt, Foghorn. He is quiet and stands still, but I can feel him shaking. I talk softly to him and pat his long neck, trying to ensure him that I’m his friend.

Dena’s filly has drawn the inside rail post, a lucky draw for a front-running horse. Victor Gomez, a legend of a jockey is up on her and I know he’ll break her quickly and then steer her just outside of the deep mud at the rail. They will be hard to beat if the filly is as good as Dena says.

It’s a big field today, twelve horses total. Everyone has Derby fever, and trainers are struggling to look at their stable of three-year-olds to find a potential Derby horse.

The starter nods at me and calls my name. I encourage Foghorn in the gate as the assistant starters push his haunches in. A few horses load after us and I rise in the saddle, giving Foghorn ample rein for the break.

“And they’re off!” The voice of the track announcer calls, as we break cleanly from the gate. Already the crowd is cheering, even though they are in the stands far away and cannot see the first few furlongs of the race. But these are three year olds, possible Derby horses, and to them, it’s exciting enough.

As expected, Dena’s filly has burst from the gate and is leading the pack. The other ten horses are bunched in front of us and despite Foghorn’s attempt to run with them, I take his rein in and place him dead last in the field.

He settles nicely as we round the first turn. Unlike my gray in the race before, Foghorn has no trouble covering the muddy track. He is completely relaxed and confident in the mud.

This is what I love about being a jockey, the feeling of utter freedom combined with the adrenaline of the entire race. It’s like being on a runaway roller coaster but in control the entire time. It scares me to death, but in a good way I guess.

Three furlongs to go and I start looking for a path to slip Foghorn through. The horses bunched in front of me are tiring, except for a few that are still being held on a tight rein. Seeing an opening, I steer Foghorn to the right. He complies and effortlessly squeezes through the hole. I’m chanting ‘good boy’ over and over to him, letting him know I appreciate his effort.

I maneuver him once again to the right and he bumps shoulders lightly with the outside horse that immediately drops back. We use the opening to our advantage and are now at the near front of the bunched pack. Directing Foghorn over closer to the filly running just off of the rail, he stretches out into a ground-covering stride.

Foxfire whips past the two-furlong marker, and I know now’s the time. “Yah!” I yell to Foghorn as I let the slick leather slide through my hands. He responds with a burst of speed that almost throws me backwards.

In a few strides we are at the filly’s side. Her jock looks over and at me and smiles. Then, Gomez leans in closer to his filly and lets her run.

I’ve never seen a horse with such speed. The filly switches into another gear and easily pulls away from us. Foghorn valiantly increases his speed and his long strides pull us almost abreast with the filly.

One furlong to go. My stomach is dancing with anticipation as I use my crop on Foghorn. The taps are enough to remind him of his job and he sticks his neck out in front of Foxfire’s. The wire grows closer, and I encourage Foghorn with everything I have. He is trying his heart out for me and when out of the corner of my eye I see Gomez give the filly full rein, I know the race is over.

With a burst of speed the filly bolts by us, gliding under the wire and winning by a length. I stand fully in my stirrups after we cross and ask Foghorn to slow down.

He does, and I pat his sweaty neck, praising him for his hard work. The crowd is going wild, and I know we’ve given them a good show. My horse is good, very good, but today the filly was better.

We ride up alongside Gomez, who is galloping the filly out. She looks like she’s not even raced, her eyes bright and her breathing almost at normal rate. “Good race.” I tell him and he grins.

“Thought you were gonna steal it from me.” He answers in heavily accented Spanish as he pats his filly. “But she is something, eh?” He smiles proudly.

“Yeah.”

“You did good.” Gomez mentions as he rides away. Surprised by his compliment, it is my turn to smile and I’m beaming all the way through the weigh-in and the ride back to the paddock.

Until I see Mr. Lewis’ face. He looks livid, his skin red and splotchy. I dismount from my chestnut, patting him with sadness as I realize I’ll probably never ride him again. He has a lot of class, and if Lewis trains him right he could easily be a contender in the Triple Crows races.

“What is your problem? Do you not know how to ride?” He begins as I strip off my filthy helmet and goggles.

I decide not to answer him, knowing whatever I say will piss him off more.

“Answer me, girl!” Lewis yells in rage as he forcefully grabs my arm.

“Now, now Bill.” A familiar voice calls from behind me. “That is no way to treat a lady, you should know better.”

Lewis releases my arm, and I try to rub the stinging pain away.

“Shut up, Dena. Stay out of this, it’s none of your damn business.” He growls as I turn to see the tall trainer standing next to me.

“Oh, but I think it is.” She replies coolly, a smirk on her face. “My employees are always my business.”

I look up at her questioningly, wondering what she’s talking about.

“Your employee?” Lewis answers, laughing. “What in the hell do you want with her?” He finishes, pointing at me.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Dena says smoothly as she looks down to address me; continuing, “Have your agent call me and we’ll work out the details.” She smiles rudely at Mr. Lewis. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get to the winners’ circle.”

I’m speechless as I watch her begin to walk away.

“Fuck you.” Lewis spits at her back and Dena turns, the same cool smile on her face.

“Not on your best day.” She replies and I bite back laughter.

Mr. Lewis looks at me, obviously expecting me to say something. I know I should disregard what she said about wanting to hire me and apologize to him. He has a huge stable full of horses and I know I can always earn enough to live by continuing to ride for him. To snub such a prominent trainer so early in my career would be stupid. Not to mention how it would look if I left his barn to ride for Dena, where I will have even less job security and practically blacklist myself with everyone else in the business. But Gomez rides for her and he has no trouble getting mounts. Then again, Gomez is such a great jock that he could get whatever horse he wanted.

“Well?” He asks, a cocky look on his face like he already knows what I’m going to say.

Shrugging my shoulders, I smile sweetly at him. Oh well, I never said I was smart. “I’ll see you around. Good luck in the Derby.” I wave and his face turns completely red with anger.

Before Lewis can say anything else to me, I run to the jockey’s lounge to change. I leave my silks folded in front of my locker and head for the showers.

I’m still reeling from the conversation. Did Dena Santoro really just offer me a job? What did she mean, a full time position as one of her backup riders or as an exercise rider? Or what if she just needs a stable hand? I don’t know what I’ll do if I just gave up a job riding with the best trainer to muck out stalls. For some reason, it just doesn’t seem to matter.

I hurry through my shower and pull on clean clothes. After wearing the tight silks, it feels so nice to be in jeans and a t-shirt. I decide to head over to Dena’s barn, calling my agent on the way to tell him to give her a call. He tells me I’m crazy and ruining my career, but he’ll get right on it, and I hope he does.

Still, I want to go and see how the filly cooled out. She ran a tough race, but it didn’t seem to faze her. She sure ran like a Derby winner, and I wonder how serious Dena is about aiming her for the big race.

Enjoying the warm weather, I make the walk to the barns where the horses are stabled. I’ve heard that Dena doesn’t rent space to keep her horses here at Saratoga, but owns a barn a few miles away. A few days before the race she has her horses shipped up and soon after they run they go back home.

It’s a beautiful sunny Florida day; warm enough to eventually dry out the muddy track, but not so hot as to be uncomfortable. I can’t seem to get used to spending February in a t-shirt rather than bundled up in a winter parka. My home state of Wisconsin probably has two feet of snow right now.

Arriving at Dena’s space in the barn, I’m greeted by one of her grooms. He looks at me questioningly, and I grin at him.

“I’m Gen Dietz, Ms. Santoro kind of hired me today.” I offer as an explanation and the groom smiles.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Charlie.” He offers his dark hand to mine and I shake it forcefully. “You a jock, or just underfed?” Charlie questions, his dark eyes twinkling.

I chuckle, immediately taking a liking to this easy-going man. “I’m a jock, I was just up on the horse that couldn’t beat Foxfire.” I explain, and Charlie’s eyes light up in pride.

“No one can beat her.” He tells me. “She’s under my care and I’ve been in this business twice as long as you’ve been alive. I’ve never seen better.” Charlie states.

“Can I see her?” I ask and he nods, leading me over to her stall.

The filly looks even smaller than I remember, and when Charlie opens the stall door she immediately pops her head up and affectionately nuzzles his chest.

Her inky forelock obscures one of her eyes and the groom pushes it back.

I offer the filly my closed hand to sniff, allowing her to become accustomed to my scent before patting her. She searches for treats, and when she realizes I have none she turns her attention back to her groom.

We both laugh at the filly’s actions, especially when Charlie reaches in his pocket and offers her a peppermint. The filly crunches happily and then allows me to pat her silky coat.

“You spoiling her again Chuck?” Dena’s smooth voice calls from the end of the aisle. “That horse is going to have the freshest breath this side of the Mississippi.”

I grin at Dena as she walks up and she returns my smile easily. She takes off her sunglasses to adjust to the dim barn and for the first time I see her cerulean blue eyes. They are stunning, and I get so lost in them I hardly realize she’s talking to me.

“Glad to see you here Dietz, I’ve just got off the phone with your agent. Want to ride over to the farm with me and I’ll show you the ropes?”

Snapping back to attention, I nod eagerly. After saying a quick goodbye to Charlie and the filly I follow Dena to her truck.

I notice as drive out of the crowded track, Dena merrily waves to trainers as we pass. For the most part, they glare at her or mutter under their breaths rather than return her friendly wave.

“I’m not well-loved around here, Dietz.” She mentions; her silky voice filled with mirth. “Some might just say you played career suicide.” Her mouth curls in a faint grin as she turns her amazing eyes to mine.

I shrug in response. “I didn’t like Lewis anyway, but his chestnut I rode in the last race was pretty good.” I tell her honestly.

“He’s got talent, but he’s been raced too much in his young life. I hope Lewis stops running him every few weeks and lets him rest a bit.” She responds. “How did my filly look?”

“Damn good.” I answer, causing a full laugh to emerge from the trainer’s tall form.

I like the sound of it, and I laugh along with her as we speed down the road.

*******

As a horse lover, I’m impressed with Dena’s farm. It’s clean and has wide-open pastures for the horses in training to romp in. I think this is probably where she differs from most trainers; Dena allows her horses to live as naturally as possible, outside all day were most other trainers stable their horses on the track and never allow them to be outside without a rider on their back.

I’ve always thought the life of a racehorse was a sad existence, and I always battle with my conscious about being in a field I both love and hate. As a kid, I used to plaster myself to the TV and watch every race I could, I loved the excitement and the sheer beauty of watching Thoroughbreds battle each other. As I grew older, I realize the negative aspects of the sport, the thousands of horses killed or injured each year by negligent trainers or just bad luck.

But Dena seems different, and maybe she can influence the racing world for the better. I would love to be along for that ride.

Speaking of, I really need to ask her why she hired me and for what. Trainers usually don’t hire a jockey outright, so I have no idea what my arrangement with her will be.

“Ms. Santoro, can I ask you about the position you offered me?” I ask her in mid-tour.

“Sure, Ms. Dietz.” She grins. “By the way, don’t call me that, Dena is fine. You’ll find that we’re very casual here.”

“Okay, Dena.” I tell her, rolling her name around on my tongue. “You can call me Gen.” I add.

“I meant to ask you that before, is that short for Jennifer?” The trainer questions and I shake my head.

“No, it’s G E N.” I respond. “Short for Genevieve.”

“Genevieve, huh?” Dena questions. “That’s pretty.” She winks at me. “So, anyway, you want to know what you’ll be doing here.”

Is she flirting with me? I wonder to myself, and quickly erase the thought from my head as I look at my attractive new boss. “Yes.” I say distractedly in response to her statement.

“Well, I do things differently, and I’ve been looking for a jock who can adapt to my way of training and work for me full time. I liked what I saw of you in the two races today.” Dena states and I tilt my head in confusion.

“But I lost.” I state and she smiles.

“It doesn’t matter.” Dena responds. “In the first race, when your gray horse quit, most jocks would have beat the crap out of him, trying to salvage place or show money. You didn’t, you knew he was done and you didn’t break his heart just to place. The same when you were on Foghorn, you might have been able to beat my filly if you used your crop more and got after him. Most riders would, but you were content to encourage him when it was right and let him be when it wasn’t. It impressed me.”

“Oh.” I answer, completely at a loss for words.

“So, in answer to your question, I would like you to ride the majority of my horses as well as help out around here at the farm. We all wear several hats here, and I’ll plan on you completing daily chores and exercising horses. I have a spare room at the house that you’re welcome to stay in and I’ll pay you weekly rather than a percentage of what you win at the track. It’s not a glamorous offer, and you won’t get great career advancement like you would if you were a free agent riding for Lewis or any of the other big trainers.” Dena states, and I think about what she’s said in my head, sorting out the pros and cons.

“Will I get to ride the filly?” I ask, grinning to show her I’m kidding.

“Sure, I’ll put her on your exercise list each morning.” She responds easily and I think back to how effortlessly Foxfire pulled away to win today.

The memory of the filly’s blinding speed and the intense blue gaze from Dena’s eyes make my decision.

“I’m yours.” I tell her, sticking out my hand in agreement.

“I know.” Dena answers, a ghost of a smile on her full lips.

Releasing my hand, the trainer pats me on the back. “Come on, I’ll put you to work.”

Part 2

Hoisting the bale of hay over the side of the loft I call out a warning to those below before letting it drop. ‘Only ten more to go,’ I sigh internally as I pause to wipe the sweat gathering on my brow with my t-shirt.

The work gloves on my hands are too big and keep sliding around, but it’s better than having them get cut and irritated by the twine holding the scratchy hay bales together. Wanting to get out of the humid loft, I hurry and throw down the rest of the hay.

Now I have to haul it around the entire farm. Climbing down the ladder, I land with a happy thud on the cool concrete of the barn’s main aisle. It’s much nicer down here, a breeze breaking up the humidity of the early Florida morning. It’s only five o’clock and the temperature is already warmer than yesterday.

“You gonna feed now Gen?” Al’s southern drawl questions from his spot in the grain room.

“Sure, you want to walk me through it?” I ask him and he emerges, his rolling cart laden with individual buckets of grain.

“Yep.” He responds and I throw a few bales of hay into a hay cart and grab a knife to cut the twine with. “Usually start here, in the main barn. Boss keeps all the horses in training here and they eat first so they can go over to the track.” Al instructs as he dumps the grain with the horses’ name on it in their buckets.

I love feeding time, even at five am. The horses are always so cute when they know breakfast is coming, most of them whicker softly; their eyes bright and shining. Others are rude, banging on their stall or pacing frantically. Most of Dena’s horses are the former, well behaved and easy to work around.

Following Al, I throw flakes of hay after he gives them their grain. “Normally we don’t do it like this.” He mentions as we continue down the aisle, working already like a team.

“What do you mean?” I question as I cut the twine off another bale.

“It’s better for the horses if you give ‘em hay first, gets their guts working before the heavy grain. Less chance of colic that way. Today I’m showing you, so we’ll do it together.” He explains and I nod in understanding. It’s smart, one of the biggest threats to horses is colic and Dena’s way would seemingly cut down on the risk.

“How long have you been here, Al?” I ask him. He must be in his fifties, and the deep creased lines of his face and dark tan indicate he’s a native Southerner.

“Worked for Dena’s daddy, way back. He died and she got this place and it made sense to just stay on.” He mentions.

“Was her father a trainer?”

“Yup.” Al states tersely, and I take the hint and concentrate on working.

We finish feeding the barn and Al returns the cart to the grain room. He shows me the chart that explains what each horse gets for meals and what various supplements get added. I’m pleased to see that Dena uses mostly herbal supplements, and not near the quantity of crap most trainers pump into their horses’ systems.

“You get up to the house now, and have breakfast. I’ll finish up down here and water everybody.” He orders and I nod before making my way to the main house.

I guess its custom here for employees to gather for meals in the main house. Dena finished showing me around yesterday and we stayed at the farm until the spacious trailer delivering Foxy from the track arrived. By the time we then went back to the track to check on the few horses stabled there it was pretty late. I went to the weekly motel where I had been living, gathered my few possessions and checked out.

It was pretty satisfying to leave that roach motel behind as I got in my beat-up car and drove back to the farm. I knew I had to get up early to help Al feed so I hit the sheets, where fast horses and a certain dark-haired trainer consumed my dreams. And I don’t mean Mr. Lewis.

I enter the main house and kick off my dirty boots, intent on washing up in my room before eating. I trot up the stairs, hearing the loud laughter and commotion down in the dining room.

Dena said everyone here was a friendly bunch, and it sounds like it. I wonder if she’ll be joining us for breakfast? I slip on a clean pair of riding tights and a fresh t-shirt, butterflies in my stomach as I am reminded by my clothes that I will be on the track in just a few hours. I run my fingers through my shaggy blonde hair and smile at my reflection in the mirror. I look happy for the first time in a long time.

As I enter the dining room I see Dena, sitting at the head of the table wearing a tank top. Her long arms are toned and tanned and I feel my mouth go dry at the sight of her. She’s so gorgeous.

“Hey Gen!” She greets me with a wide smile. “Everyone, this is Gen.” Dena stands and crosses to my side, pointing out the new faces as she introduces me.

“Fernando, our exercise rider extraordinaire.” She starts, pointing out a young Hispanic boy. He smiles and waves his small hand. “You’ll be working with him mostly, our other exercise rider quit because his wife just had a baby. She didn’t want him riding anymore.” Dena states and I nod in understanding. I don’t blame her one bit; riding is dangerous regardless of how easy the horse is to ride.

“You know Charlie, and the other grooms are Maya, Hector, Alice, and Jose.” Dena points them out and I greet each one. “Charlene is my assistant and general know-it-all,” Dena continues, pointing to a laughing blonde woman, “And Bob and Frank there are the barn handymen.” I nod a hello to the two ruddy men at the end of the table. “We have an assortment of part-time helpers and hot-walkers, you’ll meet all of them eventually.” Dena finishes as she sits back down.

“Nice to meet you all.” I tell everyone.

“How did feeding go this morning, Gen?” Dena asks as she points me to an empty seat besides hers.

Grateful to be included in their conversation, I pour myself a glass of juice. “It was great, all the horses looked fine and Al is just finishing up.”

Dena nods, suddenly looking deep in thought. “Good.” She responds, as everyone else resumes their conversations and the room is suddenly loud again.

*****

“Hola.” Fernando speaks to me shyly as we follow Dena down to the barn.

“Hola.” I respond, and he grins. He’s a cutie, that’s for sure. He’s as short as I am and probably only fifteen.

“You should see Fernando ride.” Dena speaks proudly, “He’s a natural.” Fernando blushes at her compliment and I grin, immediately taking a liking to the mild-mannered boy.

Charlene accompanies us to the barn, the grooms already there to prep the first string of horses for the morning workout. Breakfast was fun, I seemed to fit in and feel at ease with the employees. Dena seems to have gathered a big, very diverse, family and I don’t regret my decision to work here.

“I’m going to put you up on Foxy today.” Dena states suddenly and Fernando looks at me in awe, his dark eyes glowing.

“Foxy?” I question, not having learned all the names of Dena’s horses yet.

“Foxfire.” She responds and I swallow audibly. “Foxy’s her barn name.”

I nod, knowing most horses are never called by their full registered names.

“I don’t want any speed from her, just gallop her out slow and make sure she’s settled down from yesterday. Dena continues, waiting for my reaction.

I grin widely, eager to be on the filly even if we just walk around the barn. Dena returns my smile, obviously pleased with my reaction before explaining her other instructions to Fernando and myself.

We reach the barn and Charlie is waiting directly outside, holding the filly’s bridle. Dena nods at me and I strap on my helmet, my stomach clenches with anticipation and my hands already clammy from the heat.

Giving me a leg up, Dena rests her hand on my thigh as I settle onto the filly’s back. “She’s a peach to ride, but smart. She’ll try to fool you into thinking you’re going slower than you really are. She loves to run and will probably fight you a bit when you try to keep her slow. Just loosen her muscles up and gallop out a mile.”

“Okay.” I tell her, patting Foxfire’s red neck. Sitting on her back, I admire her black-tipped ears and well-shaped neck. She is small, especially compared to the gigantic Foghorn I rode yesterday. But there’s something about her that feels different from any other horse I’ve ever ridden, it’s like she is burning from the inside with spirit. It’s an almost overwhelming feeling, especially when she’s just standing still. I can’t imagine what she will feel like at full gallop.

Charlie releases her rein and brings out a round quarter horse wearing an English saddle.

Dena gracefully swings onto the horse and settles her long legs into the stirrups. She rides over to me and takes the filly’s rein, acting like an attending rider to the post.

“Charlene, go ahead and get the second string ready and bring them over to the track.” Dena calls before catching my eye. “You ready?”
“Yep.” I answer, smiling at her. We ride slowly over to Dena’s half-mile training track, a few hundred yards away. The filly’s walk is elastic and filled with the promise of speed. She reminds me of a cat in full crouch, just waiting to pounce.

“So, are things working out so far?” She asks as I notice her relaxed posture while in the saddle.

“Yes, thank you.” I answer. “I made the right decision.”

Dena nods, her bright eyes twinkling. “I’m glad. Everyone here is great, I’m sure you’ll feel right at home in no time.”

I grin. “I already do.” I notice that Dena isn’t as tall as I originally thought. Because I’m just under five feet, everyone seems tall to me. But Dena is probably only 5’8’, not 6’ as I first thought. Maybe it’s her personality that makes her seem so looming, or the fact that she’s surrounded by jockeys and exercise riders all day.

“There a horse I want you to rate this morning.” Dena starts and I turn my attention back to business. “He’s a four-year-old named Irish Cream, and he’s going in a race the day after tomorrow. I’d like you to ride if you’re interested.”

“Sure.” I offer immediately.

“Good. He’s going in the second string today, so we’ll see how he goes with you.” Dena finishes as we arrive at the track. “Okay, don’t break her from the gate, just warm her up quickly and ease her into a gallop.” Dena orders as the filly steps onto the track.

The dirt is soft, and still a little thick from the previous rain. It’s a deep, sandy track covered in loam, making it easier on the horses’ legs than the hard surface of most tracks. The filly immediately changes her demeanor, on the walk over she was relaxed and now she’s bursting with energy.

“Easy Foxy.” I tell her and she flicks her small ears back in my direction. Obeying Dena’s instructions I ask the filly for a trot and she immediately complies. I rise in my stirrups and post to her fluid gait, amazed at how long her stride is for her small stature.

I trot her once around the track, familiarizing myself with her natural movement and rhythm. She’s not as comfortable in the trot as Foghorn or any of the bigger horses I’ve ridden, but I can feel her collected movement and I can’t hold back my smile. She reminds me of all the dressage horses I’ve ridden in my life, perfectly balanced and in control of every muscle. This is a filly that will be able to handle any track surface with ease and switch her leads perfectly when coming off of the turn.

As we pass Dena for the first time, the dark-haired trainer nods at me and I allow the filly to canter. She immediately rolls into a gentle rhythm and for a moment I feel like I’m on a carousel horse rather than a racehorse. She’s got the sweetest canter I’ve ever experienced, and the marker poles fly by as she never breaks from her even gait.

She’s not fighting or pulling on the bit, simply waiting for me to allow her to run. We pass Dena for the second time and she gives me the thumbs-up.

“Okay, baby.” I tell the filly, as I am careful to keep the reins taut in my hand. I don’t want her bolting into a gallop and taking control, so I give her a gentle squeeze with my leg and she flies into the faster gait.

I look down at her flying shoulders in wonder. Her perfect balance and control over her body result in the smoothest transitions I’ve felt in a racehorse. Even at this slow gallop she seems like the fastest horse I’ve ever ridden.

And she’s a dream to ride, I expect her to be angry at the firm hold I’m keeping, but she seems content to run like this all day. I talk to her the entire time around the track, telling her what a good filly she is. She seems to like my voice, her small ears turning in my direction the entire time.

We make it around the track once, and have one more time around to go. I absorb everything about the filly; especially how she runs with her head upright rather than stretching her neck down like most horses. In a race, knowing that fact is important because bigger horses with stretched out necks could sneak in and win with what’s called “a head-bob” win.

She doesn’t fuss with the bit like most horses either, or wing out with her front legs. Everything about her seems to be in perfect control, much like when I saw her being saddled before the race yesterday. She’s a very mature and mild-mannered little filly, and I can’t help but think of what a wonderful dressage horse she would make one day, maybe after she’s through with racing.

We make it around the track once more and I reluctantly start slowing the filly down. It is only now that she gets upset, shaking her small head in annoyance as I ease her back into a canter. I know she wants to keep going, and I don’t blame her. She seems like she could run all day and I would gladly accompany her. As I trot her out, I notice, just like yesterday after the race, that she doesn’t even appear winded. I wonder how long she can keep up her blinding speed, and if the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter so early in her three-year-old campaign is too long for her like it is for most horses. I’ll have to ask Dena more about the filly’s history and breeding.

I glance over at Dena and discover she has a small crowd with her, several horses and people all watching me ride Foxy.

The beautiful trainer waves us over and I keep a firm hold on the prancing filly. It’s as if she’s showing off to the crowd and I laugh as I stroke her damp neck.

“Good job, Gen.” Dena says, her voice tinged with pride. Charlie takes hold of his filly’s bridle and I hop down, throwing my arms around her neck in an impromptu hug.

Foxy nuzzles my back, her lips tickling my back through my shirt. “Good girl.” I tell her again as Charlie chuckles and leads her toward the barn.

“She’s wonderful.” I tell Dena, elated from my ride. “What next?”

“This is Irish Cream, but we call him Irish.” Dena explains as she points me to a dark bay horse with a generous white blaze down his long face. I quickly introduce myself to him before hopping onto his back. Dena explains the fractions she wants him worked in and to break him from the gate. I nod in understanding and warm him up on the track before heading over to the chute housing the starting gate.

Bob and Frank are there to lend me a hand getting the bay into the gate, and as soon as he’s settled Bob pushes the button to release the doors.

Irish breaks cleanly and I give him his head so he can find his stride. He’s a rough-moving horse, especially compared to the filly. Dena’s instructions were to keep him fast, so after he settles I encourage him to move out a little.

I don’t have a stopwatch, relying on my internal sense of pace to keep him running at the precise fractions Dena specified. The bay is hard on the bit, constantly clamping his teeth down as if he’s looking for a fight.

I just ignore his antics, which seems to infuriate him more. I can tell he’s testing me, trying to see how much I will let him get away with, but I just sit calmly on his back and concentrate on keeping him going smoothly.

Coming off the first turn he slows a bit as he struggles to switch his lead. It’s a problem some horses have; they need to lead with the correct foreleg in order to maintain their balance around the track. Unlike Foxfire, who can change leads in mid-stride without the rider really even feeling it; Irish is a big less coordinated and has to really think about it.

I shift my weight slightly in the saddle and keep my outside rein firm; encouraging the lead change much like I would on a dressage horse and it seems to help him. He finally switches and I praise him, letting the rein back out and giving him a bit of leg.

He speeds up down the straightaway and I encourage him further. The time Dena specified for the last few furlongs isn’t going to be made unless he really gets going. Instead of speeding up like I’ve asked, Irish tries to fight me further, shaking his head angrily from side to side and weaving out on the track.

I struggle to keep him straight, my arms protesting from the strength of his neck. “Easy, easy.” I coo to him, trying to convince him he’s not bothering me one bit. I know if I fight him, he’ll just fight back and that won’t do anyone any good.

My gentle tone seems to have caught him off-guard and he stops pulling for a split second. I use it to my advantage, giving him one good smack with my whip and a lot of leg.

Irish responds like I’ve hoped, with a burst of speed that instantly releases the pressure on my arms and back. I go with it, pumping my arms and legs for all I’m worth.

We pass the furlong marker and I pull him up, knowing we didn’t make the fractions Dena asked for at the end, but came damn close. “Good boy.” I tell Irish, who has immediately gone back to his nice self, relaxed and light on the bit.

I wipe my face with my shirt as I let him cool down. He’s pretty lathered up; he got a good workout as prep for his race and hopefully realized that I’m not going to fall for his tricks.

Glancing at Dena, I find her face unreadable. I hope she’s not upset I couldn’t make Irish complete the work she specified. She motions me over and I direct Irish over to her.

He’s still blowing from his run and a generous amount of sweat covers his body.

“Hop down Gen, Maya will finish cooling him out.” She directs as the groom takes hold of Irish so I can dismount.

“Thank Maya.” I tell her, smiling at her suntanned face. She’s probably not much older than I am and seems pretty nice. “Good boy.” I tell the horse as Maya returns my smile and clips on his lead rope.

I turn my attention to Dena. “I’m sorry I couldn’t finish out the workout like you wanted, he got kind of rank down the stretch.” I offer, her blue eyes unreadable.

“Don’t worry about it, we’ll talk later.” She says and my stomach drops. I can’t tell if she’s really pissed at me or just wants to keep the morning running along.

“Okay, fun time!” She states, and the assortment of people around her laugh. “Gen, you’re on the bay there.” Dena instructs as I walk over to the horse. His groom, Alice is patting his head. I climb on board as Dena directs the rest of the riders onto the horses.

“Who’s this?” I ask the petite, middle-aged gray-haired woman.

“Elmer.” She answers, and I smile at the horse’s unusual stable name. “He’s real name is Seeyalater, but we call him Elmer cause Dena just bought him from a slaughter-auction. He’s three and real nice to be around, must be slow though.” The groom adds, grinning.

I smile, understanding how Elmer got his unusual nickname. If Dena hadn’t bought him, he’d probably be dog food, glue, or a delicacy in France. I pat Elmer’s long neck, pleased he has found a second chance here with Dena.

“You all right with him?” Alice asks and I nod, the mild-mannered Elmer looking around curiously at the other horses. Alice mounts a tall chestnut and pulls on her helmet, surprising me. I guess she doubles as a rider here, Dena said everyone did a little of everything.

“Everyone ready?” Dena asks, and the five riders on horseback nod. “Okay, we’re going to have a little race here today.” She says, and we all start grinning and cheering. Holding up her hand, we immediately quiet down and she chuckles.

“These are the new horses that just came in last week. I’ve yet to see most of them run, so I can’t tell you anything about them except they haven’t been real successful so far.” The trainer adds, causing a few of us grin.

“So, break from the gate, and let the horses run where they want. It’s up to you to tell me about them and to let the race play out, go six furlongs. Keep them safe and have fun.” She adds and the five of us set out on the track. I’m surprised to see Dena’s assistant Charlene on one of the horses. She’s riding with myself, Fernando, Alice and Jose.

Elmer is just plain cute as we all warm up. He is trying to look everywhere at once, like a curious little kid. He probably needs to be run with blinkers to prevent him from seeing anything except what’s in front of him to help him focus on the race more.

He lopes contentedly over the track, seemingly more interested in his surroundings than the race ahead.

