Day At The Track

8th excerpt from novel HORSE FLESH

12:00 AM 25 Apr 2017 NZST
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Tina Sugarman, author of one of the top equine novels of 2016-2017, Horse Flesh, has agreed to share excerpts of her book with Harnesslink. Horse Flesh is a thriller mystery fiction novel based around a Standardbred racetrack in Ontario, Canada. It is the first novel ever penned by horsewoman, Tina Sugarman.

Each week, Harnesslink will feature an excerpt from Horse Flesh. If you wish to purchase the book either in paperback or ereader formats, click here.

Here is this week’s 8th excerpt from Horse Flesh!

Horse Flesh by Tina Sugarman

THE BET

On a calm evening in late August, Theo Vettore’s cousin, Lara Vachon, was standing down by the rail beside Iroquois Downs’ oval track, waiting and watching as Theo put Southview Sabre through his paces.

It was 7 p.m. The plan was to take Southview Sabre a slow warm-up mile, but speed him up for the last eighth. Any hint of trouble and Lara was going to scratch her boy from the race and take him home. On the night, Theo had stumbled into Ferme Victoire afraid for his life, Lara had been on a vigil at Rivers Training centre, soaking Southview Sabre’s red hot right front foot in a tub of ice water.

Lara treated all the horses she trained like her children, not that she had any of her own yet. She was only twenty-eight, after all. Unlike most trainers, Lara did not have the luxury of picking out yearlings at the Annual Sale. Instead, she took on whatever her father Bernie Vachon decided to give her: well-bred fillies with broodmare potential or colts who hadn’t found a buyer.

Once in Lara’s barn, they were under her protection. She gave them as much time as they needed to get to the races and treated them all with equal affection, regardless of their talent (or the lack of it) on the racetrack. As Southview Sabre flew past the tote board, looking like a ghost in the dusk, Lara anxiously scrutinized him for any sign on lameness, any break in the horse’s rhythm. She found none.

A pus pocket trapped deep inside his hoof had plagued Southview Sabre for weeks, unknown to anyone. After Dr. Winterflood had lanced it, the lameness disappeared overnight.

The track lights kicked in, flooding the scene with colour: the green number pad flapping at the horse’s ribcage, the red and black of Theo’s racing jacket and the pale blue sulky with its white wheel discs spinning.

Though his warm up run was over, Southview Sabre showed no sign of wanting to slow down. He sailed by a horse flashing four white stockings. Hurriedly, Lara consulted her overnight sheet. It was Mountain Boy, the 3 horse in the second.

As both drivers swung their charges through a 180° turn and headed back to the Race Barn, a figure huddled in the shadows at the edge of the track sprang into life. A greater contrast between equine athleticism and human imperfection would have been hard to find. Lara recognized him immediately.

As the man shuffled forward and reached out for Mountain Boy’s bridle, she shuddered involuntarily. She had made the mistake of hiring Crawfish Brown as a groom a couple of years back, in an act of charity. But she had discovered to her cost that despite his pitiful appearance, Crawfish was no saint.

His left leg was crooked. His left eye was offset and half closed. He was missing several teeth and he always had a plug of tobacco in his mouth. The only time he went anywhere near water was when he was bathing the horses. But that wasn’t the real problem.

Crawfish had generally showed up for work on time, unless he’d been out on a binge the night before. He was fairly good tempered, especially on pay day. He was conscientious too, unless he wanted to get away early. He was polite to Lara, unless he had a particular grudge to air. He was loyal, until Lara rumbled him, or as Crawfish put it, asked him to do a lot of things which weren’t a groom’s responsibility. . . She came out of her reverie just in time to avoid being knocked flat by Southview Sabre, who was throwing his head around like he’d had the time of his life out there.

Hastily, she grabbed the bridle before she was decapitated. “Was he okay?” she asked anxiously.

“He went his last eighth in thirteen seconds! That good enough for you?” Theo replied with a smile, handing her the lines. “I gotta go,” he added, a frown furrowing his brow.

“Eh bien! Go!” Lara said, glancing at the tote board clock and wondering why Theo was in such a hurry. Post time for the first race was twenty-five minutes away. Inside the Race Barn, even though they were right next to one another, Crawfish ignored Lara.

He busied himself, attaching his horse tightly to the cross-tie chains, as if the meek Mountain Boy was going to try and make a break for it. Lara couldn’t help noticing that, unusually, Crawfish appeared to have spruced himself up for the races. He was wearing a T-shirt without a rip in it, baggy black sweat pants which did their best to cover a pair of filthy, torn trainers and a lurid yellow baseball cap at war with his straggly brown hair, which she happened to know he cut with a razor, rather than getting a proper haircut.

As for a visit to the dentist to fix his missing teeth, that was about as likely as a trip to the moon. Crawfish prided himself on being self-sufficient. Lara steeled herself not to feel guilty about firing him. She had to put the welfare of the horses first, she reminded herself firmly.

