Saturday, April 10
“Sid, honey, be a darlin’ and hand me a hanky, would you?”
Sid starred at the tote board in the middle of the infield, oblivious to the request from his wife.
“Sid? Did you hear me?”
He continued to stare in a semi-hypnotic state as the odds on the seventh race flickered and changed before his eyes.
“Are you fuckin’ deaf, Sidney? Give me a damn hanky!”
He flinched. “Sorry, tootsie.” He reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and handed her his handkerchief, never taking his eyes off of the board.
As Sid studied the board, the post parade filtered its way toward the starting gate. When the last colt in the twelve-horse field stepped into the starting gate for the running of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack, Sid tore his attention from the tote board and picked up the field glasses that were hanging around his neck. He focused on the gate as Bunny was busy using his handkerchief to clean the lenses of her pearl opera glasses. She struggled with the focus, repeatedly looking through the lenses and readjusting them while some of the best three-year-old colts in the country waited for the piercing ring of the starting bell.
There was a moment of silent anticipation in the grandstand while the starter made the last visual sweep of the lineup. Satisfied that every horse was on its feet, he pressed the button that set off an explosion of metal against metal, and all twelve young thoroughbreds launched out of the gate as the crowd roared and the track announcer declared, “And they’re off!”
Sid and Bunny’s horse, Savant, broke with ease from the sixth position and slipped into a comfortable spot just behind the three speed horses which had immediately closed in on the rail as they headed into the first turn.
Bunny fussed with her opera glasses until the horses were roaring out of the first turn. “Fuckin’ things are useless,” she said and jammed them into her bag. She jumped up on a concrete bumper that kept spectators from leaning over the rail, using Sid’s shoulder to steady herself. “Where is he, honey? Where’s our horse?”
Sid didn’t respond.
“Sidney Blackstone, answer me!”
Sid shrugged her weight off of his shoulder. “He’s fifth … I think.”
Standing in silence next to the Blackstones near the finish line, with binoculars planted over their eyes, were Savant’s trainer, Jack Ramsden, and his groom, Nate Washington. Forty years in the racing game hadn’t tempered Jack’s race-day nerves in the slightest way. He had chosen Savant’s races carefully, building his confidence and experience with each race. If he ran well today and remained sound, the next stop would be the Kentucky Derby in four weeks. Attention from the press was increasing as the graceful mahogany bay colt progressed through his pre-Derby races, winning two graded stakes races comfortably. Today Jack had moved Savant up to his first Grade I race.
The track was fast and so was the pace, with the first half mile run in 45.99 seconds. Savant was still moving effortlessly, holding his place behind the three leaders. The rest of the field was adjusting their positions, each seeking their best spot to run the mile and an eighth race.
Jack and Nate hadn’t moved their feet since the horses left the gate. They followed the pack with their bodies, slowly rotating to the left as Savant moved into the second turn. In unison, they lowered their binoculars for a moment and looked at each other. Without a word passing between them, they resumed their position while Bunny screamed, “Savant! God damn look at that Savant!” Sid was pumping his knees in rhythm to the strides of the horses, as if that would help his colt move faster.
Moving into the final turn, an opening appeared in front of Savant as the three leaders began to fall back. Savant’s jockey, Donnie McKay, reached forward and gently brushed Savant’s neck with the whip. The big colt responded and began consuming ground, with each stride becoming longer and more graceful than the last. The jockey eased his hands forward slightly as he glanced to the left and then to the right to be sure that no one was too close. He guided Savant through the turn, and when he entered the stretch, the track announcer blared, “And down the stretch they come!”
(Chapter 1, part 2, and Chapter 2)
One last time, Donnie glanced under his right arm at the eleven horses behind him. In a matter of seconds, Savant had opened an eight-length lead and was still gaining speed heading to the wire. As they approached the grandstand, the crowd roared as his lead opened to twelve lengths, then fourteen, and as he passed under the wire, eighteen full lengths from the field. Donnie stood in his stirrups only briefly, waving his whip at the crowd. Then he collapsed onto the colt’s neck, hugging and patting him as he eased Savant back into a gallop. Savant covered a mile and an eighth in a blazing 1:47 flat, equaling the track record set by the great Riva Ridge in 1973.
When Savant passed in front of Jack and Nate at the finish line, both men threw their field glasses into the air without regard to who they might injure on the way back to earth. Jack hollered at the top of his lungs, “He did it! He did it! Holy shit, he did it!” as he danced circles around Nate.