“Let’s go.” Charlene announces, obviously the leader of our group. Bob and Frank have their hands full trying to load the five horses, but Elmer contentedly walks in the gate. I settle myself over his black mane and grab a fistful of it in my hand.

The bell rings, and the gates open. Elmer stumbles a bit at the break, but soon regains his footing and lopes off.

Charlene, on a little bay mare, surges to the front. Fernando settles his dark chestnut just off the pace and Alice encourages her colt to go with the early leaders. Jose, on an almost black colt runs alongside the easily striding Elmer.

As I expected, Elmer is more interested in the black colt than running. He turns his head toward Jose’s horse, and I have to practically yank his head around to keep him straight. Jose grins and I shrug my shoulders in response. Elmer has no problem keeping up with the pack; he just seems to have no interest in racing.

We keep the horses in their positions as we make it around the track once, leaving two furlongs to go. Charlene’s mare increases her speed, lengthening over the rest of the pack. Fernando effortlessly asks his chestnut to go with her, and the horse does. Alice doesn’t move from her perch, but her chestnut speeds up and soon draws even with Charlene’s mare. Not to be left behind, Jose yells to his black colt and waves his whip at him.

It’s a four-horse race as we near the wire, and Elmer makes no effort to include himself in it. I try everything, smacking my whip against my boot to make a loud sound that will make him go forward, talking to him and encouraging him with my voice, and getting excited myself and riding him forward.

Nothing works, and the placid Elmer never breaks from his easy gallop, staying just a few lengths behind the leaders.

My last attempt is to give him a few slaps with my whip on his haunches. He bolts and veers sharply to the left and I luckily am able to slip him through the inside without running into Charlene’s mare. Elmer’s entire personality changes and I can feel his body tense up and begin to shake with fear.

Okay, so he’s afraid of the whip. I try to undo the damage I’ve just done in the last few seconds and speak calmly to him, tucking my whip under my boot where he cannot see it or feel it. Elmer seems to settle down, still having no interest in the race and I pat his brown neck and just let him gallop out.

Charlene is using her whip fluidly on the bay mare, who is responding gamely against the stretch dual with the other three horses. Jose’s black colt is tiring quickly and fading as Alice keeps her chestnut steady.

The real surprise is Fernando, his whip tucked under his arm; he rocks in the saddle of his handsome chestnut that is accelerating past the others. As we sweep under the wire, Fernando’s horse wins by a head, followed by the bay mare, Alice’s chestnut, the black colt, and Elmer.

“Good run!” Charlene calls to him, and the boy turns in his stirrups and grins. Dena was right, the kid can ride and he seems to love to do it. He’ll be a hell of a jockey one day.

“He never fired, eh?” Jose says to me from his perch on the black colt. I shake my head, patting Elmer’s sweaty neck.

“Nah, racing isn’t for him.” I tell him honestly. “Your colt looked pretty good.”

Jose smiles. “Yeah, he okay.”

We cool the horses out and head over to Dena.

“Good work. I’ll talk with you all individually.” The trainer calls as she mounts her bay horse. “Let’s head back over to the barn.”

On the walk over, Dena rides up to me. “Hey.” She greets me, her eyes twinkling.

I offer her a smile, figuring she’s not that mad about my ride on Irish. I still feel compelled to apologize, maybe if I bring it up first she won’t mind as much.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t make those fractions you wanted on Irish.” I tell her, meeting her stunning eyes.

Dena raises her hand. “Christ, don’t worry about it. That horse is the angriest one we have in the barn. He’s fine one minute, and than insane the next. I’m surprised he didn’t start bucking and kicking with you like he does with everyone else. So the fact that you got him to complete the workout and actually show some speed is good enough for me. I’d still like you to take him in the race.”
“Sure!” I agree. “Thanks.”

“Anyway, how do you feel about everything else?” She asks, that sly grin on her face and I know she’s speaking about my ride on the filly.

“She’s incredible.” I say dreamily, remembering her intense desire to run and win, so unlike Elmer.

“You looked good on her, she seemed to like you. You interested in riding her in the mornings?”

“You don’t even have to ask, of course.” I tell Dena honestly. “Now, about this fellow…” I begin, glancing down at Elmer who is enjoying his walk to the barn.

“He hates it, doesn’t he?” She questions.

“Everything about it. He’s more interested in the other horses and his surroundings than running, and I don’t think blinkers will cure that. He seems to have some natural speed, but doesn’t care if the other horses are behind him, in front of him, whatever. He just doesn’t want to run, and he really hates the whip.” I say.

“I noticed, he didn’t take kindly to that at all.” She responds, tapping her full lips with her index finger. “I figured he was bound for slaughter because he wouldn’t make a racehorse, but he has some good breeding and I liked the look of him so I thought I’d at least try him.”

“I’m surprised you bought him. Most trainers wouldn’t look twice at horses like him.” I tell her as I stretch my legs out of the short stirrups.

“I’m not most trainers.” Dena tells me wryly. “I bought the entire trailer-load and sent them to a friend who runs an ex-racehorse adoption program. I picked out these five as possible prospects to keep in training.”

“What?” I question, unbelieving to what I just heard. “You saved an entire trailer-load of horses you’ve never seen race before?”

Dena looks at me. “I hate to see horses who have worked so hard for anyone go for meat, or worse. It’s disgusting because most of these horses have the rest of their lives to live.”
“I agree, I’m just surprised you would do that. Most trainers don’t give a damn what happens after the horse can’t earn any more money.” I respond honestly.

“Like I said, I’m not most trainers.” Dena tells me in a quiet voice. She suddenly looks like a lost child, and her bright blue eyes fill with unshed tears. “Anyway, this fellow won’t have to race anymore.” Dena says, motioning to Elmer. “I’ll send him over to my friend and she’ll find a home for him.”

For some reason, the thought of Elmer leaving saddens me. Maybe because he’s new here, just like I am, and it’s obvious he’s had a troubled past, being so afraid of the whip and all. I can relate to that and I suddenly feel like a friend to Elmer. I want to earn his trust.

“Um, actually, he’d be a good attending horse.” I mention casually. “He seemed to like trotting around on the track and he’s really calm, so he’d be good to take the horses over to the gate. Plus, he’s a gelding so he could be a good pasture buddy to some of the colts or the mares.”

Dena meets my eyes, the faint traces of a smile visible on her full lips. “So we should keep him around, huh?”

“I think so.” I tell her, wondering if she knows my ulterior motive.

“Well, that would work out okay, he could live out in the front pasture that has that really nice run-in stall. But you have to keep him in shape, so he’d be your responsibility to exercise and everything. I’m pretty busy, so you’ll have to work with him to show him the ropes of being an attending horse. You’d have to be in complete charge of him.” Dena responds, unable to control her smile.

She knows. She definitely knows. “Okay.” I grin at her happily as I pat the neck of my new horse and we walk the rest of the way back to the barn in silence. The warm Florida morning is filled with colors and sounds, the bright sunlight making Dena’s dark hair look like the coals of a smoldering fire.

I think I’m going to like it here.

Part 3

It’s amazing how one’s life can change in a second. Three days ago I was here, at this very same track, riding for Mr. Lewis. Now, I’m here riding at the track, but with a completely different (and way better looking) boss. It’s pretty cool.

Dena warned me Irish would be a handful on the way to the starting gate. She said she bought him as a two-year-old who couldn’t be raced because of his unruly antics. She has done a lot of work with him to turn him around, so I guess the fact that he’s only bucked and kicked a few times is a big improvement.

The massive Hector is Irish’s groom, and the Hispanic man treats him with kindness but doesn’t let him get away with anything. It’s obvious that Irish has bonded somewhat with Hector, he doesn’t try anything with him and in turn, Hector slips him treats and gives him pats for behaving.

I, on the other hand, haven’t had time to bond with Irish and he knows it. Dena assures me that he’s behaving better for me than any other rider she’s tried him with, but I can’t say I’m not nervous about the race.

Irish is a big horse and I’m strong, but not as strong as some of the male jocks that have been doing this a lot longer. I don’t want him to grab the bit and take off or anything, so I need to be on my toes at all time.

The last horse loads, I prepare for the break. Irish is behaving, but I know he’s ready to freak out. He isn’t thrilled with standing in the closed gate, chomping the bit and tossing his head as the horse next to us rears in the stall.

“No sir!” The rearing horses’ jockey calls to the starter as he struggles to get his horse down. This causes a domino affect and many of the other horses start acting up in the gate.

“We’re not going until everyone’s set.” The tinny voice of the starter calls over the loudspeaker. At that precise moment, Irish loses it and practically throws himself backwards in the gate.

I desperately grab onto his mane and try to remain upright, but the enraged horse slams me into the side of the gate. The assistant starter tries to grab Irish’s bridle to pull him down, but to no avail. Falling to the track below, I avoid his stomping hooves as I slide under the gate and onto the open track.

“Get him out!” The assistant starters cry and luckily are able to grab Irish and back him out of the gate. All the other jocks are having a difficult time controlling their horses, but no one else seems in danger of falling off.

“You okay Dietz?” The assistant starter asks as two others hold on to a bucking Irish’s bridle. I dust the dirt and sand from the track off of my silks, amazed at how fast my hands are shaking.

I swallow the lump of fear in my throat and nod. “Yeah, thanks.” I think I just peed my pants; I was so frightened at that moment. Holy crap.

My heart won’t stop racing but I try to calm myself down and shake the incident off. It happens all the time and you’ve got to just get back on and start over.

“You scared us there, you’re pretty fast on your feet to be able to slide under. I thought he was gonna stomp you to death.” The starter jokes, trying to ease my nerves.

Giving him a small smile, I approach Irish, knowing the horses in the gate have got to break soon or they’ll all start going nuts.

I get a boost up onto Irish’s tall back. The horse is worked up and angry, and I hope he doesn’t try anything again.

“As soon as we get you in, he’s going to open the doors so be ready.” The assistant tells me as the three of them force Irish into the gate.

Irish doesn’t even have time to act up as the gates spring open and he bolts out ahead of everyone else. I direct him to the now dry inside rail and keep him just in front of the others, like Dena said he usually likes to run.

We have some competition, another bay just to our right, but I ignore them and allow Irish to increase his pace. I want to keep his nose out in front the entire time, but close to the pack so he only can concentrate on the other horses rather than killing me.

It’s a short race, just a sprint, and I’m grateful. Irish is settling, but I can still feel his previous rage simmering. I know if I make one wrong move it will boil over and we’ll all be in trouble.

My stomach is still shaking and I try to make the image of Irish’s stomping hooves go away. I’ve been thrown from a horse before; all jocks have, but never actually in the gate. That was really close and I have no desire to ever repeat it.

The marker poles whip by and I sit as still as possible in the saddle, hoping Irish will just forget all about me and focus on winning. Three furlongs to go and I give him a tiny bit more rein. He gladly takes it and increases his lead by a fraction over the close-running bay.

He runs so differently from Foxfire, I can feel the power of his speed whereas on the filly it’s almost impossible to tell how fast she’s really going. I think the filly is faster, but Irish has a lot of natural talent and speed; if he could just concentrate on running rather than fighting he’d be a top contender.

Two furlongs remain, and I start our sprint. I let the slick leather slip through my hands and encourage Irish to take the bit and bolt, knowing it’s what he wants. Irish responds with a huge increase in speed that leaves me feeling breathless, like the wind has been knocked out of me. The bay falls behind as Irish races down the track alone.

One furlong to go, and I glance behind me, surprised to see the remaining horses not even close. I give Irish full control, and amazingly the dark horse stretches out even more, increasing our lead over the others.

We cross under the wire, in front by seven lengths. The crowd cheers, and I struggle to get control back from Irish. He is blowing hard and I can feel the exhaustion in his body. He ran his heart out the last few furlongs, when he thought he was getting away with something. I let him gallop out until his breathing slows enough for him to be walked and the attending rider escorts us over to the paddock. I have to make a final weigh-in for it to be official, and as soon as I do Irish’s number 6 goes up on the board as the winner.

“Good race.” Hector tells me as he takes the dark horses’ bridle. I pat Irish on the hindquarters as Hector leads him away to be cooled out and bathed.

“Gen!” Dena calls and I turn to see the dark-haired trainer approach me. “You were incredible!” She tells me as she picks me up and twirls me around in the paddock, causing everyone around us to chuckle.

I know I must be getting her filthy, on race days she always dresses so beautifully, and she was wearing a cream pantsuit this morning.

She finally puts me down, and sure enough, she has dirt and sweat smeared over her formerly stunning outfit. Looking down at herself, she laughs, a full and rich sound before shrugging her shoulders.

“Are you okay? Did you get hurt when he dumped you?” She asks, suddenly remembering my fall before the race. Removing her dark sunglasses, her startling blue eyes run up and down my body as if searching for injuries.

“I’m fine, just scared me.” I tell her honestly and she nods in understanding.

“Let’s go, we’ve got to celebrate!” She responds, putting her arm around my shoulders as we walk back to the barn.

I like the feel of her embrace, and I relax in it as we pass Mr. Lewis’s barn where I can hear the trainer’s shouts all the way from here. Glancing up at my gorgeous boss, I can’t help but grin.

I definitely made the right decision.

*****

Glancing around and feeling really underdressed; I uncomfortably tug at my shirt. When Dena mentioned that we ‘had to celebrate’ I thought it meant go back to the farm and have dinner with everyone else.

Not come to a fancy restaurant where I look like a homeless ruffian compared to the cool elegance of my boss.

I’m not complaining, I was thrilled when she said she wanted to take me somewhere nice for dinner, her treat. Until I remembered that my wardrobe consisted of riding gear, old t-shirts, and a tattered jacket.

I was too proud to ask Maya or Alice if they had anything, so I picked my best shirt and jeans and cleaned my boots.

Dena didn’t even look at my outfit twice; just motioned me into her truck and off we went.

So now were are here, drinking wine, and rehashing the race. I must admit the more I talk about falling off of Irish, the less it continues to haunt me.

“So, Gen, where are you from?” Dena asks, her blue eyes curious. “And how did you get involved in this sport?”

I nervously twist my napkin under the table. I don’t want to talk about this, but I also don’t want to hide things from Dena. I feel as if I can trust her and don’t want our working relationship to start out with lies or hidden truths.

“Wisconsin, originally. I moved a few years ago to Kentucky and started working as a hired hand on the farms. I eventually made my way down here for winter.” I say neutrally, hoping she doesn’t press the issue.

Of course she does. “Where’s your family? You look awful young to be on your own.” She asks kindly.

“I’m twenty-three actually. I just look a lot younger. And I’ve been on my own since I was seventeen.” I tell her.

“Oh, I see.” Dena responds, sitting back and folding her hands over her trim stomach. “Well, I’m glad you found your way from Wisconsin to here.” She comments before digging into her meal.

“Me too.” I tell her, cutting my steak into small pieces. “So, are you from around here?”

Startled blue eyes meet mine over the table. “Yep, a Floridian, born and bred.” She states.

“How long have you been training?” I question. “Al mentioned your father was a trainer too. I’m sorry to hear about his death.” I tell her honestly.

“I’m not. My father was a horrible man and trainer. We didn’t get on well.” Dena mentions, her eyes taking on an icy glint.

“Oh.” I say, immediately ashamed to have brought something hurtful to her up. Appreciating her openness, I meet her cold eyes. “I didn’t get along with my father either, or my mother to be honest. So I guess I understand how you feel, and if you ever need to talk, just let me know.”

Dena’s eyes become human again, briefly flashing me a smile. “Yeah, thanks.” She takes a long sip of her red wine before setting her glass back down. “Same goes for you, if you need a friend.”

“Okay.” I tell her, grinning.

“So, onto better and brighter things. Let’s talk about Foxfire.” Dena begins, and I eagerly join in the conversation, eager to tell her my thoughts on the talented filly.

*****

Lying back on the soft mattress, I fold my arms behind my head and close my eyes. I don’t think there’s anything else I could want right now, well I can think of one thing.

I grin up at the ceiling in the dark, thinking of the way Dena’s graceful hands twirled her wine glass during dinner tonight, the way her dark hair flows gently around her face, and her eyes. Those incredible eyes that make me feel scrutinized and accepted at the same time.

My smile quickly fades. I shouldn’t be having feelings of attraction toward my boss, despite my certainty that she’s been flirting with me. She’s probably trying to make sure I feel welcome here, not flirt necessarily.

Sighing, I close my eyes and try to get some sleep. I’m on feeding rotation this entire week, meaning I have to meet Al out at the barn at four am. And then there are horses to be worked, chores to be done, and Elmer to exercise. I’m glad Dena is letting him stay, I have a feeling I’ll enjoy having the big bay gelding around.

I hear noises in the long hallway, the other workers going to bed and the low, rich voice of Dena telling everyone to have sweet dreams.

Someone raps on my door. Looking down at my pajama-clad frame, I think I’m presentable enough.

“Come in.”

The door opens slowly to reveal Dena, bathed from behind by the warm hall light. My eyes squint at the sudden brightness, but I am still able to make out how beautiful she looks with her features highlighted.

“Hey Gen, sorry to wake you but there’s been a change of plans.” She says, her alto voice turning my insides to mush.

“Sure, what’s up?” I ask, sitting up and looking at her with my head cocked.

“Charlene got a call from some potential clients this evening while we were out. They have a few horses they’d like me to train and I need to meet with them in the morning. I’d like to take you along to ride the horses and tell me what you think.” She asks, and my heart rate picks up at the thought of spending the morning with her as opposed to Al.

“Sure, I’d love to.” I tell her. “I’m on feeding duty though.”

“No problem, Fernando said he’d cover for you.” Dena mentions with a wave of her hand. I remind myself to kiss Fernando the next time I see him. “So I’ll see you in the morning, okay? We’ll leave at 5:00, it’s a couple hours drive up to their farm.” She says before smiling and closing my door.

Alone in the darkness, I pump my fist in the air. An entire morning with the beautiful trainer, and no morning feeding duty! Life rocks.

Closing my eyes, my mind races with thoughts of tomorrow.

*****

While Dena speaks with the owners the Swanson’s, a stuffy-looking wealthy couple, about their horses I look over the three young colts I just finished exercising critically.

They are all two-year-olds, young babies who are just making their mark on the track. To my eye, they all seem sound and in good health. They all worked well, showing their inexperience about what they are doing, but they all seem like they will be good and solid runners, one in particular. The glowing liver chestnut colt with three white stockings has a ton of speed and I liked what I felt riding him. He’s confident and careful over the track, but eager to run. I took to his personality and like his conformation, he’s taller than the rest, and has almost an authoritative air about him. The tall bay is nice, and has something about him I like.

I wonder if Dena will agree to train their horses. Dena explained to me on the drive up that she only trains horses she herself owns, unlike most other trainers who don’t own any of the horses they work with. Dena believes in having complete ownership over the horses in her care, and is only considering taking these clients because they are friends of Charlene’s parents. They are new in the business and want to expand rapidly, a sure moneymaker for Dena.

“Gen?” Dena’s voice snaps me out of my thoughts. I look at her expectantly. “What did you think?”

I look at her in surprise, knowing it is unheard of for a trainer to ask a jock about a horse in front of the owner’s. Usually jockeys and owners interact very little, and I try to speak professionally to the middle-aged couple standing before me.

“The chestnut, in particular has a lot of talent. The other two show signs of progressing, but will probably be in Grade three races. The chestnut has the potential to run in a higher level.” I address them formally, my hands clasped behind my back.

“I thought he was nice looking, we bought him because I liked his name.” The wife states, smiling proudly. I glance to Dena, who looks as if she’s trying not to roll her eyes. It’s not good for people who know nothing about racehorses to just go to a sale and buy them without the advice from a professional.

“What’s his name?” I ask curiously, biting back a smile.

“Swan’s First Chance.” The husband says gruffly. The wife beams, adding, “It’s our first chance to be horse owners, and our last name is Swanson, so just felt right!”

Dena glances at the horses and than back to me, giving me the tiniest of winks. “I’ll make arrangements to have them shipped down to my farm later today. And from now on, don’t buy any other horse unless consulting me first.” She tells them firmly and the Swanson’s smile as they shake her hand.

We walk back to the truck in silence, and I can tell the wheels are turning in the tall trainer’s head. Before we get in, she pulls out her cell phone and gives Frank directions to pick up the three Swanson horses. “Hungry?” Dena asks as we drive away.

I laugh. “I’m never going to keep making my weight if you continue to take me out.” I respond, patting my slender stomach.

Dena glances over at me. “Please, you won’t have any problem. Besides, it doesn’t matter to me; I’m not about to ask my jocks to have eating disorders in order to continue riding. Nothing is that important, even a horse race.” Dena says, smiling.

I bait her, adding, “Even the Derby?”

She glances at me. “If you can’t make 121 lbs, then you better find a new job.”

I smile, realizing she said 121 lbs, which is what fillies carry in the Derby rather than the 126 lbs colts carry. She must really be serious about pointing Foxfire toward the big race.

“What’s next for Foxfire?” I ask, thinking if I were Dena, I’d point her to the Florida Derby.

“March 15th Florida Derby.” She answers, mirroring my thoughts. I want to ask if Gomez will be up on her, but I feel it’s foolish. There’s no way Dena would take Gomez off the filly to put me on, I haven’t had nearly as much experience and would probably do something to blow the race.

“She’ll win.” I tell Dena confidently. I have faith in the filly that surprises even me. I’ve only ridden her once, but am completely sold on her.

“Let’s hope. So, what did you really think about the Swanson horses?” Dena asks as she pulls into the driveway of a cute diner.

Parking the truck, we head out into the humid afternoon. “What I told you, the chestnut impressed me.”

She nods thoughtfully, opening the door for me to enter. The cool air conditioning is a welcome relief as we are quickly seated.

After ordering, she returns to the conversation. “That’s the real reason I told them I would train for them.” Dena mentions. “I saw that chestnut at the January sale and really liked him. I couldn’t afford his $1.2 million price tag the Swanson’s shelled out for him though.”

My eyes bug out at the price. “That’s insane, that much money for an unraced horse.”

Dena nods. “I know, but he might be worth it. I like his breeding, he’s a full brother to Serena’s Song, remember that filly from a few years back? She ran in the derby and lost, but had a good four-year-old season.”

“Oh yeah, she was great.” I tell Dena enthusiastically. “The other two were nice, there’s something about the gangly bay that’s sticking with me.”

“He’s a Native Dancer colt, I think he’s going to surprise us all once he grows into his body. I liked his movement; did you see how his hocks are almost perfectly shaped? He’ll be a speedball next year I bet.” Dena responds, chewing on a French fry thoughtfully. “We’ll start them slow, the Native Dancer bay in particular. You can’t rush a colt built like him or you run the risk of him breaking down. I want to put him out to pasture and leave him be for a few months. The chestnut, however, is ready to go now and I want you to brief Fernando on how you rode him so well.”

I nod in agreement to Dena as I eat my sandwich. Fernando will be a good match for the chestnut, but I would like to be the one to exercise him in the mornings.

Dena grins at me, as if she knows what I’m thinking. “The third Swanson horse, the other chestnut I want you to work with. He’s ready to race, but needs some fine tuning I trust you with, breaking from the gate and such. And I want you to get more comfortable on Irish, I’m thrilled with the ride you gave him yesterday and if you keep it up you have a real chance to go further with him. The time he ran yesterday was incredible.”

I still feel the twinge from yesterday’s race in my arms and shoulders. Usually riding helps the stiffness fade, but it hasn’t yet. And my butt is bruised from my spill, though I would never admit it to Dena.

“I was surprised as you were.” I tell her. “I know he has speed, but I never thought he had that much.” We were only a 1/16 of a second from breaking the track record, a fact that surprised everyone. “Speaking of speed,” I continue, “Tell me about Foxfire. What’s her breeding? Did you buy her at the Saratoga yearling sale?”

Dena’s eyes meet mine and I’m unable to break her icy blue gaze. “I bred her, actually.”

I look at her in surprise. “I didn’t know you had a breeding business.”

Dena shrugs modestly. “I don’t. I had a nice mare I trained and before I sold her, I bred her on a hunch. Foxy was the result.”

“Really? So she was bred and raised on your farm?”

“From the day she was born.” Dena smiles. “Her mother is a Storm Cat mare and her father is A.P. Indy.”

“No shit?” I ask, realizing that Foxfire is as regally bred as any English nobleman.

Laughing at my outburst, Dena raises a French fry at me. “It’s true. The Storm Cat mare I had was brilliant as a two-year-old, but a freak injury forced her into retirement. I didn’t want to sell her, but her bloodlines would have gone to waste on my farm. I just don’t have time to run a breeding operation. A.P. Indy would have probably won the Triple Crown if an injury hadn’t kept him out of the Derby and Preakness. But I saw him come back to commandingly win the Belmont, and I knew he was the perfect sire. Foxy was the result, and she’s everything I hoped for.”

“Holy crap.” I mutter, realizing how much Dena knows and just how committed she is to her horses. “No wonder you’re pointing her for the Derby, she’s bred top and bottom for it.”

“Let’s hope she makes her parents proud.” She mentions as we finish up our lunch.

Hopping into Dena’s truck, I pull the visor down to shield my eyes from the bright sunlight. “It’s too nice to work today.” Dena mutters and I nod in agreement, knowing I have to muck Fernando’s stalls in exchange for him feeding for me this morning.

“At least you don’t have to shovel manure.” I tell her, my eyes conveying that I’m just kidding around.

She glances at me, chuckling as she pulls out and points us on the highway toward home.

Home. I like the sound of that.

Part 4

The month and a half I’ve worked at Dena’s has flown by. My days consist of waking up early to do my morning chores, having breakfast with everyone, riding my normal string of seven horses, helping out with more chores, and spending the late afternoon with Elmer and a picnic lunch before falling into bed exhausted each night.

My days vary when we have a race, and so far I’ve done pretty well riding Dena’s horses, and she seems happy with me.

I love it here.

Today is an exciting day; I’m accompanying Dena along with Fernando and Charlene to meet the Swanson’s at the spring yearling sale. Dena has room at her farm for twenty horses and she currently has eleven, including the Swanson’s three, so she can buy or have the Swanson’s buy up to six yearlings that will go into training sometime this summer.

Frank is driving up in the big 8-horse trailer with Elmer inside. He’s been so good in his new job as an attending horse that Dena thought we’d need his calming presence in the trailer filled with babies on the way home.

“How much longer?” Fernando asks from the backseat of the dually he’s sharing with Charlene and I.

“Soon.” Dena answers, turning around to grin at us. “Are we excited, children?”

“Yes, mother!” We answer in unison, causing us to giggle. Charlene elbows me in the ribs and rolls her eyes. I grin along with her; the two of us have become fast friends in the past month. She’s a former jockey who became too heavy to make weight, in her case she grew too tall and now stands at 5’4″. She is one of Dena’s most trusted exercise riders and her personal assistant.

Her infectious laughter and Southern charm makes her easy to get along with and a lot of fun. I like her a lot.

The big truck gently slows as Frank turns it into the long driveway of the convention center. There are trailers everywhere, even at this ungodly early hour.

“Gonna be crowded today, I hope we find Sal and Joan in this mess.” Dena comments under her breath.

“They’ll be just where you told them to be, I’m sure they’ve been here awhile.” Charlene responds, speaking of the Swanson’s. They were as excited as the rest of us to come to the sale today.

“I’ll drop y’all off here.” Frank says as he expertly maneuvers the big rig close to the main doors. “Let me know how it goes.”

“Thanks Frankie.” Dena tells him as we all hop out of the truck. “See you tonight.”

The four of us hop out of the truck and wave goodbye to Frank. “Everyone stick close.” Charlene orders and Fernando and I trail behind her and Dena as we head for the long aisles of stalls.

“Okay, this is how I want to work it, you’re all here for a reason.” Dena commands, meeting our eyes. “Split up, don’t get lost, and check out the horses. Make a list and come back with your top choices. I’m going to be scouting for our barn as well as with the Swanson’s, so meet me exactly here in three hours so I can review your choices before the auction begins.” Her blue eyes sparkle. “And have fun, we’re all going to see some great horses today.” She hands us each notebooks and pencils and makes a shooing motion.

“Okay!” We tell her and I make note of where to meet Dena as I scamper off down the first aisle. I grab an auction guide and quickly scan down the list.

There are people everywhere, and I’m grateful my small size allows me to easily slip through the crowd. There are so many horses, all of them beautiful in their own way.

I can’t look at them all, so I find an empty space to stand and quickly scan down the list, looking for horses that are the product of what I would consider good breeding. I make note of at least a hundred and head out to see them first.

On my way to the first horse on my list, a medium-sized light gray catches my eye. Liking the look of his small head and intelligent expression, I cross to his stall and look his number up in the guide.

His name is Victorious, and he’s a Holy Bull colt out of a mare I’ve never heard of. Holy Bull was a Grade I colt, a good solid runner but not yet really proven as a sire. Still, as I look over the colt, I can’t help but think he’d be a good buy despite his questionable breeding. He’s built nicely, and has strong legs and a wide chest.

“Hi buddy.” I greet him as his groom watches me carefully. The gray turns his head toward me, regarding me formally. “What can you tell me about him?” I ask the groom, a quiet older man.

“He’s smart, you can’t push him around at all. Quick on his feet, an’ I think he’ll be a good one.” The groom answers, his hand possessively on the colt’s light neck.

“Thanks.” I tell him, making a note of the gray on my guide. I head off to look at my other prospects, giving Victorious one final look over my shoulder. I really do like him. I wonder if Dena will.

*****

After meeting up with Dena and the Swanson’s, we made our way to the auction hall in plenty of time before the auction. Dena advised Charlene and the rest of us to keep the Swanson’s entertained and find a good seat while she went to look over the yearlings available one last time.

Charlene has no problem chatting with Sal and Joan, and they amuse themselves with stories of Charlene’s parents as Fernando and I compare lists.

“Didja see the big red horse?” He questions, his dark eyes lighting up. “He’s half brother to Foxy, and boy does he look like her!”

“No, what number was he?” I ask, consulting my guide. Fernando tells me his top picks, including Foxy’s half brother. “I saw a few good ones, especially a gray that caught my eye first.”

“I like the gray.” Fernando says intently. “On paper, he’s not great, but in person, he’s nice.”

“I agree.” I tell him, wondering if Victorious will sell for a lot of money today. I saw a few yearlings that I know will go for an outrageous amount because of their early maturity or spectacular bloodlines, but hopefully most everyone else will look over the gray colt.

We chat about what we’ve seen until Dena returns, an unreadable look on her face. She winks at Fernando and I before sitting down next to the Swanson’s. Fernando, Charlene, and I are sitting on the aisle directly behind Dena and the two owners, and I am lucky to be able to hear everything Dena is saying to them. This is a great learning experience for me, and I’m thankful to be brought along for the ride.