Theo reappeared just as Lara was putting Southview Sabre’s bridle on, prior to race two. It was a struggle as the horse kept throwing his head around. His eyes were on fire.

“Easy now, boy,” Theo said, holding onto the horse’s nose and steadying him. “Can’t wait to get at it, eh? Listen,” he added as Lara slipped the bit into the horse’s mouth. “I put three grand on him to win.”

“You did what?” Lara hissed. “You do not bet!”

“Hey! Lighten up!” Theo replied. “I got 12-1 online. After this race, God willing, I’ll be a free man.”

“But they will think I ’ave been cheating with him!” Lara said, feeling outraged. “How could you do this to me, Theo?”

“You want me to end up dead?” Theo muttered. Lara gulped. “How’s his foot?” Theo added nervously.

“I am not telling you,” Lara replied angrily, glancing at Crawfish Brown in the next stall. She was certain he’d overheard their conversation. If so, everyone in the Race Barn would soon know all about it.

“Hey! What d’you think you’re doing? You’ve hooked the lines up to the head halter, instead of the bit, you dumb idiot!” trainer Tom Larson growled at Crawfish, as Mountain Boy’s driver appeared.

“Can’t get it right all the time,” Crawfish grumbled, hurriedly fixing the mistake. “What are you standing there grinning for? Lead ’im out!” Larson shouted.

Crawfish jumped to it. But Lara noticed him hanging back after Mountain Boy had left the Race Barn, his left eyelid blinking rapidly. Her heart sank. Wherever Crawfish was, trouble was sure to follow.

Outside the Race Barn, a crowd of horsemen had gathered to watch the running of the second race. Lara joined them, her heart beating faster. What if she’d got it wrong? What if Southview Sabre was no good tonight? There was so much at stake, not just for the horse, but for her cousin as well. She understood Theo needed to get the money from somewhere to clear his debts. But why did her horse have to be involved?

As the starting car sped away, Theo grabbed the lead and opened up four lengths. The move did not go unnoticed.

“I got the first eighth in thirteen seconds,” trainer Keith Lazer exclaimed, staring at his stopwatch.

“Arrogant bastard,” Tony Hall exclaimed. “He’s as good as won!” Crawfish said excitedly. He was clutching a betting ticket, evidently dreaming of cashing it in.

“My horse is getting a great trip!” Tom Cowboy Larsen said happily, watching Mountain Boy narrow the gap with the leader. “Jesus!” he added, ripping his Stetson off his head. “What’s that fool Harper think he’s doing?”

Mountain Boy’s driver, Harry Harper, had brought his horse up to challenge Theo for the lead. The horse’s white stockings were pumping like pistons. Lara uttered a sigh of relief when Mountain Boy got to the top. A grudge match was the last thing her horse needed.

To her consternation, Theo immediately swung Southview Sabre out to retake the lead and the two horses pulled away, fighting it out head to head.

Suddenly Mountain Boy fell back. The crowd screamed. Mountain Boy had dropped like a stone, catapulting Harry Harper up and over the horse’s head. The driver landed hard and lay still. Unaware of the mayhem behind him, Theo carried on. Not for long!

“Accident! Accident!” the track announcer called out urgently. “Stop your horses!” With a heavy heart, Lara watched as one of the outriders set off at a gallop, urging her pony on to intercept Theo, who was now fifteen or twenty lengths ahead of the pack. The other drivers were finally slowing down. The racetrack was suddenly crowded with horsemen, running to help the injured. Harry Harper and Mountain Boy lay strewn across the track, both of them ominously still.

The vet ran over to Mountain Boy, who lay on the stone dust track, looking like he was made out of stone himself. Soon afterwards, Harry Harper got to his feet, looking a little dazed, too much cheering and clapping. Mountain Boy was stirring too. Tom Larson plonked himself down on the horse’s head and immediately began bawling Crawfish out.

“Get this sulky off ’im before he comes to, you retard!” he cursed. “This is all your fault! Take a good look at that hopple hanger! No wonder he fell. It’s popped right out of the keeper. What d’you think I gave you that tape for eh?”

Crawfish stood motionless, his face working, as if he had a great deal to say but was afraid to voice it. “You’re damn lucky he’s only winded,” Larson continued angrily. “You could’ve fuckin’ killed him!”

“That’s it! I quit,” Crawfish declared, throwing down the bath bucket he’d been carrying and shuffling off.

“Hey! Come back ’ere,” Larson said. “I ain’t done with you yet!”

Crawfish kept right on going. Leaving Larson in the lurch did little to make up for a thoroughly disappointing evening. But it did cheer him up, just a bit.

Stay tuned in to Harnesslink every week for another excerpt from Horse Flesh!

Each week, Harnesslink will feature an excerpt from Horse Flesh. If you wish to purchase the book either in paperback or ereader formats, click here.

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