Disclaimer: I don't own these characters and make no money from them, unfortunately.
It was close to eight AM and Alec Ramsay was just about done riding for the morning. He'd worked three of the two year olds Henry had in training and was heading back to the barn when Phil Jackson, the head trainer for Cautious Farm in Kentucky and the current Trainer of the Year called him over to the rail. Alex was relaxed in the saddle, his feet hanging loose from the stirrups.
"So, we're all set with shipping our mares up to Hopeful Farm, right?"
"No problem, Phil—I'm sure Satan's looking forward to it." Satan was standing at stud back home.
They turned to watch Phil's five horses come down the stretch in a pick up race. The gray, Phantom, was an up and coming three year old and was getting a lot of press so Alec was curious to see how he moved. He was bringing up the rear and was trying to make a hole in the pack, bull his way through, though from the way he was shaking his head, the idea was the rider's and not the horses. Alec could see what was going to happen before it occurred. Guided too close to the horse in front of him, the gray stumbled as he clipped the bay's heels and almost went down, recovering by the skin of his teeth, the jockey thrown back and forth before regaining his seat—barely.
Beside him, Alec heard Phil swear and take off his baseball cap, flagging the riders over. Alec rode off just as he tore a strip of the apprentice jock that'd made the mistake. Ted Ruffalo, was that the kid's name? Something like that. Alec didn't know him too well, but he seemed like he needed a lot more seasoning before he was ready for the big leagues.
Later that afternoon, Alec won the third race aboard one of Hopeful Farm's own two year olds and was relaxing in the sun on a bench outside the jockey room, talking with a couple of the other riders when the heavyset trainer approached. "Hello gentlemen—Alec, you got a minute?"
"Sure Phil, what's up?"
"You busy for the Revlon Handicap tomorrow?"
"No, we don't have anything entered in it."
"How would you feel about riding Wingnut for me? I mean if you're okay with riding someone else's horses, that is."
"I'm fine with it as long as I'm not trying to beat my own horses." Alec glanced over at Ted, he knew the kid was trying to break into riding races in the afternoon and his face dropped as soon as Phil opened his mouth. Alec felt badly for him but business was business. And it wasn't like he'd gone to Phil—Phil had come to him.
"Then we're set? Good. Take him for a breeze in the morning and I'll see how you do on him. Shouldn't be a problem, right?"
"Nah, 'should be fine. I'm working our horses for Henry but as soon as I'm finished."
Phil smiled, nodded at Ted and left the two jockeys with a couple other riders who'd heard the exchange. Alec didn't say anything; there didn't seem much to say. It simply was what it was. Trainers and owners liked to use established riders and if they had a reputation for winning big races, all the better. Alec had two Kentucky Derbies and the Triple Crown to his credit, along with a laundry list of most of the biggest races in the business—he was high profile, a star. He was in demand for the top horses owned by the top stables and would be as long as he kept winning. The others knew how it worked and no one blamed Alec but it made it hard on the riders trying to catch a break when the top mounts almost always went to a small handful of known riders. The conversation moved on to other talk; this was just a normal day at the office for all of them
The next morning Alec met Phil like he said he would and came close to a track record on Wingnut during another pickup training race with three other horses Phil had arranged for. There was no question of him riding the horse in the big race that afternoon. Alec got speed out of him without injuring the animal and that was what counted.
Around four-thirty Alec walked into the jockey room to change for the Revlon just in time to overhear part of a conversation between a couple of the journeyman jockeys. "C'mon man, there's no use complaining—you know how it works—the name jocks get the good horses. Always have, always will."
"So how are we supposed to make a damn living, you wanna tell me that? You get four or five guys who make a million dollars a year and we get squat."
"You stick around, you build yourself a good rep and you may get lucky, that's how."
Alec knew they were talking about him but what was he supposed to do about it? Give them his rides? Apologize for being good at his job? Besides, he had his share of losers, just like everyone did—he didn't win them all by any means. He held back a moment to listen.
"Man, it's always the same—the superstars get all the breaks and the rest of us get the crumbs."