“I wonder how Elmer is.” I ask Charlene, hoping he isn’t lonely standing tied to the trailer. I’m sure Frank put up the awning for him so he isn’t in the hot sun, and he’s probably munching contentedly on his hay.

“He’s fine.” Dena responds over her shoulder. “I called Frank earlier and had him walk him around so he didn’t get bored standing around all day.

“Oh, thanks.” I answer, my cheeks turning pink. That was really nice of her to do.

The auctioneer steps up to the podium, clears his throat, and thanks everyone for coming. He goes over the basic rules of the auction and soon after the first horse is led out.

Dena sits back in her seat, her long arms crossed over her chest. Sal and Joan are obviously excited to spend more money on untried horses and Joan can’t stop talking Dena’s ear off. I just watch and listen in awe, as the auctioneer’s bullet-paced voice never seeming to miss a beat.

“There are over three hundred horses here, I wonder how long it’s going to take?” Fernando’s voice whispers in my ear. I shrug and consult my guide, seeing the gray we like is up very soon, and then there’s a break of about two hundred horses until I noted my next favorite.

“You think she’ll like the gray?” Fernando asks again and I show him my crossed fingers. Charlene is avidly watching, occasionally taking notes about how much each horse is going for and what bloodlines are especially popular right now.

Dena hasn’t moved a muscle, and when I see Victorious led out by his quiet groom, my stomach clenches in nervousness. The gray looks even better than I remember, his ears flicking around as he studies the crowd. His conformation and overall appearance remind me of Foxy, they both have the same intelligent but calm personality and the obvious build for speed.

Fernando sucks in a breath as a few people place bids on the gray. There doesn’t seem to be much interest on him and a few times I think the auction will be over. Dena still doesn’t shift in her seat, so I’m assuming she checked out Victorious and wasn’t impressed with what she saw.

I lean back in my seat, smiling sadly at Fernando. “There will be others.” He says, shrugging as he consults his guide.

“Going once,” The auctioneer’s shrill voice rings out at the precise moment Dena holds up her number and two fingers. Pointing at her and nodding, the auctioneer continues. “Ms. Santoro adds another two thousand, making the total for this colt twelve-thousand and eight hundred dollars. Do we have an even thirteen?” The auctioneer questions the audience, and no one responds. Slamming his gavel, the gray colt jumps a bit but quickly settles back down. “Sold to Ms. Santoro for twelve-thousand and eight hundred dollars.”

The next horse is quickly led out as Fernando and I jump up in surprise and cheer. “Woo Hoo!” I shout, causing everyone in our immediate vicinity to look at us.

“Sit down Gen before they think you’re bidding on this horse!” Charlene calls good-naturedly and I slump back in my seat, utterly humiliated.

“Sorry.” I whisper, and Joan turns in her seat to look at me.

“It’s so exciting, isn’t it dear?” She gushes and I smile as I see Dena bite back a laugh.

“Joan, here’s the filly I told you about.” Dena says and immediately has Sal and Joan’s attention.

A big-boned filly takes the place of the horse just sold. She’s a muddy chestnut in color with no other markings. Consulting my guide, I see she’s regally bred and should be a good prospect. To my eye, I can discern positive attributes to the filly, but she doesn’t have that special magnetic pull I look for in a horse.

“I’d bid on her, she’ll be a good turf horse in a few years, probably an oversees candidate.” Dena tells Sal and Joan. “Don’t go higher than $100,000.”

A bidding war ensues on the filly and as told, Sal and Joan back out when the price goes over what they would pay.

Hours pass and I’m still stuck in my seat, mesmerized by what I’m seeing. Sal and Joan spent their money wisely, buying what appeared to be one of the best yearlings in the sale for a half-a-million dollars. They also got a bargain filly that Dena thinks will have a lot of potential in a few years. They left, thrilled with their purchases and exciting for their future in racing.

“I’m through for awhile, the horses all starting to look the same to me.” Charlene states, stretching her arms above her head. “Anyone want to get some lunch?”

“Sure.” Fernando answers, joining her. Both Dena and I decline, and as the two leave she pats the seat next to her. I quickly move to take the seat offered.

“Enjoying yourself?” She asks and I grin widely.

“This is great.” I tell her, consulting my guide. “There’s a colt coming up that was my second choice besides Victorious. Thanks for buying him, by the way.”

“It was a good pick-up.” Dena remarks candidly. “I would have probably passed him over on paper, but I checked him out since you and Fernando liked him. He might be something, and he was cheap.” She looks at the guide. “So this second pick of yours, it’s the European bred colt? The big black one with the blaze.”

“Yep, he’s nice.” I tell her. “His name is Empire Pirate.”

“I saw him, he is nice, but I guarantee someone will pay out the ass for him. He’ll be the top seller of the sale.” Dena remarks, looking at the next horse in the ring and immediately dismissing it with her eyes. She turns her attention back to me. “Some big-shot will buy him, probably that guy.” Dena finishes, pointing to the right of where we are sitting.

I follow her finger to see Mr. Lewis sitting with his most exclusive clients. I can’t help but chortle and soon Dena is laughing along with me.

“How much will he pay?” I ask her.

“Too much. And then he’ll train the poor thing to death and it will get hurt by the time he’s three.” She mutters angrily.

The next horse is led in and Dena elbows me in the ribs. “What do you think of her?”

I start to consult my guide and Dena grabs it out of my hands. “No, just look at her. What do you think?”

I quickly assess the filly and give her my honest opinion. “She’s built well, maybe a little too stocky for my taste, but she’ll muscle up well. I like the proportion of her front legs to her hind, she looks like she’ll overreach, and most of the good runners do that. Her neck’s a bit short, but that might change, and her pasterns are a little too long.”

Dena raises her hand, making a low bid on the filly.

“Continue.” She tells me, her blue eyes meeting mine.

“I’d say she’ll make a decent racehorse, if her bloodlines are good she’s worth having.”

Dena returns my guide to me and I flip it open to look at the filly’s lineage. It’s decent, and she’s probably not a bad bargain. Her name is Unspoken Words, a pretty cool name if you ask me.

Interest on the chestnut filly is low and Dena scoops her up for a low price. She beams for a second, her smile soon replaced by what I’m going to refer to from now on as her “bad-ass auction face.”

“I like her, I’ve been coveting her all afternoon.” She whispers as the big colt is led in the arena.

“You liked her better than this colt?” I ask in surprise as Empire Pirate practically struts into the arena.

She studies the colt and nods her head. “Generally, I like fillies better than colts.”

Dozens of thoughts go through my mind as I try not to giggle. She meets my eyes and I see the unspoken humor dancing in her blue depths.

“Really? So you’re more of a girl’s girl then?” I ask, waggling my eyebrows and purposely using the double meaning to get a reaction out of my boss.

She grins, and I don’t think she’s going to answer me as she watches the expected bidding war for the big colt.

“Are you asking if I’m a dyke?” Dena suddenly states, surprising me. I gulp in air and look at her, bug-eyed. “Cause if you’re asking, I’ll tell you. But if you’re not asking, then forget it.”

I realize this is probably my only chance to ever have this strange and bizarre conversation with her. “Sure, I’m asking.” I manage to croak out.

“Yep.” She responds, grinning at me cheekily before turning her attention back to the auction. “Are you?” She whispers out of the side of her mouth.

“Uh huh.” I answer, nodding affirmatively.

“Thought so.” She tells me thoughtfully as the auctioneer bangs the gavel down and pronounces Mr. Lewis’ clients winner of Empire Pirate for the cool price of nine hundred thousand dollars.

Dena and I look at each other and burst into laughter.

*****

Elmer stands placidly as Frank loads the nervous youngsters onto the trailer. I’m really glad we brought the tall horse along; he’s a veteran of the track at his young age and has seen practically everything. The yearlings, following his calm nature, are more settled than most of the others I’ve seen today.

“Careful with this one.” Dena mentions as she holds the bridle of the Swanson’s expensive colt. “Gen, check those wraps.” She barks, and I make sure the colt’s protective leg bandages are secure. The light chestnut colt is larger than any of the other yearlings we have, and far more powerful. He’s already studdish, prancing and showing off for the young fillies. Dena has decided to put him in last, separated from the other babies by Elmer.

“Come on big man.” She tells him gently as Frank goes to take the colt’s bridle. “I’ll do it.” Dena commands calmly as she expertly loads the colt.

After checking to make sure the horses have hay and water, she shuts the door and secures the ramp. “Let’s get out of here.”

We eagerly climb into the truck, all anxious to get home and show off the new babies to everyone at the farm. Dena flips the radio on and we sit in silence as Frank carefully navigates the big trailer out of the crowd and onto the highway.

The dually feels different with a full trailer, and I snuggle down in my seat, smiling. I’m really excited Dena bought Victorious; there’s just something about him I really like.

Maybe I can be the first one up on him and start riding him from the beginning. Since I’ll probably never ride Foxfire in a race, maybe the gray can be the one for me.

Who knows, he might not even be fast, or he might be like Elmer and hate the track. Either way, I’ll still like him and I know he’ll get a good life at Dena’s farm.

Foxy’s going in the Florida Derby in three days. Dena is shipping her up to Gulfstream tonight, and asked me to go along and exercise her. I’m excited to go back to the track and stay there for a few days, but I really want to be the one riding her in the race. I know it’s a lot to expect, I’m nowhere near the jock Gomez is, but she’s the best horse I’ve ever been on. I’m just grateful to get to ride her at all!

My eyes gradually close and I sigh contentedly, wanting to rest my eyes for just a minute.

*****

I feel my shoulder being shaken and I frown, burrowing myself into the seat further.

“Gen.”

“Go away.” I say grouchily, upset to have my lovely nap interrupted.

“Come on, sleepy head, there are horses to unload.” Dena’s low voice finally registers to my brain and I pop my eyes open and find myself face-to-face with her brilliantly blue eyes.

“Oh, sorry.” I mumble, embarrassed as I unbuckle my seat belt.

She grins before disappearing outside of the truck.

I climb out, wincing in the bright sunlight. The majority of the farm workers, hearing the loud rumble of the truck, have come to lend a hand and to see the new additions to the farm.

Dena makes a quick note to her clipboard, and I see her scribbled writing all over. I realize she’s been working the entire way home as she leafs through the multiple pages.

“Open it up, Frank.” She calls as Bob lends a hand in lowering the ramp and opening the big doors. The babies inside whinny, their uneasy cries are in turn answered by the horses at our farm.

The Swanson’s big chestnut colt is first, and Dena directs the stout Hector to take him off the trailer. “This is Big Impact, a Swanson colt. He’s yours, Hector.” The groom nods, patting the colt on the neck and carefully leading him down the ramp. “Put him in the empty stall in your row.” Dena continues as the colt is led away. He is nervous, prancing and throwing his head as he shies away from the shadows cast on the ground by the late afternoon sun. Hector ignores his antics and calmly takes him to his new stall.

Elmer is next, and I immediately lead him off the trailer. He nickers as he sees me, pushing his big plain head into my chest. “Good boy.” I tell him as I walk him to opening of his pasture. He stands like a statue as I remove his protective boots and open the gate. He goes in eagerly, trotting down the gently sloping hill to the pond below.

I head back the short distance to the trailer, just in time to see Alice lead a quiet Victorious down the ramp. They make a cute pair, their silver hair matching.

Maya leads the other Swanson horse, the bay filly off and takes her into the barn. I realize that Dena is carefully pairing up grooms with the yearlings. Because they are not ready to be trained yet, the grooms will be spending the most time with the babies and it’s essential their personalities match. That’s one of the things Dena was working on during the ride home, I guess.

Jose gets Dena’s chestnut filly and leads her away.

“As soon as we get this trailer cleaned we’ll take Foxy over to the track.” Dena begins. “I think we should take Elmer along for the ride with us, if that’s okay.”

I nod. “Sure. I’ll grab him.”

“Nah, let’s have dinner first, it will give him a chance to stretch his legs for awhile.” She says. “Charlie, Foxy ready?”

The dark man nods. “She’s been outside all day, I’ll give her a quick bath and she’ll be all set.”

“Good. Let’s all meet back here in two hours, make sure you all get dinner.” Dena calls, heading up to the house with Charlene in tow.

I help Frank and Bob clean the trailer, removing all the manure and soiled shavings before adding the clean, soft sawdust.

“How much hay are you taking?” I ask them as I start climbing the ladder to the loft. They tell me how many bales to throw down and I do as they wash the exterior of the dusty trailer. Then I load the hay and grab the large plastic tub filled with grain, a smaller container with Foxy’s supplements and Elmer’s joint therapy. Since Dena doesn’t know his background, she can only assume he was trained early and worked hard. She put him on a joint supplement in case he has any premature arthritis. I grab anything else we will need, extra leg wraps and saddle pads, Dena’s English saddle she uses when she rides in case she wants to hop up on Elmer, and a few other essentials.

Seeing it’s all ready, I grab Elmer’s brush box from the tack room and whistle to the big bay in the pasture. He lifts his head, but doesn’t come to me, enjoying his freedom in the big pasture.

Sighing, I go and collect him, knowing he’s going to need a bath before going up to the track.

“Hey bud, sorry to cut your time short, but you’ve got an important job.” I tell him as his big ears flick in my direction. He complicatedly follows me to the washroom, where he just tolerates his bath. He doesn’t like getting wet, but thinks it’s fun to try and drink out of the hose. Go figure.

After bathing him, I comb through his thick black forelock and mane. “You want to get dolled up a bit?” I ask him and he snorts in response.

I chuckle, giving his damp neck a hug. “Too bad, you need to look pretty if you’re going to be Foxy’s date.”

I put him in an empty stall, tying his head so he can’t get down and roll in the shavings. Rummaging through his brush box, I find the pretty yellow ribbon I bought and set upon the task of plaiting his mane.

I’m an old pro, I used to do this to all the horses before a dressage competition, but instead of using the white plastic clips to keep the braids tucked under, I use the ribbon that matches Dena’s stable colors.

Elmer stands pretty well, only tossing his head a few times. After his mane is completed, I move to his tail. This takes longer because of his stomping and swishing, but I concentrate on the task and soon produce a beautiful braid.

“What a pretty boy!” I coo to him, liking how his bay coat, black mane and tail contrast with the yellow color. He just looks at me, his big ears pointed in my direction.

“Here bud.” I offer him a carrot, which he takes eagerly. I give him enough hay to keep him busy for the next hour and unclip his head, hoping he doesn’t roll and mess up my work.

Then I head up to the house to grab my things and food before we leave. It’s going to be an exciting next few days.

*****

“Ms. Santoro, what do you think your filly’s chances are today?” The blonde broadcaster asks, sticking her microphone in Dena’s face.

She smiles, looking directly into the camera. “I wouldn’t be running her today if I didn’t think she could win.”

The broadcaster turns back to the camera. “Well, us girls have to stick together. She has my vote.” As the camera crew switches back to the main broadcasters, the blonde waves to us and scurries over to the next trainer to capture their input.

“Wow, I thought you’d be the kind of trainer that would want to pummel them.” I tell Dena.

Grinning, she elbows me. “Nah, you have to play nice with the reporters, unless they are doing something stupid to endanger my horses. I had this one guy who put his microphone right up to a colt I was training once, and the colt bit the top of it right off. He could have swallowed it or hurt his teeth. I got pretty mad then.”

I laugh at the thought. “Once I had a horse who got a hold of my riding helmet and pulled all the velvet off before trying to eat it. I was pissed, it was a brand new one.” I tell her as we take our place in the stands.

Dena puts on her dark sunglasses as she looks out over the track. I join her gaze, enviously watching as Gomez warms up Foxfire. I’ve been the one to ride her this week and actually work her. I thought she was fast when I first galloped her, but once I’ve gotten to blow her out and make some fast times I’m amazed at her speed. She’s easily the fastest horse I’ve ever ridden, Foghorn included.

“It’s a good field today.” She comments, handing me the binoculars.

“Don’t you want them?” I ask.

Dena shakes her head, her long black ponytail bobbing. “Don’t need them. Look at Foxy, is she moving strangely?”

I look through them and focus on the small red horse. “She’s not off, but she doesn’t seem as settled as usual.”

Dena nods. I can tell she’s nervous, and I’m not sure what to say to help her. I was surprised enough she invited me up to sit in her box seat with her and Charlene; Charlie stayed in the paddock to retrieve the filly before and after the race.

“She’ll do fine, Dena.” Charlene offers, glancing over the track. “I’m surprised she’s not the favorite after her last race.”

The betting box is closed, with Lewis’ tall Foghorn leading the odds.

“No one thinks she can handle this distance, they say she runs like a sprinter and can’t last.” Dena comments as the horses prepare to load.

“They’re wrong.” I say as I hand Dena the binoculars. “Do you want these to watch the break?”

“Nope, you study the race.” She orders.

My feet tap nervously on the concrete floor as I watch Foxfire load. Like her normal self, she goes right in to her drawn postposition of 9. Dena would have liked her to get something closer to the inside so she can get away quicker and out in front. If Gomez breaks her fast and lets her go, she should be okay.

The last horse in and I watch Gomez prep the filly. She’s on her toes and when the gates open she leaps out, already a half-stride in front of the others.

“Good.” I hear Dena murmur as Gomez sends the fast filly to the lead, directing her over to the rail. With the binoculars, I watch him work the reins and slow her down, fooling the other jocks into thinking he’s keeping a fast pace when the filly is actually just loafing along.

“Foxfire in front followed by Jessie’s Story and Homebred. The rest of the field is bunched, Foghorn trailing.” The race announcer’s voice calls. I’m filled with both excitement and envy for Gomez, knowing what he’s experiencing on the filly and a bit jealous it’s not me out there.

I turn my attention to Foghorn, Lewis’ big horse I liked so much. He’s content at the back of the path being ridden well by his jock, the well-known Chris Cassat.

As they round the far turn, the horses begin to shift as their jocks position them for the stretch drive. Cassat begins working Foghorn up through the holes in the field.

Gomez doesn’t ask anything of the filly until the three-furlong pole, and I see him let her out a bit. Foxfire responds, her stride lengthening and her lead increasing by two lengths.

“And down the stretch they come, Foxfire by two, followed by Mickey Mouse, Sea Storm, and Homebred. Foghorn is moving up with two furlongs to go.” The announcer says and out of the corner of my eye I see Dena clench the railing in front of her seat.

The entire crowd is now standing, cheering, as the horses get closer to the wire. Foghorn’s jockey is asking the tall horse for everything, and he’s responding. Foxfire’s lead is waning, and it looks like we will witness the same outcome of the last race when I rode Lewis’ horse.

Sea Storm, a rangy dark gray, fights valiantly and draws even with Foxfire. Gomez doesn’t stir in his saddle, riding Foxy straight and even. In my binoculars I can see the red filly’s ears flickering around, and I know she’s not running full out.

With one furlong to go Foghorn pulls even with the gray and Foxy. I see Gomez lower his hands, asking the filly for speed.

“She’s got it!” I call in delight, prepared to watch the filly blow the others away.

But she doesn’t respond, and stays with the two colts. Gomez asks again, using his whip a few times. Foxy pins her ears and maintains her pace. Foghorn draws away as they sweep under the wire.

“What happened?” I ask numbly as I lower the binoculars.

“I don’t know.” Dena states, taking off her sunglasses. Her eyes are a swirling sea of blue as she shrugs. “Let’s head down there and make sure she cools out alright.”

“She ran a tough race.” Charlene comments. “Foghorn is a good horse, and that gray is ranked high.”

“Yep.” Dena states as we follow her down to the paddock. By the time we get there, Gomez and Foxy are led up by the attending rider.

He hops down, whipping off his helmet and goggles. I pat Foxy’s neck and she pushes her nose toward me. Stroking her face, I kiss her velvety white nose before Charlie leads her away.

“I’ll walk her out boss, she looks fine to me,” The groom states to Dena, who nods in response.

She places her arm around Gomez’s shoulders, leading him away from the reporters clustered in the paddock. “What happened?”

The jock shrugs, facing Dena. “I don’t know. She was fine, lined up to win and then just stop trying. Like she didn’t care.”

“That’s not like her.” I state, familiar with the filly’s fire and desire to run.

Gomez looks at me. “I know it’s not. It’s strange.”

Pursing her lips, Dena cocks her head. “You did a good job keeping her there for second. Nice race, Victor.” She tells the disappointed jock as she heads back to the barn.

“Dena, I’m going to go take care of everything.” Charlene tells her, heading off to take care of the paperwork and distribution of Foxy’s second place winnings.

“Sure.” The trainer responds as I follow her.

“Gen?” Dena asks and I tilt my head. “What do you think happened?”

“I’m not sure.” I tell her honestly. “She was in the same position as when I raced against her, she had speed to spare, but her ears were all over the place like she wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t seem settled or happy at all, and that’s not like her. But I don’t think it’s anything physical, the fractions she made early on were good even though she was loafing.”

“So why didn’t she win?” Dena questions and I shrug.

“Beats me.”

“Do you think she didn’t like the change from you to Gomez?” The trainer questions. “You’ve been riding her regularly and know all her quirks. Could that be it?”

Thinking back to the race, I nod. “Maybe. But Gomez is eight times the jock I am. If anyone could get her to win, it’s him.”

Pursing her lips, Dena is quiet for the rest of the way to the barn. Just outside the door, she stops walking and looks down at me.

“I don’t think his skill has anything to do with it. I think Foxy missed you. And if that’s the case, you’ve got yourself a Derby mount.” Dena says offhandedly as she walks into the barn, leaving me standing frozen with surprise. “Stop looking so surprised and keep up.” Dena calls over her shoulder, and I can hear the smile in her voice.

I break into a jog and catch up with her, unable to wrap my mind around what she’s just said.

I’m riding Foxfire in the Derby. And it’s only 48 days away.

Part 5

“Easy boy.” I tell the tall chestnut colt as he struggles to back out of the confining starting gate. “It’s okay, we’ll be out soon.”

As promised, the gate springs open and Chance bolts out, his head up in the air. The fast-running sprinters head for the front and I keep the Swanson’s prized colt bunched back in the pack. He seems to already have a grasp about what this is about, despite this being his first race. Fernando told me he didn’t like the gate, but he kept his head and didn’t freak out, pretty commendable for a baby.

It’s a short race for Chance, only six furlongs, and after we round the first turn I start moving him up through the pack, easily finding holes in the field of ten.

We’re in third place now, with just a few hundred yards left. Chance is running easily, and as I ask for his sprint he lengthens his stride and digs in. We easily pass the horse running second and draw even with the hard-running frontrunner. The black colt suddenly jumps and veers to the left, bumping Chance’s shoulder and sending him into the rail.

“Shit!” I scream in fear as I try to keep Chance straight. The chestnut hits the rail with a loud thud, bouncing back off and stumbling in order to prevent from falling down. Chance gamely recovers and tries to keep running, but I immediately feel the irregularity in his stride; the left front I think.

“Whoa, easy!” I tell him as I stand in my stirrups and try to pull him up. I look behind me, fearing the entire pack is bearing down and ready to crush us, but luckily everyone saw the incident and was able to steer clear.

Chance doesn’t want to stop running and as I wrap the reins around my hands in the effort to stop him I feel my back muscles protesting. Frightened and upset by seeing the other horses race by us, Chance rears and I throw myself forward on his neck. I know if I fall he’ll take off and hurt himself worse.

“It’s okay.” I tell him, trying to pull him down. Once he comes back to the ground I jump off, seeing the attending rider gallop over on his horse. Chance is standing on all four legs, and I can’t see anything wrong, but I definitely felt something strange after he hit the rail.

“He okay?” The rider asks, taking the frantic chestnut’s bridle.

“No, get an ambulance.” I tell them, not wanting to take any chances with the talented colt. The rider uses his radio to call the horse ambulance, and it seems like it only takes seconds before it pulls onto the track.

I see Dena running to meet us as I try to keep Chance calm. I know the tall horse is in pain, the whites of his eyes visible and dark splotches of sweat not from the race appearing over his entire body.

Breathless, Dena appears the same time as the ambulance. “What’s the matter?” She asks, running her hands down Chance’s body.

“I don’t know, we got bumped and he hit the rail, his stride feels off.” I babble, terribly afraid something horrible is wrong.

“What leg?” Dena asks, her tone harsh.

“Left front.” I tell her, as Hector appears, followed by Charlene. I watch the entire interaction, completely numb like I’m not even standing here. I can’t believe this is happening.

“Hola, me amo.” He tells the big colt who instantly calms when he hears his groom’s voice. “What is it?” He asks Dena, who is gently feeling Chance’s leg.

“Not good. We need to get him loaded.” She tells the attending rider. The track paramedics produce an air cast, which Dena precisely applies.

“Come.” Hector asks of the colt, leading him up the ramp. Chance takes a hesitant step onto the ramp before letting out a shrill whinny. The paramedics go to push him onto the trailer.

“No.” Dena commands. “Let him do it.” She nods in Hector’s direction and the big groom continues to gently coax the colt up the ramp. “Keeping him calm is the most important thing, and pushing him around isn’t going to help.” She mutters.

With the colt loaded, Dena jumps in the back of the ambulance with Hector.

“Wait, I’m coming with you!” I call, bolting up the ramp before they can close it.

“Charlene, take care of everything.” Dena orders and the blonde nods, tears evident in her eyes.

The ambulance carefully races away and the three of us try to calm Chance and stay out of the way of the big colt’s body as he moves around in the trailer.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” I jabber over and over.

“Stop.” Dena states firmly, her hand on Chance’s damp shoulder. “He’s so hot, he didn’t even get to cool off.” She mentions worriedly.

“It’s okay, today is nice day.” Hector responds as he feeds the colt small treats from his pocket. The groom is right, if it were a blistering hot or humid day, Chance would have been made forced to walk until his muscles were cool and relaxed, causing more damage to his injured leg.

Dena uses her cell phone to call the Swanson’s. They were in the stands with her to cheer on their expensive colt’s first race. “Hi Sal, it’s Dena. We’re on our way to the vet tech’s with him and I’ll let you know more from there, okay?”

She nods her head a few times before disgustedly hanging up the phone. “This is why I don’t train for people. Do you know what that asshole had to say?” Her anger is evident in her tone and I avert my eyes, unsure as to what she’s going to say and not really wanting to know. “He said to remember the value of this horse and to make every attempt to maintain his investment.” Dena’s lip curls in disgust. “I’ll make every attempt because he’s a living breathing animal regardless of how much they paid for him.”

“I know.” I tell her, placing my hand on her arm. She looks at it and then to me and I realize how stupid that was. Then her blue eyes soften and she covers my hand with hers, giving it a brief squeeze.

The ambulance pulls up at the vet building and Hector takes great care to walk Chance down. The colt dislikes the brace on his leg, but has calmed down enough to tolerate it. After explaining what happened to the vet on call, he quickly checks the leg before brings out the portable x-ray machine.

“I’ll be right back.” The vet states after his quick exam. “It doesn’t look too bad, okay? We’ll fix him up.” He hurries off to look at the results of the x-ray and the three of us look at each other nervously.

“How are you holding up?” Dena asks me suddenly, her expression one of concern.

“I’m fine. I’m sorry this happened.” I tell her, unable to stop the tears falling from my face.

“Hey, it’s not your fault.” She answers, pulling me into her arms for a warm hug. “You did the right thing by pulling him up right away. In fact, you probably saved his life; if he does have a break or an injury he could have made it worse by running on it. Think about that, okay? It wasn’t your doing. No one blames you.” Dena assures me, her voice soothing.

“I blame me.” I sniff, feeling stupid. I just can’t believe this is happening, today was such a good day, I rode the Swanson’s other chestnut and though we didn’t place, he was comfortable and calm for his first race. I had a great ride with the nice bay mare Dena picked up with Elmer. She ran a surprising second, and I hoped to make Chance’s introduction into racing a good one. Then this happened.

“I know.” Dena says, her arms snug against my back. I hear the vet re-enter the room and Dena immediately releases me.

“Okay, it’s not bad, but it’s not good either.” He starts, placing the x-ray onto the screen. “Here is the fracture, you can see it’s just a small crack.” The vet points to a semi-visible line in Chance’s fetlock. “It’s small, and non-life threatening. It could have been worse if he continued to run on it, that was a good catch young lady.” The vet says to me, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. “He’ll need stall rest for a few months, at least.”

“The bad news?” Dena asks.

“I wouldn’t plan on racing him again until next year.” The vet answers, and Dena’s face is one of relief.

“It makes no matter to me if he races again, I just want him to be okay.” She tells him honestly.

The vet looks at her strangely, as if he expected her to protest and complain about having the horse be laid up for almost a year. “I want him here for a few days so I can monitor his condition. Do you have somewhere he can be on stall rest?”

“My farm.” She says, nodding to Hector, whose dark eyes are relieved. “He’ll get the best care from Hector.” She tells the vet who smiles at the groom.

“Okay, let’s take him to his stall.” The vet shows Dena where Chance will stay for observation and Hector efficiently makes sure the stall is clean and safe for the horse. “I’m going to keep this on him for a few days and see how he does.” The vet indicates the cast. “I’ll be back in an hour or so to check on him.”

“Thank you.” Dena says as the vet walks away, leaving us in private. I glance to Dena, still expecting to find hatred or anger in her eyes toward me, but instead I see empathy. “Let’s get him settled, okay?” She asks, placing a hand on my shoulder. “It’s been a long day for everyone.”

*****

After we got back to the farm, obviously everyone wanted to know what happened. I spent just a few moments talking with everyone before making my escape to the quiet of my room.

I showered and changed, a part of me wanting to burn my silks and never ride again. Is it really worth it? A colt could have been killed today, hell, we could have caused a mass collision and hurt the other horses in the race. What if Chance wasn’t able to keep himself upright and fell instead? We both would have been trampled and many of the other horses would have been injured or killed. And for what? So people can make and lose money placing bets on which animal is the fastest? It’s sickening. I don’t know if I can do this anymore.

Shaking my head, I pull on a pair of shorts and a tank top. My stomach is gurgling, but I feel too sick to eat. Dena gave me the rest of the day off and I can’t decide if I should get in my car and just drive, or hole myself up in my room.

I flop down on my bed, angrily rubbing the tears from my eyes. I should be relieved that Chance is okay and will be fine in a few months, but I’m upset that Dena has to tell the Swanson’s their $1.2 million dollar investment won’t return any money for them this year. I’m upset that the beautiful and spirited chestnut colt will have to spend the spring and summer standing in his stall. I’m upset that Fernando lost his most talented morning exercise horse. I feel like I’ve let everyone down.

Maybe if I had reacted quicker, seen the black out of the corner of my eye swerving I could have avoided trouble. What if I decided to go through a different hole or kept Chance closer to the pace? I might have been able to prevent the entire thing.

Sighing, I run my hands through my wet hair. I think I know what I have to do, I have to quit and leave racing for good.

