Imagine: the happy(ish) montage before anything really happens ...
Imagine: the happy(ish) montage before anything really happens ...
Chapter Two: Cousin's Quest
Over the following weeks, Wonder's Image grew and strengthened into a beautiful young Thoroughbred. She and her dam were turned out at Tall Oaks almost constantly, along with the other broodmares and foals. Wonder's Image had been born in mid-March, and so would be three months younger than her January 1st "birthday" said. It was a disadvantage, but not a large enough gap to make a big difference.
Christina and Melanie were constantly spending time with the mare and foal. At first Image had mistrusted Christina, as she mistrusted most new people, but after intervention from Melanie, the two warmed up to each other. As for Wonder's Image, the filly was curious towards all people, but clearly preferred Christina, Melanie, and Ashleigh's company—the three people who had spent a significant amount of time with her. Christina was thankful that, despite the advantage of living in closer proximity to Wonder's Image, Melanie hadn't developed a tighter bond with the foal than Christina herself had yet.
"What are we going to call her?" Christina asked Melanie one day as they tramped towards the spacious guest cottage where Melanie and her husband to be, Jazz, lived.
"Hm …" Melanie frowned. "Obviously Image is out, and somehow, I Wonder is bringing back a little too much from the past."
Agreeing with the two definites Melanie stated, Christina suggested, "We could call her … W.I. Like her initials."
Melanie snickered. "I think that's the kind of name that gets horses beat up in the saddle paddock."
"WI?" Christina asked, pronouncing the initials like a word.
"No, like Wonder's Image's initials again."
Sighing, Melanie moaned, "Why are you so hung up on the filly's initials?"
"That's a good question," shrugged Christina.
Melanie giggled. "You're a good question."
"And you're immature," Christina retorted.
"Well," said Melanie, "This filly's just going to be one big question unless we come up with a barn name for her something this century."
"Question …" Christina mused.
Melanie raised her eyebrows doubtfully.
"Question …" Christina snapped her fingers. "I've got it, Mel!" she exclaimed. "Quest."
"Like knights and damsels?" asked Melanie with a frown.
"No." Christina paused, biting her lip, suddenly less confident in her idea than she'd been moments before. "Like our quest. She's our first racehorse, she's Star and Image's foal, she's Ashleigh's Wonder's grandbaby. It's going to be a heck of a journey."
"Quest." Melanie grinned at Christina. "I like it, Chris. Really! It has a nice ring." Her gaze trailed back towards the broodmare paddock, where mare and foal frolicked in the late afternoon sun. "She's our Quest."
Christina too turned to watch the filly, already such a looker. There was no denying it; both girls already harbored high hopes for Wonder's Image. For Quest.
At first, when people—Ashleigh, Mike, Jazz, Cindy—asked why they'd begun calling Wonder's Image Quest, Christina gave the full version, slightly red faced. It was a silly story, and she knew that you had to have been there for it to be funny or even coherent. Finally, she started condensing it. "Because," she told people simply, "She's our Quest."
It satisfied everyone. Quest was very well liked, both at Tall Oaks and Whitebrook, for her incredible bloodline, her easy to please demeanor, and the clownishness with which she pranced around the fields, her dam, and the stable.
"Little princess," Melanie chuckled as four month old Quest butted her nose against her hip, then spun away and ran to hide behind Image, tail flagging behind her.
"Hey Melanie!" Christina called, unhooking the pasture gate. She and Ashleigh came towards her, and the three women stood in a line, watching the mares and foals below them.
"Behold," Melanie intoned dramatically, "The future of thoroughbred racing."
Ashleigh raised her eyebrows at her niece. "Don't be forgetting the future champions over at Whitebrook, young lady," she said playfully.
"Come on, Aunt Ashleigh," grinned Melanie, "You can't tell me any of your fillies compare to Quest."
"Well …" Ashleigh got the misty look in her eyes that always softened her interactions with Wonder's Image. "Quest is as special as her ancestors."
Christina allowed her mother and cousin's banter to wash over her as she picked her way towards Image and Quest, slowly tuning out everything but the horses. Quest peeked around her mother, then took off in a circle of the lower section of the field, stirring up several of the other foals, before she came to a halt a few paces from Christina.
"Come here, baby," Christina crooned, "You're so funny, how you always show off for me but never seem to want to be pet."
