BY WILLIAM FALO
Copyright is held by the author.
PHOEBE LIFTED up the binoculars when the track announcer’s voice came over the speaker.
“Down the stretch they come,” he announced, but the placement of the horses was drowned out by static. The track never replaced the sound system despite many complaints. She looked for Radical.
“No.” She yelled causing the man next to her to spill some beer when he jerked away from her.
Radical was on the inside of the track hugging the rail. The mud was deep there since it’s been raining the last two days. He held the lead, but was being pressed by number six. The jockey on Radical waved the whip in front of the horse’s eyes, but number six took the lead from the outside. The jockey on Radical began to use the whip.
“Stop it.” Phoebe ran toward the railing.
She reached the railing just as Radical stumbled and veered toward the outside just missing the other horses. Phoebe hopped the railing and ran to the horse.
“He hates the whip.” She glared at the jockey. She knew his name was Dustin and that once he won big stakes races, but he got hurt and now he’s spiraled downward until he ended up here. Rumors of drug use followed him after the fall.
“Talk to me when you’re a real jockey.”
“The rail was deep mud. You should have known that.”
“The rail was the only way that horse could win. A real jockey would know that.”
“You were good once. What happened to you?” She stepped backwards.
He stopped and clenched his fists. After a minute, he left without looking back.
She rubbed Radical’s neck while looking at the foot she held up. The memory of the day he arrived came back to her. He was wild, he lived up to his name, but Phoebe talked to him every day and stayed overnight in the stable whenever it rained. He went crazy during thunderstorms.
“Damn him and his whip.” She gritted her teeth.
She led Radical back to the stable and waited for the veterinarian then sent an email to the owner. The reply from the owner came back almost instantly. If Radical can’t race, he was selling him. She knew he meant the slaughterhouse. This was not Churchill Downs and Kentucky Derby horses. A win or disappear attitude permeated the place.
“It’s not broken, but he needs to rest it. No racing for six weeks.” The veterinarian said.
“But the owner will never let him have six weeks off. He will euthanize him.”
“If I can ride him tomorrow around the track just once and send the owner a picture it
will give me time.”
“I don’t recommend that. That foot needs to rest.”
She shut the stable door behind him.
Lightning flashed in the distance. Radical neighed and stomped on the ground. He slammed against the boards.
“Don’t worry.” Phoebe held his neck against her shoulder until he calmed down.
The stable was often an escape for her except the time a male jockey attempted to assault her. She stabbed him and got suspended for three months and was forced to remain an exercise rider for another six months while he went on to race again at another track. She curled up on an air mattress near Radical and sobbed until she fell asleep.
The morning sky looked clear and other horses were already on the track. She took Radical out and smiled when she noticed he wasn’t limping. Maybe miracles do happen.
In the saddle, she took it slow and all seemed well. She could tell the owner everything is
okay with the horse. When she came around the final turn, she saw Dustin by the finish line.
She encouraged Radical to pick up speed. The horse responded and they moved to the outside of the track where it was dry. Dustin watched her.
Radical stumbled and Phoebe flew over him and hit the ground. She tasted dirt in her mouth and searing pain shot through her before she blacked out.
After being released from the hospital with orders not to ride, Phoebe sat on in the back of the trailer with Radical’s body. She read online that 23 horses have died at a big track in California since December. She hoped Radical would join them in heaven. There was no happy ending. It was her fault even though the owner already planned to sell him to the slaughterhouse before her dangerous ride. That didn’t help. She walked away with her head down then mounted a different horse.
“Isn’t it dangerous for you to be riding?” Dustin said when his horse caught up to her.
“I live for danger,” she didn’t laugh. She read about him and his battle with drugs after a serious injury from a fall.
“It wasn’t your fault.” He rode alongside her.
“It was my fault, but yours too. It’s this damn track and the win at all cost attitude.”
She encouraged the horse to go faster.
“Hey look,” he yelled out.
She looked back.
Dustin held out his empty hands. “No whip,” he said.
“Yeah, until the next race. I’m not stupid.”
She rode away shaking her head as lightning flashed in the distance. The thought of Radical made her slow down and look toward the trailer driving away. Tears fell down her cheeks. This track and thousands like it chewed up horses and riders, but she stayed here hoping for a long shot to finally win.