I need to talk to someone, but I don’t want to be placated or told it wasn’t my fault. I just need to vent.

*****

I manage to avoid almost everyone as I let myself into Elmer’s pasture. I see the tall bay down at the far end, and I jog down to where he is grazing. He’s gained some weight since he’s been here and no longer has that lean racing look. He was severely underfed when he arrived and I’m glad he’s bulked up, he looks healthier and happy now.

He lets out a shrill cry when he sees me and comes trotting over. I think he’s lonely in the big pasture by himself, usually he gets turned out with the yearlings we just brought home, but they are in the far pasture this evening.

“Hey bud.” I greet him softly. He pushes his long nose into my chest, bumping me kindly as I scratch behind his massive ears. He’s a cute horse, but his ears are just a little too long, almost giving him a dopey look. I think he’s adorable.

It doesn’t take the bay long to search out the crab apples I have hidden in my pocket. “All right, hang on.” I chuckle as I offer them to him. He crunches them happily and immediately looks for more.

I shrug at him. “Sorry.” He snorts as I pat him, running my hands down his neck and legs, searching for any strange heat or swelling. “You wanna go for a ride, bud?” I ask him, knowing Dena has a huge amount of property that I haven’t explored.

Elmer buts my chest again, causing me to smile. I turn and head back up to the barn, not surprised when he docilely follows me like a puppy. It’s hard to ever imagine this laid back creature as a racehorse, he seems to only enjoy spending time with people and has no real urge to run.

I quickly put his bridle on, deciding to go bareback because I’m just in shorts. Elmer stands quietly as I climb on the fence to get on his tall back and I give him the rein, directing him to the open meadow.

He walks contentedly in his usual manner, ears swiveling around, eyes darting back and forth as he observes everything. It’s quiet here this time of day; everyone is inside having dinner before bringing the horses in from outside to groom, feed, and put to bed for the night. It’s just Elmer and I, and as I relax into his rolling walk I start talking to him, telling him everything that happened today and how I’m questioning my future in racing because of it.

He’s a good listener, like most horses.

We reach the meadow and he picks up his gait, so I allow him to go into a trot. His movement is low and smooth and I can feel his desire to go faster. “Go ahead, bud.” I tell him and he moves into a canter, then a gallop. I sit foreword on his withers, enjoying his speed. He stretches his neck out and increases his stride, and I find it easy to balance on him. He’s smooth and collected and to me feels as fast as any racehorse. Except Foxy, that is.

We circle the meadow and he seems to want to continue, so I encourage him. Why didn’t he have any of this desire on the track? He would have been a decent runner, but he didn’t want to try. But now, here, free in this field he runs like he loves it.

When I hear his breathing get heavy I reluctantly slow him down back into a walk. He complies, tossing his head and snorting like he’s just won the Derby.

“You goof.” I tell him, patting his neck. “That was fun.” I mention, the thought of our gallop reminding me why I love riding in the first place. Elmer seemed to have so much fun just now. He’s only three and has his entire life ahead of him to do something else. “I wonder if you can jump?” I tell him, thinking of how he might enjoy cross-country. “Then we get to run through the woods and fields by ourselves and jump over cool things.”

I put the thought away, reminding myself to see if Dena has any low poles I could start schooling him over. Hell, maybe I’ll make a 3-day eventer out of the bay. He certainly has the personality to do anything. I shake my head, knowing that if I quit, I’ll never see Elmer or Dena again, let alone make an eventer out of the tall horse. I’ve got to decide what I’m going to do.

It’s time to head back, evening chores need to be done soon and if I’m going to avoid everyone like I want too, I need to get Elmer taken care of for the night. “But let’s take the long way back, okay?” I tell the bay, not wanting our time to be over quite yet.

We head toward the smaller barn that houses the horses not in training; the yearlings, and soon, Chance. The yearlings are out in the two big pastures behind the barn, the colts in one and the fillies in the other. Many trainers won’t turn horses out together after they are weaned to avoid them hurting each other. Dena, on the other hand, believes because horses are herd animals they should spend as much time being together as possible. I have to agree with her. The older colts and stallions don’t go out together because there’s a good chance they will fight, so they are teamed up with Elmer and Dena’s gelding as pasture friends. I easily spot Victorious’ light gray coat in the twilight and he whinnies shrilly at Elmer as we approach.

Elmer returns his greeting, and the other babies call back. I chuckle at their young voices, so much higher than Elmer’s.

First Impact, the expensive Swanson colt races up to the field. He’s an impressive-looking horse, and maybe next year he’ll have the two-year-old season for the Swanson’s that Chance couldn’t have this year. Dena’s filly looks good, as she races up to the gate with the Swanson filly.

I stop Elmer from sniffing his friends, content to watch the babies play outside. Suddenly, Victorious turns his regal head and whinnies shrilly. I look to see the tall trainer riding up on her stocky dark horse, Fudge.

The babies bolt in the adjoining pastures, kicking their heels up and running together on either side of the fence down to the far end of the pasture. Surprisingly, Dena’s filly pulls ahead easily and leads the rest. I watch in fascination as they race each other, all of them running for the sheer pleasure of it. “Hey.” Dena greets me as she rides up.

I smile, answering softly. “Hi.”

“Aren’t they fun to watch?” She asks, her intense gaze washing over the racing babies. They turn quickly in the pasture and come running back, now Victorious taking the lead from the winded filly.

“Yeah.” I answer.

We watch, in silence, the babies run until they are exhausted. Even then, Victorious and First Impact playfully rear and paw at each other before turning their attention back to the pasture’s ample grass.

I hop down from Elmer’s tall back, wanting to walk and stretch my legs. I was in the saddle for a long time today, exercising Foxy and riding in three races, and my muscles are begging to be stretched.

“I’m going to head back, want to join me?” I ask the trainer.

“Sure.” She responds, surprising me as she hops off her horse. We begin the trek back to the barn, Elmer and Fudge following behind. “Do you feel any better?” She begins and I nod.

“Actually, I do. When we got back to the farm, I sat in my room and seriously considered quitting. I was thinking about all the horrible things I hate about racing, especially how the majority of people involved see horses as an investment rather than a living creature. I didn’t think I wanted to be involved in that kind of business, you know?” I ask and she nods in understanding.

“I feel the same way. That’s why I’ve tried to create a place here radically different from the one I saw growing up. My father used to put down horses who were slightly injured if they weren’t ‘good enough’ in his eyes.” Dena says quietly.

I squeeze her hand quickly before releasing it. “I’m sorry you had to see that.” I tell her. “That must have been horrible.”

She doesn’t respond, so I continue. “I can’t explain how I feel working here, with you. I feel it allows me to compete in something I love without having all the bad parts.” I tell her honestly. “Except today.”

“Oh.” She responds, her voice wavering. “So, you’re leaving?”

I shake my head. “No. I was going to, I fully planned on giving you my resignation. Until I saw those yearlings, running their hearts out because it’s what they are bred and love to do. It made me realize that racing isn’t evil; it’s certain people behind it causing it to become corrupt. I can’t describe the feeling of seeing those babies running and racing each other because they want to compete. It would be cruel to prevent them from doing that.” I glance at Dena, finding her deep in thought. “Does that make any sense?”

“Completely.” She answers.

“So I’m not leaving.” I add, and she smiles. She stops walking and turns to me, allowing Fudge to graze on the sweet meadow grass. I do the same with Elmer who crops the grass eagerly.

“I’m glad you are staying.” Dena tells me. “It would have been really lonely here without you.” I grin. “Yeah right, you have a million other people who could take my place.”

Her smile fades. “No, I don’t.”

My eyes widen as I try to think of a response. “Oh.” I say, unable to think of anything else except how beautiful she looks right now. Her skin is practically glowing and the darkening twilight makes her hair look like the night sky, offset by the striking sky blue of her eyes.

“I like having you around.” She tells me softly, reaching her hand out to clasp mine. The simple motion sets my heart racing and my stomach begins fluttering around like a confused butterfly.

“I like being around.” I answer, fully aware of how uncool I am at this very moment. I struggle to maintain some of my intelligence and not blow what I think is about to happen. “I feel very at home here with you, and I want you to know how amazing I think you are.”

She arches one perfectly sculpted eyebrow and I have to stop myself from tracing it with my fingers. “I mean, from the first time I saw you I felt a spark, like I knew you or something. And now, as I get to know you better, I find myself wanting to be around you a lot, you know?” I manage to tell her, my voice trembling uncontrollably.

“What are you saying?” She asks, her voice a warm drink of liquid to my parched soul. I shrug helplessly, squeezing her hand still clasped in mine. “I think I know.” Dena states, releasing my hand and bringing hers up to stroke my hair.

She pulls me to her and I gladly follow. Our lips mere inches apart, she smiles the sweetest smile.

I travel the remaining distance and press my mouth against hers, finding it as sweet as in my dreams. We share the most exquisite kiss, soft and hard, each of us giving and taking. I could speak of fireworks and flowery descriptions, but it still wouldn’t do it justice.

I want to kiss her for eternity, our hands tangled in each other’s hair as our mouths dance. I know now what I’ve been suspecting all along, not only do I have a crush on my boss, but I’ve fallen for her. Hard.

I’m in love.

Part 6

Holy shit. Did what just happened really just happen? I close the door to my room, running my hands through my hair as I flop down on the bed. I cannot believe I just kissed Dena Santoro senseless. What was I thinking? What was she thinking? How did that happen?

I’m not regretting it; it’s just a complete and total shock. One minute I was trying to tell Dena my mixed feelings about what happened with Chance, and the next thing I know we’re swapping spit.

Okay, it was much more romantic than that, but what can I say? I’ve never truly been kissed like that before, and I want more. Lots and lots more. But what if that isn’t what Dena wants? What if she was trying to comfort me or felt sorry for me?

We finally broke apart, and I immediately started to blush. Dena didn’t say anything, just took my hand and we walked back to the barn in complete silence. It seemed like I was in a daze as I put Elmer away, and I kind of recall Dena mumbling goodnight to me as she raced up to the house.

She’s probably mortified that she did that, for Christ’s sake, I’m her employee, some short girl jockey she picked up on the track, no different than a stray dog.

I shake my head, angry at my own thoughts. Dena thinks more of me than that; she has never treated me like I was beneath her, despite her apparent wealth and my poor-as-a-church-mouse status. That is one of the things I love so much about her, how she treats everyone like they are equals. There are not many people like that.

Another thing I love about her is her is her honesty and the way she can solve any situation just by thinking about it. I love her smile, the way her blue eyes seem to see right into my very heart.

Letting out a tortured groan I put my head in my hands. I just can’t believe I’ve gone and fallen in love with my boss. How stupidly pathetic and cliché is that? I’m an idiot. A total and complete idiot.

“Gen?” Dena’s low voice calls from the other side of my door. I close my eyes and debate pretending I’m not here. Maybe she’ll just go away and give me a few days to come to terms with my idiocy.

“I know you’re in there, I can hear you breathing.” Dena says, sounding bored.
She can hear my breathing? What is she, a freaking superhero? Who can hear someone’s breathing from the other side of a closed door? Maybe she’s bluffing. Just in case, I hold my breath.

Dena sighs. “Stop holding your breath, you’ll get a headache. Just open the door.”
I give up; the woman is either insane or psychic. I throw my hands up over my head and open the door, expecting her to spew some truthful crap about what we did was stupid and it shouldn’t happen again.

Instead, I find myself backed up enough for Dena to close the door behind her. Before I know what is going on she lowers her head and presses her lips against mine. Her hands wind themselves in my hair and I wrap my arms around her back, encouraging her closer. We kiss like the world is ending, our bodies thrusting against each other until I think I am going to explode, right here and now.

Breathless, she breaks away from me, her eyes dark blue with what I’m hoping is desire.

“We shouldn’t do this.” She tells me, her rich voice barely above a whisper.

I nod my head. “I know.”

“This is against every moral I have. It can only lead to a huge problem in our working relationship.” Dena responds, her breathing growing more ragged by the minute.

“It’s the worst thing we could do.” I answer, desperately wanting to suck on her pouting bottom lip. Unable to control myself, I give in to my desire.

“Fuck it.” She says into my mouth before kissing me once again.

“I hope so.” I mumble back as I gasp for air. I feel like I’m drowning in the warmth of her. These feelings are nothing like I’ve had or ever felt. I never want it to stop.

We tumble backwards onto my bed, and I am in the very desirable position of having Dena on top of me. Her tall body easily covers mine as she continues to kiss me more thoroughly than I thought possible.

My hands slip under her shirt, relishing in the smoothness of her strong back muscles. Finding the clasp to her bra, I undo it and grab the edges of her shirt.

“Off.” I command her and she sits up, straddling me. Her smile is teasing as she lifts the shirt over her head, followed quickly by her bra.

“Dear God.” I mutter, fixated on the most beautiful pair of breasts I’ve ever seen. Reaching out to touch them, I find the softness and weight in my hands perfect. I close my eyes, lost in the sensation of her breasts.

Dena chuckles, a low and vibrant sound that is rich to my ears. I close my fingers around two perfect nipples, eliciting a hiss from the trainer. Liking her response, I move out from under her and she lies back on the bed, exposing her trim stomach and long torso.

“You’re incredible.” I tell her as I unbutton her jeans and quickly remove them and her underwear. My eyes travel down to the gentle flair of her hips and the heavenly mound in front of me.

If I don’t taste her, I think I will die.

She lets out a sharp hiss as I lower my mouth, reveling in the essence of her. I hum with approval as I work my tongue around her swollen clit, pausing to suck on it lightly.

Her long fingers tangle themselves in my hair as she pulls me closer to her. I tease and lick her for a few more moments before crawling up her tall body.

Dena’s eyes, dark as the night sky, stare at my glistening mouth. I lower myself to kiss her full lips, my tongue sharing her sweet taste. As we kiss she works her hands under my clothes, deftly removing my shorts and shirt.

Fully naked, our skin presses against one another for the first time, and I am lost in the smoothness of her body. “Perfect.” I breathe against her long neck, as my fingers get lost in her wetness.

Her hips grind against my hand and I let out a ragged moan as her graceful hand finds it’s way to my own center.

“You are so wet.” She sighs, as if it’s a surprise. She enters me with two fingers and we are lost in the sensation of fucking each other.

“Since I first looked at you.” I tell her truthfully, my mouth then attaching itself to her erect nipple. She shudders against me as I pump my fingers in and out of her, never ceasing my loving administration to her breasts.

“I’m so close.” Dena tells me, her fingers working frantically. The increase in her speed brings me closer to the edge and I feel as if I’m going to die from arousal.

I feel Dena’s climax before I hear it, from the sudden clenching of her muscles around my fingers and the way she presses into me. Her body shakes as she gasps and moans, trying so hard to be quiet but not really succeeding.

As she spirals downward, she opens her incredibly blue eyes and gazes at me, her long fingers still inside me. Just seeing the expression on her face and the intensity of her gaze pushes me over the edge, and she continues to bring me the sweetest release as she wraps her other arm around my back.

Panting and exhausted, we collapse into each other.The overhead fan does little to clear the humid air smelling of sex from the room, but we don’t care. I am content to lie in her arms and trace the line from her shoulder to her hip over and over.

Dena is still, the only movement the erratic rise and fall of her chest and her fingers dancing over the small of my back. Lying in the tall woman’s arms, exhausted and satisfied, I feel completely at home and safe. I don’t think life could get anybetter than this.

*****

“Hi.” I greet Dena shyly as we meet at the breakfast table. My entire body is still tingling from last night, and as I meet her twinkling blue eyes I feel my face flush.

“Hi.” She answers, giving me the slightest of smiles. I so badly want to take her in my arms and kiss her senseless, but I think the crowd gathered around the table would somehow object.

“Eat up, we’ve got a busy day today.” Dena mentions as she pours herself a glass of juice. I nod in agreement before blushing again and turning my attention to the table.

I know Charlene is looking at me strangely, trying to figure out what is going on with me.

“Gen’s nervous.” Dena explains. “And I don’t blame her. She’s riding Irish this afternoon.”

The group laughs, remembering my last experience with the unruly horse where I ended up in the dirt.

I good-naturedly take their jibes, not really sure what I’m more nervous about, my first post-sex alone time with Dena or myride to the post on the horse who is determined to make each race interesting, to say the least.

Dena and I fell asleep in each other’s arms last night, and she woke me gently by kissing my closed eyelids and up and down my face around 3:00am. I vaguely remember her telling me she had to get up and do some work, and I know I frowned and rolled over. The last thing I remember is her silently leaving my room and my alarm going off at 5:00am.

I’m quiet at the table this morning, barely picking at my light breakfast of fruit and scrambled eggs. I never like to eat much before a race, my stomach is jumping around too much and food just makes it worse.

Plus, I’m still upset about yesterday. Chance getting hurt was something I never expected, and Hector’s notable absence from the table this morning is a glaring reminder of the colt who is still under observation at the vet’s office.

As if she’s reading my mind, Dena’s low voice snaps me out of my revere. “Hector called to say Chance is doing great, he’s tolerating the air cast and they are going to ship him home the day after tomorrow.”

My ears perk up and I give her a small smile. “I was worried about him.” I mention and Dena nods.

“I know you were.” She responds softly, gracing me with a gentle smile. “You almost ready?” She asks the table, those who are heading up to the track today nodding. “Okay, we’ll leave in a half an hour.” Dena then excuses herself, placing a hand on my shoulder as she slides out of the room.

“What’s up, Gen?” Charlene asks as she finishes her breakfast. “You still freaked about yesterday?”

I nod, trying to put the memory of Chance’s accident out of my mind. “Yeah.”

Charlene’s gentle brown eyes look at me with concern as she gives me a sympathetic smile. “Was that your first real accident?”
Nodding again, I finish my juice. “Yeah, I’ve gotten dumped a few times, like last time on Irish, but I’ve never had a horse break down on me before.” I tell her, closing my eyes briefly.

“I remember my first time, it was way before I was riding for Dena and it was awful.” She says, buttering another piece of toast. “I was riding this nice mare, a seasoned racer, and we were making our run just around the far turn. She’s passing horses like it’s her business and all of a sudden, I feel it.” Charlene tells me, her eyes cloudy.

“Feel what?” I ask, dreading her answer.

“Her front leg, just about snapped in half. She went down, I fell onto the track and I remember looking up, sure I was about to get trampled and seeing her leg dangling there. I knew she was done for.” The ex-jock frowns slightly. “They wouldn’t even let me stay with her, and before I knew it, I was loaded up into the ambulance and the track vet was putting her down. It was awful.”

A wave of nausea works it’s way through my entire body. “How could you still race? I mean, yesterday after Chance got hurt it made me realize how meaningless the sport can be.”

Charlene shrugs. “It’s part of the business. Don’t get me wrong, it’s unfortunate and of course I still feel bad for that mare, but when you work with horses you have to take the risks as they come. Racing has a lot of risks, and sometimes they are unavoidable.”

I stand up from the table, pushing my plate back. “I know.” I excuse myself, needing to spend some quiet time with Elmer before leaving for the track. I thought I had resolved my feelings last night, but now I’m not so sure.

Walking down to the barn, I enjoy the feel of the cool Florida morning. The weather is supposed to be perfect today, not too hot with a gentle breeze. I find Elmer at the gate to his pasture, carefully selecting wisps of hay from his pile. He raises his plain head when he sees me, his large brown eyes blinking slowly as if he’s just woken up.

I slip into his pasture, picking pieces of grass and dirt from his mane. “You laid down last night, huh buddy?” I ask, and he snorts in response. “Probably tired from that run we had.”

His gentle chewing is my only response. Slinging my arm around his high back I give him a brief hug before routinely inspecting each of his legs. I pick up each hoof, making sure his shoes are secure and free from debris, and making careful note of any unusual swellings or heat.

He is fine and cool, like always. As I check his front left leg, the same one Chance injured, I am suddenly struck at how delicate and small this particularly part of a horse’s anatomy is.

All of their weight, over 1,000 pounds comes crashing down at 40 mph on four legs no thicker than a baseball bat, hooves no bigger in diameter than a saucer. It’s a shock more horses are not injured in racing or jumping, their dainty legs, especially the front pair, are not equipped to handle such stresses.

In the wild, horses rarely are forced to jump. And if they must, it’s not 6′ high jumps in a routine combined with rapid lead changes and triple combinations like they must in show jumping. Accordingly, horses are not made to suffer the intense training and repetitive strains to their developing legs that young racehorses do.

We have taken the inherent abilities of the horse and turned them into something different for our pleasure. I’m so grateful I decided to work for Dena. I’ve never seen her push a horse for more than it is ready or overwork them.

Dena’s horses live as naturally as possible and seem healthier and happier than the majority of the others I have seen.
My heart belongs to racing, as much as I hate to say it. Charlene is partially right, with everything comes a risk. I’m just glad Dena cuts down on that risk by training her horses right.

Chance’s accident wasn’t her fault; if the colt was over-trained and under-rested he probably would have been more badly hurt, but because he was fresh and in perfect condition, it allowed him to stay on his feet and come away with a small, non-life-threatening fracture.

I give Elmer a quick kiss and head for the barn, I know Dena is waiting and I’ve got a race to win.

*****

Okay, so far, not so bad. Irish surprised me by not being a monster and loading into the gate with no problem. Dena has entered him in a Grade II race today, a step up in class from his last race. She thought last time he won so convincingly that he was ready for something bigger.

I agree, and if I can tell by his almost pleasant disposition today, Irish must agree too. Surprisingly, we are waiting for another colt to settle down before the starter releases us.

I’m talking to Irish, keeping my voice calm and low as I tell him what a good boy he is. Instead of pinning his ears and baring his teeth at the horse in the next gate, he is looking ahead, his great dark body quivering with either anger or excitement. I hope its excitement.

The doors spring open and Irish bolts out. Remembering my last race with him and Dena’s advice to let him do what he wants without killing anybody, I guide him straight, keeping out of everyone else’s way.

It’s a large field, filled with older and talented horses. I don’t know if Irish has much of a chance at winning, but he’s impressed me lately in his morning works. His mind seems to have less interest in killing me and more interest in running, which is a good thing.

The first turn comes and goes and I have Irish positioned in fourth. He seems pretty relaxed, focused on the hind ends of the horses in front of us but not going after them aggressively. I can’t believe the progress he’s made from my first time riding him. Dena has done a lot to make him trust us more, and it’s really paying off. He might be a hell of a racehorse.

Furlong markers tick by and I start to prepare Irish for his sprint to the wire. He is shaking again now, and I realize it is with the desire to run, to win. At the precise moment, I let the slick leather slip through my hands and I yell to him.

Like a coiled spring, Irish leaps forward and quickly overtakes the horse alongside him. He flattens his massive neck, his strides coming long and fast.

I curl myself around his withers, trying to stay as unnoticeable as possible. This is how Irish likes to run, as if he’s alone with no one riding him. The more quiet and still I am, the harder he tries. Then, when I really want him to turn on the speed, I act as if he’s running away with me. When he thinks he’s getting away with something, he really tries.

Looking to my left, I see a dark horse tiring. I am forced to squeeze Irish through, slightly bumping the tiring horse in the process. Memories of Chance’s accident yesterday fill my head, and I know it was right about here on the track where the entire thing happened.

I jump in reflex, surprising Irish who slows his stride in response. Gritting my teeth, angry with myself, I resume my former position, and act like Irish is out of control and I can’t stop him.

He immediately throws himself back into the race, but it is too late. A quickly closing chestnut takes the lead as Irish fights gamely to stick his white nose in front. It’s not good enough and we end up with second.

Cursing myself as I let Irish gallop out, tears welling in my eyes. I’ll never be a good jock if I can’t push those kinds of memories away. My horse had a good chance of winning this race, if he hadn’t slowed for that split second he probably would have won. I’m proud of him for getting second, but would have liked to win for Dena.

Luckily, the rider who comes to collect us ignores my tears. He has his hands full preventing Irish from nipping at his horse. I pat Irish’s sweaty neck and try to keep his attention away from the poor attending horse.

Once we’re in the paddock and Irish has been led away, I turn to Dena, self-conscious and nervous about what to say. We haven’t been alone since last night, and I’m not sure where we really go from here.

Clearing my throat, I run my hands through my hair and pull it loose from its braid. “I’m sorry we didn’t win, it was totally my fault. I freaked when we bumped that horse and all I could think of was Chance.”

Dena’s blue eyes are warm as she takes my chin in her hands and tilts my gaze to meet hers. “I’m sorry if I pushed you to race if you weren’t ready. I want you to feel comfortable, and if you need some time to sit it out, I can give that to you.”

I shake my head, my eyes becoming watery again. “No, I need to ride through it. I won’t let my nerves get me again, I promise.”

Dena nods in understanding. “Okay, but please know the option to sit out is open, okay?” She smiles, releasing my chin. “So, what are you doing tonight?”

Shrugging my shoulders, I answer. “I was planning on taking Elmer on a picnic later, otherwise I’m free.” I glance hopefully at her eyes, wondering what she’s up too.

“How about dinner and a movie?” Dena asks and I nod eagerly. “I think we went about this whole thing backwards. Aren’t I supposed to wine and dine you before taking you to bed?”

I giggle, enjoying the sound of her warm laughter. Dena casually puts her arm around my shoulders as we walk back to the barn.

Part 7

After everyone is tucked away in their rooms for the night, I creep down the stairs; carefully avoiding the squeaky fourth and second treads and walk into the kitchen. Dena’s cook, a wonderful older woman named Marina, has gone to bed so I help myself to a glass of chocolate milk and some fresh strawberries in the fridge.

I’m surprised Dena didn’t come to my room, in the past two weeks since we’ve been “dating”, she’s visited me after everyone else is asleep. We’ve enjoyed each other’s company, not really talking about anything personal or anything, just lying silently.

And kissing. A lot of kissing and touching.

But tonight she is nowhere to be found. I know she’s anxious about the big race, now only a month away, because she hasn’t been sleeping well.

I’m just as nervous. I feel like I have a lot of weight resting on my shoulders, and I have little confidence in my ability to win the freaking Kentucky Derby. Now Foxy, I have the utmost faith in her ability to outrun any horse. I just don’t want to make any stupid mistake and screw anything up.

As I finish my midnight snack, I hear a low hum coming from down the hall. Curious, I pour myself another glass of milk and follow my ears until I am standing outside a partially closed door of what appears to be a small living room.

I peer through the crack in the door, seeing Dena curled up on the couch avidly watching video footage of Foxy.

“Hey.” I call to her softly, not wanting to scare her. She turns, startled, as I open the door wide enough to fit through.

“Come in.” The trainer beckons me with a gentle smile as she pats the seat next to her. I sit; tucking my feet underneath me as Dena slings her long arm over my shoulder.

“What are you doing?” I ask, taking a drink of my milk. She rewinds the tape, and I realize it’s each morning’s workout from the past few months.

“Charlie has been great, taping every horse’s morning workout. I’m trying to decide if Foxy needs another race before the Derby.” Dena says, her low voice sending shivers up my spine. “You want to watch?”

I nod, eager to see the filly’s action from this angle. “Sure, can we start way back though, so I can see progress?”

Grinning at me, Dena presses Play. “I’m way ahead of you, jock. I rewound it an entire week before the Florida Derby.”

Snuggling into her side, I become engrossed in making careful mental notes about the filly’s works. I’m amazed at how effortless the filly makes running look. The biggest difference between her and other horses I’ve seen is how she runs. Instead of exuding power and strength, the filly looks like a graceful cat playfully bounding around.

It’s probably why people don’t think she’s as fast as she is, or that she’s as talented. She makes running look so easy it appears as if she’s not doing anything noteworthy at all. Plus, her front-running style doesn’t have the dramatic attention of a closer’s sprint, and when she sticks her nose out in front to win it appears as if she’s just gotten lucky, and if the race had been any longer the closers would have pushed ahead.

It’s evident in her progress that she’s peaking now. With the Derby coming up, that’s a good thing. I can understand Dena’s apprehension about entering her in another race before the Derby. If the filly is peaking now, it’s silly to have her run in another race, she should save it for the Derby. However, there’s the possibility she could get too wound up without another race and be off her game for the Derby.

“What’s your gut tell you?” Dena asks, chewing on the cap of the pen she’s used to make notes. I glance over to her beautiful profile, her long dark hair falling out of its’ messy braid, and the way her thick eyelashes frame her incredible eyes.

“That I’m really enjoying the time we’ve been spending together. And that you’re a really good kisser.” I mention, grinning.

She gazes at me with a look of admonishment on her face. “Gen…” She drawls, a teasing smile appearing on her face.

“I love it when you say my name like that.” I tell her slowly and she lightly slaps my arm. “Okay, okay.” I say, resting my head on her shoulder. “I think the filly needs another race.”

“Really?” She asks, and I lift my head and look at her. “Why?”

“Because she’s bored, I can already feel it in her morning works. She either needs to start exercising with a friend or race again. Maybe not a big deal race, not even a Derby prep. We both know she’s the horse to beat in the Derby, so why not enter her in a small little race that lets her blow off some steam. Besides, if you’re serious about me riding her in the Derby, which I still think you’re crazy for mentioning but that’s just me, it will be good for me to see what she’s like in a race.” I tell her honestly.

Dena nods, deep in thought. “Okay, I’ll see what I can enter her in. It’s a good idea, putting her in a little race, if not for anything else but for you to see how she is. And I’m not crazy for mentioning it, as long as you’re game; you’re my full-time jockey from now on.” She clears her throat slightly, taking my glass of milk and setting it down on the small coffee table. Taking my hand in hers, she unleashes a full-watt smile on me. “I love having you here. It’s like you’re the breath of fresh air I needed in my life.”

Unsure as to why she’s suddenly so serious, I am unable to do anything but beam like an idiot and smile in return out of sheer joy. “Thanks.” I mumble, finding my lips captured by the trainer’s. I am only vaguely aware of her turning off the television with the remote as she lays me back on the couch, lowering herself to me. I am helpless to resist the feel of her body against mine.

*****

I know my hands are shaking as I pull on my yellow and black silks and smooth imaginary wrinkles out of my white pants. Grabbing my crop and helmet, I snap it anxiously against my boot as I trot out to weigh-in.

Nick Howe, a young jock that is even shorter than I am grins at me. We became both buddies and rivals, because we both arrived at the track around the same time we often had to compete for mounts. Nick is so small he can ride even the lightest-weighed mounts, but I’m stronger.

“Why are you slumming today?” He asks, stepping off the scale that just registered him and his tack at a mere 101 pounds. I grin as I take his place on the scale, the needle hitting perfectly at 126.

“Filly needed a prep before the big race.” I tell him, returning his smile.

He snorts. “That filly doesn’t need anything. Believe me, I’m betting on her in the Derby.”