At five feet eight inches and a mere one hundred and fifty pounds, Jack looked like a Munchkin next to Nate’s massive six-foot-four frame. They were opposites in every way, right down to their skin color. Jack’s was weathered tan, against a shock of silver hair, and he always sported a baseball cap. Nate’s skin was chocolate, reflecting his African American heritage. His hair was close-cropped under an old straw cowboy hat, which he wore like a faithful old friend. As Jack danced, Nate laughed until tears filled his eyes while they alternately slapped each other on the back and threw high-fives to everyone standing within ten feet of the scene.
While Jack and Nate celebrated, Sid stood stationary with his field glasses in hand, his face frozen in an expression of shock. Bunny was still screaming in deafening decibels, “Shit, shit, shit, did you see that big son of a bitch run!” Cascading tears sent black mascara running under both of her eyes, leaving gray trails streaming down her cheeks, transforming her otherwise pretty face into something that looked like a cross between Tammy Faye Baker and Alice Cooper.
Jack bounced over to Sid and offered his hand.
“Congratulations, Sid! You’ve got a real superstar!”
“Thanks, Jack. Thanks so much for bringing him up to this race. Y’all did a real good job.”
Sid was as wide as he was tall and caught in a fashion time warp. His closet consisted of ill-fitting pastel leisure suits worn with high-heeled cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, and completed with a gaudy Rolex watch. Bunny was a near miss as a trophy wife, but as close as Sid could get. He paraded her at social events more like an accessory to his wardrobe than his wife of fifteen years.
They were rich rednecks, and no matter how much the blue bloods of the racing world disdained the thought, they now owned the favorite going into the Kentucky Derby.
Sunday, April 11
Late on Sunday night, Nate lay snoring on his cot while Jack’s German Shepherd, Harley, lay by the door of the tack room, his chin resting on his front paws with one ear moving like an antenna searching for a signal.
Savant’s home in Jack’s barn was at The Training Center in Lexington. He lived in a large box stall next to Jack’s tack room, where he was in a deep slumber, tired from his race and the return trip from New York.
“This won’t be hard,” a voice whispered, breaking the stillness of the night.
“Nah. This is easy money … easy money.”
“Shhhhhhh! Keep your voice down.”
“Don’t gimme sorry, you moron; just keep it down.”
At the sound of the voices, Harley’s head popped up and he issued a warning growl.
“See what’cha done?”
“Let’s get out’a here, man. I don’t wanna get eat up by no damn dog.”
They disappeared through the open side door and into the dark night just as Nate pushed the tack room door open and stepped out into the barn aisle. He looked in on Savant while Harley dropped his nose to the ground and sniffed around in front of the horse’s stall.
Nate yawned and glanced around the barn.
“Come on Harley. It’s late. Let’s get some sleep.”
The big dog hesitated, his attention riveted on the open side door. Nate walked to the doorway, and the dog followed, sitting next to him. Harley was very still, focused into the darkness with his ears perked.
“What is it, buddy? Is someone out there?”
He whined and looked up at Nate, sweeping the ground with his tail while he nudged Nate’s hand.
“Are you scamming me for dog cookies again?”
Harley whined and licked Nate’s hand. Nate looked out into the inky darkness again. All he could hear was the sound of the breeze and an occasional car passing on Russell Cave Road.
“It’s probably just that old raccoon that’s been hanging around here for the last couple of weeks. Come on. Let’s go back to bed before we wake the bird and all hell breaks loose.”
Nate started back toward the tack room with Harley at his heels. The dog hesitated in front of Savant’s stall for a few seconds, sniffing the air.
“Harley, for crying out loud, would you get in here?”
Finally the dog dropped his head and ducked into the tack room door.
Friday, April 16
I thought life was supposed to get easier after forty. Katy dragged herself to her car. She spent her workweek at Bluegrass Equine Insurance, mediating everything from petty office politics to full-blown power plays. By five o’clock on Friday afternoon, her usual calm demeanor and trademark sense of humor had all but deserted her and she was questioning the wisdom of accepting the promotion that was responsible for taking her away from real work and turning her into a dime store version of Dr. Phil. Right now all she cared about was getting home.
It was spring in Kentucky and Triple Crown fever was in full swing. The air was fragrant with the scent of fresh cut grass and blossoming dogwood trees. Today Mother Nature was giving Lexington a preview of summer, with temperatures hovering around ninety degrees.
Katy drove through the university district with the windows down in her Toyota, fidgeting with the air-conditioning, which was making a half-hearted attempt at keeping her cool. Great, what next? As she crept along through rush hour traffic, the smell of exhaust from an old junker idling along in front of her was making her queasy.
