Dead Weight

Chapter One

For as long as Phil Nicholas could remember, accidents only happened to other people. Like any jump jockey he'd had his share of falls and scrapes. He'd been dumped into ditches at thirty miles an hour, dragged face down through birch fences and kicked like a football as he rolled beneath the hooves of two dozen galloping steeplechasers. He'd paid the price in lost teeth, cracked ribs and broken collarbones and, on several occasions, spent the night in hospital at some doctor's insistence.
But overall he considered he was one of the lucky ones. He'd had friends who had been killed and a few who now did their racing from wheelchairs. Paralysis was the fear of every jump jockey. The moment you stopped rolling through the grass, regardless of what pain you were in, the first thing you did was to check you could move your legs. He'd been as shocked as anyone whenever tragedy struck but, deep down, it had no real effect. Like a soldier in a trench, no matter how many comrades fell around you, you had to believe that it would never happen to you.
Three years ago his brother had died in a show-jumping accident but, though Tim's death had turned his life upside down, Phil had never questioned the sense in riding horses for a living. As far as he was concerned, he was a guy who always got up and walked away. Then last September he'd ridden May Queen at Worcester.
A seven-year-old mare with a white blaze on her muzzle, May Queen was a favourite at Deanscroft, the large and successful West Country yard run by trainer Russell Dean. May Queen was embarking on a career over fences but she wasn't a natural. She found difficulty in judging where to take off and often ended up just guessing. At home she was always fresh and as a consequence could get herself out of trouble, but at Worcester on a beautifully sunny afternoon she took one guess too many.
Until the first open ditch in the straight, she'd jumped like a champion and the race was there for the taking. All Phil had to do was get safely over the last four fences. He'd even had time to glance over at the River Severn as they'd turned for home, noticing a pleasure boat full of people enjoying a free view of the race. He began to calculate the distance to the fence. May Queen was in an even rhythm which made it easy for him. With five strides to go he crouched lower into the saddle, preparing for her to spring forward, then for no reason she suddenly launched herself into the air.
They were at least two full strides away and there was nothing that Phil could do, except sit tight and pray May Queen could at least reach halfway up the fence. If she could have managed that they might have been all right, but they had no such luck. Her front feet just made it over the guard rail and she turned a huge cartwheel over the birch fence, firing Phil head first into the firm ground. The horse untangled her limbs with a snort of indignation and trotted off unscathed, leaving Phil with ruptured nerves in his back, a left arm fractured in three places and the knowledge that accidents no longer happened to some other poor sod.
Now, the following January at Wincanton racecourse, Phil was about to race with May Queen once again. But this time, thank Christ, he wasn't on her back. That dubious pleasure belonged to Russell Dean's second jockey, Mark Shaw.
Mark was tucked away in a corner of the weighing-room, pen in hand, reading the Racing Beacon. He looked up as Phil sat next to him and grunted hello - the kind of greeting that clearly indicated he was busy.
Phil could see the paper was open to a list of entries for the days ahead, many of them ringed and scribbled over.
'Not reading my column, then?'
Phil compiled a weekly diary for the Beacon - one of the perks of being last season's champion jockey.
'That load of old bollocks.' Mark's mouth twitched upwards at the corners, taking the edge off words spoken in a soft Irish brogue. 'Why should I bother to read it when I can get it direct from your big gob?'
Phil laughed. 'You cheeky monkey.'
Phil was the number-one rider at Deanscroft, and though there was only five years' difference between the two, that added up to a wealth of racing experience. He'd been imparting that experience ever since Mark had arrived as a green apprentice two seasons ago. Green or not, there had been no denying his ambition or dedication, and the first time Phil saw him on a horse he'd had a shock. The boy had clearly modelled his riding style on Phil's own. Phil had never referred to this - though plenty of others had - but he'd felt a special sympathy for the Irish lad and gone out of his way to help him along. Not that, these days, Mark needed much help.
'Watch out for May Queen at those ditches,' he said. In a two-and-a-half-mile race at Wincanton there are four open ditches to be cleared - more than any other course in the country.
'No problem.'
'She did me at a ditch at Worcester. Put her front feet straight in.'
'And so she did. I've got it on video. It's in my top ten.'
'Oh?' Phil had watched it once. It had not been an enjoyable experience. 'Well, be careful she doesn't go for a repeat performance.'
Mark grinned. 'Just you worry about your own horse and stop trying to put me off. I reckon I'm on the winner.'
Phil stood abruptly. He realised he'd got it wrong. Mark was actually looking forward to piloting a dangerous jumper over seventeen fences in the January mud. What was more he recognised the feeling only too well. Until Worcester it had been one he shared.
He clapped Mark on the back. 'Good luck,' he said. The words 'you'll need it' also sprang to mind.