I glance at him, surprised. After Foxy’s 2nd place finish in the Florida Derby, Foghorn is the early favorite for the Derby. Most of the track clockers think Foxy will end up running in the Oaks.

Nick continues. “I rode her once, when she was a two-year-old. Gomez had a spill in the race before and your trainer needed a quick fill-in for her morning work. That filly ran so easily it was like she had wings. I’ll never forget it.”

Nodding, I grin at him. “Yeah, we’re expecting big things out of her.”

“Even with my lightweight today, we’ll still get blown away by you.” Nick mentions over his shoulder as he heads to the paddock.

Hoisting the filly’s tack, I’m aware of the watchful eyes upon me as I meet Dena in the paddock. Handicapped races are watched very carefully, to make sure no one lightens the horse’s load. The entire point of handicapping a race is to give each horse a better chance. Highly rated horses are given more weight than those with the odds against them. Foxy is carrying the heaviest weight in the field today, 25 pounds more than Nick’s horse, a lightly raced European bred filly.

Dena grins at me, squeezing my arm gently. She looks beautiful, as always, dressed in a lavender pantsuit with an ivory shell underneath. Her hair is loose and flowing down past her shoulders. She wears her usual mirrored sunglasses that hide her intense eyes, but I swear I can still see her wink at me.

Charlie is walking the filly around, and as always, Foxfire is calm and alert, acting as if she’s not even going to race today.

“She’s the heavy favorite, and there shouldn’t be anyone in this race who will make it hard. Let her run however she wants too, she’ll probably break early and go to the front like normal. If she pulls away too quickly, keep her contained. I don’t want her breaking any hearts out there.” Dena tells me as she slings her arm over my shoulders.

I nod, understanding her request. Horses who are so competitive can have their precious egos crushed if they are beaten by too many lengths. I’ll keep Foxy in front enough to win. We’re not trying to break any records here today.

“Sounds good. I’ll see you in the winner’s circle.” I tell Dena, more confidently than I feel. I have complete faith in Foxy, but not in myself. What if Dena was wrong, and having me ride her doesn’t make the change she was hoping for?

“You bet. Come back safely.” She says, hugging me quickly before releasing me.

“You ready Baby?” I ask the filly, who is flicking her black-tipped ears around at the other horses. Charlie nods at me as I hop onto her small back and he gives me a bright smile as he pats my booted leg.

I manage to keep my nervousness at bay as I warm up the filly, finding her strides effortless and rhythmic as always. “So Baby,” My voice calls to her as I pat her shiny neck, “Are you going to be a fast filly today?”

My attending rider smiles at me, his tanned skin revealing white wrinkle lines. “I thought her name was Foxy.” The older man mentions as he securely holds the filly’s bridle.

Grinning at him I shrug my shoulders. “It is, but she’s my baby, you know?”

He laughs. “Yeah. I’m surprised to see her running today. When are you shipping her up to Churchill?”

“Next week.” I answer, excited about going up to Kentucky for the big race. “That way she’ll have three weeks to work over the track.”

We ride up over to the gate. “So is it the Derby or the Oaks?” The rider asks as the starter preps Foxy to load.

“Derby.” I tell him resolutely.

“Good luck.” He responds, his dark eyes twinkling as he rides away.

Foxy loads easily into the number 7 position and stands calmly, like normal. It’s such a different feeling riding her rather than Irish, who would usually be trying to throw me off by now. The filly instead accepts, actually likes my presence, which shows the good foundation of training Dena has done with her.

The doors open and she glides out easily a stride in front of the others. I’ve never ridden such a fast-breaking horse, and it suits her tendency to run in the front of the pack. With Baby, there’s no huge surge of power, no jet propulsion. It’s as if you’re traveling on a sled downhill, nothing but smooth gliding.

I direct the filly to the rail and as soon as she’s settled, I take in rein to keep her a length in front of the pack. All of my nervousness fades as the filly runs; I can feel her complete comfort and happiness in her fast strides.

This is unbelievable, I still can’t get over the fact I am riding one of the best three-year-olds in the country. I don’t think Dena or I know Baby’s full potential, what the future years will hold for her. Will she be a speedball now at three and peak? Or will she have a brilliant four-year-old career like her sire?

Around the far turn the filly asks for more rein and I give it to her. She’s such a little lady, asking politely instead of demanding. In return, she likes to be ridden kindly and gently, no quick movements or sudden jerks of the hand or leg.

I think this is where Gomez and I differ. I’m by nature a very quiet rider, and while Gomez is not rough by any means, he’s so much older and stronger I think he doesn’t realize his own strength and Baby seems to take to my way of riding better.

Glancing behind me, I find the field bunched tightly together. With two furlongs to go I keep the filly right where she is, although she’s anxious to be let into her sprint.

I look behind again and see Nick riding up on his lightly weighted filly. She has her neck stretched out and she’s blowing hard as she reaches Baby’s midsection. I don’t move, wondering if Nick will be able to coax more speed out of her, and I feel Baby tremble with excitement.

Nick uses his crop three times and his filly gamely increases her speed. I know she’s running with everything she has, but I feel the unreleased speed of my mount and know Nick has no chance.

With 100 yards to go, I give Baby more rein. She eats it up and bolts forward, in front by a length as we cross under the wire.

“Good girl.” I tell her, grinning from ear to ear. I know we passed Dena’s test which means I’m riding in the fucking Kentucky Derby!

When the filly didn’t go forward for Gomez in the Florida Derby, I knew something was bothering her. It is clear she is back to her normal self now, and she’s the horse to beat in the big race.

I pat Foxy’s slightly damp neck as I cool her down, a smile never leaving my face. I’ve never ridden such a horse in all my life. Who would have thought a diminutive little filly could be so fast.

“Nice filly.” My buddy Nick calls to me from his game second place finisher.

“You too.” I respond and he grins.

“I was surprised, she has guts, huh?” He says, indicating his tired mount. I nod in response as Baby and I are led to the winner’s circle.

*****

Dena puts the last suitcase in her big truck and slams the door. “Okay, let’s start bringing the horses out.” She tells the various grooms.

“Let’s put the baby in first.” She tells Maya, who leads the Swanson’s chestnut 2-year-old onto the trailer. The colt, suddenly skittish, tosses his head and Maya struggles to keep him from rearing.

“Take is easy, let him figure it out.” Dena tells the groom softly, who nods in response as the colt finally calms down. It’s as if someone switches a light bulb on inside his head and he remembers he’s been in a trailer dozens of times. He then allows himself to be calmly led on and secured.

I giggle at his antics and Dena rolls her eyes at me. “That one sure deserved his name, huh? You know, he’s dense.” She says, elbowing me in the ribs.

The colt’s name is Opaqueness, but we call him Opie. “You’re so not funny.” I groan at the trainer’s lame joke and she winks at me.

“Now Bits.” Dena says, and Cottonball, the mare that came from the same lot as Elmer did calmly walks up the ramp. She received her nickname of Kibbles n’ Bits because she was bound for slaughter. I’ve raced her twice now; the first time we got a surprising second and the next race she finished a fast-closing third. I really like her, and Dena thinks she’ll be dynamite on the turf. We are taking her with us to Churchill because they have a nice turf track there to work her on.

“Good mare.” The trainer says, pleased with the easy loading. “Okay, Gen, let’s put Elmer on.”

“Come on bud,” I tell my tall bay who loads with the same acceptance as Bits. The two of them nuzzle each other like old friends until I slide up the divider.

“You can leave it down between them.” Dena calls, and I comply and push it back down into place, allowing the calm gelding and mare to visit. “They won’t hurt each other. Put it up between him and the filly though, in case she gets bored and starts picking on him.” The trainer says, and I nod in agreement. Foxy seems to love Elmer, but she has a bad habit of being almost too playful for the laid-back gelding.

Without being told, Charlie leads the small filly onto the trailer. She is last on and has the most room to maneuver around with her head secured.

“All set boss.” The dark man tells Dena as he mops his brow with a pristine white handkerchief. “I’m looking forward to Kentucky, that’s for sure.”

Dena grins. “Me too.” She clears her throat. “Everyone who’s Kentucky bound, climb aboard.”

Frank starts the big dually, and it’s powerful engines roar to life. I make sure the trailer windows are open so each horse has plenty of fresh air and that all the doors are secured one last time. Charlie and Maya, the two grooms who will accompany us on our extended absence from the farm climb in the truck with Frank, leaving Dena and I to ride in her truck following behind. Charlene will stay here to oversee morning training and exercises. Hector, who is keeping a close eye on the recovering Chance, will take over caring for Charlie and Maya’s other horses.

Maya smiles shyly at me from the truck window, and my face flushes. I don’t know if anyone else on the farm knows what is going on between Dena and I, and last week Maya saw the trainer leaving my room in the middle of the night. As fast as gossip flies around here, I’m sure everyone knows.

Well, at least they let Dena and me ride alone all the way to Kentucky, which is perfect, as far as I’m concerned. We all wave to the truck as it pulls away, carefully navigating the gravel driveway in order to provide the smoothest ride to its precious cargo.

Charlene gives me a hug. “I’ll see you in 20 days!” She says eagerly. She’ll be driving up with a few others to watch the Derby. “Good luck!”

Dena hops in the truck and starts it. “Everyone, be careful and have fun while we’re gone. I trust you all, and I hope you know how honored I am to have you.” The trainer calls to her beloved workers. They all lift their chins, touched by her words as they wave goodbye to us.

“They all really admire you.” I tell Dena as we drive away. The trainer glances at me out of the corner of her eye.

“I mean what I said. They are all excellent workers and human beings. They could find work at a bigger and more successful stable, but they are loyal as the day is long. I respect that.”

“I know.” I respond honestly, constantly surprised at the humble nobleness of the woman beside me. “And speaking for myself, I’ve found that success doesn’t matter when you really believe in what you’re doing. I believe in you and your training methods. And I have little doubt they will soon bring you success.”

I’m astonished to see Dena’s sparkling blue eyes well with tears. “Thank you for saying that, Gen. You’ll never know how much that means to me.”

“One day I hope I will.” I mention softly as we head into our future.

Part 8

A light, tickling sensation on the back of my neck wakes me and I let a huge yawn escape. Opening my eyes slightly, I see a grinning Dena lying next to me, her head propped up by her bare arm. Her long dark hair rests against my skin and I smile in reflex.

I could get really used to waking up with her. Even at 4:00 am.

“Hey.” I croak, my throat thick with sleep.

“You’re beautiful when you sleep.” She tells me softly, tracing my profile with her slender fingers.

I can’t help but blush, not used to being with someone so affectionate. “Thanks.” I mumble, a part of me wanting to pull the covers up over my head and disappear from the thought of her watching me. It makes me feel so self-conscious.

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you that before?” Dena asks, smiling. “Surely you know how beautiful you are.”

My nose wrinkles. “Not really.” I tell her honestly, finding it hard to meet her eyes. “You’re kind of the first.”

Dena looks at me, confusion evident in her expression. “I’m the first to tell you that you’re beautiful?”

I nod in response, not missing the flash of emotion that crosses her face. “Well, I’ll just have to tell you more often.” She says, laying her head down on the pillow and pulling me close to her.

I go eagerly, enjoying the silken feel of her skin against mine. We drove throughout the day yesterday, stopping every four hours to diligently unload and walk the horses to avoid them getting stiff from the long drive. It took us almost thirty hours in total, having to go really slow with our cargo, and by the time we got in everyone was exhausted.

It feels so lovely to be warm in her embrace, but I know it can’t last. There are horses to be fed and stalls to be cleaned.

“We should really get up.” Dena’s low voice rumbles in my ear.

“Yeah.” I reply, my eyes closing involuntarily.

“The sooner we get up, the sooner we can come back here for a nap.” She says and I smile.

“I like the sound of that.”

*****

After feeding our four horses and helping Charlie and Maya clean the stalls, I wipe my brow with my t-shirt, thoroughly enjoying the lovely spring weather of Kentucky rather than the blistering heat of home.

“How did they settle last night?” I ask the old groom who is carefully scrubbing Baby’s water bucket.

“Good, the filly went right to sleep. The colt was a bit excited, but Elmer just snorted at him until he got over it.” Charlie replies. “Slept like a baby, myself.” He adds, his dark eyes smiling.

I chuckle at him, recalling his insistence to sleep in the cot in the barn with his horses rather than at the hotel like the rest of us.

“How did you sleep, Gen?” Maya asks in her lightly accented voice. I can’t help but blush, and soon both grooms are guffawing at my expense. I don’t even try to think of an excuse, and I realize that my relationship, whatever it may be, with Dena is way out in the open.

“Very funny.” I manage to tell them, though I really just want to bury myself in the manure pile.

“What is?” Dena’s low voice asks as she walks into the barn.

“Nothing.” Maya says quickly as she sets out on the task of grooming Bits.

Dena glances at me curiously, and I flush red again before quickly excusing myself to go and change into my riding clothes.

We’re just stretching the horses out today, Elmer included. They need a few days to recover from the long trailer ride before doing any serious exercise, so we’ll jog them twice a day today and tomorrow.

I hear Dena’s silken voice cooing to Baby as I return from the changing room, and I watch as the trainer effortlessly tacks up the filly. It’s so evident that Dena loves her horses, and one of the things I respect most about her is the way she treats them as individuals. She takes the time to learn about each of their personalities and it shows in the adoration they have in return for her.

“She’s all set, Gen.” Dena tells me. “Let’s see how she likes this track, she’s never been out of Florida before, so it might take her a bit to get used to it, okay? Just jog her two miles, nothing fancy.”

I nod in understanding as Charlie leads me over to the track. The filly is prancing and snorting, which is unusual for her, but perfectly normal for a horse in a new place. She’s not being dangerous, just excited.

“Easy, Baby.” I tell the intelligent filly who quiets with my voice. I walk her around the far outside of the track, staying well clear of any rider doing serious work. Baby quietly absorbs the commotion, Churchill Downs already in full-Derby mode, and glides into a smooth trot as soon as I ask.

Her strides are easy over the fast surface, and I’m inclined to think that she will respond better to this track than what she’s used to in Florida. The good thing about training young horses down south is the amount of sand mixed into the track surface. The more sand, the deeper and softer the track is. That makes it easier on the horse’s legs, but not as fast.

The more northern and western surfaces are made of more clay, because it is natural to the environment here. This results in a very fast surface, but the pounding overall is more intense on the fragile legs of the horses. The way Baby is gliding over the surface makes me believe she’ll have no trouble adapting to this much-faster track.

Which is good, she’s at an advantage over a horse that is used to this and then goes to the deep southern race surfaces.

Finishing our jog around the track once, we have one more mile to go. The filly is trotting lightly, and isn’t even sweating. She seems to enjoy the cooler weather, and so far her progress here is excellent. We pass by the famous twin spires of Churchill, and suddenly it hits me that I’m here, riding a Derby horse.

Never in my life did I think this would happen to me. I glance to the outer rail, where I see Dena casually leaning on it, her arms crossed in front of her. Never did I think I’d be in love with someone like her, either.

Pushing away my thoughts toward the tall trainer, I concentrate on the filly. I haven’t even begun to realize my feelings for Dena yet, and I don’t want to go there. Not until after the Derby. I can’t think about both at once!

We approach Dena and Charlie, and the trainer cups her hands around her mouth. “Looks good, Gen, let her slow gallop the rest of the way.” She calls, and I nod in agreement and effortlessly slide the filly into a relaxed gallop.

As I expected, her long strides eat up the track and she feels even faster than she did at home. This is at her slowest possible stride; imagine what it will be like in full sprint! My mind can’t fathom any horse beating mine in the Derby, and I feel confident we will make Dena very, very proud.

Baby is the picture of obedience, asking nicely for more rein as we gallop down the track, but not becoming upset when I don’t give in to her request. Speed will come later; right now it’s about getting her comfortable and limber on the surface.

I slow her at the half-mile pole back down to a trot and am pleased to see she’s not even breathing hard. She’s so fit; the picture of an equine athlete, that I know the Churchill clockers and track enthusiasts will start to keep a closer eye on her works.

Except for her small size, Foxfire looks like a Derby horse, and as the weeks fly by we will have to start beating the press down off our doors and having microphones shoved in our faces from people covering the always-popular issue of a filly in the Derby.

I finish jogging the filly and return to Dena and Charlie. They are both practically glowing, and my thoughts on the filly’s chances are immediately confirmed.

Dena looks like a child on Christmas as she possessively scratches Baby’s ears. The filly, in turn, adores the trainer’s affection and shoves her nose into the trainer’s stomach.

“Here, lady.” Charlie says, removing a peppermint from his pocket and feeding it to the eager filly. Dena and I roll our eyes as we head back to the barn.

Once there, Maya has Bits ready to go and I swing up on her broad back, so different from Baby’s. “Same thing.” Dena mentions to me as we head back over to the track. “If she feels okay, let her gallop a half-mile.”

“Sure.” I tell her, my hand on the bay mare’s neck. She is the picture of tranquility, and I wonder again why she was bound for slaughter. Bits has some speed and more guts than most horses, so it’s odd she would be tossed aside so easily.

Then again, maybe she had an entirely different life than she does at Dena’s. Sometimes horses freak because of their surroundings, so if Bits had a pushy groom or was handled roughly, she might not have been as lovely as she is now.

The little bay goes into a trot, and I have little problem keeping her in the pace directed. She is content to look around, but with a snort she dismisses the track horses in front of her.

“Been there, done that, huh Bits?” I ask the plucky little mare who snorts again. She’s fun to ride, and I always admire a horse with her heart. She may not be the fastest one in the race, but she tries harder than most. The two times I’ve raced her I’ve really liked her style, we’re going in a Grade III race next week and I expect her to do pretty well.

After galloping out the mare, I hop on Opie’s back. The young colt is nervous as hell, pawing and trying to turn in little circles.

“Easy.” I tell him, patting his wet neck. It’s not good for him to be getting this worked up, I know it’s a new place and he’s just a baby, but he is seriously freaked.

We’re not even racing him while we’re here, just bringing him along to get him used to traveling and being in strange places. The Swanson’s horses won’t get serious about racing until early summer, we’ve had Opie and Chance in a race already just to see how they need to be trained, and I was proud of how collected and calm Opie was.

Today, it’s like he’s a totally different horse.

“It’s okay, fella.” Dena tells him as she holds onto his rein. “I’m not letting you go over there until he calms down.” She says to me and I nod in return.

“I can hold him, he’s okay.” I tell her, worried the colt will do something foolish and the trainer will get hurt.

“I’ll ride Elmer out there with you, okay?” Dena asks and I nod in agreement. That would probably be best.

Charlie and Maya both hold the reins of the nervous colt while Dena quickly tacks up my gelding.

The tall bay seems to have somewhat of a quieting affect on Opie, who at least stops his pawing as Dena heads over. Taking the colt’s rein, Dena rides out to the track like an attending rider.

Opie forgets about being nervous and turns his attention to my quiet Elmer, who tolerates the nips and nuzzles from the overzealous colt.

“You okay to trot him?” Dena asks and I grin at her in response. From her perch on the tall bay, she is a great deal higher than I am. Opie isn’t small and he’s still growing, but compared to the gigantic Elmer he looks like a pony.

The colt goes into an even trot, and I admire his elastic stride. I don’t think he’ll ever have the natural speed of Swanson’s other colt, the recuperating Chance, but Opie will make an okay racehorse.

I feel him start to become nervous again, and I take a firmer hold on the reins. He isn’t acting out, but I can feel the tension going through his body. “Dena, careful.” I warn the trainer who looks at me.

“What’s wrong?” She asks, and I see her hand involuntarily clench on the reins of the colt.

Shaking my head in response, I will my stomach to settle down. “Not sure, he’s acting strange though, just be extra cautious.”

“Sure.” She says, slowing Elmer’s pace and forcing the colt to slow from his forward trot.

Opie’s ears flatten against his head, and he darts his neck out, savagely baring his teeth toward Elmer.

Naturally, the bay swerves away from the colt’s teeth and Dena has to struggle to hang on to Opie’s rein without being pulled from her saddle.

“Let go, I’ve got him!” I call to the trainer, and I see her blue eyes widen with fear. She’s terrified that if she lets go, the colt will bolt and I won’t be able to control him.

I wrap the reins around my hands, feeling the strength of the colt as he works to clasp the bit between his teeth. Dena stubbornly hangs on as she tries to convince Elmer to return to the colt’s side.

The bay finally relents and scoots close to the colt, glancing at him warily. Opie thrusts out his neck angrily in response, and although it pains me to do so, I pull the reins back with all of my strength as well as give him a smart kick in the side.

Admonished, the colt stops trying to extract the bit from my control and seemingly calms down. I glance at Dena, who gives me a wry smile.

“Sorry I had to kick him.” I tell her, upset at myself.

“Don’t be. You didn’t beat him, Gen, you reprimanded him for unwelcome behavior. Think of how a herd horse would discipline him if he acted that way. The herd inclination is to bite or kick, and by you giving him a firm and quick punishment, he realized his behavior wasn’t to be tolerated.” Dena says and I nod in agreement.

“I just hate seeing people push horses around, it doesn’t make any sense.” I respond, patting Opie, who has seemed to settle down. We’re one mile through our jog and I know Dena won’t want the colt galloped at all until he settles down more.

“I understand, I feel the same way. And I never think using physical punishment is good for horses. But there’s a big difference between smacking them around and giving them the accepted herd reprimand. It’s what they understand, biologically.” The trainer smiles, clearing her throat, “So, on a better subject, what had you so flushed this morning?”

I grimace and glance at the tall trainer. “Um, I think our secret is kind of out.”

“And what secret would that be?” Dena responds, mercifully teasing me. “The fact that we’re screwing like rabbits or the fact that you make me so crazy that I can’t stop thinking about you, even in my sleep?”

I feel the heat rush to my face. “The first one, I think.” I tell her and she laughs, a low sound that is rich to my ears.

“Oh well. I’m not trying to hide anything anyway. Life’s too short.” Dena says, winking at me. “You should know that well.”

“Is that a short joke?” I answer in mock outrage. “Because I’ll have you know, if I wasn’t so short you wouldn’t have yourself a Derby jockey!” I tell her jokingly.

She purses her lips, deep in thought. “I wouldn’t have myself a jockey at all. And that would make me so sad.” Dena answers, pouting her full lips.

Grinning at her I meet her blue gaze. “You’re in an awfully good mood this morning.”

“Waking up with you does that, I guess.” She responds quickly. “Guess we’ll have to make it a tradition.”

Before I can reply, I turn my attention back to Opie, who is shaking again. His ears flick nervously back and forth and he acts as if he’s trying to crane his neck to look behind him.

Looking over my shoulder, I see a fast-moving horse being worked who is coming up behind. He isn’t in our lane of traffic, but apparently it’s too close for Opie’s comfort.

“Easy!” I call, harsher than I would have liked to the colt as I feel him start to bolt.

“Whoa.” Dena says calmly, her hands tightening on the reins. Elmer stays calm, but the colt isn’t swayed by the big geldings’ piece of mind.

“Let go, he’s going up!” I shout to Dena as Opie screams shrilly and rears up in the air, his front legs pawing at the sky.

The trainer doesn’t let go and is almost pulled out of her saddle from the force of the colt.

“Let go!” I scream to her as I try and throw my weight to the colt’s front end, trying to encourage him to come back down on all fours. Dena pulls with all of her might, but the colt resists and is unable to find his balance.

“Jump!” Dena calls to me, seeing the colt is about to go over backwards. I kick my feet out of the stirrups and try to throw myself off to the side, but the next thing I know is the solid thump of the hard track on my back and the colt’s struggling body falling from the sky right on top of me.

And then everything goes black.

Part 9

A steady beep filters through my brain, but my body hurts too much to move. My eyelids twitch and my throat hurts.

“Gen, sweetheart?” Dena’s familiar voice registers to my fuzzy brain, but when I try and answer her, I feel an object lodged in my throat.

Panic sets in and my eyes fly open, my body screaming in protest as I try to rip the offending object out of my mouth.

“It’s okay! It’s a breathing tube!” Dena calls to me, and the tall trainer struggles to keep my body down on the bed. “It’s okay, you’re okay.” She tells me, her voice soothing. “You’re okay, you’re awake!”

My eyes are wide with fear, and I feel claustrophobic not being able to communicate. Raising my left hand I make the motion of holding a pencil.

“You want to write?” Dena says, retrieving a pad of paper and pen from the nightstand.

I wince as I take the pen, my entire midsection burning as if it’s on fire. My head is spinning and my chest hurts. I want to go home. I don’t want to be here.

How’s Opie? I write, ignoring the shooting pain traveling up and down my arm as I make the words in barely legible writing.

Dena’s lips curl slightly, tears evident in her blue eyes. “He’s fine, he had a bit of a scare after he fell, but Maya and Charlie had him checked out and x-rayed by the track vet. He’s okay. He has one little cut on his hock that will clear right up.”

I nod, closing my eyes briefly. I would’ve never forgiven myself if the colt were hurt.

What’s wrong with me? I write to Dena, and am surprised to see the tears flow from her face freely. Jesus Christ, it must be really bad.

“You’ve been unconscious for 13 hours.” She whispers, and I realize she’s still in her clothes from yesterday. “You got smashed by the colt.”

Why do I hurt so much? I write, frustrated at not being able to speak for myself. Dena nods, swallowing loudly.

“You have a bad concussion, three cracked ribs, a bruised collarbone, fractured wrist, and they thought you punctured your lung which is why you’re on a respirator, you were having a lot of trouble breathing.” The trainer tells me, looking ghastly pale. “You have a lot of bruising over your entire body, your face.” She finishes, her tears dampening her entire face.

How long? I write and Dena looks at me curiously.

“How long what?” She answers, wiping away her tears.

Until I can leave? Ride? I write, trying to ignore the pain in my arm.

“I don’t know.” She responds. Suddenly frantic, she wrings her hands. “I have to get the doctor, I was supposed to get them if you woke up.”

Don’t leave! I write urgently, not wanting to be alone.

“I’ll be right back.” She says, gingerly kissing my forehead before practically running out of the room.

She returns quickly with an elderly gray-haired man who I immediately dislike. He reminds me of my father. “Welcome back to the world, Miss Dietz!” He says in a fake booming voice and I blink at him. “Now, we’ve pretty much gotten you all fixed up. You need to keep that cast on your wrist for six weeks until that break heals. No riding, you hear me?” The doctor asks and I don’t respond at all. He clears his throat and continues. “Your brain activity is normal, but you do have a concussion. You need to take it easy and lay down for a few days. You have three cracked ribs and you need to keep them wrapped for as long as they hurt and then a week after. It’s going to be painful at first, but I’ll give you some medicine. As for your collarbone, that should clear up in a few weeks. You’ve got a pretty severe bone bruise, but you’ll live.” The doctor smiles broadly and I just continue to blink at him. “We’ll need to keep you here at least another day for observation, and then you’re free to go. I’ll have a physical therapist show you some exercises to strengthen you muscles and cut your recuperating time.”

“Does your chest hurt at all?” He questions and I shake my head no.

It’s an outright lie, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to stay on this machine any longer. The doctor studies the monitors before turning back to me. “I’ll send the nurse in to get you off the respirator, okay? If you have any trouble breathing, you need to tell us immediately.”

I nod in compliance as the doctor leaves. A friendly-looking stout nurse replaces him, and in a gentle voice instructs me of what she’s about to do.

“You might want to leave for this Ms. Santoro.” The nurse says and I look at Dena in fear.

“No, I’ll stay.” She tells the nurse as she gently takes a hold of my hand.

“Okay, ready?” The nurse tells me and I nod, closing my eyes.

It’s the most unpleasant thing I can ever remember having to endure, but it’s quickly over and I ignore the sudden heaving of my chest.

I try to stay calm and breathe normally so I don’t have to go back on the respirator, but I don’t feel I’m getting enough oxygen.

Panting, I take shallow breaths and it seems to help.

Pretty soon I get the hang of it, and while it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world, it’s better than having that thing stuck down my throat.

“Are you okay?” Dena asks, her hands clenching around mine.

I try to talk but my throat won’t respond. The nurse helpfully hands me a glass of water and I drink greedily, completely dehydrated.

Once I swallow, it becomes easier to breathe and I answer the trainer in a froggy voice.

“I feel like shit. When can I get out of here?” I tell her and for the first time since I woke up, Dena smiles.

“I don’t know, you took a pretty bad fall.” She says, grimacing.

“That bad, huh?” I ask, wondering why she’s looking at me like that.

The trainer nods. “You scared the crap out of me. Do you have any idea?” She says, her voice scared and small.

“I’m sorry, it wasn’t a picnic for me either.” I answer grinning. Ow, that really hurts.

My shoulders and chest protest, but I lift my hand to my face. I find it swollen and sore, especially my cheeks and nose. “What happened?” I ask and Dena looks away.

“It’s just bruised, you’ll be fine.” She answers, her eyes still averted.

“Show me.” I tell her, my voice croaking. I drink the rest of the water.

“I’ll get you more water.” The trainer says, standing up quickly and refilling my glass.

“Dena.” I state, and she meets my eyes. She soundlessly digs in her bag until she comes up with a compact mirror. Handing it to me I flip it open, unable to control my gasp as I take in my face.

I look like I’ve been crushed by a 1,000-pound animal. My nose is an ugly shade of purple and I’m surprised it’s not broken. The brim of my helmet probably saved it, and me from more serious head trauma. I can tell that when I saw Opie falling, I instinctively tried to turn my face away, the entire right side is swollen and ugly, and inside my mouth I can still taste blood from where I bit my tongue. An jagged red cut traces the line of my helmet strap, the sharp plastic edge must have bit into my skin from the force of Opie’s body.

Snapping the lid shut I hand the mirror back to Dena. “Guess you won’t be calling me beautiful any more, huh?” My voice is void of humor, and I can’t stand the pity I see in her eyes.

“You are beautiful.” Her voice answers, wavering. “All I could think of was how much I didn’t want to lose you.” The trainer starts, taking my hands in hers. “Gen, I care for you so much, regardless of how little we really know each other. I never want to have that helpless feeling of watching you be in pain again.”

Dena awkwardly wraps her arms around me, careful of my wounded body. She lays her head on my chest and I feel the wetness from her tears through my hospital gown.

I close my arms around her back, trying to comfort her but not really knowing how.

I just want to get out of here.

*****

“Fuck!” I curse as Dena helps me into a t-shirt. My ribs ache in protest with my collarbone as I manipulate my arms into the garment. I’ve officially been in this hospital for two and a half days, and I’m more than ready to get out of here.

“Are you okay?” The trainer asks gently and I nod my head. I manage to stand up and eagerly sit in the wheelchair, more than ready to be discharged.

Thank God I get medical benefits through working for Dena. I would be shit out of luck without them.

