Up at the farm Alec's parents were sitting on the porch after dinner. He'd come back late that afternoon, excited about going down to Kentucky in another week or so and going on during dinner about Onyx's chances and the possibility of running two horses this year. Of course, Henry was also talking about Black Tide going in the Oaks, but he still had time to make a final decision. His mother was frightened, even more than she usually was when he rode a race and she'd made no secret a bout her feelings.
"You're not fully recovered from the operation and you haven't ridden in a race for over two months—Alec, be sensible, please."
He'd just laughed off her concerns, assuring her that he was fine, Henry had watched him ride and agreed that he was as good as ever. Nothing would go wrong, the Triple Crown races were probably the safest ones he could ride in because of all the publicity. No jock would try anything, no one could get away with any dirty tricks and everyone was as pampered as it was possible to be in major racing. Nothing bad would happen.
She didn't believe him, she knew him too well and when he went on and on about how everything was perfect, that was when he was hiding something. It had been the same with him since he was five years old.
The next few days Alec was busy making sure that everything was running smoothly so that he could leave without worry. Then, his bag packed, he headed off to New York to meet Henry. They'd van Onyx and Black Tide down to Louisville and settle in for the madness of Derby week. The decisions were made; Onyx was officially entered in the Derby and Black Tide would be running in the Oaks.
Then the day after they settled into their accommodations in Louisville it hit the fan; the story of Alec's surgery broke in the press. Sure, the press release from the hospital a couple of months ago had gone out but it had been somehow ignored, despite Alec being a media darling and fair-haired boy in every publication from People to Sport's Illustrated. Maybe it was deemed too minor, maybe it was simply overlooked or sent to the wrong outlets, whatever the reason, it seemed that almost no one had seen the thing and now the story was breaking like a monsoon.
It started out innocently enough; a reporter made some comment about Alec's new short 'do and a stable hand casually mentioned that it was growing out after his head was shaved by the doctors.
From that moment on Alec's health became the story of the meeting.
A week before the Derby a reporter came up to Henry while he watched Alec breezing Onyx. "Hey Henry, any truth to the rumors about Alec's health?"
The cat was out of the bag, or at least the press now knew there was a cat in a bag at this year's Derby. There was no point in lying, it was too easy to check so, leaning his forearms on the rail and let out a deep sigh. "He had a problem a few months ago but you can see as well as anyone that he's here, he's riding and I wouldn't let any jock—even Alec—on one of our horses if I didn't think they could do the job."
"So you're not denying; can you tell me what the problem was?"
Just then Alec rode over. "He's going well, running easily and wants to go. He should be right where we want him on Saturday. Hi, George."
"Hey Alec, I'm just doing some checking about those stories about you having some health problems; can you spare a few minutes?"
Alec and Henry exchanged a look; there was nothing to be gained by lying or evading. "Yeah, sure. Let me put the horse away and I'll answer some questions." There wasn't really much else he could do, it was obvious it was going to get out and he might as well make sure they got the facts straight. Twenty minutes he was sitting with George in the empty stands, horses galloping down on the track in front of them. Alec told him the bare bones of what he'd been dealing with the last few months.
"I had an old injury, probably from either one of the plane crashes or some riding falls and it finally caught up with me. I had some bleeding inside my skull, a slow bleed; the doctors drilled to release the pressure, the bleeding stopped and I'm pretty much back where I was."
George took a beat, the rumors hadn't said anything about this, they'd been more like he'd had a bad fall he was recovering from. But brain surgery? "I'm guessing that explains the haircut?" Alec nodded. "You're really good to ride the Derby and the Oaks"
"Henry would replace me in a heartbeat if he didn't think so, you know him."
That was true. "How many people know about this?"
"Aside from my family and close friends? But you know what it's like, racing is a small community, word gets around."
"You look healthy—you're feeling all right?" George was looking at Alec closely, looking for any signs that he might be tired or in any pain, be shaky or have any other symptoms or side effects. The jockey looked fine to his untrained eyes.
Alec gave him a half smile, "C'mon, I don't have a death wish. If I didn't think I could do the horse and the race justice without getting anyone killed, I'd be home watching the races on TV."
That was the first interview, there were at least a dozen more, including opinion pieces making Alec out to be a martyr to the cause and other over the top things. The old nickname 'Boy Wonder' was back in force, annoying Alec and testing his patience. On the shed row and in the jockey room his friends made a point of making sure that he was protected from the less savory members of the fourth estate, shielding him from intrusive or exploitive questioners. Finally the track officials had to politely ask the media to not frighten or crowd the horses and though no stables were mentioned in particular, Hopeful Farm was the clear subject of the request.
