These are the moments riders like me live for. When you’re coming out of the last turn just off the lead and your horse is still full of run, flipping the jets, surging for the wire.
The sweet flavor of victory starts to dance on your tongue.
But not today.
All I could taste at the top of the stretch was track dirt and the metallic tang of panic.
I’d already done what I could to keep Chief’s Boat back without raising the suspicions of the race stewards. Tried to spook him at the gate to get a bad start. No luck. Tried to bury him in traffic in the backstretch, but he slipped through every tight seam like a goddamn ghost rocket. Tried steering him wide in the turn, but the stubborn bastard wasn’t having it, sticking to the inside trip that had him third and closing fast and me all kinds of fucked.
Sometimes the best-laid plans of mice, men and mobsters get trampled into dust by a half-ton of thoroughbred hell-bent for the winner’s circle, puny human on its back be damned.
Kendrick was their errand boy.
He’d come east in the spring from California, where he’d been suspended a couple of times for shady rides. I’d seen him plying his trade in the corners of the jockey’s room, brief whispers and greenbacks palmed from one calloused hand to another. The way it’s always been.
He hadn’t bothered with me. Yet. I wanted to think that was because I didn’t take dirty money. But the truth was it had been a long time since I’d won a race, or even mounted a favorite anyone needed held back.
My days of getting through a week without copious amounts of cortisone and Flexeril were well in the rear-view, along with half my forties. Johnette had been telling me to get out. Twenty-two years was enough and the money wasn’t, she said. But it’s all I know. It’s all I am.
Chief’s Boat had never been much of a horse. Somehow he’d miracled his way to third by a nose in a lousy field last time out. It was enough for the oddsmakers to put him at six-to-one on the morning line. Respectable. And short enough to spoil everything.
I was sitting on a bench, other riders standing in line for their turn at the heaving bowl, when Kendrick came over.
“You’re on Chief’s Boat in the sixth, yeah?”
I nodded, warily.
Kendrick looked around, pulled out a thick roll of bills.
“Ten grand,” he muttered. “Just make sure you’re no better than fourth.”
I did the quick math. If that was the bribe, and at least half the riders were on the take, they must’ve been figuring on a monster payout for a longshot trifecta. Especially if they could keep a lid on it.
“Pass,” I said.
Kendrick bared his teeth in a Doberman grin.
“You and that lady of yours, and her kid…y’all still at that place up on Monroe? Second floor?”
I let the cash drop into my hand like a rotten apple from the tree.
In half a furlong at the top of the stretch I ran through my final two options. I could jump off Chief’s Boat. That’d bring the heat down on everyone for sure. Maybe even from the Feds. Not to mention I could get crushed to death by the thundering field behind me. Or, knowing my luck, paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of my already shitty existence. I was fucked, but I wasn’t suicidal.
I went with the other option. To win.
I leaned in and melted into Chief’s Boat. The deafening hooves and grandstand hollers fell away, leaving only my heartbeat in my ears. The horse and I were of one purpose. I let the sanguine rhythm of his breathing comfort me. I felt every fiber of every muscle below me exploding with desire. My heart soared as Chief’s Boat flew past his rivals and took the wire by half a length.
The world rushed back to me.
I was a fucking champion.
I was a fucking dead man.