"What crawled up your butt, man—your girl leave you or something?"
"I'm sitting outside here yesterday—it's a nice day, y'know? Phil Jackson walks up—I've been riding every morning for him for what—six weeks now? He barely says hello to me and outta nowhere asks Ramsay if he'll ride Wing in the Revlon. I mean, Christ—Wing's my horse, y'know?"
"C'mon, man, Ramsay's a good guy—and Phil asked him, not the other way around."
"Yeah, sure—Boy Wonder cleans up again—like he needs another hundred grand." Alec heard something being thrown. "And the thing that really gets me is that he's like nineteen, twenty years old—he's still wet behind the ears, f'Chrissakes."
"Yeah, well when you have the credentials Ramsay has you can complain and sure he's young—but he won that big match race with the Black when he was like twelve, thirteen years old and he's been busting his butt ever since… he's earned what he's got. You don't like it, find another line of work."
"Maybe I'd have some of his creds if he didn't get every damn race—him and about three other guys who can do whatever they want. I've been doing this, going from track to track for twenty years now and I'm barely paying my bills and then some kid like the Boy Wonder locks up every race worth riding…"
"Yeah, whatever—all I'm saying is that when you win a Triple Crown and a couple of Derbies like Ramsay has, you can pick and choose your rides."
Alec had heard enough and he'd heard it for years now. The conversation stopped the moment he stepped into sight and went to his locker. Some of the guys nodded to him, a few avoided him. It was like this everywhere he went and was getting tired. The journeyman who was doing most of the talking tried to stare Alec down, but he was way out of his league and turned away—Alec had been dealing with guys like this since he was in high school. After a few moments Alec turned back to his own locker, changing into his kit and pulling on the orange and blue silks of Cautious Farms then moved over to hang with a couple of his friends.
Jealousy was pretty common in the jock's room when the less successful guys had trouble getting mounts. Plus every rider had the expenses of supplying most of their own equipment—boots, breeches, helmets, flakjackets, goggles, saddles, travel expenses, motel rooms—they all added up fast. Most of them had wives and families to support and spent months traveling from track to track chasing the rides. It was hard on a person and it was even harder on a marriage. Alec wasn't sure what the divorce stats were with racetracers but he knew they were high. He worried about it with him and Pam—he worried about it a lot and was doing what he could to minimize how much they were apart but there wasn't any easy solution. If he was going to do his job he had to travel. Right now the farm couldn't afford to hire an outside jock for every race and, aside from that, Alec loved racing. The simple fact was that it wasn't an easy life and lately he'd started to question just where his priorities were.
Part of him wanted to stop race riding and move over to training but they needed a reliable stable rider and Henry wouldn't step down if he didn't have to—working with the horses was what kept him going. Alec would simply have to swallow it for a few more years; he knew that.
Another jock showed him a magazine, interrupting his thoughts, "Hey Alec, you see this week's Blood Horse?"
"Not yet, 'Something interesting?" Manuel was a good guy; they'd been friends since meeting up at Saratoga a few years ago. A couple of Alec's other friends were standing close by as well, lending support and sending a message to the second string to mind their manners with the more established riders.
"Depends if you think a two page article about yourself is interesting." Manny handed him a copy.
Cripes, talk about perfect timing—he hadn't known anything about this and scanned it quickly. "I didn't talk to this guy—this is all stock stuff and the picture is like four years old. They just needed some filler, that's all."
"C'mon, Ramsay, tell the truth—that's a nice picture of Pam there, you know they'll do anything to get some cheesecake into this rag. Somehow you got yourself a looker and everyone knows she can ride circles around you on a track—proposed to her on a dark night when she didn't realize what she was getting herself into, huh? That's why you keep her stashed up at your farm, right?"
"It's the truth, Johnny, in fact I'm retiring and letting her support me in the style I'd like to become accustomed."
"You tell Pam I'll share a locker with her anytime—in fact, as soon as she gets tired of you, you send her my way, okay? In fact, you tell her I'm willing to share if she'd just like a nice change of pace."
"You can tell her yourself, Manny."