The days ticked down, the races getting closer, the tension building.
Alec had been through it twice before and so knew the ropes, but this was almost out of control. Between his health problems which were now public property and the fact that they had two favorites to prep for the weekend, along with the Derby hype it was like living in a fishbowl, and a small fishbowl at that. It didn't seem to matter that he kept saying that he felt fine, that he wouldn't be riding if there was any question about his ability, the media was running with the story and wouldn't be stopped or slowed.
In all truth, Alec knew that it was, from the press point of view, a good story, full of human drama and angst along with the whole 'Boy Wonder' fantasy he hated with all his heart and soul. He worked as hard as anyone did in racing and he knew how much of his career was based on flat out dumb luck but, be that as it may, publicity was publicity and the sport needed a boost right now. Besides, if he still had some double vision, it wasn't that bad and no one had to know.
It was looking like they had a good shot at both of the races, both the Oaks and the Derby and might, maybe, even make the board in both if things went their way. If that happened it would be three Derbies for the farm and their first Oaks—a record that would make them look like gold at the next yearling sales.
Friday morning was sunny and clear, the track dry and fast the crowds looking large and Black Tide went through her morning work well and fast. She was ready and one of the betting leaders with five to one odds.
In the jockey room Alec did his best to relax with a hot shower and a massage then changed into his silks with time to spare. He chatted with some of the others and ignored the looks he always got from the riders he didn't know well since they seemed to assume that he had some kind of magic wand or crop that he could wave and make everything go his way. 'Would that he did.
Finally they got the call to weigh out for the race, every horse carrying one hundred and twenty-one pounds, five pounds less than the colts would carry tomorrow for the Derby. He stood up, ready to go to work but then suddenly sat back down, his face white. "Alec, you okay?" Mike was sitting on the bench beside him, whispering so the others wouldn't hear.
"Yeah, fine, just stood up too fast, you know how it is." He smiled without conviction but then gathered himself and stood without trouble. "I'm good. C'mon, let's do this."
Mike walked over to the scales with him, making sure he made it all right—he did with no one the wiser. So far, so good.
Weighed out, the riders walked out to the saddling area, hearing the crowd as they got closer, a few pausing to sign autographs along the way. Mike glanced over, but Alec seemed fine, going over his horse and tack and talking to Henry. Okay, the kid was on his own from here on.
The field of nine fillies made their way to the track, the noise growing the closer they got. There had been a crowd lining the way, making a pathway for the horses with people cheering an calling encouragement to their favorites. Banners were flying along the route, the sun was shining and the stands were almost full, despite the Oaks traditionally being run on a Friday. Alec and Black Tide loaded easily into gate number seven, waiting barely twenty seconds before the call… "And they're off!"
They broke well, staying towards the outside to avoid bumping but holding steady in second place as they headed into the turn, Alec still keeping Black Tide towards the outside, playing it as safe as he could. Down the backstretch he saw a head coming up even with the filly's flanks and let her out a notch, feeling her crank it up another gear, leaving the challenger behind and gaining a half length in the leader. The started the top of the turn as a two horse race, Alec gaining slowly until they were even heading out of the final turn. Both riders went for the whip, Alec sparingly, Ronny on the bay next to him hitting his horse with almost every stride but the horse, tired and unable to sustain the pace, started dropping back. Black Tide found a new level of speed and went ahead by a length, then two, two and a half, three and pulled away. Glancing back over his right and then his left shoulders, Alec saw no one within any kind of striking distance and as they passed the final furlong pole he started petting her neck in praise. They went under the wire clear winners, ahead of the number two horse by a dozen yards and a bare half-second behind the wold record for that distance, crossing the finish line in 1:49:40. He raised his left fist in the air, stood up in the stirrups and let her slow at her own pace, the crowd cheering, the officials waiting in the winner's circle and his vision blurry and doubled. He saw the out-riders approach along with the usual mounted reporter to ask him a few softball questions and, for once, he was grateful to have them as unknowing guides back to the award ceremony.
Trotting into the winner's circle, Henry took the filly's bridle as the blanket of lilies were placed over her withers. Pictures were taken, and Alec finally got the nod to dismount and weigh out with his tack. There were the usual officials, the trophies, the flowers and crowds. He was used to cameras in his face and microphones, answering the same questions over and over again and he was glad when he saw Jinx take the filly back to the barn to cool down away from the commotion.