In the parade ring Phil turned his thoughts to his own problems - all of which would be solved if only he could start riding winners again. Despite having the pick of the Deanscroft entries, he'd not been first past the post on any of them since his comeback at the beginning of December. No matter what spin he put on the facts - the after-effects of his injuries, a continuing problem with his left arm, the loss of racing opportunities to bad weather - he knew he was no longer the rider he had been before the accident. Though everyone at the yard had been vocal in their support, it wouldn't be long before someone else noticed that he had lost his touch. And that someone was liable to be the man now standing next to him, his expensive mackintosh flapping in the keen winter wind, his granite-grey eyes assessing Phil as earnestly as any of his runners: Russell Dean, master of Deanscroft, the most successful National Hunt trainer of the past five years.
Phil had begun riding for Dean just as he'd emerged as the top trainer in the land. Some called Dean lucky, others were suspicious of his methods, the envious simply complained he'd made it with his father's money. Phil knew how wrong they all were. Russell was a man who combined attention to detail with an obsessive need to improve. He took nothing for granted and was always willing to try something new. As a consequence Deanscroft was ever changing and constantly expanding - it had a heated indoor swimming-pool for the horses, mechanical walkers where up to eight animals could be exercised at the same time, and a covered exercise ring to beat any bad weather. This, together with on-site veterinary staff constantly monitoring weight and testing blood, made Deanscroft the best training facility in the country.
Russell Dean did not come from typical racing stock. The nearest he'd been to a horse as a boy was watching from the rail at a racecourse with a bookie's slip in his pocket. His father had been a Devon farmer who'd turned a couple of coastal fields into a caravan site and never looked back. When Roger Dean died he left his son a flourishing holiday-letting business with properties all over the West Country, including thirty acres of farmland and dilapidated buildings five miles north of Taunton in Somerset. Within two years Russell had sold the holiday business, christened the farm Deanscroft and set about converting himself from an afternoon punter into a full-time horse-trainer. And he'd done it. As he'd often said to Phil, what odds would he have got on that?
'How's the arm?' he asked as he gave Phil a leg-up into the saddle of his mount, Ashburton, an eight-year-old bay of impressive proportions who'd already won over fences.
'Getting stronger by the day, boss.' This was true enough.
The trainer ran an affectionate hand over the horse's flank. 'You'll be safe as houses on this boy.'
Phil was thrown by that - surely Russell wasn't implying he wanted to play it safe? But the trainer was looking up at him with a reassuring smile. 'I've got a hunch the pair of you are going to bolt up,' he said.
Phil hoped so. Champion jockey without a winner for four weeks. It was really getting to him.
*
Rain was beginning to fall from a leaden sky as they cantered down to the start. The ground was soft and getting softer, but that suited Phil just fine. With his huge feet and high rounded action, the big rangy Ashburton was made for heavy going, unlike many of his rivals in the upcoming novice chase.
They came alongside Adrian Moore on Chronicle and the young jockey pulled a face. 'Mine don't fancy this much,' he called over.
Phil could see for himself that the dainty Chronicle was looking far from comfortable.
'Tell you what,' Adrian continued. 'You can have this race and I'll take the last.' Adrian was due to ride January King, a renowned mudlark, in the final race.
'You're on,' Phil replied. He'd settle for one winner out of two starts any day, let alone right now.
But the outcome of the battle ahead was unlikely to have much to do with Adrian or Chronicle. There were tougher contenders in the fifteen other runners now massing behind the starter's tape. In particular, Phil liked the look of Major Tom, a sturdy chestnut horse who had won at three miles in the wet at Hereford before Christmas.
May Queen, on the other hand, now pulling out of the line and delaying the start, was surely not a contender. He watched Mark wrestling with the unruly mare, trotting her round in a tight circle and bringing her back to face the tapes.
Phil turned his attention to the task ahead - two miles and five furlongs of sticky, clogging ground punctuated with solid birch fences four feet high. Beneath him he could feel the bulk of Ashburton humming with energy, eager for the off, and the sensation began to flood into his own veins. Phil laughed out loud, attracting a curious glance from Adrian on his inside. Phil didn't care. This was more like it. This was how he used to feel.
I'm back, he thought with sudden clarity. Now let's get on and win this sodding race.