In the five years that she lived in Lexington, the university district had changed significantly. Dilapidated old buildings transformed themselves to house a variety of unique businesses, small ethnic restaurants, bookstores, galleries, and salons that specialized in primary hair colors and body piercings. While she sat in gridlock traffic, she considered the paradox between the college influence and the stately brick homes that lined the perimeter of the area. To her, it produced a comfortable atmosphere, an odd combination of the traditional and the unorthodox, much like her own personality.
Katy scanned through radio stations, searching for music to soothe her nerves while waiting for the traffic signal to change; but what drew most of her attention was a late-model silver SL500 convertible that had been tailgating her for several blocks. The driver fit her definition of a Mercedes sports coupe owner: gray hair, Hollywood tan, dark glasses, and a cell phone permanently glued to his ear. She had him pegged as one of those aging trust-funders from up east who kept a residence in Lexington and played with race horses and fancy blondes during the race meets at Keeneland. At the moment, she didn’t care if this jerk was the pope; she just wanted him to back off.
Finally the light changed, but her attention was still on the man in her rearview mirror. He tapped his horn. Startled by the sound, she gunned the engine, lurching into the intersection to make a left turn against an oncoming car that was also signaling to turn left. Suddenly from behind the oncoming car, she spotted a large black pickup truck heading directly toward her. She slammed on her breaks and simultaneously the silver Mercedes buried itself under her back bumper.
Traffic came to a standstill. Immediately, adrenaline flooded her system, and without concern for her own well-being she threw open the door, catapulted out of the car, and stormed up to the man who was already observing the damage to their merged cars. Though the din of running motors and the hissing steam from the Mercedes’ damaged radiator, she began unloading the frustrations of her week.
“You jackass! Look what you’ve done to my car!”
She thought she detected the tiniest hint of a grin.
“So you find this amusing?” Without pausing for an answer, she continued shouting. “You idiot! Tell me, are you blind or just stupid? I hope you enjoyed your phone conversation because your chit chat just tied us both up with insurance companies, police reports, and a whole load of other shit that frankly I don’t have time for!”
She was purple with anger, waving her arms wildly, about to question his pedigree when he calmly reached up and removed his sunglasses.
The familiarity of his voice halted her tirade. Her eyes focused squarely on his face.
Chapter 3, Part 2
His grin widened into a smile.
Her mind reeled back two decades. For a second she wondered how in the world she missed recognizing him instantly. He was twenty-odd years older than when she last saw him but this was without a doubt Jack Ramsden standing twelve inches from her. Amidst the chaos of the traffic, the wreck, and the concerns of her week, the world froze around her. His smile disarmed her just long enough for her to remember the last time she saw him: the day before her twenty-first birthday in San Francisco.
She heard him say her name again, only this time it was wrapped in affection.
“You low-life son of a bitch! The last time I got tangled up with you it was a train wreck, and twenty years later show up in your yuppie car and it’s another damn wreck! So tell me, Jack, how is life with Mrs. Gotrocks?”
She heard herself hurl the question at him and immediately wished that she could remove it from where it was hanging, right between the two of them in the middle of the road. A million times she had rehearsed the scene in her mind, a chance meeting with him at Churchill or Santa Anita, and a million times she was composed and handled the encounter with light-hearted banter, taking the utmost pleasure in rubbing his nose in the fact that he really was just a blip on the radar screen of her life and then walking away without looking back. Now here she was, missing her mark, blowing her lines and giving him way more satisfaction than she thought he deserved.
Jack winced and took a half step back. She watched his expression change from warmth to confusion.
“Josephine and I have been divorced for five years. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it.”
“No, Jack. Believe it or not I haven’t followed your every move since 1982. I couldn’t care less if you are still married to what’s-her-face or the queen of England. Right now we need to get this mess figured out so I can go home. I’ll call the cops.”
Before she turned back toward her car to retrieve her cell phone, he smiled at her again. She had to resist the urge to hurl another expletive at him. “Just … just wait here,” she said as she stormed off to her car.
Jack sat back on one of the overstuffed couches at Charlie Brown’s bar and took three big swallows from a long-necked bottle of Near Beer. The bar was just up the street from the scene of his earlier collision with Katy. Three walls in Charlie’s were made of floor-to-ceiling bookcases full of used books of all descriptions, from classic literature to trashy novels. In the winter, a corner fireplace added to the cozy atmosphere. He looked around at a few scattered patrons who hunched over candlelit tables, thumbing through books and sipping drinks. Jack hummed along to a Van Morrison tune playing on a corner jukebox while he sorted through his thoughts.