That was it, the race was official; Hopeful Farm had won it's first Kentucky Oaks. One race down, one to go.
Hours later, after the excitement had settled back to almost normal, after the party and the press. After the congratulations and the celebrating, Alec was showered and changed back into his usual jeans and sitting on a hay bale by their stalls, talking with a couple lingering reporters.
Finally after another hour or so Henry and Alec were left alone to get themselves centered and calmed down for the next day's Kentucky Derby, the big race and the main point of their being at the Downs. "Tell you what, I don't know about you, but I haven't had dinner aside from a couple of glasses of champagne—let's get something to eat, go over the race, kick back a little and then hit the sack. Sound good?"
Alec nodded. "'Sounds good to me, it's been a long day and tomorrow's going to be longer."
Twenty minutes later they were seated at the best table in the Granville Bar and Grill, the hostess insisting that they skip the Friday night line and take the next table. Embarrassed, they agreed to make things easy as a couple of people asked Alec for autographs. Then they exchanged a look; what the hell, they'd just won the Oaks, they had one of the favorites in tomorrow's Derby and this was Louisville. Once in a while, once in a very great while they let the perks happen. Recognized as they followed the hostess to a table, the dining room erupted into applause, embarrassing them both but they smiled with good grace and shook the hands of the people who came up to offer their congratulations and good luck for the next day.
Left to their meal, Alec surprised Henry by asking for a beer, although a lite one. Looking at the menus, Alec closed his quickly and simply ordered a steak with salad on the side. All right, he wasn't a picky eater, nor a big eater but he usually at least read through his choices. That seemed to confirm things, at least enough to ask… "You're okay?"
"I'm fine, just tired is all."
"Nothing wrong with your eyes?"
"'C'mon, Henry. You know my eyes are 20/20."
"Uh-huh, sure I do and I also know that you seemed to have some trouble getting the filly in the gate this afternoon—almost headed her into the wrong stall and then had trouble finding the right hands to shake in the winner's circle. You want to tell me the truth?"
"The truth is that I wasn't paying attention after the race and I simply made a mistake at the gate. No big deal."
"That's not like you…"
"Drop it, Henry."
"You have a headache?"
"No and drop it. I'm fine."
The waitress brought their food and a bottle of champagne they hadn't ordered "Compliments of the owner with his congratulations." She gave them a big smile and started to open the bottle.
Henry had a polite smile on his face, knowing the protocol. "Please ask if he'd join us." He turned back to Alec when she went to get the man and his wife. "This discussion isn't over, Alec."
"Mr. Daily, Mr. Ramsay, it's a pleasure, an honor to have you here this evening and may I offer my congratulations on today's race—please, Emma, no check for this table, it's the least we can do for the men of the hour. Now Alec, are we looking for a repeat tomorrow in the Derby?" Almost every eye in the place was now back on their table and cell phones were out taking their pictures; so much for a relaxing meal…
Dinner finally over with them making their getaway by saying, in truth, that they needed their rest for the next day's race, they left to a standing ovation from the rest of the diners, driving back to their motel room and falling into bed without any more discussion.
The biggest day in racing, not the most lucrative but the biggest. There was more ceremony, more circus, bigger crowds, more inspection, bigger celebrities and more reporters than in almost any other sporting event. It was the Olympics, Wimbledon, the World Series, Fashion week in Paris and Barnum and Bailey all rolled into one.
And they were at the center of the storm. Yesterday was just a warm up; this was the main event.
There were twenty entries with one scratch two hours before post making a field of nineteen. It would be crowded chaos going into the first turn and dangerous. It was the Derby.
Onyx warmed up well; he was healthy and ready for the race. He seemed calm, talking it all in stride and acting like it was just another day at the office. This was Alec's third Derby and the press was asking if he could pull off the hat trick of three in a row—something no one had ever managed. And he was riding despite major surgery a couple of months ago and the day after a win—his first!—in the Oaks. Any was you cut it, this was shaping up to be quite a week for Ramsay and Hopeful Farm.
It was always the waiting around when everything that could be don to prep was finished that got to everyone, especially when they were followed everywhere by the press or fans or the track management. The race wasn't going to start until six in the afternoon. There were seven other races that day but Alec wasn't riding in any of them, just the big one. He gave a couple of interviews, talked with some fans who's managed to somehow get backside passes, played some poker with his friends over in the jockey room, got lunch, warmed up Onyx again, had a shower… Time was dragging and the track was way too crowded to even think about going for a jog to clear his head and relax his muscles. And Henry was making him tense as well, 'kept asking if he was all right, he felt sick or had a headache. It was getting on his nerves.
