Jane Marston, "American Royal"
This is not a love story. Even if Isabel Rodriguez had been free, I would have been too old for her; and besides, I’d positioned myself to be her competition. It isn’t a horse story, either, though a racehorse plays its part: a horse story is a love story too, and if one fails, the other must as well. Call mine a story of betrayal. And this brings me to the third main player, Chase Latrelle.
I’d gone in search of Chase and found him outside his shed row talking to a stable boy who was hand-grazing one of his Thoroughbreds. It had been more years than I cared to remember since I’d seen him, but I recognized him from his spare frame and his rounded shoulders. I parked and got out of the car. The stable boy saw me and said something in Spanish to Chase; then both of them looked my way.
The ground shifted. The boy, I realized, wasn’t a boy after all but a girl, probably in her teens, her black hair twisted under a ball cap, her strength and suppleness revealed even in her small movements around the horse. Chase, for his part, seemed flummoxed, as if he were confronting an enigma. And the girl? She shortened up on the lead line in a protective way, as if she were unsure of my intentions towards the animal in her charge.
“See what the cat’s dragged in!” I called.
“Bugsy’ Benoit? Is that you?”
“The same! Long time, no see.”
“What brings you to our neck of the woods?”
"You do,” I said. MileWay Park—the new racing venue between Macon and Atlanta—had opened in early spring, something about funding Georgia’s education lottery and other myths of altruism. It had taken until the previous Saturday, July Fourth—a scant two days earlier, though it seemed much longer—for my love of racing to override my old regrets and grievances. I’d been reminded of them, though, as soon as I noticed a good-looking horse in the post parade. This was American Royal. I’d checked my program for the owner and trainer, and the name Charles A. Latrelle jumped up off the page. Chase.
“So you saw my horse!” he cried. “I hope you put down a big chunk of change!”
He didn’t give me a chance to reply before turning to the girl and saying, "This is one of my old bug boys. He was riding before you were born.” So, he remembered me as an apprentice jockey—not the go-to journeyman he’d committed himself to at Birmingham Race Course and then quit on, loading his string like a thief in the night and vanning them to Louisiana. I’d arrived at his barn to find the stalls emptied of the mounts I’d been promised.
With the horizon glowing pink and gold, he told the girl he’d see her later and escorted me to the shed row. If I’d been expecting a long-delayed apology, I’d have been disappointed. “Those are mine,” he said, nodding towards three racehorses at the far end of the forty-stall barn. “Only one good one, though.”
Royal was a liver chestnut with two white socks, a balanced stride, and what horsemen call the look of eagles, as if he were gazing past the mere mortals who served him and into a realm of limitless possibility. If you were a dreamer, you wanted to follow him there. He’d come home a two-length winner and the jock had celebrated. It struck me I could’ve been the one fist-pumping to the crowd. I should’ve been! Chase really was a thief of sorts: he’d stolen my bright future.
He was watching me, curious and calculating. “So, what have you been up to?”
I told him I’d been working in Macon as a delivery driver but was looking to make a change. This was an understatement. That same afternoon, I’d quit the delivery service, no two weeks’ notice, just a match tossed onto dry wood that dissolved in smoke and flame.
“So you’re still interested in the game? I’m surprised we haven’t seen you sooner, in that case.”
"I’m here now. And to answer your question, no, I didn’t bet. I just came to see them run.”
“A good horse will get your juices flowing.”
Was he talking about me, or about himself? It didn’t matter. American Royal was special. An odd thing had happened, though. At the top of the stretch, instead of taking an opening along the rail, his jock had pulled back and detoured around the leaders. If I’d been riding, I’d have threaded the needle, moving into the opening and saving ground. Did your boy lack confidence? I wanted to ask. Or was he too green to know what to do?
I could have used these questions to make a case for myself, reminding Chase I understood the tactics needed to win races. At that moment, though, Royal put his head over the stall guard, and I walked over for a close look. Even in the dimness of the box stall, his coat gleamed. I might as well have been back in grade school reading myself into the Black Stallion books and, later, starring in the movie.
“You’ve got him fit enough to do some damage!” I said.
“Your lips to God's ear! Do you want a piece of him?”
“I was hoping you’d say that. I want to ride again. Can you help me open that particular door.”
Chase must’ve read my mind. “I guess I owe you, don’t I?” he mused. He gazed across the backstretch towards the tree line and the highway overpass. “I have to be sure, though. Are you serious about a comeback? After all this time?”
I was about to tell him that bygones could be bygones, the slate be wiped clean. Before I got the chance, however, he made clear he wasn’t in the market for riders. He and Izzy—here he nodded towards the girl—did the lion’s share of the work, because he was strapped for cash. She exercised his horses and acted as their groom. There was something else I could help with, though. His tack room had been broken into and equipment stolen. A bridle, two halters, a few lead lines.