Dena signs me out and helps me into the truck. “Can we stop by the barn? I want to say hello to everyone.” I tell her, my throat finally beginning to return to normal from that stupid respirator. It’s still a little difficult to breathe, but I’m not mentioning it to anyone.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea.” The trainer says and my eyes flash in anger. I really hate being hurt, especially with the Derby only three weeks away. But I’ll be fine in a few days, and can start riding the filly again, regardless of what that stupid doctor said.

“Please. I’ll be careful.” I tell her and she sighs in response.

“Just for a second though, okay?” Dena agrees as she heads toward the track.

“Thanks.” I tell her, ignoring the searing pain ripping through my body as I reach over to take her hand. I’ve got enough prescription painkillers to make me a small fortune on the street, but I’m determined not to take any unless I absolutely have too.

My heart warms at the sight of our shedrow, although my stomach clenches with the memory of seeing Opie’s body about to crush me. Brushing it aside, I close my eyes briefly as Dena parks the truck.

I start to jump down, and the tall trainer races over to my side of the truck and gently lifts me, pinning me with a stern glare.

“Cut it out! You’re going to make everything worse. Please, for my sake, take it easy.” Dena orders and I nod in agreement as I slowly make the way to the barn, my head feeling cloudy and my chest tight.

The warm afternoon sun filters through to the barn, highlighting Baby’s bright white markings. Charlie has her tied in the aisle and is burnishing her smoldering copper coat to a gleaming bronze.

“Hey Baby.” I greet her softly and she lets out a shrill whinny and pushes her white nose to my chest, bumping me roughly.

Gritting my teeth with pain, I stroke the soft hair behind her ears and under her jaw. “Easy there on the torso, huh?” I joke to the filly as I glance at Charlie.

The dark-skinned man gives me a small smile, his dark eyes filled with empathy? Pity? I can’t tell.

“How’s she doing?” I ask the groom who nods proudly.

“She’s fine, Gen. Just fine. Don’t worry about her none, you just get better.” He says in his thick southern accent.

“She gallop this morning?” Dena asks the groom who gives her a small smile.

“Perfectly. Maya said she’s like Pegasus.” He answers, causing me to smile. The expression causes the pressure on my nose and cheek to be unbearable.

Even speaking hurts.

I give Baby one last pat and turn my attention to our other horses, Elmer first. My buddy sticks his head over the stall door, carefully placing his muzzle in my hand. I slide his stall door open and head inside, wondering how long it will take for every movement to stop hurting.

Elmer gently explores my face, sniffing so loudly that it causes a chuckle to escape. His ticklish whiskers go over my arms and midsection until he lowers his neck over my shoulder in a kind of equine hug.

Working through my pain I raise my arms around his neck and return his hug, my unbruised cheek resting on his glossy neck. “You’re such a good boy.” I tell him reverently; so grateful to Dena for letting me keep the tall bay.

Standing placidly, his large brown eyes blink slowly as I release him. He snorts before turning back to his hay and I have no doubt I could curl up and sleep in his stall and wake up to find him lying next to me.

As comfortable as a nice soft bed of hay sounds, the smooth sheets of the hotel bed would be even better.

“Can we go?” I ask Dena as I come out of Elmer’s stall. “I’m really tired.”

The trainer nods immediately, finishing her conversation with Charlie and returning to my side.

Bits’ stall is empty, and I assume Maya is out with her. That just leaves the colt.

“One second.” I tell Dena as I approach the colt’s stall.

The chestnut regards me shyly, tossing his head up and down nervously. I note his carefully bandaged hock, relieved the superficial cut was his only injury received from the accident.

“Hey buddy.” I say, opening the door and leaning inside.

Opie makes no move to come toward me; his nervous eyes darting back and forth reveal just how uneasy he is about everything. He’s still too much a baby, when he raced so well in Florida both Dena and I assumed he’d be fine to experience the trailer ride and extended stay up here.

But I think he’s just overwhelmed and unable to handle the stress.

“It’s okay.” I try to convince him, holding my hand out patiently. The colt makes no move to come toward me and after waiting patiently for a few minutes, I give up.

Shutting his stall door, I say goodbye to Charlie and Baby and follow Dena out to her truck.

*****

My fingers push the buttons to the remote rapidly flying through the channels. There’s nothing to watch, especially when I know that right now I could be riding Baby instead of lying around in this stupid bed.

I’m exhausted, and I could tell Dena was when she left this morning. She had to wake me up every hour because of my concussion. It was a sleepless night for everyone.

I know she’ll be back soon; she’s going to watch Baby’s exercise and see how Bits goes over the turf today. It’s the mare’s first time on the grass and I know Maya will give her a good ride.

I just wish it were me.

Kicking the blankets in disgust, I struggle to stand up. I can’t even imagine how Dena is going to react when I tell her I’m still going to ride the filly in the Derby. I hope she realizes how important it is for everyone and doesn’t put up a fuss about it.

But the way she is mothering over me, I’m sure she is expecting me to just sit back and watch Gomez ride in my place.

I won’t let that happen.

The hotel room feels too small and I begin to pace, ignoring the tightening in my chest. My head has stopped pounding, which is good, and already the bruising on my face is beginning to fade.

I’ve got little less than three weeks to get the strength back to ride. I think my fractured wrist will be the biggest pain in the ass. Maybe I can get the cast off early and wear a brace or something. My ribs will probably still be sore, I’ve had cracked ribs before and they suck. I’m not worried about my collarbone or my chest. I’ll ride with a respirator if I have to.

Thank God my legs and pelvis were unaffected. There’s no way Dena would let me in the saddle with a busted hip or leg, but the filly runs so easily my wrist shouldn’t be an issue.

The difficult thing will be actually telling the trainer that I plan to ride. I have no doubt she’s already called Gomez to see if he is still available for the filly.

Hearing footsteps, I stop my pacing and turn off the television. Dena turns the key in the door and opens it, meeting my gaze as she steps into our shared room.

“Hey, you’re up.” She says, surprised.

“Yeah, I feel better.” I answer.

“I’m glad.” She says, a bit awkwardly. Things have been strained since I woke up in the hospital, I can tell there’s a lot on her mind and we haven’t really talked about what happened.

“How was Baby?” I ask, not wanting the filly to miss out on any training before the big race.

“Good, good. She’s taking to the track like a pro. I’m cutting back her workouts so she doesn’t peak too early.” Dena starts. “Bits loves the turf, just like we thought. In a few months, as soon as you’re ready, I want you to go in a race with her.”

I nod. “While we’re on that subject, I want to talk to you about Baby.” Dena crosses over to the bed and sits down warily.

She smoothes the comforter nervously with her long fingers. Clearing her throat, her brilliant blue eyes meet mine.

“I have a feeling I know what you’re going to say, Gen.” Dena says, her voice soft but commanding.

She continues, reluctantly. “And the answer is no.”

My uncasted hand involuntarily clenches, as if I’m preparing for a fight.

In a way, I guess I am.

Before I can continue, Dena stands, her tall form towering over mine. “Just hear me out, okay?” She asks and I nod tersely, my eyes flashing in anger.

“You’ve been seriously hurt, it’s not like you had just a little fall. Gen, you were unconscious for over 13 hours. Do you have any idea the stresses your body has endured? Riding again so soon could seriously compromise both you and the filly and I can’t allow

that to happen.” The trainer states firmly, and the stubborn expression on her face leads me to believe she’s expecting me just to back down.

“No, listen to me.” I argue, my throat sore from my raised tone. “I am not giving up on myself, and I hate that you are. I’ve worked really hard to get Baby

prepped for the derby and I’m not going to let someone else ride her!”

“You can’t possibly ride with enough control when your body is injured! What if something happens and you’re not strong enough to help it. Do you want to risk both

Baby and yourself?” Dena argues back, her hands on her hips.

God she’s gorgeous when she’s angry.

“Do you really think I would do anything to hurt the filly? Jesus Christ Dena, I’m hurt but not stupid. Racing is a risk. If I’m not strong enough to ride, I

won’t. But have some fucking faith in me!” I stamp my foot angrily, knowing if my body was up to it I’d be throwing things right now.

“Don’t you dare speak to me like that! You have no right, I have been nothing but gracious with you.” Dena responds, her eyes glowering

with anger. “And this is the treatment I get? You should be down on your knees thanking me for taking you in and giving you a job and a place to stay, not cursing me out because I won’t let you ride when you’ve been in the god damned hospital for almost three days!”

“Oh, excuse me, gracious and angelic Dena. So sorry to have complicated your life by forcing you to take pity on me and take poor little wayward me in. I don’t need

your charity, I was doing fine on my own!” I snarl back.

“Oh really? You call the races you were riding fine?” Dena sneers. “What exactly was your winning percentage?”

“Better than your training percentage! You should be lucky you can even get anyone to ride for you; you’re the laughing stock of the industry. Maybe I’m the one taking pity on you.” I growl, knowing this is a low blow.

As expected, Dena’s face grows pained and she heads for the door. “Fuck you, Gen.” The trainer annunciates clearly before slamming it behind her.

All of my anger and resentment at my own injured self leaves with her as I wearily crumple down on the bed. I don’t even have the strength to hate myself right now.

*****

Painfully, I dig my money out of my pocket and hand the driver a few crumpled bills. Getting out of the taxi with some difficultly, I make my way over to Dena’s barn.

It’s 5:30 in the morning, and after our fight yesterday afternoon, Dena didn’t come back to the hotel.

Dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, I attract little attention. Most of the other Derby horses aren’t even here yet, and although Derby fever has begun, the media is not really interested in the little filly that finished a beaten second in the Florida Derby. If she keeps working in the mornings as fast as she’s been, she’ll start to be noticed a lot more. Then it will be difficult for any of us to get a moment’s peace.

I find Baby and Elmer’s stalls empty, so I know they must be over on the track. Bits and Opie are finishing up their remaining hay, and the colt glances at me warily as I slowly walk by him. I walk soundlessly by Maya and Charlie who are finishing up the morning chores. I feel both of their eyes on my back, but I ignore them.

We should send him home; nothing good is coming out of him being here. I know Dena is hesitant to put Maya up on him, she’s a good rider but not strong enough to handle him if he tries anything. She’ll probably have him sent back to the farm until he matures a little mentally.

Walking doesn’t hurt really, except for the pounding in my head and occasional chest pain. My muscles have to get used to breathing for me again, and once my head stops hurting I’ll hop up on Elmer and see how much my ribs and wrist are going to impact my riding.

I easily spot Dena’s tall form on top of Elmer as they lead Baby, being ridden by Gomez, over to the track. I’m shocked to see him on her back; I assumed Dena would have Maya take over her morning works.

Jealously burns in the pit of my stomach as the experienced jock sits calmly on the filly’s back. Baby looks uneasy, tossing her elegant head as she crab steps along the firm surface.

If I was riding her, she’d be the picture of quietness.

Shaking my head in disgust with myself, I fold my arms on top of the outside rail, wincing as the strain of the movement hurts my shoulders and ribs. I have to get used to the pain, and get used to ignoring it if I’m going to ride in the Derby.

Dena speaks with Gomez as they warm up the filly and Elmer. Honestly, he’s an incredible rider and if anyone else has to be up on Baby, I’d want it to be him. He knows her and wouldn’t do anything stupid to put her in danger.

But it’s not fair.

“What happened to you?” A voice questions from behind me and I glance back to see a tall man with almost stark-white blonde hair hidden under a baseball cap approaching the open spot on the rail next to me. I recognize him as one of the assistant trainers to the famous Empire stables, a well-respected figure in the business.

“Got crushed under a baby.” I tell him with a curt nod before turning my attention back to the still-talking Dena and Gomez.

“Ah.” He says, following my eyes as Baby springs into a slow gallop, Elmer at her side. “You’re Dena’s kid, right?”

“Yeah.” I answer, wondering if that’s still the truth.

“I’m Bob Gill, I train with Empire.” He says, holding out his hand for me to shake it. I awkwardly shake with my left hand, my right one firmly protected in the cast. “Gen Dietz.”

“You ran a hell of a race on her a few weeks ago.” Bob says, watching the filly’s movement carefully.

“She’s a good one.” I answer, noting how Baby looks just a bit off.

“She’s off today.” Bob answers, echoing my thoughts as he looks for my reaction. “What’s wrong with her?”

I shrug, gritting my teeth with pain. “I don’t know, she was fine with me before I got hurt.” Glancing back at Baby I am immediately able to see that she is fighting with Gomez, shaking her delicate head in anger. “She’s not acting like herself.”

“She better get over it.” Bob answers, giving me a slight nod as he backs away from the rail. “If she’s going in the Derby.” He adds before walking away.

I continue to watch Baby’s horrible workout, horrified when I see her turn toward Elmer to nip. That’s not her at all.

Maybe we’re pushing her too hard. She might need a break from the track for a few days. Or maybe she’s injured, something we wouldn’t even normally notice like a calcium buildup or a bruise.

Dena stops the filly and leads her and Elmer off the track, and even from a distance I can see the jock’s face is angry and upset. He is speaking quickly to Dena in Spanish, annunciating with quick gestures with his crop and hands in the air. The tall trainer just looks pissed.

Right now probably isn’t the best time to make my way back to the barn to apologize and try and convince her to let me up on the filly’s back. Dena is going to be bullshit angry after the filly’s workout and Gomez’s obvious disappointment.

I know she’s also going to be really pissed at me for what I said last night, and she should be. I won’t lie and say I’m not still angry with her, because I am. She said some really hurtful things, and I’m not sure what is bothering me more; the way she tried to just tell me what to do or the fact she thinks I could possibly do something that would endanger her filly.

But I’ve never been one to back down, and I’m not about to start. If there’s any hope for Dena and I to resolve this, I have to do it now.

Slowly I make my way back to the barn, hoping to catch Dena before Bits goes out for her morning work.

I pass Charlie, who is bathing the filly. She raises her head and whinnies shrilly as I walk pass, and I smile at her out of reflex.

“In a minute.” I call to her as I make my way into the barn. Maya is wrapping Bit’s legs in the black and yellow fleece wraps that are the colors of Dena’s farm.

Dena glances up from her chair where she is writing down training notes, briefly meets my eyes, and returns her attention back to her writing.

“Good morning.” I greet Maya softly who gives me a small smile.

“She’s ready.” The groom tells Dena who stands up and nods curtly.

“I’ll walk over with you, but she’ll be fine to go out alone.” The tall trainer orders, and Maya leads the mare out to the track.

Sighing in frustration, I follow them, understanding that Dena has made it clear she’s not speaking with me. But I’m nothing if not determined.

I decide to wait until Dena has given Maya her instructions and turned the horse and rider loose.

Continuing to ignore me, Dena stands, facing the track and sliding on her mirrored sunglasses even though day is overcast.

“Hey.” I finally say, getting up the courage to stand right next to her.

“Morning.” Dena responds, never breaking her glance from the easily-moving Bits.

“I’m sorry.” I tell her quietly.

This causes her to look at me. “You’re sorry?” She asks mockingly, a sad smile on her full lips. “What exactly are you sorry for? For biting my head off? For not respecting my wishes of what I think is best for my horse? For not even considering the fact that I had to watch the person I’ve fallen in love with be crushed by a horse and lie unconscious in the hospital?” Dena’s voice is quiet, but her pain is evident even in her controlled tone. “Or are you sorry for purposely hurting me the only way you know how?”

“I’m sorry for all of that. But you hurt me too. Do you really think I would put my own wishes before the good of the filly? Do you think I would ride if I couldn’t handle it? You gave up on me Dena, the way that everyone has always given up on me. I didn’t expect that from you.” I’m unable to control my voice as well as Dena’s, and know my voice is carrying to those who surround us.

“Wait a minute.” I ask her again, quieter now. “You’ve fallen in love with me?”

Realization of what she said suddenly fills my head and I feel like a total asshole.

“Yes.” Dena states.

“Oh.” I respond.

We stand in silence until the mare completes her work around the turf. Dena waves Maya in and when they approach, she takes a firm hold of the prancing mare’s bridle.

As they walk to the barn, Dena turns around. “You coming, Gen?” She questions, smiling at me slightly before continuing on her way.

Grinning, I follow her.

*****

“No.”

“Yes.”

“NO.” Dena states, more firmly this time.

“YES.” I argue back as I gracelessly use an overturned water pail to climb onto Elmer’s back. My torso and shoulders protest with the movements, but not to the degree as the first few days out of the hospital.

“God, you are so stubborn!” Dena argues, her hands on her hips. “The doctor said no riding until you get your cast off. You’ve only been out of the hospital a week!”

“And that’s a week too long to not be riding.” I argue back, patting Elmer’s neck with my free hand. “I’m fine, there’s not a safer horse in the world than Elmer.”

“Fine, kill yourself if that’s what you want. I give up!” The trailer shouts, throwing her hands in the air and storming away.

“You’ll be the death of her.” Charlie states as he unclips Elmer’s lead rope and pats my leg.

I grin at him and take the reins as I direct Elmer out to the track. Words can’t express how good it feels to be on horseback again. I wasn’t kidding when I told Dena it’s been too long since I’ve ridden. My head finally stopped throbbing last night and I was able to really eat and feel normal for the first time since my injury. The pain in my chest has lessened as my ribs slowly heal, and although I’m still stiff and sore, I at least feel like a human being again.

The Derby is less than two weeks away. I have to get used to riding with this blasted cast on my wrist unless I can get Charlie to help me cut it off. I’m hoping to show Dena by riding Elmer today that I’m capable of still being on a horse.

I know it’s going to hurt, and by the time the Derby rolls around I’m sure I will be fine. Besides, I’ll do whatever I can to be on the filly’s back for the big race, even if it means riding in excruciating pain.

Dena’s drastically cut back Baby’s works, and she’s only been over to the track three times this past week. Maya has ridden her each time, and although she was more settled than she was for Gomez, she still isn’t acting like her usual self.

Gomez has opted not to ride the filly for the Derby, citing her poor performance during the few times he’s ridden her since my accident as her going “track sour”.

I know for a fact she’s not sour, the vet has ruled out anything physical and Dena had her x-rayed. She’s as healthy as, well, a horse.

Foxy has the same glitch as she had for the Florida Derby. She is a filly that strives on consistency, and she’s upset I’m not riding her. Once I prove to Dena that I can ride and start exercising her again, everything will be fine.

I hope.

“Let’s go, Buddy.” I tell my tall gelding as he walks calmly over to the stretch of dirt. I spot Dena’s form against the rail, her arms crossed over her chest and her posture rigid.

At least she’s watching me.

I urge Elmer into a trot and he immediately complies. Making sure Dena is watching, I lift myself into position and rest my weight lightly on the balls of my feet in the stirrups.

Wow, better than I thought. My torso isn’t screaming in agony like I thought it would be, and I find by using my back muscles instead of my abs, I’m able to hold myself without too much pain.

My wrist is another story. While it hurts and itches like crazy, the most difficult aspect of the cast is holding the reins. My wrist can’t curve like it is supposed too and I have to grasp too much with my fingers.

For a race, that won’t do. I need full flexibility of my wrist so I avoid putting a lot of pressure directly on the horse’s mouth. Elmer doesn’t mind, because he is easy to ride.

Baby is too, but not if we get into trouble and get boxed in behind other horses. That won’t work at all.

So, the cast has to come off, and the sooner the better. I wonder if I could get an air cast that I could take off when I’m riding.

“Okay, Bud.” I tell Elmer when I’m fully confident in the saddle. Using my seat and legs I urge him into a gallop and prepare myself for his lurch into it.

So far, so good. We pass Dena for the first time and I can’t resist giving her a little wave with my cast. The trainer looks like she’s about to give me the finger in return, but merely smiles instead.

Despite our little fights, we’ve been okay. I can tell she doesn’t want to talk about our huge blowup a few days ago, so I haven’t brought it up. Instead, we’ve had little tiffs that result in one of us storming off, only to get over it a few minutes later.

It’s working for us right now, but I know we both need to get over our tempers in order to continue and further our relationship. Now that I know Dena actually loves me, I don’t want to do anything more to screw up what we have.

“Good boy.” I tell Elmer as he continues his slow gallop around the track for the second time. I look for Dena, but can’t find her now.

Weird.

After Elmer’s legs are fully stretched, I take him back to the barn so I can give him a bath. I’m surprised to find Dena waiting for me, with Bits tacked up.

“How do you feel?” She asks, her eyes genuinely concerned.

“Great. He’s a dream to ride and I don’t have any pain.” I tell her, only lying a little. My shoulders hurt a lot, probably from my bruised collarbone, and my wrist is really hurting from pulling Elmer back down to a walk.

“Good. I made arrangements with the trainer down the way to send you out on Bits over the turf. They want to do a thorough workout and break from the gate, and the mare is more than ready for that. Can you do it?” The trainer asks, and I know she was the one who probably initiated this workout as a test for me.

With the Derby only eleven days away, I know this is Dena’s way of seeing if I will be well enough to ride. If I fail, she’ll have to start looking for a jock to exercise and replace me on the filly.

“Sure. How much do you want us to win by?” I ask her, grinning with confidence I don’t feel. I haven’t ridden Bits over the turf yet and have no idea how she’ll go. She’s an easy horse to ride, but I don’t have much experience over the turf.

It’s completely different from riding on the dirt, because turf is deeper and springier, it can sometimes completely change the gait of the horse. And I don’t know right now if my wrist is strong enough to handle Bits’ customary lunge as she breaks from the gate. The mare needs a really strong hold to keep her back for the first few strides, and if I’m not careful she could clip the heels of the horses around her.

“Just don’t kill yourself or anyone else.” Dena says, putting her arm carefully around my shoulders. “Am I pushing you too hard? Can you do this?” She asks, her voice clearly concerned.

“I’m tired, and a little sore.” I tell her honestly. “But I think I can do this.”

“Thank you for being honest.” She answers. “Are you sure?”

I nod resolutely, “I’m sure.”

*****

I stifle a groan as yet another reporter pushes through the masses in the barn and heads toward Baby’s stall.

“Ms. Santoro, what do you think your chances are today?” He asks as Dena tries to keep him and the cameraman away from the filly.

Crossing her arms over her chest and dressed in a perfectly tailored linen suit, the trainer cuts an impressive figure.

“I think we’ll make history today.” She answers succinctly and the reporter hurriedly asks her another question.

“You know that no female jockey has ever won the Derby, and Winning Colors was the last filly to win the Derby in 1983. Why do you think you can break both of those streaks this year?” He continues, and I shuffle my feet behind Dena, hoping I’m not on camera.

“I have the best horse in the race and the best rider.” The trainer responds, giving the reporter a curt nod. “Thank you, no more questions.”

She turns her back on him and I follow suit. “Close that top door Gen. She’ll never get any rest. I’m going to go outside and face the media, maybe it will keep them away from her in here.” Dena glances at me. “How are you? Honestly?”

“Sore.” I admit. I’ve already galloped Baby this morning just to stretch her legs in preparation for today’s race. “I think I’ll lie down for a little while.”

“Good idea.” She says, squeezing my hand carefully. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

I shut the top door to Baby’s stall, giving her a little peace and quiet. Charlie has given her some hay to munch on, and she seems pretty unaffected by the swarms of people milling around. In fact, since I started working her in the mornings she’s been right back to her old self.

After making sure Baby is settled, I avoid the questions of people around me, all inquiring about my health and if I’m fit to ride, one audacious question inquiring if Dena bribed the stewards in order for me to be able to ride.

The irrational part of me wants to beat them all to a pulp, but instead I just laugh as I pass them, letting everyone know what I think of their bullshit. After I rode Bits to a victory in the mock-race Dena prepared and had no problems steering the complacent mare in and out of the field, the stewards easily cleared me to ride. I could have been riding for the past eleven days if I wanted to.

I enter Elmer’s stall, and find the tall bay dozing in the sun. His large ears prick as I close both stall doors, effectively shutting everyone out.

Grateful to Maya for just cleaning his stall, I sit in the thick straw and rest my back wearily against the wall.

Elmer looks at me, somewhat bewildered, and crosses over to me. After thoroughly sniffing my shoes, pants, and tickling my face with his whiskers, he resumes his nap.

“Good idea.” I tell him, closing my eyes to relieve the throbbing in both my head and wrist.

I’m exhausted. I haven’t slept well in a few nights; Dena’s presence hasn’t helped either because the tall trainer has been as restless as I.

To say we both have pre-Derby jitters is putting it lightly. Although I proved myself to her eleven days ago in Bits’ “race” she is still have second thoughts about letting me ride today. She can’t stop second guessing herself about anything, if the filly should have had one more work, if we shipped her up here too soon and over-exposed her to the track, if she should have gone in yesterday’s Kentucky Oaks instead rather than stress the filly with the media today, everything.

My opinion is that the filly had the perfect amount of work, that she is a Derby horse, and she’s the best three year old I’ve ever ridden. But Dena can’t hear it; she just keeps setting herself up for failure.

The drone of the crowd and sounds of the track become some strange lullaby as I sink into sleep.

*****

“Gen?” Dena’s low voice stirs me from my nap. I rub my eyes as I focus on her form, lit by the sun streaming in from Elmer’s window.

“It’s time.” She says, giving me a strained smile.

Jumping to my feet, my stomach immediately clenches with anticipation.

“Okay.” I respond seriously as I meet her at the closed door.

In the privacy of Elmer’s stall, the trainer wraps her arms around me. Kissing the top of my head, she murmurs, “Don’t try to be a hero, okay? Bring both of you back safely to me.”

She releases me from her embrace and plants a gentle kiss on my lips. “I love you.”

I grin at her, seeing the love evident in her bright blue eyes. “I love you too. Thank you for having faith in me.”

“Come on, jock. Hit the showers.” Charlie’s gruff voice calls from the other side of Elmer’s stall.

Dena gives me a winning smile as we head out of the stall.

Heading for the showers, I try to avoid as many reporters as I can. One however manages to trap me and shoves his microphone in my face.

“Gen Dietz, you’re riding Foxfire today, the only filly entered in this race. If you win, you have the chance to make history by winning the first Derby since 1983, and becoming the first female jockey to win the Derby. It would be the first woman-trained, owned, and ridden combination ever to exist!” He says excitedly, as if I haven’t been hearing this for the past week since it was finalized that I would be Baby’s jock.

“Really?” I ask, pretending to be completely surprised. “Well, get the history books out, cause they’ll need updating in an hour.” I tell him quickly before excusing myself and trotting up to the jock’s quarters.

As I enter, I receive wary looks from some of the male jocks and enthusiastic responses and calls of good luck from others. I’m used to such mixed reactions, some people have a hard time with women jockeys and others don’t seem to care.

“Vic, you think you’re gonna whip us all today?” The diminutive Chris Cassat calls to Gomez who entered behind me.

After turning down Dena, Gomez was hired to ride the gray Sea Storm who has put in incredible works this past week. He’s currently the second favorite to Foghorn.

“No way, we’ve got it.” Mike Dris answers mockingly, and everyone laughs at that, even me. Mike’s riding the 90-1 longshot Lightfoot who has no chance in hell of winning. We all know that.

“Nah, it’s time for the girls to take it.” I offer as I gather my silks and head for the showers.

“If you can keep her head on straight. That filly’s whacked.” Gomez answers.

I decide not to say anything, just shrug and smile enigmatically.

“How’s your hand, Gen?” Mike asks and I hold up my wrist in question. It’s wrapped lightly in a flexible air cast and tons of vetwrap and currently hurts like a bitch.

“Alright. Good thing the filly is a peach to ride.” I tell them.

We exchange a few more words of good-natured jibing and comments before separating to hit the showers.

The time it takes me to get ready seems like it takes both forever and no time at all. I am so nervous, hell, we all are. The Derby is the biggest day in racing and everyone is anxious.

Soon I’m collecting my tack and weighing in. “Dietz, 121 pounds. Good luck.” The steward tells me as I step off the scale.

I smile despite my anxiety and head over to Dena and Charlie. Charlene and some of the others from the farm drove up for the Derby and are already seated with Maya in the stands.

“Hey.” Dena greets me as she takes the saddle and begins the process of lovingly tacking up the filly.

“You okay?” Charlie asks from his position by the filly’s head.

“Scared shitless.” I answer honestly and the dark groom lets out a belly laugh that causes me to relax a little.

“Hey Baby.” I greet the filly, petting her white nose and admiring her glossy coat. “She sure looks like a Derby winner.” I mention, admiring her perfectly toned frame and elegant lines.

“Fans like her, they’re betting on her now!” Charlie responds, and I glance to the tote board. Foxy is the fourth choice in the field of fourteen, with odds at 9-5. Foghorn and Sea Storm are now almost tied for the favorite spot, with the gray getting last-minute support.

Dena had the sixth pick in the post-position draw that was held Wednesday and chose the available number two spot for the filly. That should allow me to get her out from the huge field and out near the front.

“They like the female thing.” Dena comments as she tightens the filly’s girth. “You know, girl power or whatever.” She adds and we chuckle.

“Riders up!” The call sounds and I close my eyes in reflex.

“Let’s go.” Dena tells me as she gives the filly one last loving pat. Charlie takes hold of the filly as the trainer turns to me.

“I trust you completely. Ride like the race needs to be ridden.” The trainer tells me, her hands securely on my shoulders.

“Thank you. I love you.” I tell her and the trainer beams.

She gives me a leg up and I settle on the filly’s back.

The attending rider begins leading horses by postposition, and after taking the longshot Lightfoot, it is our turn.

“Make history!” Dena calls as we are led out of the paddock.

As soon as all the horses are in line and we step out on the track, the famous “My Old Kentucky Home” begins to play.

Being here, under the famous twin spires of Churchill, on the back of a Derby horse trained by a woman I love, actually having a good chance of winning the race is almost too much for me. And when I hear the crowd of over 150,000 singing along to the famous anthem of the Derby, it is almost too much.

Tears flow freely down my cheeks, and I bet every other jock is crying too.

The announcer reads off the names of the horses entered, in order of postposition. Lightfoot, Foxfire, Wingding, Good Looking, Sea Storm, Homebred, Foghorn, SuperHero, Mickey Mouse, Ten Dollar Bill, Unbridled Wind, Hollywood Joe, MoneyPenny, and Wowzers.

Which one of these three-year-olds will make history today? The name of each Derby winner for the past 182 years are memorialized not only in history books, but in racing lore and on the wall of Churchill itself. It is a tradition almost as old as our country.

The walk to the post is something I’ve always viewed with trepidation. The warm-up always takes a long time when my nerves just beg more the race to be over.

Today, I want this moment to go on forever. People are cheering Foxy’s name as we pass by and the sheer perfectness of right now is overwhelming.

Too soon we are at the gate, and Foxy is loaded second.

I can’t believe the Derby is here, is NOW. This is it, our one chance.

Baby is so diminutive in the gate next to all the rangy colts. Can a tiny, under-raced filly, an injured girl jock, and a rogue trainer actually win the Derby?