Most days, the taste of the alcohol-free beer was satisfying enough for him, but today he craved a good buzz from the real thing. He had missed his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in order to clear up the accident, but there would be another meeting next week and a helping hand any time he needed one. He knew that his five-year association with AA had probably saved his life after his ex-wife exiled him from Florida. Jack shifted his position on the couch, reacting to memories of Josephine with a physical impulse to get up and run from his own thoughts.
Since his divorce, he didn’t travel far from Kentucky and never went to the state of Florida unless he could make a day trip of it. Besides all of the bad memories, Josephine made it clear that if he was spotted anywhere near a track in Florida, she would release all of the gory details of their sordid divorce to the press. He knew that if she made good on her threat, it would hurt people that he cared about. As it was, he was nearly humiliated out of the thoroughbred business, lost all of his good clients, and for a time he was relegated to the fair circuit to make a living. If it weren’t for a few good friends and the return of his old client Sid Blackstone, he would probably be driving a horse van for a living. He was maturing at fifty-two and becoming more inclined to count his blessings. Even the Goddamn bird didn’t seem such a pain lately.
He flagged the cocktail waitress.
“I’d like a basket of deep fried mushrooms and another one of these.” He tapped the bottle of Near Beer before he took the last swallow of its contents and handed her the bottle.
“Coming right up, honey,” she said and sauntered off to the kitchen.
While he waited for Nate to come and pick him up, his thoughts kept drifting back to Katy. He knew he deserved everything she threw at him in the intersection. Probably more. But he found himself wondering if her reaction to him meant that under all of that cold-blooded hatred she might still have a soft spot in her heart for him. There was certainly nothing indifferent in her behavior toward him today. He chose to hope.
She obviously didn’t know that he was living there or she would have known that he was no longer married to Josephine. He was positive that everyone in the horse industry knew that. “The woman may as well have taken a full-page ad in Sports Illustrated to announce my indiscretion to the world,” he muttered. Where was Katy when his marriage had come to an excruciatingly public halt? Where did she work and where did she live?
The cocktail waitress returned with his beer.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Mushrooms will be right up.”
He fidgeted in his seat, wishing again that the beer was real. He took another drink as he considered how he might find out more about Katy without risking life and limb in another face-to-face meeting. His mind returned again to the sight of her blasting him in the intersection, her delicate hands flying through the air and her turquoise eyes flashing. She is still adorable, he thought. He was smiling when Nate walked in.
“Hey, man, what the hell happened to your Benz and what’re you looking so pleased about?”
Nate made himself comfortable on a couch across from the coffee table where Jack was sitting and signaled the waitress for a real beer.
“I rear-ended Katy,” he said, sounding more like he had won the lottery than smashed the front end of his pride and joy.
Nate stared at Jack for a moment. “Our Katy? Katy Alexander?”
“Yep, that Katy.”
“Does she live here?”
“I think so.”
“Man, I haven’t seen Katy since you …”
Jack smirked at his friend. “You were going to say, since I made one of the less intelligent decisions of my life. Right?”
Jack wondered to himself how many Near Beers it would take to get a buzz. Fifty … maybe a hundred? There was a very small amount of alcohol in each of them but not enough to be classified as an alcoholic beverage. AA wasn’t keen on Near Beer and he knew it. Never one to sweat the small stuff, he considered their disapproval nitpicking.
The waitress came back with Jack’s mushrooms and Nate’s beer.
“No, ‘less intelligent’ isn’t how I would’ve described your dumb-ass, stupid, thoughtless mistake.” Nate took two swallows of his beer and leaned forward, setting the bottle on the table. “So what’s she doing here?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
“Well didn’t you ask her?”
“Trust me, I would have asked if I could’ve, but she was so busy yelling at me that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.”
“So she’s still pissed off at you.”
“I think you could safely say that, yes.” Jack took a sip of his Near Beer. “Mushroom?” He pushed the basket toward Nate.
“Thanks. Did she cuss you?” he asked with a wry smile.
“I guess if you consider jackass, low life, and son of a bitch cuss words, yes, she cussed me. She actually called me a jackass! Can you believe that?” Jack half grinned, took the last swallow out of the bottle, and popped a mushroom in his mouth. “Is yuppie a swear word?” he asked while chewing the mushroom.
Nate busted out laughing, nearly spitting his beer across the table.
“She called you a yuppie?”
Jack just nodded while Nate fell into a fit of laughter. “I’m glad you are so amused by all of this.”
“Now I remember why I loved that kid so much. So are you going to call her?”
“I may be a son of a bitch but I’m not a stupid son of a bitch. Of course I’ll call her … once I gather up the nerve.”
Nate picked up his beer and gestured to Jack.
Jack tipped his bottle toward Nate’s.
“Cheers to you, smartass.”