Note: There is no Fleet Week Handicap race at Belmont or anywhere else, as far as I know. Also, I don't own these characters and, sadly, make no money from them.
All in the Family
"I'm entering Black in the Fleet Week Handicap next week."
Alec didn't bother looking up from today's Racing Form. "Fine. He wants another race."
"Rarin' to go?"
"Good." Henry started towards the tack trunk, then paused. "I'm also thinking about starting Onyx as well."
"In the Fleet Week?"
Henry nodded. "I was going to ask Billy if he was interested in the ride."
Alec's eyes were still on the article he was reading. "Billy's going to be in Kentucky for his brother's wedding next weekend."
"What about Manny?"
"I heard he already has a ride—The Count, I think."
Henry made a face. "Jay?"
"His wife is due in a few days, he said he's going home to be with her for a few weeks. I think he left last night or something."
Henry was getting annoyed; he was a top trainer and he had a top horse for someone to ride. "Tommy?"
Alec shook his head. "He's already booked and so are Santiago, Tim, Juan, Carlos and just about everyone else worth having. I think that you may have to go with a 'B' lister this time—you're late asking around for a big race, Henry. You know that." He looked calmly at his partner.
"If I have to, I'll fly someone in."
"Don't fly someone in." That would cost more money than either of them liked to spend. Alec put down the paper and stood up, getting the currycomb and going into Black's stall. "Try one of the kids on Onyx and see if one of them can handle it."
"I want someone who knows what they're doing, not some kid still wet behind the ears—he's a valuable animal."
"It can't hurt to try one or two of them, the worst thing would be they don't work out and you have to keep looking."
"The more time I spend looking, the less time I have to work with a rider."
Henry was right of course, but Alec didn't think it would be that hard to find someone who knew what they were doing. They were a top stable and Henry was a top trainer. Plus, this was Belmont—the place was thick with decent riders. Frankly, it was a compliment even to be asked to ride by Henry and all the jocks knew it. "I'll ask around for you if you want."
"Sure, go ahead, but I may ask that new bug boy, the one you were eating lunch with today."
"Fine." He seemed like a decent guy and maybe they'd get lucky, but Alec was surprised that Henry would consider someone without much experience. Well, whatever.
The next morning Alec had the Black saddled and ready to take around the track in a breeze when an apprentice, the new guy named Richie something, brought Onyx out to join the workout. He hadn't been around New York racing all that long but he seemed to be steady, down to earth and a hard worker. He had potential.
"Okay, follow Alec around the track and then when you come off the final turn bring him wide and see if he'll challenge Black; see what he does."
"Okay, Mr. Daily. I'll try."
"Don't try. Do it!"
Richie shrunk about six inches. "Yes sir. I will, sir."
Alec caught a quick look at the poor kid's face as they trotted out to their starting position. "Don't let him get to you, okay? Just ride the horse."
"Okay, sir. I will, Mr. Ramsay." Oh cripes.
"Call me Alec. C'mon, let's go. I'll take the lead and when we're about half way through the final turn make your move. You probably won't be able to get past Black but do your best." He turned Black around so he was facing counterclockwise, ready to take off and anxious to break into a full gallop from where Alec was holding in position. As soon as Richie had Onyx set he started a count; "1, 2, 3…GO!"
Black jumped into gear like he was spring loaded, leaving Onyx behind in the first few strides which lengthened as the simple breeze took them around the track. Mid through the final turn and headed for home Richie should have tried to make his move but he'd been unable to control his horse, letting him run wide and setting his own pace instead of obeying his rider. Coming down the stretch he was almost a half a furlong back and had no chance of getting any closer.
Alec saw Henry shake his head in disgust. So much for Richie, though Henry was tactful enough to say he should try Hopeful Farm again when he had more seasoning.
Later, back at their stable block Henry told Alec he'd spoken to Eddie Smits; the current meeting's top rider had agreed to try Onyx the next morning. They'd repeat the same workout they'd tried this morning and hope for better results. In the mean time Alec needed to give Onyx a real run to make sure he didn't get the idea that he was making the race decisions in his own little horse brain. Two hours later Alec did so, having no problem with the animal and Onyx having no question about who was in charge on the track.
At six-thirty the next morning Alec and Eddie reran yesterday's workout with everything going fine until Onyx started his move to pass the Black coming out of the final turn, just as Henry had requested. As soon as he pulled even with Black's heels, Onyx veered to the outside by several yards, losing ground and falling back by several lengths.
Calling both riders over, Henry walked onto the edge of the track. "What happened?"
Eddie shook his head. "He just freaked when he saw he was getting so close to Black, I couldn't hold him." He shifted in his saddle. "You want to try it again?"
"Alec? What did it seem like to you?"