The gates spring open and Baby eases out like fine silk. Lightfoot to my immediate left heads for the lead and I urge Baby forward to set pace just behind him.

As she settles in, I take in a little rein, hoping she’ll save enough for the stretch dual that is to come. The white-hooded head of Good Looking is off to my left, and Unbridled Wind directly to my right. Foxy is tucked between horses in the perfect position for her to make a move.

Lightfoot whips by, making incredible time. Driss seems to be urging him on, and I’m sure he’s trying to tire the field out so his stable-mate Foghorn can swoop in and go for the kill.

Both horses are trained by that ass Lewis and I would love to throw dirt in their faces as the filly wins strong.

Foxy is running easily, and I’m constantly talking to her. Her stride is strong and rhythmic under me and I am balanced perfectly on her withers.

Ten Dollar Bill’s jock is yelling to Good Looking as he edges out around the turn and almost collides with the rest of the field. Using the hole as my opportunity, I take Foxy through and give her a little more room to stretch out.

As we round the first stretch, Lightfoot starts to falter, his speed completely burnt. He starts falling behind, and Homebred followed by Wowzers eagerly move up to take the lead.

It’s been a clean race so far and I’m thankful my injuries haven’t been aggravated. The far turn is upon us and my stomach jumps as I realize that we are going to start making our move.

Foxy knows what to do before I tell her and as I give her a little rein she slides into another gear.

The two leaders make their move and begin to draw away, and though I can feel Baby’s desire to follow them, I keep her where she is.

This final quarter of a mile will tell us everything about our little filly. Is she just a sprinter like the critics say? Or does she have the ability to go the distance and win the greatest race in the world?

“And down the stretch they come!” The track announcer calls, the same as every year, and suddenly movement and yells surround me around the track. Every jock and horse are now sprinting to their utmost ability and my open hole in front suddenly closes as Mickey Mouse shoots up and closes us in.

Baby shakes her head angrily and I try to soothe her. “It’s okay, we have time.” I tell her as I desperately try to find a hole to slip through. I hope I’m right for the both of us, I have a filly filled with so much run and I’m not strong enough to keep holding her back. Already my wrist is protesting the strain of holding Baby who wants to be let out.

The gray Sea Storm moves up behind us and goes wide to avoid the pack in front. Following Gomez’s lead I steer Baby out to alongside him. I would have liked to save her the ground, but having a clear path to the wire is worth it.

As Baby and Sea Storm run side by side, slowly picking off the rest of the field, I see Foghorn moving up strongly on the inside. Knowing he and the gray are the ones to beat, I offer my voice in encouragement to Baby before letting her go full out.

Glancing at me, Gomez offers the same smile as the first time he rode away on Foxy from Foghorn and I as he gives Sea Storm the rein and lets the gray go. This time, I give him a bigger smile in return as I give Baby her head.

Baby flies as if she’s Pegasus herself. In one mighty leap she draws away from the gray and in two more leaves Foghorn in the dirt.

And then we are all alone, the twin spires of Churchill and the roar of the crowd bringing us home.

I’ve never let Baby run all the way, and the sheer force of her speed brings tears to my eyes. She’s running as if she’s playing and simply toying with the best three-year-olds in the country.

The wire looms ahead, and I look back to see Foghorn and Sea Storm five lengths behind battling for second place.

We are going to win the Kentucky Derby.

Foxy sweeps under the wire, all alone, and my whip never left my side.

A tiny filly, an injured jock, and a rogue trainer have made history.

Part 10

For a split second, the crowd goes completely quiet. Then a loud roar erupts, louder than I ever could have imagined. I pat Baby’s neck over and over, telling her what a good little filly she is and allowing her to gallop herself out.

Baby gradually slows, and for the first time I feel her muscles shaking with exhaustion. She’s completely spent from her race, as she should be. I’m equally shaking, the adrenaline of what just happened erasing all thoughts of pain.

We just won the fucking Kentucky Derby.

Glancing at the tote board, I see Sea Storm battled for second with Foghorn coming in third. Baby’s final time was 1:59 ½, only two sixteenths of a second off of Secretariat’s winning time and the second-fastest Kentucky Derby ever run.

Not only did we win, but we won in style. The reporter on horseback comes riding over as our attending rider congratulates me. I’m in too much of a state of shock to really realize what is going on. Baby prances along the track as the reporter shoves a microphone in my face.

“How does it feel to have just made history?” She questions and I wipe the dirt off of my face with my silks.

“Incredible. This is the best horse I’ve ever seen and we have the best trainer.” I tell her, my words coming out rushed and jittery.

“Did you have confidence you could win this race? You had a serious fall a few weeks ago, how did that effect you?” The reporter continues.

“I knew I had the best trainer and horse. My fall didn’t affect me at all because I have the confidence of Ms. Santoro and the talent of Foxfire.” I answer, patting Baby’s lathered neck.

“Do you think you can win the Triple Crown?” She questions and I shrug my aching shoulders in response.

“If she stays healthy and we get a good trip, anything is possible.”

“Well, you sure showed everyone today! Congratulations!” The reporter finishes before riding away.

The media is flocking around us as we arrive at the weigh-in, Charlie taking the filly’s reins as I hop down and slide her saddle off.

“You done it girls, you done it!” He tells me over and over as he strokes the sweat-covered filly. I grin at him as I step on the scale and see it register at 121 pounds.

“The winners of the Kentucky Derby, check.” The steward tells me with a smile as I step off the scale.

It’s official now, and Charlie quickly puts the saddle back on the filly. “Hop up, girl, we’re off to the winner’s circle!”

The groom leads us over, where I am easily able to recognize Dena being mobbed by reporters. When she sees us, she practically runs over, patting the weary filly’s head and neck and murmuring to her.

“You were perfect!” Dena calls to me, squeezing my leg in relief and gratitude. “I am so proud of you!”

The stewards place the familiar blanket of roses over Baby’s neck and the sudden realization of what just happened hits me. Tears start freely flowing down my face and I look up at the sky, hoping I’ve made my mother proud.

A thousand shutters snap, and everyone takes our picture.

The rest of the ceremony flies by, reporters snap pictures and Dena receives a huge trophy. I’m interviewed a thousand times, and finally Baby starts pawing at the ground in frustration.

“Okay folks, that’s enough.” Charlie tells the anxious media who are all clamoring to pat the sport’s newest hero.

I can’t even keep my head on straight, I’m exhausted and it seems like everyone is talking at once. I feel like I’m in a movie, where everyone is on fast-forward, and I’m moving in slow motion.

“Let’s go.” Dena tells me as I finally am able to hop down off of Baby’s back. The filly affectionately butts me in the head with her nose, and the force of it combined with my still-sore body is enough to send me toppling down.

But Dena catches me just in time. “We need to get you to bed.” She says, the sexy grin I’ve fallen hopelessly for firmly etched on her face.

“I’ll give everyone an interview tomorrow. Call my assistant Charlene to set up a time.” Dena commands to the media before leading the tired filly back to the barn.

Charlie takes a hold of the other side of her head as the filly puts on a good show, prancing and whinnying the entire way back.

“You’d never thought she just ran the race of her life.” The groom states proudly. He glances at me, struggling to keep up. “You two get on out of here, I’ll take care of her.” He clears his throat. “Ah, we having a celebration tonight?” Charlie asks, his grin revealing his white teeth.

“You bet your ass. I might never win the Derby again and I’m going to do it right. We’ll come back here after we rest.” Dena says, looking at me for confirmation. I nod in agreement.

“Let’s go home, I’m starving.” I tell her.

“Sounds good, I’m wiped out.” Dena states as she gives control of Baby over to her groom and puts her arm around my shoulders.

“What do you say we get out of here, grab a shower and some food, and get some rest for awhile.” She tells me and I can’t help but grin.

“I’d say that’s perfect.”

*****

Once we get back to the hotel room, I strip from my clothes and leave them in a pile on the floor. “Shower.” I tell Dena, still feeling dazed from the events of the day.

“Shower.” She agrees, stripping and joining me.

My eyes close as Dena wraps her long arms around me from behind. She kisses the back of my head and I let out a long moan of complete satisfaction.

“I can’t fucking believe it.” I tell her and she murmurs in agreement.

“Me either.” She says as she takes the washcloth and starts to gently lather my body. “You rode her perfectly.”

“You trained her perfectly.” I respond. “She was bred to win, she loves to run, and she’s easy to ride. That’s all because of you.”

“And you.” The trainer responds.

“Us.” I answer and I feel her smile against my bare skin.

“We make a pretty good team.” Dena says softly in my ear.

“Yeah.” I tell her, trying not to shiver as her breath sends delightful waves down my belly.

“There’s lots of things we are good at doing together.” She continues as she runs the washcloth over my breasts.

“Yeah.” I agree again, this time unable to stop my legs from shaking. It’s as if the excitement and stress from today combined with the sexual frustration I’ve been experiencing since my accident have suddenly combined and turned me into a psychotic-sex-deprived-raging-maniac. I need Dena and I need her now.

“Dena.” I whimper as her hand reaches around my body to cup my breast. “Let’s get out of the shower. Now.” I state and she chuckles low and deep behind me.

I barely have time to towel off before I am taking her hand and practically running toward the bed. She falls onto it, gently bringing me on top of her and my aching body lets out a sigh of relief as our naked skin meets each other for the first time in over two weeks.

“It’s been too long.” She tells me before capturing my mouth in a searing kiss. Her hands are frantic, yet careful of my still-healing and overtired body and I have to will myself to slow down as I try and touch every square inch of her body.

“I know. Let’s never fight again for that long ever.” I tell her as I grind my hips into hers.

“It was stress from the Derby. It won’t happen again.” She responds, moaning as our centers meet for the first time.

“Oh God, we can’t deprive ourselves of this again.” I answer, thrusting into her shamelessly. Her hands reach up to cup my breasts and I am mesmerized by the cobalt blue of her intense eyes.

“We won’t.” She states more firmly, rocking into me.

“I mean,” I start breathlessly, “we were both upset and we never really resolved anything. We need to have better communi..”

“Gen, shut up and fuck me.” The trainer commands and I am happy to oblige.

*****

Yawning, I roll over and wince at the fatigue still evident in my healing shoulders and ribs. I really am looking forward to the day where I can not have this stupid pain anymore.

But there’s not much to do today, horses need to be fed and exercised, but it’s a light work day. Baby needs to be jogged just to keep her loose, Elmer can jog with us, the colt will be walked by Dena and Bob, and Bits can be taken out by Maya.

An easy day for everyone. We leave for Pimlico on Tuesday after Bits runs in a turf race here at Churchill on Monday. Bob will drive the big truck up to Pennsylvania and then take the colt back home.

He needs to be turned outside for a few months, get his head on straight before we do any more with him. Dena’s talking about picking up another horse to make the ride back with him so he doesn’t get lonely.

We need Elmer here for the filly, and my own sanity. I love the big lug, and like having him around.

“Dena.” I call to the trainer, who is uncharacsterically still asleep.

“I’m awake.” She mumbles before pulling the covers over her head. I can’t help but feel a sense of pride, we ended up skipping the party at the barn and having our own little naked-in-bed party.

“Come on, time to rise and shine. Besides, you have lots of interviews you promised to give today.” I remind her and she groans from under the covers.

“Shit.”

“That’s what you get for training the best 3-year-old in the country. Lots of fame and recognition.” I add, placing a soft kiss on her buried head before stiffly getting out of bed.

“Why are you in such a good mood?” She questions as I pull on my barn clothes.

I shrug, grinning at her as she removes the covers from her tousled hair. “I had great sex last night and now I get to spend the day with you and Baby. What more could a girl want?” I ask as I button my pants. “Besides breakfast. I’m starving so hurry up, will ya?”

If looks could kill, Dena would be commiting homicide at this moment. Instead, she elegantly climbs out of bed and heads directly into the shower. “Order room service, I’m not finished with you in bed yet.” The trainer tells me, smiling saucily.

Scratch that, I can think of lots more things that a girl could want. And it looks like I’m going to get all of them.

*****

After giving countless interviews and completing our chores at the barn, Dena and I make up for skipping the celebration last night by taking everyone out for dinner and dancing.

Well, I didn’t do much dancing. I’m trying to keep my movement down to a minimum until I’m completely healed. Now that we have a valid shot to win the Triple Crown, I’m not taking any more chances until after the Belmont.

Except for riding Bits in the turf race tomorrow. The mare is bombproof and she’s long overdue for a race. I’m sure Dena could get someone else to ride her, but I rather do it.

“Let’s get the hell out of here.” The trainer suddenly whispers in my ear as she wraps her arms around my midsection. “We still have a lot of making up to do.”

I smile. “Do I need to say goodbye to everyone?”

Dena snorts. “Why, you’ll be seeing them bright and early at 6:00am.”

“Good point.” I respond as she releases me and offers her hand. Clasping it in mine, I wave to Charlene and Maya who are dancing with a very-drunk Charlie. “Everyone had a great time tonight, huh?” I tell Dena as I hop into her truck, the few drinks I’ve had making the pain from my injuries completely dissapear.

“I think so.” She answers as she drives toward the barn. “Let’s go check on everyone one more time, okay?”

“Sounds good.” Usually Charlie and Maya stay in the barn, watching over the horses. Since Baby won the Derby, Churchill Downs has provided us with incredible security so the grooms have a little more freedom, but Dena doesn’t trust anyone like she trusts her own workers. And I don’t blame her, there are a lot of creeps around.

We find the horses dozing and quiet. Dena gives each of them a few more flakes of hay to keep them content through the night.

“Thanks, guys.” We tell the burly security guards standing watchfully over our end of the barn. They give Dena a wide smile as we walk away.

That’s my girl, always turning heads. Not that I mind it, hell, I’m damn proud to be the one she’s chosen.

By the time we make it back to our room, it’s almost midnight. As I open the door, I move to switch on the light.

Dena’s warm hand closes over mine. “Don’t.” She whispers, her voice making the hair on the back of my neck stand up with excitement.

Closing her hand over mine, she silently leads me over to the bed, closing the door behind her.

“Let me show you how much you mean to me.” The trainer tells me, her hair backlit by the sliver of moonlight that snakes its way through the opening in the drapes.

“You look beautiful.” I tell her, my voice suddenly thick with emotion. There are so few things in my life that I cherish; and she is easily the most valuable to me.

“You are beautiful.” Dena responds, placing her lips to my forehead. “So beautiful. I want to wake up everyday by looking into your eyes.” She smiles, a sight so simply stunning it brings tears to my eyes. “Do you know they are the color of the most perfect turf? Eternal springtime.” She breathes, touching her nose to mine.

I know I must be blushing, I can feel the heat on my face and I look away with embarrassment.

“Gen, look at me.” Dena commands, and my eyes meet hers. “I love you so much that it consumes my every waking moment. Yesterday should have been the happiest day in my life, with or without you, and all I could think of as you crossed the finish line is how lucky I am to be sharing this with you.”

No one has ever made me feel this way, or ever could again. “I don’t even know you.” I tell her honestly. “I mean, I don’t know what your favorite color is or anything about your family.”

“Me either.” She responds, brushing her thumbs over my damp cheeks. “But I look forward to having an entire lifetime devoted to finding out all about you.”

I grin. “It sounds good to me.” The trainer’s smile echoes mine as I lean in to kiss her. She wraps her arms around me as we sink down onto the soft mattress.

*****

As Bits loads easily into the trailer, I secure the now turf stakes-winning mare’s halter before giving her a loving pat.

She ran her ass off yesterday for me and we won surprisingly easily. I am really proud of her effort, and Dena is just excited beyond belief that the once-bound-for-slaughter mare is now a stakes winner.

Shutting the door to the trailer, I double-check the latch before giving the all clear to Frank. Immediately, the man starts the big dually and allows it to creep down the driveway.

“Careful, isn’t he?” Charlene asks as she grins at me. Nodding in agreement, I link my arm with hers as we head toward Dena’s truck.

I’ve missed having the bubbly blonde around, the two of us became fast friends back at the farm and it’s been nice having her up here since the Derby.

“So, my friend, tell me all about you and my boss.” Charlene says conspiratorially as I hop into the backseat of the truck.

“What do you want to know?” I ask and she blushes, ducking her head and looking away. “Charlene!” I say in mock outrage, putting my hand over my chest in mock outrage. “You want details? She’s wonderful, perfect, sexy, gorgeous, romantic,”

“Go on.” Dena’s deep voice calls as she pokes her head in the open door. “I like what I’m hearing, don’t stop for my benefit!”

Charlene’s boisterous laughter just makes my face turn an even brighter shade of red as I try to hide it with my hands.

“Let’s get out of her ladies.” The trainer says, relieving me of my horror.

“I’ll drive.” Charlene suggests, removing a videocassette from her purse. “You guys can relax and watch this.”

“What is it?” I ask as Dena climbs in the back with me.

“I taped the Derby and all the interviews before and after for you. Thought you would enjoy it.” The blonde answers as she starts the truck and follows the waiting trailer.

“You rock.” Dena responds, tugging on a piece of Charlene’s curly hair. “Thanks a lot for doing that.”

“Yeah, well, just keep the volume turned up so I can at least hear it.” She answers as Dena slides the tape in the truck’s VCR. Grinning at me, the trainer settles back in the seat and puts her long arm around my shoulders.

“Gotta love technology.” Dena states, pressing play and flashing me a bright smile.

The picture immediately reveals the famous twin spires of Churchill, covered with thousands of people, reporters, and horses.

I watch in fascination, thinking of how as a kid I watched the Derby year after year, never thinking I’d be running in it, let alone racing in it.

The main reporter comes on, giving the current odds and probable winners. As expected, the only two horses any of the reporters are really talking about are Foghorn and Sea Storm.

“Let’s take a look at our Budweiser Longshot.” The reporter says, and suddenly Dena’s gorgeous form appears on the camera.

The voiceover shows Dena leading Baby, and then the familiar form of Gomez on her back placing second in the Florida Derby. The scene cuts to the easy race we ran before the Derby, and another shot of the filly’s fast works days before the big race.

“Foxfire hasn’t proven herself in any highly-rated stakes, but many Derby winners don’t before the first Saturday in May. Trained by Dena Santoro and ridden by a first-year professional female jockey, a lot of things will have to go right for the filly to win today. But her breeding is impeccable, her winning times have been good, and she’s clearly got speed. That makes Foxfire our Budweiser Longshot.” The reporter finishes.

I snort. “Shows what they know. Not that many things went right on Derby day, sure she broke well and fast, but we had our own traffic problems.”

Dena pats my arms. “I know, they’re all talk. If we watch the coverage before the Preakness, all we’ll here is how they all knew she’d win the Derby.”

“Exactly.” Charlene pipes in.

“Hey, it’s me!” I exclaim suddenly, pointing to myself. It’s the quick interview I gave right before going to the jockey’s room and getting dressed. “I look weird.”

“No you don’t! Look how cute you are.” The trainer exclaims, turning the volume of the TV up. “Nice interview, but you look nervous.” She adds.

“That’s because the jerk caught me right before I had to get dressed. I just wanted to get out of there!”

I quiet at the sight of Dena, dressed in her gorgeous linen white suit as the reporter shoves the microphone in her face. Charlie is in the background burnishing the filly’s coat to a bright shine as she crops at the short grass next to the barn.

“Ms. Santoro, what will have to happen to let Foxfire win today?”

Dena grins at the camera, while the Dena sitting next to me scowls at her appearance. I elbow her in the ribs. “You’re gorgeous.” I mention.

“I’m hoping she gets a good trip, and doesn’t have any traffic. All she needs is a track to run on and she’ll be unbeatable.” Dena tells the reporter who gives her a fake smile.

“How did you decide to go with Gen Dietz rather than a more successful and well-known rider? Aren’t you worried her inexperience could cost your filly the race?”

The on-screen Dena looks like she wants to rips the reporter’s head off. Instead, she gives him an even bigger grin as she answers.

“I chose the best rider for my horse. I have no doubt Gen is a better jockey than anyone else I’ve had on the filly. She knows the horse as well as I do and better so, knows exactly how to ride her.” Dena answers the reporter who gears up for his next question.

“That was really nice.” Charlene mentions.

“Yeah, it was. Thank you.” I tell the trainer softly.

She shrugs slightly. “It’s the truth.”

Snuggling into her warm form, we watch the rest of the tape with smiles firmly etched onto our faces. *****

Turning my head over my shoulder, I see the waving figure of Dena as I ride the filly out to the post.

I’m going to be severely sick. Where in the heck did these last two weeks go? I feel like it was just yesterday we arrived at Pimlico, and though the time went fast with all the press we received, it feels like the Preakness should be at least another week away.

Trying to swallow the saliva that is building in my mouth, I pat the filly’s wet neck as I post to her fluid trot. I know my attending rider is speaking to me, but I can’t think about anything else other than the race ahead.

We’ve got to win. Foxfire not only has to prove herself to those who think she’s just a Derby fluke, but win today if she has a shot at becoming the first filly Triple Crown winner in history.

Dena’s been fresh and confident these past two weeks. The filly adjusted to the track here like a dream and has been working fabulously, even better than she had at Churchill. She’s been healthy and sound and we couldn’t ask for more.

In every interview, when asked if Baby had a chance at winning the Triple Crown, Dena’s standard answer was, “Why not? We’ve already set new records, what’s one more?”

I wish I could be as confident. Not that I don’t have the utmost faith in the ability and talent of my horse. But anything can happen in a horse race, especially with all these other more-experienced jockeys that know way more tricks than I do.

We didn’t have the luck we had in the Derby and draw an inside post position. Today, we are number 11, with only two horses to the outside. This is a huge disadvantage for Baby’s front-running style. With ten other horses closer to the rail, she’ll have a lot more ground to cover and a rough bit of traffic before going to the front.

Dena advised me to try and settle her off the pace and be content to sit fifth or sixth rather than rush to the front. I’ve never ridden the filly that way and am unsure if to try it with so much at stake.

“Good luck.” The attending rider tells me as we are suddenly at the gate. All of my nerves disappear as Baby enters the gate effortlessly. She’s the best horse I’ve ever seen, nothing fazes her.

The favorite, Sea Storm, enters the number five stall. He’ll be hard to beat today, he’s been training as well as Baby and he has a better post position.

InstaHot, a horse I’ve never seen before, loads into the 10 gate and immediately starts causing trouble. He rears, almost throwing his rider, and it takes two gate attendants to get his head down.

Most of the Derby horses are here, with the exceptions of a few that have been injured or are waiting for the Belmont. There are also three new horses, including the high-strung InstaHot that are trying for the purse.

The last horse loads, and InstaHot rears again. I talk to Baby, telling her what a wonderful and gentle little filly she is and her black-tipped ears flick nervously. I know she’s unsure about the commotion, but she’s being wonderful by not freaking out herself.

I’m ready to break; knowing as soon as InstaHot comes down on four legs the gates will open. As expected, they do and Baby springs out.

Always quick on the break, Baby doesn’t disappoint. Grabbing the bit in her teeth, the filly jumps ahead of the majority of the pack. I guide her toward the rail, careful not to bump any horses charging behind us.

Clear, I settle her behind the speedy Lightfoot, who surges away to the front just like in the Derby. The two grays, Ca Ching and Sea Storm tuck in behind me and the rest of the field surrounds us.

The far turn comes and goes, and I allow the speedy leader to draw ahead. Homebred moves up to challenge him and I shake my head as the two pratically bolt away. Neither will have anything left for the stretch drive, and that’s fine with me. Two down, ten to go.

Down the far stretch I give Baby a little more rein to keep her a bit broken from the bunched pack. We’re running third right now, and that’s perfect for her. She doesn’t like when other horses are breathing down her back end, and in this spot she settles nicely and is the picture of a perfectly-poised racehorse for the stretch dual to come.

I hear yelling behind me, and I turn to look. Wingding is being severely bumped by InstaHot, and it doesn’t look like the two jocks can do anything about it, they are standing in their irons and jerking the horses away. When clear, Wingding bolts to the front and almost crashes into Baby.

Pulling slightly on her reins to get a little more control, I carefully watch the colt to my right, making sure he doesn’t bump me and injure my horse. I don’t want what happened to Chance to happen to my filly. I don’t know what I’d do.

By the time we reach the turn for home, the field has started to make their move and are gathering up around us. Lightfoot and Homebred start to stagger as if their batteries have died and Wingding drops back in the field. I see the red-hooded Sea Storm out of the corner of my eye and know he and Foghorn are back there, waiting for the filly to quit.

But she won’t.

“Piece of cake, little one.” I tell Baby as we reach the stretch for home. I will let her sprint earlier than in the Derby, this race is 3/16 of a mile shorter so I need to get the filly ahead now.

“Let’s go!” I call to her, encouraging her with my hands. Baby responds, her powerful hindquarters digging into the hard Pimlico surface. She begins to draw away from the field, but Sea Storm stays with us for a few seconds. When Baby doesn’t draw away like I would like her too, I use my crop twice and then wave it next to her eyes.

That does it, and the filly’s mind is completely on business. She bolts ahead of the gray and Once we find a clear path, I let her go by allowing the reins to slip all the way through my fingers, allowing her to run to her heart’s content. Her speed never ceases to amaze me.

I’m almost thrown backwards by the force of her sprint, and I tangle my fingers in her thick black mane for stability as she draws away from the field. My crop rests against my leg, and I doubt if I’ll have to use it again today.

“They’re cheering for you!” I shout to the filly as the crowd goes wild. There is no horse nor rider ahead of us as the wire grows closer, and I know everyone is amazed by the sheer speed of my horse.

She gallops for the sheer joy of it, and all I can do is sit and enjoy the ride. Baby is so fluid it’s as if she’s not even moving. Only the blurry forms of the white rail and colorful grandstand show she’s moving at all.

As the wire grows closer, I glance behind and almost wet my pants. We are easily 15 lengths ahead of the next horse. My filly is literally running away from the field.

“Yah!” I can’t help but cry in joy. I want to shout to everyone who’s doubted our horse or Dena, or myself and thought the filly had no class, “Look at her demolish this field!”

The noise of the crowd, their frantic cheering and the thundering of my filly’s hooves are the sweetest symphony I’ve ever heard. Baby sweeps under the wire, completely exhausted and a true champion.

*****

Slamming her cell phone in disgust, Dena lets out an unintelligible curse.

“How much this time?” I ask, studying a picture of Baby in Sports Illustrated.

“Four million.” The trainer responds, smiling slightly.

“Four million? Please, she’s worth eight times that.” I mention as I read the article covering Baby’s brilliant Preakness victory. Since we won the race a few days ago, Dena’s been getting call after call from people wanting to buy the filly, usually for an outrageously low price. But someone offered Dena 20 million for her. She hung up on them.

“It’s better than the crap some of the others have offered me for her.” Dena says as she flops down on a bail of hay in the aisle. “I mean, she’s already won over 2 million in purse money, do they really expect me to sell her for twice that? Her first foal will be worth 2 million.”

“Really?” I ask, looking up from the article that touts the filly’s victory by 12 lengths. It was actually 16 lengths, and she broke the race’s 29-year-old record by a full second, not a 1/16 like it’s reported here. This article also makes it sound like she outraced a bunch of no-class horses, not the best 3-year-old colts in the world. Retards.

“Sure, not that I’d sell her first foal or any of her foals. But I’m sure that’s what they would be valued at. Even if we lose the Belmont, no filly has won both the Derby and the Preakness. Plus, her breeding is so good that buyers would be frothing at the mouth to get some of her stock.” Dena responds as she pulls long wisps of hay from the bail.

“Who would you breed her too?” I question, always curious about Dena’s ideas. Hell, she bred the filly so she could obviously become a brilliant breeder.

Her striking blue eyes study mine. “I’m not sure yet. There are a lot of nice up-and-coming sires. Monarchos, Touch Gold, just to name a few.”

I immediately think of Monarchos, the beautiful gray stallion that held the record of having the second-fastest Derby time until we broke that three weeks ago. “He’s nice.” I mention, wondering what his and Foxy’s baby would look like.

“But I want her racing for years to come, not in the breeding shed.” Dena says, absently braiding together the pieces of hay.

“She will be.” I respond confidently. “Nothing’s going to stop us from winning the Triple Crown.”

Dena’s eyes meet mine as she stands up and offers me her hand. “Come on then, let’s go to Belmont.”

Part 11

“Two down, one to go!” A passing jock calls as his tall, almost black horse plods through the deep mud of Belmont.
I grin in return, giving him thumbs up as he carefully avoids splattering the filly and myself with the debris flying from his colt’s hooves.

I’m finding that our status has now elevated Dena, the filly, and myself to a completely higher state of respect. Just a few weeks ago, no rider would have gone that out of his way to avoid getting us dirty.

It’s kind of a nice feeling, actually.

Wiping my goggles free of the miserable driving rain that has not let up for the past five days, I continue keeping the filly at a constant slow jog. We were really hoping for some better weather to train in, but the forecast isn’t calling for any let up of the rain any time soon.

The result is a deep, dangerous, track. Most of the afternoon races have been postponed, and track officials can’t keep up with the huge amount of rain we’ve been getting.

As we pass the trainer, I notice Dena raise her arm above her head, her index finger raised. That’s my cue to go around once more, and the waving of her hand signals she would like me to ask for a little more speed.

Jiggling the reins, I offer Baby the chance to go faster. Usually she takes off and eagerly accepts any extra chance to go fast. Today, she merely maintains her slow pace and I frown.

It’s been exactly one week since the Preakness and doesn’t seem to be working well. Neither Dena nor myself can tell if it’s the crummy weather or if she is tired from the race.

Thinking back on the Preakness, I’m now second-guessing myself by wondering if I should have held the filly back from winning so commandingly and saved some energy for the Belmont. Dena seemed less than pleased with her large margin of victory until I explained that holding her back during that final furlong would have been like trying to hold back a freight train.

But I completely understand Dena’s point of view. Baby embarrassed the field, badly. And there were some great colts in that race, especially the gray Sea Storm. He’s probably one of the best colts I’ve seen in awhile, and our filly made him look no better than a claimer.

By staying with the field, we would have not only made the race look more competitive, but probably saved some of Baby’s energy for the Belmont, where the toil of the Derby and Preakness as well as the increased distance will take its effect on her the most.

Shaking my head, I slow the filly down to a walk and let her mosey around the track. We all get a lot of attention now, from racing fans who agonize over her every appearance, the constant harassment of the media, and the still-frequent phone calls regarding her status as being for sale.

Dena would never sell this filly, even if she were destitute and living on the street. She merely ignores the callers, and ignores the media paying close attention to Baby’s works.

Not that there have been many works. With the crappy condition of the track we have stuck to just jogging her slowly every morning, like usual. Dena is afraid to ask her to do any more than that really, but we are both itching to see how she covers the deep, muddy surface of this wet track.