Finally, finally it was almost five and he could legitimately think about getting ready.
He was an experienced jock and had been around long enough that he knew just about everyone in the room from hall of famers to a few bugs. He knew the valets, the guy who ran the scale, the attendants who picked up the laundry and mopped the floor. He was popular, well liked and he had a lot of friends here today. Okay, he'd be riding against a few of them in a little while, but that was just the nature of the business. It wasn't personal. He took a long shower, enjoying the feel of the hot water, liked the feeling of being clean instead of a little sweaty in the early spring heat and was glad that it was a nice day with clear skies. A few years ago, when he'd ridden Satan in the Belmont it had been pouring rain all day, the mud up to the horses fetlocks and flying in their faces when he brought the horse up from behind for the Triple Crown win, the last horse to score the Crown.
A couple of years later he'd ridden Black Minx to a Derby win, one of four fillies to ever beat the boys, joining Regret, Genuine Rick and Winning Colors in that small club. She'd gone track sour after that and had to be retired, but it had been a hell of a race.
He pulled on his breeches, this year the name of a delivery service embroidered along the fabric on the outer thighs of every jock riding. It was a little tacky, but they'd paid for the privilege and had made it mandatory. Whatever, it didn't really matter.
He pulled on his boots, the safety vest over his tee shirt and his silks, the black and white checkerboard of the farm and idly wondered if they should go back to the solid black silks they'd started with.
"Hey, you okay?" Mike sat down beside him, also dressed for the race.
"Yeah, sure, why wouldn't I be? It's not like this is my first Derby or anything."
"You still a little shaky? I saw you yesterday and you looked like you were having some trouble. Look, I just don't want you getting hurt, Alec, you know me—we've been riding against each other for years now and I'd like to keep riding against you for a lot more, that's all I'm saying."
He was a good friend, a good guy. "Thanks Mike, but really, I'm fine. I just stood up a little fast yesterday; c'mon, I won the race, didn't I?"
"You sure? We both know you're as good a jock as they come but make sure you're gonna be around for next year's race too, okay?" Mike gave him along look, "I know this is the big one, but it's not worth getting hurt over; not when your hair's growing out."
Alec laughed. "Thanks—really—but I'm okay. 'You think Henry would let me put a leg up if he didn't think so?" Mike nodded and moved away to finish getting ready, they only had a few minutes till weigh-out.
The carnival had come to town in Louisville but it was time to go to work. Alec made his way to the saddling area with the rest of the jocks, met up with Henry and got his instructions. "You're starting in the middle of the pack so just do your best to stay clear, try to head for the outside going into the first turn and then see where you are. There are at least three rabbits, so don't let them fool you, just run your race and save something for the end—he's plenty game and he'll do anything you ask him. The only real competition is that number twelve horse, Calculator—aside from him you're on the class entry and they all know it. Stay out of trouble, give him as good a ride as you can and he'll do his best for you."
Alec had heard this before but knew Henry needed to talk, he just wish there wasn't a camera and microphone three feet away catching everything they were saying. "All right. He's feeling good today, he wanted to run during the warm up; we'll be okay."
Henry gave him a hard look. "I know you will, just be careful."
Onyx was going to post as the number two favorite with seven to two odds.
It was a perfect day for a horse race, sunny and not too warm with a huge crowd all waiting for the main event. The horses finished the post parade past the packed stands and infield and lined up at the head of the stretch, one by one going into the stalls without trouble. Alec and Onyx, wearing number nine loaded and waited almost a full minute while the other horses were set. He poised, balanced and ready, his horse waited…
The bells clanged while the jockeys shouted, urging their mounts forward with their hands and legs, their weight all in position to give their animals as much help as possible. The break was clean for the first ten yards when, without warning, the number six horse bolted towards the rail, bumping the five horse and causing number six to careen back towards the outside. Alec had Onyx clear and a length ahead by then and was unaffected but he heard the shouting behind him and could only spare a moment to hope no one was down or hurt.
The field bunched into the first turn, Alec towards the front of the pack and fighting for racing room as they reached the head of the back stretch in fourth place. He was being forced close to the rail but there was enough room for him to inside and pass the outside horse trying to crowd him. At the beginning of the third turn he glanced back to see the three leaders a full three lengths ahead of the fourth horse, one of the rabbits Henry had warned him about who was out of steam and falling back quickly.