"I didn't see anything, Henry. He didn't get close enough for me to see him—I could hear him and I assume Black could, too, but we never actually saw him."
"Black didn't do anything to upset him?"
Alec shook his head. "He was just breezing, nothing special. If anything he was pulling to go faster."
"Try 'em again. Same instructions."
The riders took their horses through their paces. This time Eddie almost managed to pull even with the Black, when Onyx tried to reach over and nip Black on the neck. Eddie gave him a sharp smack with his hand, which drew the horse's head back but that also caused him to start bucking.
Henry called them over. "What was that?"
"I dunno, I think he was playing." Eddie seemed embarrassed.
"Okay, take 'em back to the barn. Eddie…"
"I know, Henry, no hard feelings. Your horse doesn't want to run for me. It happens to all of us once in a while."
"I'll call you when I have another horse Alec isn't available to ride, Eddie. We all know you win races."
Later Henry and Alec were sitting in the horseman's cafeteria eating dinner. "So what are we going to do about a rider, Alec? You have any other ideas? I was sure Eddie would be the one and now I don't know if I can get anyone I want. You jocks stick together, you all know each other's business—think you can get us someone?"
"I'll see who I can come up with."
"I'd hate to have to scratch the horse."
"I know. Me, too."
Henry sipped his iced tea. "So, are you going up to the farm later?"
Alec wiped the ketchup off his mouth. "I want to see Pam."
Henry smiled at him. "I'll bet you do."
"Knock it off, Henry."
"So, do you want to?" Alec and Pam were riding two of the two-year-olds back from the training track after a half-mile breeze.
"You're serious, aren't you?"
"Of course I am. C'mon Pam, you know you can do this, it's not like you've never ridden a race before and you know Onyx. There shouldn't be any problem." That was an exaggeration and they both knew it. Any number of things could go wrong in a race, countless things. Big time racing was dangerous to the horses and the riders and Alec had seen too many people and good horses hurt and killed to take it as lightly as he was trying to make it seem. Pam knew it, too and she'd been on Black Sand when he was killed two years ago at Aqueduct.
Actually, Alec was torn about Pam riding Onyx in the Fleet Week, but he also knew that her feelings would have been hurt if he didn't at least ask. He was hoping that she'd say no and then Henry could do what he thought he had to; fly someone in, scratch the horse, whatever.
"But why is Henry even entering him against the Black? Isn't that like trying to pit one of your kids against another?"
Alec shook his head. "Black is the heavy favorite; realistically Onyx will be running for second money."
Pam made a face. "That's arrogant."
"That's honest. This is his first race against older, more experienced horses, it's sort of an advanced training race for him."
"And there's a chance that Hopeful Farm may make more money."
"Sure. Plus if we manage two horses on the board, then it's good publicity and should help us at the yearling sales next month."
They were back at the barn and both dismounted, stripped off their horse's tack and handed them over to the grooms to cool out while they continued their conversation and got the next pair of two year olds ready for their turn up at the training track. "Are you sure that you're okay with this? I thought that you didn't like it when I raced last summer."
Alec rode a few steps before answering. "I was afraid that you'd get hurt—not because you're not a good rider but because you're not an experienced race rider. I'm still worried about that but it's your decision to make."
"You're not going to forbid me from trying?"
"I'm not your father, Pam. I don't tell you what to do, you know that. You wouldn't listen, anyway." He smiled to take the sting out of his words and paused a moment before continuing. "If you want to do this then you know that I'll support you any way I can, short of throwing the race."
"But you know as well as I do that it's dangerous. I don't want you hurt."
She kissed him, touched, knowing he was worried about her, just like she worried about him every time he rode a race. But if she did this then it would be one more thing they'd share, even if it were the only race they ever rode together. It would be fine. Just this once.
Later that evening, after dinner, Pam closed the book she was reading. "I think I'd like to try riding, if you're sure that you're okay with it."
Alec looked over at her and nodded. "I'll call Henry and let him know. The race is Saturday, I have to go back down to Belmont tomorrow; you should probably come with me to work Onyx. We can play it by ear after the workout. We'll leave as soon as we exercise the horses here."
Later that night Alec woke up, shaking and sweating from a nightmare. It was the Fleet Week Handicap, they'd been in the stretch drive with Pam pulling even against the Black, trying to get a nose ahead before the wire when Onyx had gone down, his left foreleg snapped from the strain of a poorly placed stride. Pam had fallen in the direct path of the rest of the field, her face terrified and vainly pleading to him for help, the last thing he saw before he was jerked awake.
He lay there in the dark, Pam asleep beside him, trying to calm his pounding heart and control his breathing without waking her; apprehensive about what could happen in a few days.