Julia almost lost track of time as she worked on Little Harry. When she massaged a horse she often lost herself in the task - it was as much mental as physical. She imagined the positive energy flowing from her hands, soothing jumping nerves, easing strained muscle and sinew, acting like oil on stiff and creaky joints. Little Harry loved the way she pacified his tired flesh, and so did all the other horses she ministered to at Deanscroft and here at Ridge Farm.
Now she gave the trapezius muscle at the base of the animal's neck a final stroke and reached for her sweater. Little Harry butted her gently with his big golden head. The message in his eye was plain - don't stop.
'Sorry, Harry,' she murmured as she pulled the shapeless woollen garment over her tousled blonde head. 'You wouldn't want me to miss Phil's race, would you?'
He would, of course, she reflected as she rushed from the old stable block to her muddy Fiesta. All horses were the same. No matter how cranky or nervy or just plain out of sorts they might be feeling, once she'd laid her hands on them they never wanted her attentions to cease. Which put them in line with pretty much all the men in her life.
A male pest was the reason she was running late now. She'd been over at Deanscroft working on a couple of recent runners who needed sorting out. Her plan had been to quit in good time to drive the ten miles back, attend to Little Harry and reach home for the build-up to the race on television. But one of the new vets had detained her. He'd watched her work, giving her the benefit of his unwanted advice, and, when she'd finished, asked if she'd mind taking a look at his swollen knee.
'I don't do humans,' she'd replied, which wasn't strictly true.
The vet had refused to take the hint and shifted the conversation to Portland Blue, the horse in the next stall, who had gone lame. As it happened she knew Portland Blue well, and it was hard to get away without being rude. And being rude wasn't in Julia's nature.
It irritated her, however, the way men continued to pursue her when she was clearly unavailable. Wasn't her wedding ring obvious enough? Perhaps she should hang a sign round her neck saying 'Just Married - Off Limits'. She guessed that some men couldn't help themselves.
A plain girlfriend she no longer spoke to had put it another way. 'You're so fucking gorgeous, Jules, guys just want to hang around you even if they're not going to get anywhere.' She'd said it in an envious tone which had upset Julia. How could she tell her she didn't want the attention of every heterosexual male in her vicinity? In Julia's experience, beauty - and she supposed she had it - was as much a curse as a blessing.
She drove faster than was sensible down the narrow track, drenching the hedges on either side with plumes of water from the standing brown puddles. Not that it mattered - there was no other traffic on the way to Barley Cottage, half a mile away on the southern edge of the farm. She could have avoided this rush by going up to the farmhouse, where the television in the parlour was tuned to the racing throughout the afternoon. But that would have meant watching with Phil's mum, Margaret, and she didn't feel up to that. She liked her mother-in-law well enough, but this race was too important, she wanted to be able to concentrate in private.
Barley Cottage was big and draughty. It looked particularly bare this afternoon in the absence of the Christmas decorations which had brightened the place only a week ago. Now they had gone there was no disguising the fact that the hall needed replastering and the kitchen required a complete refit - and that was just downstairs. Phil's parents had done a remarkable job getting the place in good enough shape for them to move in after their honeymoon in August. The engagement and the wedding had all been rather a rush, they'd said, but they weren't complaining. Margaret's bright eyes assessed her with fond anticipation every day and, if the in-laws had their way, there would be decorators upstairs now turning the back bedroom into a nursery. To Julia's way of thinking, talk of having a family was premature, but it was a topic Margaret could not resist. Maybe that was the real reason she had driven back here to watch the race.
She hurried into the front room and turned on the television. The runners were already off. Instantly all thoughts of children, decorators and in-laws were wiped from her mind.