As if understanding the girl, Quest walked forward sedately and dipped her nose to Christina's palm.
"Hey, sweetie." Christina rubbed her hand down the filly's still baby-fuzzed neck. "It's amazing how quickly you're growing up. Won't be long now until you're weaned, and then we're training you to be ridden, and then you're racing."
For a few seconds, Quest leaned into Christina's petting. When a few of the colts ran past her, though, she jumped away from Christina to challenge them, racing along the paddock fence with them.
"Keep that up," laughed Christina, "And in a few years you'll be in a real race with those boys."
She returned to her mother and Melanie to find them discussing the foal's weaning time.
"Cindy wants to do them all at the same time," said Melanie, "In another month or two."
Ashleigh nodded. "Quest is certainly prepared to get along without Image," she said, watching the filly gallop down the pasture, "Even if she doesn't know it yet."
With the filly's co owner and one of the owners of Whitebrook there, Christina decided to broach the subject she'd been mulling over for a while. "Melanie," she said hesitantly, "And, Mom, I guess I haven't talked this over with you either, really … I want Quest to come to Whitebrook to train."
Melanie frowned. "But she's happy here."
For a moment, Christina let her gaze trail over the filly. "I know," she replied finally, "But Whitebrook has the same facilities Tall Oaks does. And there …" But she trailed off. She'd been about to point out that she would be near Quest, but Melanie would be able to reply "But I won't." No matter where the filly went, a cousin would get shorted.
Sensing a brewing conflict, Ashleigh said, "I'll go find out how Cindy's yearlings are doing. Christina, find me when you're ready to ride back."
Alone, the girls wandered to the edge of the pasture and sat up on the fence.
"I guess it's not really fair for Quest to always live right with me, is it?" Melanie asked with a sigh.
Christina shrugged. "No. But it wouldn't be fair either, if she always lived with me."
In the same display of unison as when the named their filly Wonder's Image, they looked at each other, dismay on their faces. "We really didn't think this co-ownership thing through," granted Melanie. "So, what rights do you want to have?"
"I feel like we're divorced parents," Christina giggled. "Okay, let's see. I'd like to have a big hand in her training. I know Ian or Cindy or Ashleigh will be the head, but I want to do a lot with workouts and choosing her races and stuff."
Melanie blew out a sigh of relief. "Perfect," she said. "Then I can be her rider."
From the back of Christina's throat came a noise of stifled protest.
"What?" asked Melanie. "You wanted to ride too? But you gave up on jockeying."
Staring at her boots, Christina was unable to come up with a valid answer. It was true; she wanted to ride Quest. It was also true that she'd given up jockeying. While she was fine with Melanie riding their horse most of the time, she wanted to be comfortable on the filly's back as well. After all, the reason she'd given up jockeying was because she needed one special horse to be her center. When Star retired, she lost that, but now that she had Quest, she could regain her love for the exhileration of being in the saddle around the final turn.
Finally, she just said, "But Quest is different. I want to ride her, at least, if not jockey her."
"Great," muttered Melanie. "So you want to be her trainer and her exercise rider?"
"That's not what I said!" exclaimed Christina.
There was silence for a few seconds. Then Christina said tentatively, "How about when we train her to saddle, you work her on the ground and I ride her. And then when it's time to actually train her for the track, then you'll be her principle exercise rider and jockey."
Melanie knitted her hands together; the small diamond on her ring finger glittered in the sunlight. One more thing that Christina's cousin had succeeded in where Christina had failed. "Sounds good," she said. "I'm in." She piled one hand on the fencepost; Christina hesitantly stacked hers on top, followed by Melanie and then Christina's other, in an age old gesture of comradeship.
"Oh …" Christina pulled her hands abruptly from the pile. "But we didn't decide where Quest is going for training."
"Do we have to?" sighed Melanie. "It's so far from now, it seems."
Indeed, as the Kentucky sun tucked behind the hills, it lent a burnished timelessness to the scene: as long as there was bluegrass country, there would be these beautiful horses running through it, kicking up their heels in grass as they grew, and later kicking up turf into the faces of their opponents as they raced.
"No," agreed Christina. "Let's just enjoy our filly for a little."