As soon as the announcement was made that Pam Ramsay would be riding Onyx in the Fleet Week the media circus began in earnest. Not only was Alec riding the Black in what was looking like one of the last races of the animal's career—he was almost seven years old, after all—but Mrs. Ramsay, the hottest blonde on the circuit would be riding one of Black's son's in the same race. The things the press could do with a set up like that would put any paparazzi to shame. Professional sports, lots of money at stake, true love between two extremely attractive and popular young people and you have a winning mix, no matter how the race turned out.
Alec and Henry both did what they could to tone it down so Pam would have less to deal with, but there wasn't all that much they could do short of sending her home. Belmont's management was loving the attention and were promoting it as much as they could, whether Hopeful Farm and its people liked it or not. They were all followed around the barns, followed when they went to get something to eat, followed when they worked the horses, photographed constantly and generally hounded until they were forced to plead for some space to protect the horses. It was a little better after that, but only a little.
On race day Alec and Pam were getting some breakfast after a training breeze with the two horses an hour or so earlier. They'd hoped that by being the first on the track they might avoid some of the craziness but there were still at least a dozen reporters and photographers, along with several requests for full out interviews, which were politely put off until later.
"Pam, I'm sorry. I really didn't think it would be this bad." He knew the constant attention was getting to her and he understood; it was bothering him, too. This was the kind of thing he'd hated when he was first starting out and it still irritated him when it got as thick as it was this week. "This is worse than Triple Crown stuff."
"How do you put up with it?"
"You just take it one step at a time and keep in mind that as soon as the race is over, win or lose, it's pretty much done."
"The race is at four."
"And by five this will all go away and you never have to deal with it ever again." He took her hand and lightly kissed the back of it. Just at that moment a flash went off, Alec turned and frowned at the photographer who shrugged an apology and left as security approached him.
Pam looked like she might cry. "I hate having our privacy invaded but I love that we're doing this together."
"Someday we can tell our grandchildren?" He was trying to tease her out of the momentary sadness.
"I think we should have first children and tell them, don't you?"
His smile faded a bit. "When we're ready, yes."
"You know how I feel about this, Pam; I want kids as much as you do, but I want to wait until we're both ready. We're still young ourselves, we have plenty of time."
She nodded. Yes, she knew how Alec felt and she knew how much he wanted to raise their children. In a little while, maybe a year or two.
"One thing at a time. Let's get through this race first." He stood up. "Ready?"
"First place is worth a million dollars, isn't it?"
He nodded. "Two hundred thousand for second, fifty thousand for third."
"And the winning jockey gets ten percent of the purse, right?" She gave him a sideways look.
He nodded. "Place and show jocks get five percent, minus expenses."
"Winner pays for dinner." They were holding hands as they walked out.
At ten to four the horses were called to the post for the Fleet Week Handicap. There was a field of ten horses with the Black the overwhelming favorite at even odds. Onyx was considered a long shot at 37-1 and the rest of the field fell somewhere in between. Black had been assigned to carry the high weight of 131 pounds, a standard weight for him by now and Onyx was the light horse at 103. The mutual office and OTB were reporting close to record betting because of the 'Love Handicap' as the press had dubbed the race.
The Perfecta's for Black to win and Onyx to place were the most popular bet and were setting record sales for Belmont. ( A Perfecta is a combination bet on two horses where the bettor tries to predict the exact order/names of the first and second place horses in a race.) Attendance and the gate receipts were higher than management had hoped for. Television rights were an added bonus.
Alec had managed, barely, not to roll his eyes when a reporter had asked him if he'd be a gentleman and let his wife win. "Only if her horse runs faster than mine does." He'd also been pleasantly surprised when none of the other jocks seemed at all upset about the amount of press he and Pam were getting. They all understood that whatever brought more attention to the sport was a good thing and accepted it as such. It also didn't hurt that Alec had long ago paid his dues and Pam had a win on Black from last fall to take away any talk about nepotism or publicity stunt.
The horses finished the post parade with Black, as usual, refusing to stay in line, cantering ahead on his own. Both dressed in Hopeful Farm's black and white silks, Alec and Pam didn't acknowledge one another, either in the parade or the load-in; they were both focused on the job at hand, as were all the riders.
The ten horses were in the gate, the riders poised and ready to go, the silence wouldn't hold more than a few more seconds…
The clanging bells and gates slamming opened sent the horses surging forward for a clean start. The day was sunny and the track fast.
Black settled into the middle of the pack as Alec guided him over to the outside to avoid any bumping or their being hemmed in. He didn't know where Pam was and couldn't see her as he glanced at the straining horses near them but wasn't worried; she knew how to ride and she knew what to do to stay as safe as possible. He forced himself to put her out of his mind as they came off the turn and started down the backstretch.
