I fully realize how cheesy and improbable this idea is, but I can't resist writing it. Anyway, it's Thoroughbred: cheesy and improbable is practically the series' middle name ;-D
Chapter One: Wonder's Image
Melanie's call was short and sweet, music to twenty one year old Christina Reese's ears. "Image is foaling," she said. "Come when you can."
Christina snapped her cell phone shut ecstatically and raced down to Whitebrook's stallion barn. Before going to visit Melanie and the expecting mother, she had to spend a few minutes with the father. This wasn't just any Thoroughbred foal—this year, Melanie had agreed to breed her beloved mare, Perfect Image, to Christina's favorite horse Wonder's Star. It was Star's third year at stud, and of the scattering of yearlings by him that there were at various farms and auctions, he promised to have foals as successful as he was.
Not only was Star a renowned racehorse, but Melanie's mare Image had an illustrious career to her name as well. Winner of the Kentucky Derby, the filly had raced against colts many times and won, until a broken leg tragically ended her career. Combined, the two promised an exceptional foal, especially with the closeness that their owners, cousins Melanie Graham and Christina Reese, shared.
The cousins had been mulling over the possibility of breeding Star and Image since the two horses' racing days, but only recently had the possibility solidified into a probable event, which, in turn, happened. And now, months later, Image and Star's foal was about to make his or her way into the world of Thoroughbred racing.
"You're going to be a father!" Christina called excitedly, skittering to a stop in front of the stallion's door. Star stuck his nose over and snorted, then lipped the side of her jacket, hoping for a carrot. Christina patted him instead, scratching her horse's poll the way he liked it. Star, in turn, wiggled his upper lip in pleasure, the lure of treats temporarily forgotten.
"Do you think it'll look like you?" mused Christina, studying her horse. His chestnut coat gleamed even in the dim barn light, and the white on his face was positively luminescent. Being retired hadn't hurt Star's health in the slightest. "Or be black and feisty like Image?"
Star bobbed his head up and down. A laughing Christina kissed his nose, threw her arms around his neck, and then ran back out of the stallion barn.
"Whoa," called her mother Ashleigh, as they nearly collided around the corner of the walkway. "Where are you running away to?"
"Image is foaling!" Christina cried excitedly, barely pausing. "And I just told Star, so now I'm going down to Tall Oaks to watch with Melanie."
Ashleigh grinned a little. "You know, it takes hours."
"Of course I know. But this is a special foal." Christina smiled at her mother. "I bet you went down right away when Wonder was in labor with her first."
"Pride," said Ashleigh, a misty look in her eyes.
"Come down if you want," Christina said. "I'll call you when Image gets close."
"Are you sure? I don't want to intrude on your and Melanie's moment."
"Mom," sighed Christina, "You're not intruding if you're invited. Just give a carrot to Star before you go and then its fine."
Laughing, Ashleigh shooed Christina towards her car. "Go," she said, "And call me when you want."
Christina sped off towards the farm that Melanie's fiancée now partially owned in a cloud of dust. The twenty minute ride across horse country seemed to take forever when all that she was concerned about was how the foal was going to turn out. Would it be a colt? or a filly? Huge like Wonder's Champion, or barely fifteen hands? Healthy? That was the one consideration that didn't fill her with excitement. She hoped so badly that Image had a healthy foal. Her other three, all colts, had been the picture of good health. All lively, all robust, and yet none great racehorses. The first had been claimed and retrained for eventing, much to Melanie's dismay; the second's workout times were nothing spectacular, and as for the third, it was too soon to tell, but there was nothing particularly special about him either. All of Melanie's hopes were on this foal.
She pulled into the driveway and parked right at the mare's barn. Image had a huge box, well padded with soft straw, all the way at the end of the barn. Melanie's explanation was that this stall was reinforced on two sides by stone. With the mare's track record of breaking down barns, Christina thought that that was a pretty good idea.
"How is she?" Christina joined Melanie in looking over the door into the stall.
"Doing well," Melanie said, not taking her eyes off the mare. "She's having an easier time than with High Heaven, for sure." That had been her first colt. "I think she's fine."
As the mare groaned, Christina winced. "Are you sure?"
"Positive, Cuz." Melanie shook her head. "For someone working second in command on their own Thoroughbred farm, you don't know much about breeding."
Christina laughed the comment off hollowly. Melanie hadn't changed much over the past few years. She was one of the top jockeys on the East Coast, especially among the few women. She'd ridden various Triple Crown, Breeders' Cup, and other renowned races each year for many trainers, on many horses. In short, she was a typical jockey, though more successful than most. While Image and Jinx were still her most special horses, she had learned to love riding all Thoroughbreds.
That was something that Christina didn't care for. After Star's retirement, she continued to jockey for a season, half-heartedly. Then her father, perhaps sensing the discontent Christina felt, quietly began to introduce her to the management of Whitebrook Farm. As the months went by, she spent more time with a stopwatch and less in the saddle, and grew to love the sense of accomplishment she felt watching the yearlings taking their first breeze, then their times steadily increasing, then the long debates with Ian and the other trainers over who would be sold, who would be raced, who would be trained more. The next year, she stopped jockeying altogether. It was never a big announcement; she just stopped hanging around, turned down offered rides, and phased the part of her that was a jockey out. It wasn't so hard.
Except looking at beautiful, successful, engaged, happy Melanie now, Christina wasn't sure she'd made the right choice. What did she have now that Melanie didn't? Nothing but the assuredness of a farm of her own fifteen or so years from now. Nothing that really mattered to two twenty one year old girls.
"Come on, Chris," sighed Melanie, "Lighten up. I didn't mean it."