The old feeling stayed with Phil around the first circuit. Ashburton was foot perfect and Phil could feel his confidence grow as they soared over the fences. Though new to jumping, he was a complete natural.
The main pack of runners were bunched on the inside, taking the shortest route home. Phil was keeping Ashburton wide to stay out of trouble and to avoid the worst of the ground, now badly churned up from the afternoon's racing.
Ahead of him, some five lengths clear of the pack, was May Queen. Phil could see Mark working hard to get the mare round. She had schooled half a dozen times at home since her fall at Worcester but her jumping had not improved much. She was small and the soft ground made the fences that much bigger. She was hitting the top of most of them, bouncing off the packed birch, being knocked out of her stride. Yet there was no denying her spirit as she gamely kept picking herself up and working back into the race.
By the last on the far side the field had unravelled, and Ashburton was going well. Major Tom, the chief danger, was keeping pace just to his rear, with May Queen ahead by a couple of lengths. They were approaching the last open ditch, and Phil kept one eye on the fence and the other on May Queen. As he expected, the mare gave it a real thump and knocked out a cloud of birch. Ashburton swept past, sailing over the jump, and landed running. Phil caught a glimpse of Mark struggling to keep May Queen on her feet, but her nose was touching the grass and she looked about to keel over. He hoped to God Mark was all right.
They were galloping downhill now towards the fourth from last. Suddenly Phil was aware of Major Tom making a move on his inside. Ashburton was eager to go too but Phil kept the big horse in check. He knew this course well and was aware of the sharp bend to the right into the home straight that followed the next fence.
Major Tom shot past, coming down the slope like a car without brakes, and took the jump three lengths ahead. But he was too tight to the rail on the sharp right hand bend and, as a consequence, was forced wide into the straight. Phil kept Ashburton on the optimum racing line and swept into the lead. Now he had the benefit of the rail to run against.
Phil knew the race was his. Ashburton was tiring now but his jumping remained rock steady as he carried them over the next two fences. Phil kept squeezing with his legs, keeping the horse up to his work. All he had to do to win was get over the last. Approaching the fence, he became aware of the crowd in the stands to his left. For a wet and wintery afternoon they were demonstrating remarkable enthusiasm.
Suddenly he understood why. At his shoulder, unbelievably, was Mark on May Queen. Somehow the horse was still on her feet and Mark was urging her on, hunched forward in the stirrups, his hands working as he screamed in the horse's ear.
Phil assessed the situation in a split second. Get stuck in NOW! It wasn't a conscious thought, more a reflex - the kind of instant racing reaction that had rescued him many times before.
But he was slow to respond, his body frozen, somehow unable to communicate the urgency to his horse. In a flash the fence was upon them and Ashburton seemed to take for ever in the air. Beside them, Mark threw May Queen forward as if the fence didn't exist. For once the mare nailed it, and landed half a length clear.
And that was it. There's next to no run-in at Wincanton after the final fence. Even if Ashburton had had enough in the tank to catch May Queen he'd run out of room.
Phil crossed the line second, as downhearted as he'd ever been at the end of a race.
He caught up with Mark as he slowed his mount beyond the winning post.
'Well done,' he said. 'I thought you'd gone at the last ditch.'
Mark pulled his mud-spattered goggles down around his neck. His eyes sparkled. 'Told you I was gonna win, didn't I?'
Phil remembered. He'd thought it was just bravado.
Mark was regarding him shrewdly. 'I'd've won on your horse too, you know.'
Phil took most things with a smile on his face, but he wasn't amused as Mark rode off to the winner's enclosure.

