The ancient loudspeaker crackled back into life. “And three furlongs to go, Silver’s flying past Magician on the inside. Oh, this filly’s really been on top form this season. And to knock the winning streak of.. Wait, what? She’s back! We thought she’d finally lost one, but Pistachio is rallying.. She’s come between Sundance and Magician.. She’s moving on to challenge Silver and, yes, she’s headed her! Pistachio wins in a thrilling renewal of the Jersey Cup for a third year in a row! And how easy she made it look.”
This was when racing got boring. The same jockey, winning the same race, on the same horse, and the same overly jolly pin-striped cherry-faced owner barging his way into the winner’s enclosure. He’d cheerfully slap the horse round the face, waving it off gleefully before hoisting the trophy, the seams of his jacket straining to contain him. Alice watched these owners, time after time, carefully, observantly. She resented their monopoly of the island races, but knew she couldn’t ever live without them.
Alice occasionally got irritated. This was such an occasion. Watching the rotund owner squeeze his way into the winner’s enclosure to collect his prize, the thought drifted through her head that he’d had one pistachio too many. One does often hear about their surprising energy content. The damn horse is probably fed them.
Alice had spent a lifetime at the track, watching race after race, marvelling at those wonder horses, the ones which never lost. It had taken getting older, getting cynical, to see the distinction between the winners and the losers. Horses like hers never won. Horses like Pistachio always won. Owners like her never won. Owners like Mr. Jolly Pin-Striped Cherry-Face always won. A horse in the stamp of many of her own, Magician, had its three seconds of fame for simply being the horse past which Pistachio had agilely nipped to steal the Jersey Cup for a third year running. And it was stealing. When the winning horses were fed golden oats and hand-picked hay, those horses on simple mix and hill grass could not begin to pry the greedy fingers of the winning owners off the coveted trophies of Jersey.
Alice’s horses grazed the scratchy stubble that graced the fields around Old Beech Farm. The farm had been Alice’s father’s before her, and his mother’s before that. They had always kept horses, never making a living from them, but rather from putting the family silver on those that they ran against. Alice grew up with the pennies rolling in, sporadically, from the trackside, and the penny jar rapidly emptying again as the next ‘great new prospect’ trotted into the barn. Her father never ceased to find great joy from training truly mediocre horses, cheering them on full-heartedly at the track, whilst knowing that to keep them in his barn he had to simultaneously pray that their competitors would win.
Alice had inadvertently slid into the same pattern. She bet as voraciously as any hardened gambler, and it kept the roof over her head and the milk in the fridge. She’d trained a spattering of half-decent horses, but felt obliged to sell them upon any respectable performance. But then Cloud came along. This finicky colt had finally brightened the sky above Old Beech Farm. Alice was there on his birth day, watched him kick the heaving broodmare playfully in the head and skittle across the stable hours before he should have been able to stand. A day later she saw him nip under the rope across his door and scamper through the yard, his little legs dancing beneath him. Two years later, she watched him ridden out each morning, and saw him run like lightning, leaving any other horses in the nether. She’d welcome him when he came in from work, his little mouse-brown ears a-wagging, and hand him his favourite packet of mints, settle him in his freshly laid oat-straw bed. My was he pernickety, but he knew his job, and he did it well.
The day came for his first race. Alice lined up at the bookies’ ring, carefully placing her usual bets. “Four hundred on Walnut to win.” The predictable favourite. The full brother of the miracle filly Pistachio, and neither had lost yet. “Two-fifty on Black Knight each way.” A young one, but one Alice saw having the speed for the day’s sole five furlong sprint. She paused, and suddenly was inspired to throw years of precedent out the window. “One-fifty on Cloud.” The snide young bookie chuckled. “Ain’t much point putting your money on Old Beech horses. I hear the old madam won’t even bet on her own nags.”
Leaving the squawking punters behind, Alice hobbled over to the one furlong marker, where she, her father before her and his mother before that, had always stood. Storm clouds gathered overhead. She watched the young horses jostling in their stalls, saw the battered stalls handlers struggling to load them, and took in the greenish colour rising in a jockey’s face hovering over a familiar pair of mouse-brown ears. She thought of every of her horses she’d ever watched, watched lose and lose again. She thought of every race she’d secretly prayed for any other horse than her own to finish first. She despised herself for always relying on some other ‘wonder’ horse to win, some other self-important jockey, some other loud and well-heeled owner.
Finally, the gates snapped open, and the crowd’s roar mingled with the sound of thundering hooves. But this cacophony of noise was completely unregistered by Alice. She watched, in slow motion, the ripple of a field of horse flesh whip down the track towards her. She saw a small black, regal looking horse pull ahead, saw its eyes bright with adrenaline, veins bulging, nose flared with exertion, and then saw it fall behind, seconds after its momentary lead. Soon, on the right, came the notorious Walnut. The gleaming colt was flying through the field, jockey’s whip thrashing wildly in the lashing rain. Behind Alice, in the owner’s stand, a bulging figure grasping the stem of a glass of cheap wine suddenly started gesturing wildly. The unthinkable was happening. Walnut, cutting through the field, had caught its precious legs around those of the second favourite, bringing both brilliant beasts crashing to the ground. And over their flailing bodies flew the spindly mouse-brown legs of a certain opinionated little colt. Never having jumped in his life, Cloud came from nowhere, leapt like a stag, and, returning to earth, pelted over the remaining distance to shoot triumphantly across the finish.
This was when racing got good again. The nauseous young jockey, won a new race, on a cocky little mouse-brown horse, and a quivering old woman, drowning in a soaked through wax jacket, tentatively took her rightful place in the winner’s enclosure. She affectionately rubbed the small horse between the eyes, and accepted her nominal prize with a grace not known to many. Leading the naughty colt from the enclosure, a shaking smile spread across her cracked old face, and then quickly disappeared. Cloud had come through, and the tears raining down her face told the story in one.