"I'm gonna make sure she knows you said so, Ramsay."
"Riders for race seven. Riders weigh in for seven, please." That was the Revlon, the featured race. A group of ten riders, including Alec and his friends made their way over to the scales and stood on line, still chatting. One by one, their valets handed them their gear as they took turns stepping on the scale. Finished, they went through the doorway leading to the saddling area, passing the race fans lined up to watch them make the walk—something Alec always found an odd thing. They were just walking down a passageway, not doing anything interesting but the people were always there, always asking which horse would win, whom they should bet on. It was strange.
Just as he turned to meet Phil and Nightwing, Alec's shoulder was roughly and intentionally bumped by Ted the apprentice. The kid had picked up a ride on a last minute entry with long odds but Alec heard the half whispered, half hissed "Watch your back, Ramsay—that's all I'm saying." It was ridiculous and heavy handed—a stupid thing to do and Alec, Manny and Johnny laughed as they made their way to their own mounts.
In the saddling area Alec got his instructions from Phil—stay clear, stay on the outside if he could and make his move at the middle of the backstretch if he had the racing room. Then try to make sure he wasn't caught up on the rail coming around the final turn, 'Wing tended to run wide so don't let him drift if he could help it. If he were boxed in he'd get upset so make sure that he wasn't—and if it did, be prepared for whatever might happen. Nodding, Alec was given a leg up and joined the line of horses headed out to the track. He warmed the horse up in a canter, avoided the others and made his way to the gate for the load in to stall number six, next to Ted in number five. The two men ignored one another, concentrating on their own mounts as they settled down, waiting for the start.
The tension built as they waited, poised over their mounts when suddenly the number three horse broke out of his gate, running twenty or so yards down the track before he was brought back under control. Two or three minutes passing while he was reloaded and bringing the stress level of the other riders up a few notches.
Finally the bells clanged for a clean start, the jocks pushing their mounts forward, yelling and scrambling for racing room as they broke from the gate, the crowd screaming; it was the familiar chaos and the race was on.
The horses crowded going into the first turn, just like always. There was bumping, shouting from jock to jock, demands for racing room and dire threats if it wasn't given. Alec tried to so as Phil had instructed, he kept Nightwing towards the outside, giving up a little distance but keeping clear of trouble. He saw two horses bump hard, the dark gray almost going down and recovering to fall back by half a dozen lengths. The pack headed into the stretch; the early leaders starting to tire and fall back into the middle of the surging animals as Alec started to move his horse up a few places.
The track was still damp from last night's rain and Wing didn't like the clumps of clotted mud flying into his face, shaking his head and trying to go wide again into the clear but Alec held him in place so they wouldn't lose ground, feeling the animal's anger growing. They swept into the final turn in third position behind the two leaders and, Alec hoped, with speed to spare.
Coming into the homestretch Alec knew it was time to push the horse if they were going to have any chance of wining this thing. He could hear the growing screams and cheers from the stands as they raced past, could hear the breath from his mount starting to come hard. The hoof beats of the horses were lost in the roar from the fans. The last furlong pole flashed by as Alec finally went for his crop—something he never used on Hopeful Farm's own horses but required by Phil. He gave Wing a good slap on his rump and felt the horse shift into another gear, catching the two frontrunners with about a hundred yards to the wire. The horses raced three across to the finish line, head to head to head until Alec gave Nightwing one final belt with the crop and sent him ahead by a nose. They went under the wire in front, winners by less than six inches after a mile and a quarter.
Slowing his horse as they rounded the first curve again, he caught a glimpse of Ted, the apprentice jock, who'd managed to hold on for third place money, his face was twisted with anger as he looked back at Alec. Alec simply ignored him as he turned back to the winner's circle.
After the usual award presentation of the trophy and the check to the winning owner, the usual pictures were taken, the usual brief interviews were held with the usual questions and then Alec was done for the day. A few minutes later he was back in the jockey room sitting on the bench in front of his locker, decompressing, resting, gathering his energy to strip and shower. Maybe the Jacuzzi was free and he could have a long soak—that would feel good. He unsnapped the front of the unfamiliar silks, tossed them into the laundry bin, pulled off his boots and socks and stood. He had had his tee shirt and the rest off and was in his terry robe when Ted the apprentice walked over for another confrontation.