Quest's eyes rolled around in her head as she was deposited from Tall Oaks to Whitebrook. For company, Samantha had loaned them one of her old lesson ponies, a chubby Welsh mare named Cricket, who had stayed in a pasture with Quest for the past few days. The two horses had bonded enough that Quest was content to follow Christina and Cricket as Melanie kept a fairly loose hold on the leadshank, allowing her to look around her new home.
Finally they arrived at a small pasture on the outskirts of the barn complex, trailed by Ashleigh, Mike, Ian, and several grooms.
"We're just keeping her here until she settles in," Christina told Melanie, "Probably the day after tomorrow. Then we'll introduce her to the other weanlings and turn her out with them."
Looking at the nervous filly, Melanie said, "I'm glad she has Cricket to keep her company until then."
Indeed, Quest snorted and pranced around the paddock, but stayed close to the old mare, who was calmly grazing in the center. In scarcely any time, she too was picking at the grass.
"She's gotten so sleek," said Ashleigh in admiration. "She looks really good, girls."
For once, Ashleigh's eyes weren't all misted over as she looked at Wonder's Image. Maybe, thought Christina, as the filly proved herself to be a body double only, completely unlike the famous mare in personality, her mother was beginning to see as much of Quest as she saw of Wonder. For now, at least, while she wasn't being raced and compared to her dam, sire, and grandmother.
"Thanks," they replied in unison.
"Thank Image," Christina finally said graciously. She was glad to have said it when Melanie's face lit up at the infrequent praise from her cousin directed at her favorite mare.
Not to be outdone, Melanie added, "Thank Star too. And Wonder and all the rest of her ancestors."
As Christina stood with her cousin at the head of the small train of admirers, she wished that horse training could always feel this triumphant.
"Easy, lovely," Christina soothed, stroking Quest's neck. Ashleigh stood at her head feeling her bites of carrot, while Melanie was at the left side preparing to saddle the filly for the first time. Although it would be another month before the yearlings began to be ridden, it was now time to begin getting them used to the unfamiliar tack.
Quest danced in her stall, hindquarters swaying back and forth. Unlike Wonder, and even Image and Star, by now she had no clear preference as far as handlers went; while she preferred to be with someone she was familiar with, she was as happy with the groom Dani as with Christina or Melanie. The exception was Ashleigh herself, which Christina accredited to her mother's uncanny ability to communicate with horses as if she was one of them herself—especially this horse, who made Ashleigh feel fifteen again.
Finally, Quest settled, calmed by Ashleigh's steady presence in front of her, and crunched down on a carrot piece, unresisting when Melanie slid the saddle onto her back.
"There now," said Melanie, patting her flank, "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
Quest snorted and had another bite of carrot.
"Nice job, girls," said Ashleigh. "And that includes you, Quest."
The filly bobbed her head up and down, then lipped a strand of Ashleigh's hair.
"Should we take it off?" Christina asked, looking to her mother.
Ashleigh nodded. "I think she's done enough today."
Melanie pulled the saddle off, and went to deposit it in the tack room as Ashleigh led Quest towards the pasture. She offered Christina the leadrope, but Christina shook her head. She surprised herself, because, much as she hated to admit it, she was fiercely jealous when Quest seemed to prefer Melanie to herself. But when the filly obviously always preferred Ashleigh to herself, Christina was just happy to see her mother so involved in a horse again.
She watched them take the packed dirt path to the fields, moving in unison. Melanie came up behind her silently, and watched with her.
"Does it bother you how attached Aunt Ashleigh is to Quest?" Melanie asked Christina hesitantly. Her thoughts had followed the same path as her the other girl's.
Christina was glad that she was able to answer her cousin honestly. "Does it bother you?" she asked.
Melanie sighed. "Not really. Except it makes me doubt that we're the right people to have such a special horse, sometimes."
"Nah." Christina shook her head. "We'll both do everything in our power to give her the best shot at being a champion she can have. And we've got so many people around us who will too. Think of it that way."
"I guess so," replied Melanie. "But I wish Quest would look so happy to see one of us as she does to see Aunt Ashleigh."
"It's not our fault … Mom has a way with the horses," Christina told her cousin. "It's just more obvious when it's a horse she spends a lot of time with." A thought struck her. "Hey, Mel," she said, "Have you been jockeying much?"
Melanie shifted uncomfortably. "Not really. Jazz wanted me to make wedding preparations. He said that I had four huge commitments: my jockeying career, my community college classes, Quest, and getting ready for the wedding. And that they were all going to make both of us crazy, and since he's pretty well given up his singing career, I figured I could give up my jockeying career for a little while."