The hounds were making a fair old racket out the back but Keith Jeffries didn't hear them as he stared at the television on the sideboard to the left of the empty fireplace. Even though he'd had nothing on this race, the drama of it gripped him, shutting out everything else. The unlit room was dark in the late afternoon gloom, and the reflection from the screen danced across the pages of the old exercise book open on the table in front of him, illuminating the neat rows of figures inscribed in blue and red ballpoint. A rank of reference books - Chaseform, Chasers and Hurdlers, A Guide to Racecourses - stood by his elbow; a calculator, pad and pencil lay directly in front of him; and, within easy reach to his right, newspapers were stacked, open to the racing pages. He was a man who took his betting seriously. As with everything in this life, it required forethought, organisation and luck - a commodity forever in short supply in Keith's experience.
But at least, he thought as the television camera cut to an interview with the winning trainer, he'd never considered putting money on May Queen. If he'd had the urge and then rejected it - which, on her form, he would have been bound to do - then he'd be cursing his luck right now to see her pull off such an unexpected victory. You often got one complete turn-up for the books in an afternoon's sport and Keith was rarely the beneficiary - unlike some he could think of. His system didn't allow for flukes. The best he could hope for was to avoid them and, thank Christ, he just had. The next race was the one that counted. With serious money at stake he was relieved to have the afternoon's freak result out of the way.
He was aware now of the hounds' commotion. Mind you, they always kicked up a racket - a pack of hunting hounds was never quiet. Most of the time he tuned the noise out. It was just background clamour, like the wind in the trees, though he'd taken comfort in it since Denise had left. He wasn't some sad sod living on his own in the middle of nowhere, not with a hundred hungry, rapacious creatures dependent on him. Denise had hated them, surprise, surprise. Now there was a lucky cow when it came to a flutter. She'd have piled on May Queen and picked up her windfall as if she deserved it.
The whore Denise. Walking out on him for an accountant, that was a laugh. She'd soon unbalance his books for him. Now it would be his turn to shell out for designer dresses and other expensive women's crap, like all that stuff gathering dust upstairs. If Denise wanted any of it back she'd have to come and get it herself - and somehow, after last time, Keith didn't think she'd have the guts.
The doorbell rang, diverting him from thoughts of his estranged wife. So that was why the hounds were kicking up a fuss - he had a visitor. He wondered why he hadn't heard a car engine. Keith heaved himself from his armchair. Whoever it was they could bloody well shove off sharpish. He had a lot - a heck of a lot - riding on the next race.
Keith didn't recognise the bespectacled old gent standing on his doorstep. The newcomer was togged up for a winter's walk: Barbour, wellies, walking stick and a cap with earflaps that looked like a family heirloom. He had a thin grey moustache and spoke like a toff.
'Mr Jeffries?'
Keith grunted, on his guard.
'Awfully sorry to drop in unannounced.'
'You got a car?'
'I'm parked out in the lane. Thought I'd stretch the old legs.'
So that explained it.
The toff hesitated for a moment before he spoke.
'Look, Adam Jellicoe gave me your name. Said you might be able to help me out.'
Captain Jellicoe, master of the Latchbourne Hunt - Keith's boss.
'Help you in what way, sir?' Keith dropped effortlessly into deferential mode. It worked a treat with Jellicoe's crowd.
'Adam tells me you've got a humane killer.'
Keith nodded. Part of his job was destroying old or injured farm stock to feed to the hounds.
'The thing is, my old hunter is too long in the tooth to ride out and I don't think he can cope with much more of this dreary winter. I can't put it off any longer and I wonder if you would take care of him for me.'
So that was it. He wanted Keith to kill his horse. He probably didn't dare ask the local vet who, at the very least, would question the necessity of ending the life of an old and faithful servant. For a second Keith's stomach turned over. Was this what he'd come to? Slaughterman? He deserved better than this.
'Of course, sir,' he replied. 'You'll have to bring the horse up yourself, though.'
The old boy looked relieved. 'Righto. No problem. And what will it, er . . .?'
'A hundred pounds.'
'Oh.' The man's face fell. Keith could see him calculating whether it was worth him risking the vet's wrath after all.
'Eighty for cash,' he added.
The other agreed quickly, offering his hand on the bargain.
'Bring him up tomorrow,' Keith said. The visitor nodded and would, Keith could see, have engaged him in further conversation - doubtless justifying his decision to get rid of his horse. But Keith was already turning back into the house. The runners in the last would soon be going down.