"So you pulled it off again, Ramsay—and how much of that purse will you be donating to the MacBeth Fund?"
( The Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund is a charitable organization in the US that raises money to help injured and disabled jockeys and their families. For information, please go to:
Ignoring the taunt, Alec tried to step around the other rider but the tone of his raised voice had attracted the attention of some of the other nearby men. "Actually, Ted, Alec has organized a few fund raisers for the fund—but you knew that, right?" Manuel nudged Alec. "You donated a big chunk of your Triple Crown bonus to the fund, didn't you?"
"C'mon, Manny, drop it. It doesn't matter." Alec simply wasn't in the mood for this. Besides, he knew how tough it was for the anonymous majority of working jocks. "You still got third money with a longshot, Ted. You did all right today yourself." Most of them would never even get the chance to put a leg up on a Derby horse, let alone win the race. It was a hard, dangerous life and a frustrating one and Alec knew that as well. Sure, he'd been lucky enough to have top horses and Henry to guide him but not too many had the breaks—both good and bad—that he had. Most of these guys were lucky to just pay their bills every month.
The jockey room had gone silent as everyone in the place watched what was happening. No one moved, no one said anything; they all just stood there taking it in.
He tried, again, to get by to get to the shower area. Ted still wouldn't move. Alec's patience—while long—wasn't endless and most of the jocks in the room knew it. Ted wasn't just being an ass; he was being stupid as well. One of Ted's friends took his arm, trying to get him to back away. Ted wasn't just messing with Ramsay, bad enough as that was, he was seriously cheesing off the entire group of 'A list' jocks who were all solidly in Ramsay's camp. That could have some serious repercussions for the Ted's chances of future rides both here and at other tracks around the country. What these guys said, their opinions mattered to trainers and owners and if they got mad enough, Ted could kiss his career goodbye. "Ted, c'mon. That's enough."
"Back off." Ted glared at his friend. "He took my horse. That should have been my win."
"Ted, drop it. Now. Alec didn't do anything to you—you screwed up that workout and you got pulled because of it. Don't be dumb, man. You were lucky to even be in the starting gate today and you know it."
Ted seemed to deflate slightly, maybe realizing that he'd gone too far and had put his job in possible jeopardy. Everyone in the jockey room had seen and heard the confrontation. They'd all seen Ramsay try to deflect and ignore it and they'd all seen Ted try to escalate things. Barely twenty year old Ramsay had been the complete professional. Thirty-five year old Ted had acted like a green kid still wet behind the ears.
Ted backed down with everyone staring at him, knowing he'd made a fool out of himself and that it would be remembered. He ducked his head and took a breath then spoke to Alec. "Hey, look—sorry, man. I guess I got a little heated for a minute."
Alec nodded. "It happens, forget about it."
"No hard feelings?"
Alec reached out his hand, Ted took it. "We're good." Problem settled, for now anyway, Alec was finally able to move past and get to the showers.
"Riders for race number nine weigh in. Race nine." The call broke the tension and after a brief pause, the usual talk and noise started up again. Things were back to normal. This was racing; tempers flared sometimes. It happened. Not riding a winner for almost three weeks straight would frustrate anyone.
Later that night Alec was sitting alone on a haybale outside of Black's stall, just relaxing, enjoying the quiet after the day. Black had stretched his neck over the webbing so Alec could rub his nose for him. If they'd been up at the farm he might have slipped on his back for a private tour around the fields, just the two of them.
"So I heard there was a problem in the jock room today. You okay?"
Alec glanced over at Henry. "Sure, it wasn't anything."
Henry sat beside him. "You know that when you're at the top, people get jealous."
"It's part of the game. It's part of your life—can you handle it?"
"Yeah, sure." Alec stood up, stretched; he was tired and ready to get to bed. "Besides, what choice do I have?"