Wrinkling her nose, Christina said "Oh" noncommittally. Fond as she was of Melanie's fiancée, and all envy aside, she disliked the idea of anyone bullying someone they loved into giving up something that they loved.
Sensing her cousin's distrust, Melanie added, "Don't be upset, Chris. It's not like I didn't want to sit out a season on the tracks. Right now, Quest and Jazz are what's important to me."
Quest and Jazz. It was a slap in the face. What about Whitebrook, thought Christina. What about Ashleigh and Mike; Image; Christina herself?
"I know," she finally said, trying to keep the hurt out of her voice.
Melanie snuck a sidelong glance at Christina. "But what's keeping you going?" she asked. "I mean, there's no boyfriend, right?"
Christina shook her head no.
"No jockeying career, nothing exciting …"
"Ian and Dad are teaching me to train horses and manage Whitebrook," Christina shot back, "And I find that very exciting."
"Okay, Mouse!" Melanie backed away, hands up, and Christina knew she'd annoyed her cousin, because Melanie only called her Mouse, as in County Mouse, when she was annoyed. "I forgot; sorry."
"It's okay," mumbled Christina, saved by Ashleigh's return from Quest's paddock.
"Are you staying for dinner?" Ashleigh asked Melanie brightly, passing over the thunderclouds brewing on her daughter's face. Melanie thanked her and declined; mother and daughter walked towards the house together.
"Mom," said Christina carefully, "Co-owning horses with the Townsends wasn't easy, was it?"
"No," said Ashleigh with a bit of a laugh, "It most assuredly was not."
Sighing, Christina confided, "Well, it's not easy with Melanie either. Sometimes I think it's harder with someone you like and care about. At least you could say what you wanted about Wonder and her offspring without worrying that the Townsends wouldn't like you anymore."
"True," Ashleigh said carefully, "But that dislike also meant that neither of us cared enough to compromise, and I'm very proud of you and Melanie for doing just that when you can."
Christina sighed again and didn't reply.
"What's really the matter?" asked Ashleigh, pausing as they came onto the porch.
For a few seconds, Christina moved her lips without allowing sound to come out. Finally she said, "Just because I gave up my career as a jockey, Melanie treats me like some kind of horse racing has been."
Ashleigh pursed her lips. "Honey, you know that's not how she means to come across."
"But she does, Mom!" exclaimed Christina, feeling like she was fifteen again and angry at the cousin who'd just come to live with them, certainly not twenty one and on the verge of adulthood. "I love training and managing the farm, but it's being one with the horses that I miss—you know what I mean, actually riding them, getting to know them—and Melanie brings all that longing back into me."
For a few seconds, Ashleigh appraised her daughter. Then she put one arm around her; in step, they walked slowly away from the house. "You can't have both, Chris," Ashleigh told her. "I hate to tell you this, but you just can't be a trainer-manager and a top jockey. You made a choice once, and if you want to go back on it and start jockeying again, that's up to you. Your father and I will support you either way. It's up to you."
"You don't get it, Mom," Christina told her. "If I go back to jockeying, it'll be for Quest. I want to have another horse as special as Star, the kind where we know each other innately, the way me and Star did. But I can't be Quest's jockey, because then she'll be out a trainer, and Melanie already has dibs on jockeying anyway."
Ashleigh shrugged. "I hate to say it, Chris, but I don't think you can ride Quest. Not as long as Melanie honors her end of the co-ownership bargain."
"I know …" Wistfully, Christina gazed towards the barn in which the almost-yearlings were stabled. "But sometimes I wish we weren't co-owners and it was just me and my filly."
"It would be easier, wouldn't is?" mused Ashleigh rhetorically. "But Quest wouldn't be as special then. It's not uncommon for one person to own the dam or sire of their foals. What is uncommon is for two girls to have the chance to raise a champion bred from their own champions."
Inspired by her mother's words, Christina felt the stirring of something inside of her. She vowed at that moment that she would do everything for Quest to make her a great horse. If that included never being in her saddle, that was okay. All that was important was her filly growing up strong, happy, and as much a racehorse as Star had been.
She had made the vow millions of times before in the months since Wonder's Image's birth, but this would be the last time. This time, it was strengthened by resolve; this time it would stick.