Phil sat in silence in the noisy weighing-room. He should have been more positive, committed Ashburton from the turn for home, but he hadn't, and he knew why.
For Phil, race-riding had always been simple. He never analysed his technique or agonised over tactics or spent his every waking moment studying form like some other riders. As far as Phil was concerned he got a leg-up from the trainer, listened to a few words of advice and then instinct took over. He knew he was lucky. He could climb on an unknown horse in the ring, take it down to the start and, in those few minutes, learn what kind of animal he had beneath him and how to get the best out of him. Owners had often been amazed at the performances he coaxed out of the most unpromising beasts. It was as if he were a musician able to pick up any battered old guitar and, after a few seconds of strumming, produce sweeter sounds than it had ever made before. He had no idea how he did it.
But now, though his instinct was still as attuned as ever, he wasn't able to act on it the way he had since his fall at Worcester. It was some kind of breakdown in communication between his brain and his body. When the going got tough these days, he just froze. He'd been brooding about it all through Christmas and every time came to the same conclusion: since the accident he'd lost his nerve.
He'd seen other riders lose their bottle. It didn't always follow a bad fall; sometimes it was an accumulation of minor injuries and the knowledge that it was only a matter of time before you copped for something serious. But when it happened to you there was no hiding from it. As much as you wanted to be brave, to go for gaps and throw caution to the wind when it was necessary, you couldn't make yourself do it. You only ever saw the short, safe stride into a fence. And when the race was over, everything seemed fine - until the next time.
Some jockeys managed to ride through the bad patch and regain their confidence. A rare few packed up straight away. Most just plugged on, going through the motions but never giving horses a proper ride. Eventually trainers' loyalty from past service wore thin and rides dried up. In that position, a jockey had no option but to find another job. Phil didn't want to end up like that. That was why he'd made the appointment at the clinic last week.
'Wakey-wakey, mate.'
Phil looked up. Mark was standing by his side in clean silks. Phil suddenly realised he'd been slumped on the weighing-room bench for nearly twenty minutes. He leapt to his feet - it was almost time to weigh out for the last.
'I must have nodded off,' he said.
'Too much shagging,' came a voice from the other side of the room. Adrian was putting out some dog biscuits for Beatle, his scruffy terrier who spent race afternoons asleep on a sweater under his peg.
'And who can blame him,' came another voice. Almost all present had been at Phil's wedding and admiration for his bride was universal.
'No wonder he's knackered,' said Adrian. 'All day riding horses and all night riding the lovely Julia.'
Phil joined in the laughter. Much better that they had no idea what was really on his mind. He'd never live it down if they knew he was seeing a shrink.

On the off-chance of finding an old packet of cigarettes, Julia rummaged through the downstairs drawers and poked in all the hidey-holes where household junk fetched up. She hadn't had a smoke since the wedding and, after the first few weeks, she'd not missed it. But now a sudden craving for nicotine gripped her. She longed to dull her disappointment in silky clouds of tobacco smoke. But she was out of luck. She banged the kitchen drawer shut with a petulant slam and returned to the sitting room.
She'd been involved with jockeys before, so she was familiar with the rollercoaster of emotion that went with watching them race. She was aware she had to take the rough with the smooth, to treat triumph and disaster just the same - and all the other well-worn clichés. But at the moment that was difficult. She knew how much it mattered to Phil to have a winner right now. And Ashburton had been his best hope for the day.
She returned to the sitting room to watch the last race. The television camera cut to a huddle of men in the parade ring, Phil among them. Julia tried to read her husband's face as he was caught mid-conversation with an owner she did not recognise. Phil had not mentioned his losing streak that morning but she knew he had been banking on Ashburton. He had to be bitterly disappointed. If so, he showed no sign. Just before the camera cut away, he put his head back and laughed in the uninhibited, full-throated way that was now so familiar to her. The sight cheered her up and she realised the nicotine pangs had disappeared. What right had she to wallow in gloom when Phil, ever optimistic, was obviously just getting on with it?
She knew he didn't fancy his mount in the upcoming race. He'd ridden Snowflake at Lingfield shortly after returning to the saddle in December and the horse had struggled to come last, ten lengths behind the field. 'Don't expect me back early,' he'd said as he'd left that morning. 'I'll still be getting round on Snowflake.'
Julia had laughed but she'd felt bad about it afterwards out of loyalty to the horse. She tried not to have favourites among the animals she worked with but it was hard to ignore her likes and dislikes. To her, horses were much like people, each with their own distinctive personalities. And, as with people, there were some with whom she just clicked - like Snowflake. When she'd first started her physiotherapy she'd been told he was lazy, that he was avoiding work after a lay-off from a stress fracture sustained on the hard courses of late summer. Julia had quickly come to the conclusion that the little horse was still in pain though, game fellow that he was, he was trying his best not to show it. To her mind it was no surprise that he was performing badly in races - he shouldn't have been running.
She'd said as much to Russell, who had promptly placed the horse in her charge. Since the New Year she'd been massaging the little grey and riding him out. In the last week he'd been working well and her impression was that Snowflake was finally getting his confidence back. She had the feeling he might be capable of springing a surprise. She'd kept that to herself, though - it was between her and the horse.
She watched the parade of runners circle the ring. Snowflake was looking alert and frisky. Maybe there was still hope.