Black was running easily and Alec was comfortable letting the two 'rabbits' in the race set a too fast pace to tire off the rest of the field. He knew exactly what their split times were—like any decent jockey he was more than capable of keeping time in his head, down to fractions of seconds—and the pace was just where he wanted it to be. As long as they kept out of trouble, they had a good shot at the win and everyone he was riding against knew it. No one would do anything to purposely endanger anyone, but a few of them might play a little fast and lose if they thought they could get away with it. Ten percent of a million dollars was a lot of money.
They swept into the final turn as Alec let his reins out a notch. Black responded, doing his job and moved up easily on the four horses in front of them. Coming out of the turn into the homestretch, Alec let him have his head, feeling the familiar surge of power from the huge horse shifting into another gear, the tiring front runners beaten within a hundred feet of entering the straightaway.
Alec saw the final furlong pole flash by them as they pulled four lengths ahead, going away. That was it. The race was his and he started to make the mistake of relaxing for the final two hundred and twenty yards when he heard the roar from the stands and saw Black's ears flick backwards as they both heard the hoof beats gaining on them. He glanced back under his arm and saw another black horse coming up fast on the inside, his nose at Black's hindquarters, no other horses in striking distance.
Onyx gained slowly, his head up even with Alec's boots, inch by inch as they raced closer and closer to the finish line, the large crowd roaring at the hoped for duel for the wire.
Alec shouted to his horse, though Black hardly needed any encouragement; both of them hated to lose, loved to win and were as competitive as they come.
They went under the wire winners by half a length, Pam and Onyx claiming second money in an upset against an experienced field.
As they stood in their stirrups and headed for the first turn again as their horses slowed, Alec turned to look at Pam, riding a couple of lengths behind him, both of them smiling. Half way through the turn the two horses stopped with the usual mounted reporter and cameraman catching up and already starting with questions, almost all of them directed at Pam. Alec didn't care about that, he knew that she was prettier than he was.
"Pam, Pam, did you and Alec plan to end the race one-two like that?"
"No one plans how to end any race, we just both rode as well as we can."
"Was the Black pressed by his son today? If it had been a longer race, do you think he would have caught his old man, here?" Black was wheeling and feeling fractious, ready to buck if the reporter's horses got any closer and Alec moved him closer to the inside rail as they turned back towards the stands.
"Black has proved himself in every race he's ever been in; Onyx is still just a teenager compared to his sire."
"Alec? Any comments?"
"I didn't see Pam's ride, but I'm looking forward to it when I get a chance to look at the tapes. Sorry, Lou, but I think they're waiting for me over there." He nodded towards the winner's circle then looked at Pam. "And I'll see you soon. You're buying dinner, right?"
"You are, you won—and I pick the place." She laughed as she turned Onyx back to the barn, the crowd noise almost deafening, disappointed the two jockeys hadn't shared a celebratory kiss in their view.
Alec moved the Black away before he could cause trouble. The stallion was feeling full of himself this afternoon.
The mounted reporter stayed with Pam as she rode off, leaving Alec to deal with the usual post race ceremony and pictures over in the winner's circle. "Any more plans to ride race horses, Pam?"
She laughed, happy and excited. "One race at a time, okay? One at a time."
A couple of hours later Alec and Pam forced Henry into their car to join them for the promised dinner, him complaining that he couldn't understand why they'd want an old fossil like him along. Hopeful Farm had made one million, two hundred thousand dollars today and it was largely because Henry was so good at his job training racehorses.
"So what are you two going to be doing with all that pile of money you made for yourselves today?" Alec and Pam didn't answer, just exchanged small smiles. When the time came it might well be used to outfit a nursery.
"I don't want to do that again, Alec. I…don't."
He knew what she was talking about and wasn't surprised. "You're sure?"
She nodded. "I was terrified. It was worse than when I rode Black last fall. I thought it would be easier but it wasn't; it was just scary, the whole thing. I was shaking so hard during the post parade I'm surprised no one noticed. And all that publicity; I don't know how you deal with it. I felt like I couldn't breathe."
"You get used to it." He tightened his arms around her. "And I won't ask you again. If you ever change your mind, tell me, but otherwise it's a closed subject." She nodded, satisfied and glad that he hadn't put up any kind of an argument or tried to convince her otherwise. "You know I'm going to keep racing, though, right?"
She turned closer to him, rubbing the skin of his chest with her hand. "I know. I know how much you love it, just don't expect me to not be frightened whenever you race."
There was silence for a while, long enough Alec thought Pam had fallen asleep but he wanted to know the answer, "You said you were frightened after that race you rode Black a few months ago. What made you agree to ride this one?"
"I needed to see if the first race was a fluke, besides, I wanted to see what it's like for you out there. You seem so calm about it all, I wanted to see for myself if you really are that confident out there."
"You are. I couldn't do what you do; just be careful, okay?"
He kissed her forehead. "I always am."