She noticed the sudden chill in the air and the darkening of the skies as the sun disappeared behind the clouds. She had been standing there for ten minutes, trying to force her unwilling legs to move. The hollowness she had felt for the last few weeks had engulfed her as she made her way to the course, and as she stood in front of the gates it threatened to overcome her. The drops of rain that began to fall were a signal she couldn’t ignore, reminding her of promises made. She looked to the sky, smiled to herself, tightened her scarf, pulled her hat down on her head and strode up to the turnstiles.
Once inside, she found herself in familiar territory, among a vast crowd of people in a place where she had always felt that she belonged. It was different this time though. She felt anchorless and lost in the sea of people. The excited chatter of the crowd had always intensified her own anticipation but now it made her feel isolated. The hollowness almost overwhelmed her again. She hadn’t wanted to come but he had made her promise that she would go, even if he couldn’t. It was a promise that she couldn’t break. She didn’t have to go alone but she wanted to. It wouldn’t have been right to bring someone else in his place.
The annual trip had always felt like a pilgrimage to her. Horses had been her passion for as long as she could remember and her dreams were all of the glory that could be found in this place. He had encouraged and supported her in every way he could. So every year they went to honour their heroes and renew their promise that one day they would visit the hallowed turf of the winners’ enclosure. More than that, it was a chance for them to reconnect the ties that had been loosened as she had grown up and they had grown apart. No matter what else happened in their lives, they had this place to renew their bond. This time, more than ever, that sense of pilgrimage was apt. She had come to honour him.
Everywhere she turned she was reminded of him. The women selling racecards with whom he always shared a joke. The sign under which they would arrange to meet, in case one of them got lost. It was usually he who got lost because he would bump into someone he knew and lose track of time. The chip van where he always bought the same meal for them - sausages, chips and coffee. The spot at the top end of the parade ring where they stood to inspect the horses and pick the one who would carry their money. The memories kept flooding back. Memories of races run, beloved horses, bets won and lost and heroic feats on the track. The memories comforted her. She knew that she would never be alone here.
She made her way to the parade ring and took up her usual position. The horses for the first race were just starting to file in and the steps were quickly filling up around her. She took the racecard from her pocket and scanned it for information. She watched intently as the horses circled in front of her and the jockeys received their last minute instructions. There was no one to debate the merits of her selection with but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t betting in this one. She was waiting. The bell sounded and the crowds began pushing towards the betting ring and the stands but she didn’t move. She remained by the railing at the top of the parade ring and watched the race unfold on the giant screen at the other end of the ring. Three more races passed by in the same way before she found what she had been looking for.
She was looking through the entries for the fifth race when the name leaped off the page at her. This was the one she had been waiting for. She put her hand in her pocket and felt the thick envelope which he had given her and remembered his instructions about what to do with it. She turned around and pushed her way through the crowds towards the betting ring. She scanned the bookies’ boards, looking for the best value, just as he had taught her. She saw one bookie offering odds of 14/1 and hurried over before it was snapped up by punters desperate to recover their losses. The realisation of what she was about to do dawned on her as she took the envelope out of her pocket. It was filled with sterling that he had bought in anticipation of a trip he didn’t make. Her hands trembled and her voice faltered as she placed his last bet. She put the betting slip into her pocket and turned toward the spot in the grandstand where he would wait for her while she placed their bets. He wasn’t there to guide her this time but she knew exactly how to find the place - fifteen steps up and directly across from the winning post. He had always said it was the best vantage point.
She fought her way, through the throngs of people, to their spot just in time to see the tapes rise. Her eyes sought out the green and yellow silks that carried his final bet and, once she found them, her gaze never left them. She watched silently as his chosen horse hunted round in mid-division. As they rounded the home turn, the roar of the crowd got louder and louder as the horses climbed higher and higher up that famous hill, until it reached a crescendo as they approached the final fence. Those green and yellow silks were among the leaders and she was taken aback to hear her own voice join with the thousands around her exhorting their horses and jockeys to give their all for victory. She shouted until there was no more breath left in her lungs and her voice had dissolved into a whisper. When the green and yellow silks crossed the line in front, she turned to where he should have been to hug him, but a stranger stood there instead. She couldn’t fight back the tears any longer but it was a relief to feel them flowing down her face.
Everything around her was a blur as she climbed back down the steps towards the betting ring to collect his winnings. She could just about make out the bookies’ yellow umbrella and she fumbled in her pocket for the slip. Her body shook as she collected his winnings. She had never seen so much money before. His last bet had been his biggest. She looked to the skies as the rain began to fall. She smiled through her tears as she remembered the promise he had kept and the one she had still to keep.