Julia was on Phil's mind as he rode down to the start. He'd have guessed she'd been working with Snowflake even if he hadn't known. In his experience, all animals at Deanscroft benefited from her attentions, and the little horse beneath him was no different. The grey was taking a good hold on the way down to the start of the two-mile novice hurdle.
Phil noted that the animal was comfortable with the going, which was now heavy. On reflection this was not entirely a surprise - for a horse recovering from a stress fracture, soft ground was preferable to firm. And, though Phil was pleased the horse was happier in himself, it was not likely to make much difference. He doubted that Snowflake was going to run fast enough to stay in touch with January King or any of the other fancied runners in the race. The bookies had him at 33-1, and he had no reason to question their judgement.

Keith kept his betting book in two colours of ink: blue for the punts he fancied making and red for the bets he actually placed. Blue was the predominant colour in these pages, a fact that gave him a considerable degree of satisfaction. It demonstrated to him that restraint, self-control and discipline were now present in his life - which had not always been the case.
He had employed this two-tone method for the past three years and, whenever its frustrations became oppressive, he reminded himself that it was better than his previous system. In those days all bets were red - which is why he no longer owned his own home and worked as a rural skivvy in the back end of nowhere without even his slut of a wife to keep him company.
At least now he was no longer a slave to the bookmakers. The blue bets - his theoretical wagers - required the same degree of research and racing knowhow as before but they had the advantage of being risk free. Betting blue, as he frequently reminded himself, he couldn't lose. If his chosen runner nosedived then the only blow was to his pride. Without the pain in the pocket he could consider the loss as the mere statistic it was, a simple addition to the sum of racing knowledge required by a dedicated gambler like himself. And if a blue bet came off he had the satisfaction of knowing his judgement had been sound. Admittedly this was the difficult part - he'd be a bloody fool if he didn't admit he'd rather have the cash.
What was more, he could see from a tally of his blue bets where he used to go wrong. In the past he'd been too impatient; now he waited until all the factors in the betting equation looked good before he put his money on the table. It was hard work, constantly studying form, weights, breeding and the rest, but it narrowed the odds in his favour. And the blue bets put a brake on his gambling instincts. This afternoon, however, was going to be a red-ink race day, no question.
His eye was on the runners circling the ring. He picked out the black and yellow diamonds of January King. The horse looked in fine condition - lively, powerful and well turned-out - which was as well considering that there was £800 of Keith's money on him. Not that Keith had wagered £800 in the first place - this was the last leg of a treble. His initial stake had been £100.
Keith was sure January King would bring home the bacon. He noted with interest that the price had gone out to 7-2, making January King second favourite behind Skipjack at 7-4. Keith felt a stab of alarm but then reminded himself why he hadn't fancied Skipjack for this race. Though he'd beaten January King on this course as recently as November, he was now carrying five pounds more in weight, and the ground that day had been good. Today it would be a different ball-game. The ground was a bog - just how January King liked it. Keith congratulated himself on consulting the long-range weather forecast before he'd laid out his cash. At least if the bet went down he'd know he'd covered all the angles.

As Phil lined Snowflake alongside the other runners at the start the rain lashed into his face and body. There wasn't much protection from the elements in a jockey's lightweight racing silks. Once they were off, however, all thoughts of personal discomfort vanished and he thought only of the race.
There were a dozen runners and they bunched together in the early part of the race, passing the stands for the first time before heading out into the country. Phil eased Snowflake along at the rear of the pack, pleasantly surprised by the little horse's rhythm and neatness over the hurdles. As they turned into the back straight on the far side of the course, they met the worst of the weather, but even that didn't slow him down. On the contrary, Snowflake began to pick up the pace, and Phil was only too happy to let him forge on. The little horse was skipping across the heavy turf with relish, making his way through the field.
As they approached the sixth, Phil was amazed to find them drawing alongside the race favourite, Skipjack. The big bay was struggling and barely got airborne, ripping the hurdle from the ground. Through mud-spattered goggles, Phil could see his rider working hard to keep Skipjack upright. Then, turning for home, they passed the unhappy pair and the course was clear ahead but for the distinctive yellow and black of Adrian some way in the distance on January King. If he kept going like this, Phil realised, he could finish second.