Coming out of the final turn and heading for the wire he could hear the field behind the three leaders, fighting for position and starting whatever moves they had planned. Going a yard or so further out from the rail he let Onyx have his head, urging him on as they gained on the two horses in front of them. With one furlong to go he was in a head to head duel for the lead, the number three horse falling back and at least six lengths opened up between them and the rest of the horses.
The noise from both the stands and the infield crowds was deafening; the horses giving everything they had in a primal instinct to be leader of the herd. The rail was flashing past, an endless white ribbon flying by. The crowd's screams grew louder, the finish line closer and closer as Alec used his crop once, a well placed, hard smack on Onyx's right haunch, pushing the tiring animal forward as he went ahead with thirty yards to the wire. Alec thought it was theirs when, out of nowhere he heard a horse come up on the outside, finally close enough to be heard over the deafening din from the stands, pulling even as the wire passed overhead.
They went under the wire like a team in harness; unable to hear their own hoof beats for the screams of the crowd. Standing in their stirrups, Alec and Mike slowed their mounts as they rounded the first turn again.
"I think you got it, Alec."
"I thought you nipped us just at the end."
The outriders reached them as they slowed to a walk. "Close race gentlemen, photo finish and it looks like a inquiry for some bumping at the start."
"From either of us?"
"Nah, number six went wild after the break, you guys are okay."
The rest of the field was loosely around them, the obvious losers headed back to the barns already, disappointed and knowing there was no reason to hang around since it was too soon for congratulations.
Alec and Mike made their way back to the homestretch to wait the official results; the words 'Photo Finish' still lit on the results board. Alec, saying nothing, was privately relieved that he could read the words without either straining or trouble with double vision. He also hadn't been bothered with any serious headaches in a couple of days—knock wood, maybe they were behind him. The doctors had told him that he might still have some minor symptoms, that's probably all it was—right?
"This is taking longer than usual." Mike was as anxious as he was.
"Maybe the other protests are holding it up."
"Maybe—wish they'd get it over with, though." Mike was still looking for his first Derby win, despite over twenty years in the saddle, this might well be his best shot at it. The crowd was also getting restless, the noise getting louder with some rhythmic clapping breaking out here and there.
This was really taking too long. Usually the stewards would look over the tapes, make a decision and that was that but this was dragging on…
The results would change things for both men, whatever they were. If Hopeful farm managed another win then they'd be as firmly placed as a top breeder to almost be unassailable and their stock would command record prices at the sales. If Mike's mount won then he'd have his first Derby win, a mark on his resume riders spent their lives trying for and would remain in demand for the top stables and trainers. His already solid career would reach a new level.
Finally, finally they heard a roar from the crowd, turning simultaneously they looked at the board.
'OFFICIAL' 1st Number 9 Time: 2:01.82
2nd Number 2
3rd Number 17
Mike reached out to shake his hand then turned his horse back to the barn followed by another wave of cheering.
Alec felt the tension leave him as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders and turned Onyx towards the winner's circle, knowing how tired he was he let the colt set his own pace. They'd done it. He'd done it. They'd won by the barest sliver of a nose but they'd won, Another yard, another stride and they may well have been beaten but today the luck was with them. He and Hopeful Farm had their third Kentucky Derby win in three tries, an almost impossible achievement and one that would be talked about for years.
And this one was the hardest by far. This was the one he'd wanted the most. This was the one that had scared him the most. This was the one that he had the most at stake at. This was the one where he was being questioned about his ability and fitness.
The crowd waiting for them was big and noisy, Henry in the front to take the horse's bridle. "Good job, good job—you had me worried there, I don't mind saying it but you two held them off." His grin split his face and Alec knew Henry would put off his retirement for at least another year.
The garland of roses was placed over Onyx's withers, causing him to throw his head at the added weight and heat. The cameras and reporters swarmed around them. The governor was there to present the trophies. Getting the nod, Alec jumped down to weigh out. Thirty seconds the results were final: Onyx, owned by Hopeful Farm, trained by Henry Daily and ridden by Alec Ramsay was the winner of this year's Kentucky Derby.
They knew what would happen because they'd been through this before. They knew to stop and allow the pictures, to answer the questions, to be gracious and to ask that the cases of champagne they'd pay for and which was cooling be taken to their stalls for the after celebration in an hour of so. They knew because they'd been through it before. They knew the drill.
Smiling, he listened to the ABC sports reporter ask him about the race and set to do his job.
Alec, still feeling the incredible relief of the win and the lack of headache or double vision, dared to hope he really was all right.