Looking at Image, imagining the filly or colt to come, Christina nodded and gave her cousin a smile, as genuine as she could make it. "I know you didn't," she said. "It's okay. It doesn't matter."
Melanie squeezed Christina around the waist. "It's okay if it does …"
"But it doesn't." Christina nodded her head with a sense of finality. "It looks like we'll be a while here; I'll go make—what do you want? Tea? Coffee?"
"Coffee," Melanie said, "Obviously. Black with a shot of vanilla?"
Christina wrinkled her nose at her cousin's preference, and headed to the house to find everything.
Tapping her foot impatiently, Christina clutched her cell phone in one hand and the top of Image's stall door in the other. Melanie had slipped inside with the mare, and was stroking her face as the veterinarian stood by, ready to assist.
"Mom!" she cried when Ashleigh picked up. "The foal's coming."
"Congratulations!" Ashleigh said, "And to Melanie and all too. I'll be right over."
"Okay." Christina paused. "Bye, Mom. See you soon."
There was a click, and Christina snapped her phone shut. Inside the stall, Image's breathing was harsh and labored, her coat shiny with sweat.
"She's doing great," the vet assured the girls. "Should only be about ten minutes now; a completely natural birth."
"Hear that, girl?" Melanie whispered to her Image. "Soon you'll get to see your baby."
Christina sighed, upset with herself for being unhappy right now, at the moment a horse she'd been hoping for for years was about to finally become a reality. But somehow, it seemed like this was becoming Melanie's moment by virtue of her ownership of Image, the mare. Star would never get to know his foal.
She was interrupted by the sound of wheels crunching down the gravel driveway.
"Must be Mom," she said. "I'll be right back.
She jogged out of the breeding barn and met her mother on the path.
"Follow me," Christina said, tugging on Ashleigh's hand. Although Ashleigh didn't quite suppress a chuckle, she went at Christina's pace and didn't comment on her daughter's frazzled, excited state. And even an old hand like Ashleigh couldn't suppress her excitement—foaling was always a miracle, whether it was your horse or your worst enemy's.
They entered the cool barn a few seconds later, and arrived at Image's stall in time to see a slick nose poking out, hear her pained grunt, and then a little wet bundle slip onto the straw.
"Oh, Image!" breathed Melanie, stepping back to let dam and foal bond. Image exhaled loudly, tiredly, and snuffled at her new foal.
"A filly," the vet said as he too left the stall. "A real beauty."
"Thank you for being here," Melanie told him, not taking her eyes off of the two horses. "Can you send the bill in the mail?"
Taking the hint, the vet smiled, "Sure can," and gathered up his bag and left.
Already, Image was cleaning the filly vigorously, whickering and nuzzling before, after a minute or two, scrambling to her feet. She pushed her foal with her nose, saying you should do this too.
It took the foal a few rocks, a few stumbles, and a few nudges from her mother, but in less than five minutes she was tottering unsteadily and looking, alert, around the barn.
She was a chestnut, dark now, but promising to be burnished gold when she was dry. Though she was fairly small and skinny, she wasn't frail. A real beauty, just as the vet had said.
"Look at her," marveled Christina, as the filly bumped along Image's stomach until she began to nurse. "She's perfect."
"Perfect," echoed Melanie. "Just like Perfect Image."
"No," whispered Ashleigh. She was white as a sheet, and her eyes were brimming over. "Like Wonder."
Christina looked at the filly anew, then thought through her memories and photographs of Wonder. Same dished face, same four white stockings, same snip of white on her nose, same look in her eyes: heart. And Melanie, sneaking a glance at Ashleigh, wished more than ever that she'd been able to see Ashleigh's Wonder alive.
"Wonder's Image," said the cousins, nearly at the same time. Biting her lip, Christina smiled tentatively at Melanie.
"She is," Christina told her. "From everything I remember, she is."
Ashleigh devoured the filly with her eyes, hungrily drinking in every detail. "Wonder was so small when she was born, but by the time she was three weeks or so, she looked like this little lady. And Image and Star's filly has the look. Heart."
Christina leaned her head into her mother's shoulder. Some things just got passed down, she supposed, like when you and your mother looked at a filly and saw an old legend, and maybe a new legacy, and all the heart in the world.
"Wonder's Image," said Melanie, speaking to the foal, "How do you like that?"
Her tail flicked a few times as she continued greedily drinking.
"I didn't mean—" Stricken, Ashleigh turned back and forth between the girls. "I didn't mean that should be her name."
"But it's perfect," Christina said. "Wonder's Image. It brings back everything."
"But why don't you want to start anew? Think about what a name like that means."
"It means," said Melanie, "That she's clearly connected to Star, Wonder, and Image, not to mention Pride and Champion and the rest of your Wonder's offspring. It means she has a lot to live up to—"
"Which is why I think you guys should think about this," broke in Ashleigh. "Because what if she doesn't?" Ashleigh's lips pursed, and her face constricted, almost angrily, at her own words.
"She will," said Christina. "And if she doesn't, then she'll do something incredible somewhere else."
Ashleigh looked from the girls to the mare to the foal, and the years fell away from her face. She was twelve year old Ashleigh Griffin again, alone on a new farm but for Townsend Holly and her very special filly.
"Just think about it, girls," she said halfheartedly, eyes on Wonder's Image. "The filly isn't even an hour old, and that's a name for champions."
With sudden firmness that rushed through her, Christina asserted, "Which is exactly what Wonder's Image will be."
I hope you enjoyed the story so far, and I would love to hear any thoughts, suggestions, or plot ideas - it's been a while since I've done a multichaptered story. Thanks for reading!