Keith was not a man to count his chickens - he'd lived long enough to know that was how you got egg on your face. Still, surely the money was in the bag now with January King ten lengths clear and Skipjack run out of it. He allowed himself to relish the thought of picking up a cool £3,600. Enough to get Denise off his back for a while, pay a few bills and still have something left over to give him breathing space. Time maybe to plan a few more coups like this. He wouldn't mind making a living as a full-time gambler.

The sound echoed round the little room, drowning out the TV commentary.
'Go on, Snowflake! Go on, Snowflake! Go on, Snowflake!'
Julia was on her knees in front of the set, scarcely aware she was shouting. She didn't think that Snowflake could win from so far back but the horse that she believed in was coming good. And even if Phil only finished second, this heroic ride on an unfancied mount would surely prove to everyone that he was returning to form.
'Go on, Snowflake!'
He was catching January King, but going into the last there were six lengths between them. Surely that was too much to make up?

Phil never thought of using his whip. There was no need - Snowflake was as keen to catch the horse ahead as he was. He rode high over the little grey's shoulders, urging him on with his hands, amazed by the transformation in the animal beneath him. How he wished there were a couple more furlongs to go. As they jumped the last hurdle - farther out, thankfully, than the last fence on the chase course - they were fast running out of room.

Keith couldn't believe it. He'd been about to land the sweetest gamble of his life. January King had been four lengths clear and in sight of the post when the jockey had stopped riding! It was as if the horse was over the finishing line and the race was already won. But it wasn't. The rider - that twat Adrian Moore - had simply dropped his hands, sat still in the saddle and let some pathetic outsider catch him on the line.
It was incredible. Keith had never seen anything like it. It had to be a fix.

Standing in the winner's enclosure for the first time in a month, Phil felt relief rather than euphoria. Though his smile was broad as he accepted the handshakes and back-slaps, he told all who would listen that the horse deserved the real credit. In truth he hadn't had to do a great deal.
He found Adrian sitting in the weighing-room next to Beatle, the dog's head resting in his lap. He looked up as Phil approached, his face pale.
'I've just been booed off.'
Phil had heard the commotion at the end of the race. Not everyone had been happy with Snowflake's last-ditch victory.
'Don't worry about it. It's happened to everybody.'
'Not me.' Adrian looked close to tears. 'Some bloke called me a cheating bastard.'
Phil put his hand on the lad's arm. 'It goes with the territory. It's not your fault some clot's done his beer money.'
Adrian managed a grin. 'But it was my fault.'
'I wouldn't beat yourself up. You're not the first to do it and you won't be the last.'
'He was tiring at the end. Since we'd obviously won I couldn't see the point of racing him to the post so I dropped my hands. Didn't see you coming at all.'
Phil knew just how Adrian was feeling - something similar had happened when he'd lost on Ashburton. Sometimes racing was a pure lottery and this time his number had come up.

The television was off and Keith sat in the dark. He ought to see to the hounds but, for the moment, he couldn't move. Since the race had finished he'd sat frozen in shock.
He'd been robbed. That was the only way to look at it. It happened in all sport so it wasn't a surprise. The blatant penalty not given, the plum lbw denied - the horse stopped on the line. Everyone knew it went on. The reason was money, obviously. In this case, the winner was a rank outsider at 33-1. Some jokers would be celebrating tonight, and you could bet that included the smartarse riding January King.
Keith had never counted himself a fortunate man and he'd learned to live with the fact. These days he relied on graft and preparation and cunning - not luck. Like this red-ink treble that had just blown up in his face. That bet had not been based on good fortune but on the exercise of betting intelligence. And it had been about to pay off - until some little bastard on the take had robbed him.
He knew the little bastard's name and the training yard where he worked. It shouldn't be difficult to find out where he lived.
Keith slammed his fist on the table in front of him. He'd been playing by the rules, but where had it got him? Sod the rules.
The shock was fading now, to be replaced by other feelings. Deep, dangerous feelings of hurt and anger that he knew well and which lived inside him like a separate creature. The Beast, that was how he thought of it. He'd lived with the Beast all his life, and he'd learned the hard way how to control it. But sometimes the Beast wouldn't be penned in. Its need was too strong and too terrible. The way he felt now, after this humiliation, he didn't know whether he could keep it in check.

Copyright © 2001 John Francome