“Riders up!” called the ring steward. The trainer boosted Tonya into the saddle. “Stay clear of traffic with him,” he advised. “If you can keep him out of trouble, he may have something left at the end.”
Tonya nodded and picked up her rubber racing reins and tied the ends into a knot. She adjusted her boots in the irons, then stood up and rocked the saddle back and forth, making sure it was tight enough. The trainer turned her over to his assistant on his lead pony, who clipped the lead shank to the colt’s bridle. The horses and riders made one more circle around the walking ring and followed the scarlet-coated outrider onto the track.
The eight entries paraded single file past the stands so the crowd could get a final look at them. “Hey, what’s this?” yelled a raspy voice near the rail. “The Powder Puff Derby? Hey, honey! You forgot your mascara!” The heckler’s remarks were met with laughter and crude comments from those near him.
Tonya wondered for a moment whether there might be a murderer somewhere in that crowd. She tried to block that thought and keep her mind on her colt. Her heart was pounding so fast she worried she was getting too amped up this early. Calm down, she told herself. Save it for the start.
At the end of the post parade, she stood in the stirrups and let the colt gallop slowly around the far turn away from the starting gate, warming up his muscles, the lead pony loping alongside. They stopped and turned back toward the grandstand. Once they reached the huge metal gate parked across the track at the finish line, the trainer unclipped his lead shank and turned her over to the starter’s assistants. “Good luck,” he said as he moved his horse away.
The assistant starters led the horses one by one into the numbered stalls. She was #4, in the middle of the line of horses, with three to her left and four to her right. She tried to concentrate on keeping her colt’s legs straight under him so that he would break from the gate even and balanced. The long expanse of dirt track stretched in front of her. Oh, how she had waited for this moment! Her hands shook as she pulled her goggles off her cap, settled them over her eyes and grabbed a handful of mane.
Finally all the horses were loaded and the back doors closed. She could hear the shouts of the other jockeys warning the starter that their horses weren’t quite ready, “Not yet!” and “No, no, no!”
The starter stood on a raised platform just inside the inner rail, button in hand. He tried to wait for just the right moment, when all horses were still and standing straight, before he released them. Suddenly, the front doors crashed open and the bell clanged. The jockeys screamed at their mounts and all eight horses leaped forward. They were off!
From Dangerous Turf by D.M. O’Byrne. Published by Black Opal Books. Scheduled for release December, 2017. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.