I think Baby is tired, and the rowdy yet rainy atmosphere of Belmont isn’t helping. Maybe we should fly her to the farm for the next week and a half, and then bring her back here to prep her for the Belmont.

I’ll speak with Dena about it. It would do us all good to go home for a while, even if only to escape the press.

The filly jerks her head toward the barn, so I direct her over. Dena stands there, her arms crossed over her chest and her back turned toward the milling crowd gathered to watch the filly.

“How’d she feel?” The trainer asks, her bright eyes hidden behind her rain-spattered sunglasses.

I grin at the crowd. “Fine, she’s as sharp as she can be with this weather.”

They murmur and talk amongst themselves, a few of them snapping pictures. I smile and wave to the camera, observing Dena out of the corner of my eye as I know she is studying me from behind her mirrored lenses. I give her a small smile and a shrug and she nods in thought, as if she can read my mind.

I’m sure she can read Baby’s, the filly is practically screaming “I’m tired! Get me away from all this and back out into the sun!”

“That’s enough folks, go home and get out of the rain.” The trainer says as she leads us back to the barn. She is quiet until we are safely out of earshot.

“Florida?” Dena suddenly speaks as she takes the filly’s bridle off once we are in the barn.

I hop down, landing securely on my two feet. “Florida.” I confirm as I take off my helmet and run my hands through my unruly hair. “Have you ever flown her?”

Dena shakes her head as she turns the filly over to Charlie. “No, but she should be okay if Elmer goes. We should send Bits home too, and let Frank drive the van empty. It would save everyone time.”

“Good idea.” I tell her, looking forward to the quiet sanctuary of the farm myself. “It would do everyone good, I think.”

The trainer nods. “I’ll make the arrangements with Charlene, you fill everyone in and get them packed and ready to go. I’d like to leave as soon as possible.

“Sure.” I respond, meeting her eyes. “I think you’re making the right decision.”

Dena rewards me with a slight smile as she heads out of the barn.

*****

As the hot, heavy air lies stagnant over the small room, a soft and almost unnoticeable wind lifts the gentle curtains away from the open window. It smells of horses, oranges, and Dena’s skin and I as breathe it in greedily, I realize just how much I love it here.

It was nice to get away from the farm for the past few weeks, and I wouldn’t trade the excitement and achievement of winning the first two races of the Triple Crown for anything.

But I missed it here, and selfishly, missed having Dena and the filly to myself.

I never thought my heart would belong to this humid Florida and all that comes with it.

My ears pick up nighttime sounds, everything from my lover’s deep breathing to the far away sleepy snorts of the horses in the pastures.

It is completely relaxing, knowing everything and everyone is all right. The filly has never worked better, since coming home and enjoying the sun and warm early summer weather she’s acting like her old self. We leave in four days for Belmont, and she’s as sharp as we’d want her to be going into the final challenge.

The Belmont. Jesus H. Christ, I can’t believe we have a shot at the Triple Crown. I know I keep thinking or feeling that, but that’s the honest truth. Maybe in a few years it will hit me, and I will realize just what we have done. Even if the filly and I lose in the Belmont, we’ve still made history and broken almost every record out there.

And that is incredible in itself.

I honestly don’t know what scares me more; the thought of the filly winning the Triple Crown and everything that will come with it, or the thought losing it. I can’t bear to see the disappointment on Dena’s face if Baby fails.

Suddenly restless, I place the faintest of kisses on Dena’s forehead before creeping out of bed and pulling on my riding clothes.

It’s in the middle of the night, and as I slip out of the house unnoticed and make my way down to the barn I absorb every sound and smell available. My eyes can detect the shadowed forms of the horses dozing and grazing in the large pastures. Elmer’s tall body is visible, his long neck resting almost on the ground. He must be sound asleep, but I’m sure he won’t mind me waking him up for a late night ride.

I avoid turning the lights on in the barn, not wanting to bother or alarm anyone. Instead of tacking up, I simply grab a few lead ropes and quietly enter the tall gelding’s pasture.

Surprised, his regal yet somewhat silly-looking head raises as my boots crunch over the tall grass.

“Hey boy.” I tell him, my voice low and he snorts in response. As I clip the ropes to either side of his halter, resulting in a makeshift bit-less bridle, he lowers his head as I use the fence to climb aboard his tall back.

“Such a good boy.” Rewarding him with pats, I maneuver the gate until it opens and we are free.

His oversized ears pricked, the gentle horse makes his way around the farm, his shod hooves echoing on the gravel driveway. The bright moonlight offers a safe amount of light to walk, and we are both content just to enjoy each other’s presence and the quiet night.

“I’ve been doing some thinking.” I begin to tell my bay as he daintily walks along the driveway toward the back barns.

My legs hang down over his sides and I take his silence as an encouragement to continue. “What will happen after the Belmont? If the filly wins, Dena will be an instant celebrity. She will be able to train any horse she wants, and will easily have the funding to open a huge operation.”

A lump gathers in my throat. “I’ll just be one of a hundred jocks that she’ll need. Don’t get me wrong; she deserves every bit of fame she receives. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say the thought of her not needing me anymore scares the hell out of me.”

The rhythmic clops of the gelding’s hooves are my only response.

“Then again, I know Dena only likes to train her own horses. But I think that her hidden talent is in breeding.”

Elmer snorts, causing me to think back on what I just said. Giggling, I pat his silky neck. “Not in that way, you pervert.”

I regard the star-laden sky and can’t help but continue to giggle at myself. “Not only am I out here talking to a horse, but I actually think he can understand me. I must be as crazy as everyone always told me I was.”

“Anyway.” I continue to my quiet companion. “Maybe I’m overreacting and just being pessimistic. Dena hasn’t given me any reason to believe that things will change regardless of what happens in the Belmont.” Pausing, I imagine Dena in my room now, sleeping so soundly.

“I love her so much.” I confide to Elmer. “I just want to be with her forever. Can’t you see us opening a breeding program someday, maybe after Baby retires? Dena bred Baby, so she has talent, obviously, at matching mares with stallions and I would love to be the first one to train the babies.”

Elmer doesn’t answer. “You would be a great buddy to all those babies, teaching them how to behave and everything.” I pause once again. “I think that would be really rewarding.”

I shrug. “Just an idea, a thought to put away for the future.”

We finish the rest of our ride in silence.

After securing Elmer back in his pasture, I treat the gelding with a few carrots and loving pats. He yawns and moseys back out to the tall grass and I stifle a yawn myself.

“Guess I better get back to bed too, big guy. I’m on AM feeding duty.” I double-check the latch on his gate and start to head up to the house, eager to be back in Dena’s embrace.

I only take a few steps before second-guessing myself and turning back toward the barn.

“Might as well check on everyone while I’m awake.” I mumble to myself as I flip on one set of lights in the barn.

I am greeted by the tired, squinting eyes of the slumbering horses that are inside. Most of the horses in training spend the night in their stalls and have carefully-supervised outdoor exercise during the day. The babies, and horses not in training get to stay out all night.

Irish’s bright white blaze reflects the bright light as he pushes his nose toward me. I pat him quickly, grateful for his improving attitude and quickly look in his stall.

Moving down the line, I see that Opie is laying down in his stall, completely asleep. He’s almost a completely different horse than the one that crushed me at Churchill, and I hope the Swanson’s will trust Dena’s instinct on when the colt will be ready to return to the track. He has a lot of mental maturing to do.

The next few horses are also fine, and I cross the aisle to find a rather grumpy-looking Bits practically glaring at me.

“Sorry, sweet mare.” I tell her and she blinks before retreating to the dark corner of her stall.

Baby’s stall is empty, and I peer in, expecting to find her asleep like Opie.

“Shit!” I yell, finding the filly thrashing around in her stall, her burnished coppery coat lathered with sweat.

Colic. My mind tells me. I would know those symptoms anywhere.

I throw open the filly’s stall door and rush to her side. She is soaking wet and evidentially panicked, and I need help. Now.

My heart pounding and pulse racing I run to the intercom, pressing the alarm button that will ring in Dena’s room. Except that she’s in my room tonight.

“Fuck fuck fuck.” I berate myself as I try and remember the intercom code that will call my room. After it evades me, I ring Charlie’s.

A few seconds later, he groggily answers. “Yeah?”

“It’s Gen, I’m in the barn. Baby’s colicking and I need you down here.”

“Okay.” He responds, his voice panicked.

“And can you get Dena? She’s in my room.” I add, closing my eyes and wincing.

“Sure girl, I’ll call the vet too.” He says immediately and I run back to the filly’s stall, a lead rope in hand. I’ve got to get her up and walking before she does any serious damage.

“Come on Baby, that’s a sweet filly.” I tell her, willing my voice to stay calm. Clipping a lead rope on her halter I attempt to pull her up. The filly wearily resists standing on her feet and I fear she’s far too strong for my slight frame. Digging my feet in the dirt to gain the most leverage, I pull with all my might and the filly finally cooperates, lurching upwards unsteadily on all four feet.

“Good girl, good sweet girl.” I reward her, leading her out of her stall and outside, where the air is much cooler. She takes slow, almost staggering steps, but she’s walking and that is more important than how fast she’s moving.

I try to keep her moving, and soon see the long legs of the trainer flying toward the barn. Charlie is not far behind, but is unable to keep up with Dena’s speed.

“What happened?” She asks, reaching us and gasping for breath.

“I don’t know.” I answer, now on the verge of tears. “I took Elmer for a ride and decided to check on the barn and I found her like this. I don’t know how long she’s been down.” I tell Dena, knowing the longer the filly has been lying down, the worse her condition could be.

“Who fed tonight?” The trainer asks again as she takes the lead rope from my hands and continues to walk the filly.

Charlie, who has finally made it up to where we are, answers. “Myself and Maya. We double-checked everyone before heading up to bed and everyone was fine.

“Do you think it was the grain?” I ask Dena, who shakes her head.

“We’d have more colicking horses if it was.” She responds, her face taut with fear. “I don’t know what happened.”

Shaking my head with worry, I walk alongside the trainer’s tall form while we wait for the vet. The filly seems to be in less pain already, she has stopped the agitated swishing of her tail and isn’t sweating as much.

Horses can develop colic for many different reasons, and if left untreated, it can be fatal. Because horses are unable to regurgitate, when something upsets or causes a blockage in their stomach or intestinal linings, the stomach and intestines can become twisted, and in some cases, torn beyond repair. The horses, while trying to ease their discomfort, will begin to roll, causing the twisting to become even worse.

Colic is probably the number 1 cause of death in horses, and no one is really sure why it happens. Fermented or spoiled grain can be the cause; overeating or a sudden chill can be another.

I have no idea why Baby would colic now, I trust Charlie and Maya as much as Dena does and know that they would never do anything to hurt the filly. Additionally, tonight isn’t chilly by any means so I can’t see why this would happen to the filly.

It could just be rotten luck.

Or it could be something worse, some kind of sick sabotage.

A white van comes flying up the drive, distracting me from my sinister thoughts.

“Vet?” I ask and Dena nods grimly.

Saying a silent prayer to whoever might be listening, I ask for the filly to be all right.

I don’t know what we’ll do if she’s not.

Part 12

How in the hell did this get leaked to the press? Throwing the paper down in frustration, I storm through the barn, ignoring the surprised looks coming my way.

The filly just colicked a few nights ago, and already it’s the front page of the sports section. I didn’t think Dena was going to issue a press release, but she must have. I guess it doesn’t make any matter if the media knows; they will have a field day with the story. This means nosy reporters will bombard the barn. Great.

I stop at the paddock gate, observing the bright red filly contentedly grazing in the pasture.

She’s going to be fine, and is actually acting normal. We still have no idea what brought upon the episode of colic; the vet could find nothing wrong even after giving the filly an ultrasound. He was happy to report that we caught the episode early enough that no damage was done.

Soon after getting her up and walking, the filly eliminated and seemed to feel a lot better. If no one had found her until the morning, it might have been a different case.

I’m grateful I decided to check on the horses; though it’s surprising to me that no one else noticed the filly’s plight. Maya’s initials are on the board for the 1:00am check, but she swears the filly was fine at that time.

I took Elmer out only an hour after Maya’s late-night check, and it seems to me that the groom should have noticed something was amiss with the filly. Horses usually show some signs before going into an episode of colic, but I have to give the groom the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she saw Baby down in her stall and thought she was sleeping. Then entire thing still kind of sketches me out, to be perfectly honest. Something isn’t right.

I think Dena suspects something too, she is being extra careful now.

Needless to say, after this event, Dena has installed a 24-hour monitoring system in the barns and pastures and has monitors in her room and office. She also has decided to hire several people to act as barn security and keep a constant watch over all the horses. Until she finishes interviewing people, we have all pitched in to check the barns more often during the night.

Baby has a clean bill of health, the vet advised us to take it easy with her for a few days, so the filly has been turned outside 24-hours a day. This will keep her grazing and moving, further decreasing the risk of her colicking again.

I’ll jog her tomorrow lightly, and then we are scheduled to head back to Belmont. Dena might push back our arrival by a few days in order to give the filly as much relaxing home time possible.

The rain is slowly clearing there, but track reports still list the surface as wet. We’ll make the call after jogging Baby tomorrow. If she acts like she’s ready to go, we’ll fly her up with Elmer.

The big race is only six days away, and the thought of riding and going for the Triple Crown still makes my knees go weak. I’m just thankful the filly will be well enough to run.

We’ll go from there.

*****

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the starting gate. For me, it’s one of the most exciting parts of the race, anything can happen and it’s a completely fresh start.

Or it can be the scariest part of the race, if you get thrown, or your horse stumbles coming out.

Sometimes it’s simply a waiting game, as it is today, in what could be the biggest race of Baby’s and my life.

The Belmont. Only 12 horses in history have won this race following victories in the Derby and Preakness.

Baby’s father, the great A.P. Indy won this race.

Julie Krone, the first woman to ever win a Triple Crown race won this race riding Colonial Affair, in 1991.

I remember watching her ride, amazed at how a little girl jock could beat the boys on a long shot horse. That was the first moment I decided I wanted to be a jockey. I wanted to be Julie Krone.

Little was I to know I would be the first woman in history to win the Derby and the Preakness. It’s amazing; to look at someone I’ve idolized my entire life and realize that I’ve done the same thing.

The last horse is in and I glance to either side of me. Both Dena and myself are less than thrilled with our postposition of number 12, because it is so far on the outside and because it means Baby and I were the first to load.

In a big field of horses, like today’s Belmont that features 15 horses, all trying to stop Baby and I from winning the Triple Crown, they load horses two at a time. So the filly has had to patiently wait here while 14 other horses acted up and balked at the gate.

“And they’re off!” The announcer’s voice rings with the bell of the starting gate.

The bright chestnut Lightfoot, in the number 11 post bolts to the front, just like he did in the Derby. The filly surges after him and I let the slick leather of the reins slide through my hands. Homebred, immediately to my right, stumbles out of the gate in the sloppy track and roughly bumps Baby’s hindquarters, sending her sliding into Lightfoot.

The sudden feeling of my normally smooth-striding filly sliding through the mud makes my heat spin. I try to stick close to her neck, clinging with all of my might in order not to go down beneath the pack of steel-shod hooves.

“Whoa!” I yell to the filly as I stand almost upright in my irons and yank her head back to avoid taking the chestnut down.

Shaking her head with anger and her hooves still sliding in the mud, Baby allows me to pull her up. I glance over my shoulder, my heart fluttering with fear as Homebred’s jockey manages to pull his horse up and narrowly avoids another collision.

“Good girl, easy.” My voice remarkably stays calm as I give the filly some of the rein back. She stretches out and regains her smooth stride, but it is too late for us to get to the front. We’ve lost a ton of ground, and I know the chances of winning after such a horrible start are practically nil.

All that matters now is bringing the filly back safely. The track is obviously worse than it looks, and we have to be careful to avoid sliding horses and the deep and muddy rail position.

We trail the field, and I can feel from the filly’s urgent pace that she’d be much happier closer to the front. I can’t run the risk of tiring her out by sprinting now, we’ll have to bide our time for the stretch dual.

Rounding the first turn, I’m able to see the pace horse GlitteryGold leading the pace, and from the way he’s drawing away, he’s making incredible time. That means he’ll have nothing left for the stretch. The fast Lightfoot, who thankfully wasn’t injured in the start presses GlitteryGold, and just like in the Derby his stablemate Foghorn is poised to take the lead from both pace horses down the stretch.

It’s clever thinking by Lewis, but I’ll be damned if I let that asshole beat us. Ca-Ching and Sea Storm, the two grays, tail Foghorn followed by the tightly bunched pack of the rest of the field.

Only Homebred and my filly trail the pack. I take hold of Baby’s reins a little more, hoping she’ll settle and save herself for the stretch. Under the gentle coaxing of my voice, the filly surprisingly is calming herself down and has stopped shaking in anger about not being at the front of the pack.

Mud flying in our faces, the filly’s long black mane whips in the wind as I wipe dirt and muck from my goggles. It’s rough going out here today, and no horse looks like it’s striding effortlessly.

The start is still upsetting me, especially when I realize how easy it would have been for Baby to lose her footing and go down in the mud.

I give a quick thank you to any higher power; I don’t know if I would have had the strength in the Derby to pull Baby back because of my injuries. It’s amazing what a few weeks can do for a person’s healing; I only have a slight tinge in my chest and back right now rather than the constant pain I had a few weeks after my accident.

We round the second turn and the horses start spreading out to make their moves. Now I have to find a hole to slip Baby in, and the competitiveness of this field and quality of horses aren’t going to make it easy.

The rail. I blink quickly to see if my eyes are deceiving me. It looks like a completely clear path lies against the rail. If I can squeeze Baby through, we’ll be home free. Of course, it will be deeper and muddier than the rest of the track, but we’ll just have to take that chance.

“Yah!” I call to the filly who responds with a powerful surging of her hind legs. We slip through the hole, and I let the slick leather slip through my hands as Baby sprints up to the rest of the pack. Hollywood Joe to our right makes a move to go through the hole just as Baby and I sprint up, and I have to give the filly a little kick to get her moving so we don’t cause an accident.

We beat Hollywood Joe for the opening, and as we go through his jockey steers him behind us. At the same moment, Cassat on Foghorn close the hole in front of us, effectively trapping us in.

Fuck.

Fuck-fuck-fuckitey-fuck.

The stretch looms ahead as we round the far turn. Time and distance are not on our side, if I’m going to let Baby have a chance for the stretch dual, I need to find a path, and now.

Lightfoot is spent, and drops back in the field. Sea Storm takes the lead, followed by Ca-Ching and Ten Dollar Bill. The rest of the pack is bunched tightly around us, and the filly has nowhere to go.

I’m a complete moron. I eagerly fell for this trap, like the most ignorant jock.

“Make room!” I yell to Ten Dollar Bill’s jock, the experienced Jose Panell. He acts like he doesn’t even hear me, and with the pounding of the hooves around me he might not.

Panell’s horse is directly in front of me, and although it seems like he has room enough to run and allow us to slip through, the jock won’t take advantage of it.

I try my other option, gently encouraging the filly to move further and further out toward Hollywood Joe who is to our right. His jock holds firm and won’t move out, even when the two shoulders of the horses practically touch.

Halfway down the stretch, I can barely make out the forms of Sea Storm and CaChing as they battle Foghorn for the lead. Ten Dollar Bill is laboring, his strides in front of me becoming uneven and slow.

“Come on, quit.” I chant to the colt, knowing if he starts to drop back we should be able to squeeze through.

I need to be more aggressive or we will lose this race. The wire looms closer and I know we should have made our move a furlong ago.

“YAH!” I call to the filly as we squeeze through the tiny opening between Panell’s colt and the rail. The surprised jock glances as my tiny filly blows through the opening and overtakes the tired colt.

Swerving away from the rail to avoid Sea Storm, the filly draws even with CaChing. Foghorn is two lengths ahead, and even if my filly were fresh it would be difficult to catch him with the ever-approaching wire.

“Go Baby!” My frantic voice urges the filly as I give her full rein. She pushes neck out, unusual for her and uses all her remaining strength to overtake the large colt.

It’s not enough time. I use my whip twice, knowing we’ve run out of room. Baby is running with all of her heart and soul, but the awful start, track conditions, my mistakes, and grueling race have all contributed to the defeat of the filly in her quest for the Triple Crown.

Drawing even with Foghorn, I see the wire immediately above the colt’s head. With a final surge of energy, the filly and colt sweep under the wire together.

Standing in my irons, I frantically look at the tote board. It’s flashing photo finish, and I close my eyes briefly in defeat, knowing there is no way we could have won.

“I’m sorry.” I repeat over and over as I pat the filly’s slick neck. She ran her heart out for me, but my stupid mistakes cost her and Dena their deserved victory. Cassat glances at me from his perch on Foghorn.

“Congratulations.” He calls, defeat evident in his voice.

“I should be saying that to you.” I reply as we jog our horses together, the crowd around us screaming and cheering.

“Your filly won, by the tip of her white nose.” The jock responds, a sad grin on his face. “Never thought I’d see a filly win the Triple Crown, let alone almost take it from her.” He adds before giving Foghorn more rein and riding away.

My head whips around and find the tote board still inconclusive. Was Cassat right? Does he really think that we won or is he just saying that? It would be cruel for him to tell me that Baby and I won if we really didn’t.

But he was on the gigantic Foghorn, and able to see who won the race more clearly.

I pull off my mud-covered goggles and wipe off my face. The attending rider comes to collect the filly and me and offers me a sympathetic smile. He knows how frustrating and nerve-wracking this is and I am grateful he doesn’t try to talk to me right now.

Just when I can’t stand the suspense anymore, the crowd erupts with cheers and I look to see the tote board proclaiming number 12 as the winner.

Chapter 13

We won!” I shout, practically jumping up and down in my stirrups. “Holy shit, we won!” I slap Baby’s neck and the filly blows hard in response. She’s exhausted, and all I want to do is ease her burden by getting off of her back.

I’m in total shock. More from when I won the Derby. This is like, ‘it’s a dream, pinch me hard’ shock.

Immediately the newscaster on horseback rides up and shoves a microphone in my face.

“Gen, you’ve just won the Triple Crown! What are you thinking at this moment?” She asks, and I can only think of one thing.

“I have the best horse and best trainer anyone could want. This is unbelievable!” I answer as we ride over to weigh-in.

The rest of the ceremony is a blur; I recall being asked a thousand questions by what seemed like millions of reporters along with Dena and posing for countless pictures. I kind of remember Baby kicking out in frustration at the over-zealous crowd and lowering her head to crop at the infield grass during the trophy presentation.

I remember being interviewed while watching the incredible stretch drive and becoming choked with emotion at witnessing her run her very heart out for me just to win.

I definitely remember crying, a lot.

But most of all, I remember Dena. I remember the way the hazy sun peeked through the heavy clouds, making her raven-colored hair shine. I remember how she picked me up when we arrived in the winner’s circle and twirled me around in utter joy like I was a weightless child.

I could never forget the way she smiled at me before pulling me close to her body. Her heartbeat, frantic and irregular against my ear almost made me believe it was beating just for me. When she kissed me in front of the reporters who were busy snapping pictures, my heart just knew.

Knew that we were meant to be together forever, whatever we ended up doing.

****

Stretching, I climb out of the soft bed before carefully placing the covers around a slumbering Dena. She is so exhausted, spending every spare moment off of the track in interviews and ceremonies.

Foxfire’s Triple Crown win has seemed to boost the sport of Thoroughbred racing back into the limelight. Suddenly every main news station, magazine, and newspaper want pieces of our little story to re-write, re-hash, and extensively dissect in front of the world.

Dena doesn’t seem to mind, she actually is enjoying herself a little too much. Now she has the opportunity to speak about every controversial aspect of horse racing many in the business despise her for. She has made statements about the mistreatment of horses, trainers who run injured horses, the use of illegal substances and equipment in order to prep horses to race, and so on.

She has probably managed to offend everyone in the business in the past few weeks, and she loves it.

One thing about Dena, she is always fair. While she has spoken passionately about the negative aspects of racing, she is quick to defend the trainers and jockeys who are involved in the sport for the love of the horse, not just money.

I am proud of her. I would never have the courage to speak as freely as she does. I can’t lie and say that it doesn’t thrill and scare me to know she’s making so many more enemies that she already has.

It doesn’t help that she has been very open about our relationship to the press. Pictures of our embrace after the Belmont were on every front-page of the Sports section, along with more coverage of our relationship than the race itself. She’s been getting hate mail, I’ve been getting hate mail, and there are more dyke jokes already circulating that I even care to admit.

The filly is resting comfortably at the farm. We were worried about her after the Belmont, she ran so hard and so fast that we thought it would take her a while to really bounce back.

And it did. It was almost two weeks before she showed her old spirit again. She has been given some time off, and we plan on keeping her running until the Breeder’s Cup in October. Then she’ll get the winter off, and Dena will decide if we should retire her or bring her back for her 4-year-old career.

Everyday the farm receives pounds of mail, from interested buyers, to fans, to people offering free stud fees if we decide to breed Baby. Some of it is pretty funny, but other offers are dead serious and from owners of phenomenal stallions.

We had to hire two full-time guards for the filly; her net worth is unbelievable at this time. She’s a shoo-in for the horse of the year award, even if she doesn’t run in the Breeders’ Cup.

But to us, she’s still Baby. She still is silly under saddle, still feisty yet controlled on the track. She still annoys the crap out of Elmer and makes his life difficult at all times.

Grinning, I roll over in bed, suddenly missing my two favorite horses. Dena frowns and scoots closer to me, one long arm wrapping itself around my waist and securing me to her side.

This is a pleasant change also. Now that the press knows exactly how close the trainer and I are, she’s felt more freedom about showing everyone that we’re together. We share the same room at the farm now, and are pretty inseparable.

Not that I would ever mind. I fell in love with her so long ago that it physically pains me when she’s not around.

But a little free time is good for every couple, and absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder. So we spend a few hours a day apart, and get to have a big smoochy reunion when we meet back up.

I slip out of bed, enjoying the warm salt-scented air and stretch my muscles, tired and lazy from a weeks worth of rest.

It takes me minutes to quickly use the bathroom and put on clean riding clothes. I run my fingers through sleep-tousled hair, knowing that it doesn’t matter how messy it looks because it will soon be hidden under my helmet.

Putting on sun block and ChapStick, my preparations are almost complete, save for one very important detail.

“I’ll be back in a while.” I whisper to the trainer before planting a quick kiss on her full lips. She nods sleepily in response, never once opening her eyes. I give her a fond smile before pulling on my boots and heading downstairs.

Making a loud clopping sound on the hotel’s honed marble floors, I head out of the lobby and down to the stables. I roll my eyes as several members of the paparazzi trail me, and when I reach my destination I turn and give them a wave. I’m almost used to it by now, but it seems pretty silly to me that anyone is interested in the fact that on the eighth day of our vacation I’m going down to the stables to ride at 6:00 am.

After enduring over a month of constant hounding by the press at the farm, Dena suggested a vacation. We both knew it would just be a matter of time before the interest in Foxfire and us waned, and were hoping no one would care enough to follow us to Hawaii.

No such luck. But we just ignore them, for the most part, and are having a wonderful vacation. Dena has been sleeping late, and I head for the stables. By the time we meet up with each other for breakfast we are more than ready to make plans for the day.

We have done everything from parasailing to windsurfing, and today are going deep-sea fishing. It’s been a wonderful time away for just the two of us.

“Hello.” I greet the native islander girl softly and she blushes in response. The hotel has a wonderful staff and pleasant riding facility and they have been very accommodating to both Dena and myself. We basically are allowed to ride anytime we want and go as we please. The trails are beautiful and scenic and the perfect way for me to slowly clear my head in the morning.

“Good morning.” She answers, her eyes looking down. Her name is Jessie, and she has definitely been the shyest of the girls here. I’ve seen her ride and she’s a natural, always kind and soft with the horses. She works here on the weekends to save up enough money to get her very own horse and every time I’m here so is she. All of the workers in the barn are horse-crazy teenage girls, much like myself at that age. We have been signing autographs for them and all of their friends this past week, and Kali, the head mistress of the stable has told us the girls are thrilled that people of our prowess are riding their simple horses.

That made me smile; there are no simple horses. All of them are special in their own way.

“I’ll take Luna out today.” I tell her and she beams in approval. I know she has a soft spot in particular for the big mare.

“She’s my favorite.” She answers and I nod at her, grinning.

“Mine too.” I tell the girl, her dark eyes lighting up in approval.

Taking Luna’s tack, I quickly brush the tall mare before saddling her. When we first arrived at the hotel and toured the stables, the black and white horse immediately caught my attention. She’s a tall mare, probably mixed with some draft horse, with flowing white feathers around her legs and a perfect crescent-moon shape on her forehead. Luna is a gorgeous mare, headstrong and spirited with nice gaits.

After warming her up quickly in the small ring, I head for the trails. My feet are relaxed in the comfortable Western stirrups as Luna and I head uphill. I don’t miss Jessie’s expression as I wave goodbye to her, dark eyes filled with longing and respect as she watches Luna and I fade into the sunrise.

I’ll talk to Dena about seeing what we can do for Jessie. Obviously she would love to have Luna as her own, and I think the horse and rider would make a nice combination. She would love the mare and take very good care of her.

Turning my attention to the trail ahead, I watch the sun rise above the clouds and the beauty that surrounds me overwhelms me.

I never thought I’d be here vacationing in Hawaii, as my beautiful lover peacefully sleeps.

Life sure is different after winning the Triple Crown. In fact, things that really used to bother me don’t seem so bad anymore.

Every time I get frustrated with myself for making a mistake in a work or race and end up not placing on a mount, I just remind myself that we won the Triple Crown.

Or other, more important things; like past memories of being told I would never amount to anything, or every smug trainer that said I wasn’t good enough to be a jock don’t seem to be as big of a deal now.

Not that it can ever truly heal past hurts, but it does help.

So does the money.

Besides the hefty $5 million Visa Triple Crown bonus Dena received for Foxfire’s accomplishment, we are making enough in interviews and public appearances to last us a lifetime. Dena is putting all her money away for the future, she says.

She wants to build a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, and buy more horses. She wants to give Charlene her own string of horses to train and hire more jocks, good young riders who ride because they love horses, rather than just to win.

Most importantly, Dena wants to house a Thoroughbred rescue that takes in mounts bound for slaughter to give them a second chance and find them good homes. She wants me to head up the program and help train the horses for use in regular homes.

To me, it sounds perfect. For once in my life, I am looking forward to the future.

As we reach the ascent of the hill, I find myself on horseback looking out over the Pacific. The view never ceases to amaze me.

Luna waits patiently as I try to take in every detail, committing this morning to memory. Funny how the more good memories I have, the less room the bad ones take up.

 

 

The End!

Here’s a bonus story The Christmas Foal

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