“There are people who might not stop with theft,” he said mysteriously. These “enemies” might return and inject Royal with a banned drug, forcing a DQ if the horse crossed the finish line first in his next race. Royal outclassed the other horses stabled at the track, and some of the other trainers, presumably, resented Chase for handing them sure defeat. My salary—and it wasn’t much— would be an investment in his future.
As a motive for theft, this account sounded over the top; but worse things had happened where parimutuel wagering was involved. Who was I to say Chase had it wrong?
“So I’d be . . . ?”
“Standing night watch. Making sure he stays safe and sound until he runs again on Labor Day. After that, I might find a way for you to get back into riding.”
I wasn’t stupid. He was dangling a carrot in front of me, using my eagerness as leverage. Was I disappointed? Yes, and a bit annoyed. Out of self-respect, I’d kept myself in decent shape, jogging in the evenings and pumping iron in my apartment during the long years of monotonous, routine work. Now I was impatient to restore my jockey’s license. But my expectations were unrealistic. The world had changed, and I couldn’t just pick up where I’d left off.
Night had fallen. Across the infield, the stadium lights came up, as well as the backstretch security lights. By time Izzy tugged on the lead line and led her horse towards the spot where Chase and I waited, my deal with him was struck.
. . .
A little before nine the next night, I arrived for my first shift. A red Toyota 4Runner I’d assumed was his was parked at the end of the shed row near his stalls. But the 4Runner belonged to the girl I’d mistaken for a boy. Except, she wasn’t a teenage girl either, but a woman well into her twenties, with fine crinkles around her eyes from squinting in the bright sun. Those eyes were so deep, you couldn’t see to the bottom.
“Hola,” she greeted. “‘Bugsy’? Do I have it right?”
“It’s William!” I corrected. As soon as I heard myself, I regretted my sharp tone. True, I hated the nickname Chase had given me. But, more to the point, it had hit me wrong that he’d left it up to his “staff” to greet me. This was not the way to establish our relationship on a sound footing. I needed to get a grip, and Izzy made it easy.
“I’m sorry! Mr. Latrelle said—”
“I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have taken it out on you—”
“No problem!” we said simultaneously, and laughed.
”Well, I’m glad you made it.”
“You were afraid I wouldn’t?” I smiled when I said this. It was a sorry excuse for flirtation, but I was out of practice.
“No, no, nothing like that! The boss gets antsy when his horses are left alone.” She gave an exaggerated shrug, all innocence. “That’s all I meant.”
“Is he around, by any chance?”
“No, long gone. You’ll see him in the morning, crack of dawn. Anything I can do?”
“No, I’m good. Thanks anyway.” I wasn’t good, but I was, as I’ve said, determined. This was my chance. If it didn’t work out, it wouldn’t be because I was my own worst enemy.
“There’s water and snacks in the tack room,” Izzy said. “Oh, and—I’m Isabel, by the way. Not that anybody asked.”
“My bad! Izzy. He told me that.”
“Okay, then, Guillermo. I’ll be seeing you.”
. . .
We passed each other coming and going the next few nights, always with something sly to say. Her hair without the ball cap was tied back in a ponytail, long and shiny. And she was good at what she did. I’d already seen her on the track as I left for home in the early morning, perfect in the saddle as she galloped one of Chase’s claimers and ticking off fractions in her head.
On Friday evening, when I came to work, she and Chase and a man I’d never seen before were preparing that same horse to be led over to the saddling paddock. The man, stooping to tape the horse’s ankles as it stood in the cross-ties, was introduced to me as Reuben. Only when he stood could I tell how much taller he was than me—though it didn’t take much—and stockier. Even Izzy was taller by an inch or two.
I gently reached to touch the claimer’s neck, and the horse pinned its ears and tried to take a chunk out of my arm. “That’s sweet!” I said as I jerked the arm out of range. “Good luck with this one!”
“We’ll need it,” they said. A little later I heard the call of the race through the loudspeakers, and a few minutes after that they led the horse back covered in dirt and still blowing. “At least he wasn’t dead last,” said Chase. Izzy shrugged. She told Reuben she’d see him later. Soon afterward, Chase left Reuben to sponge off the horse and walk him. My job was to help bed him down and feed him.
“Are you and Izzy an item?” I asked Reuben as we went about our tasks.
“We sure are,” Reuben said.
“Do you work for Mr. Latrelle too?”
“Sometimes. Mostly, I help Izzy out. She says you’re trying to get your career going again. You used to be a jock?”
I told him riding had been a dream of mine from the time I could walk, and that for too long, I’d been M.I.A. from my own life. All I wanted now was an opportunity to show what I could do.
“I hear you,” he said. “Isabel feels the same way.”
I told him I could tell. In fact, she reminded me of my younger self, all hope and confidence and hunger for a big slice of the American pie. Perhaps, I thought, I’d mistaken that enthusiasm for a spark between her and me, though I thought the spark was there too. But if she was off limits, I could live with that. I’d put myself forward to supplant her as the exercise rider for American Royal, and personal feelings would have muddied the waters.
To my credit, I didn’t make the mistake of assuming I had the edge because of being male, even if antiquated chivalry did make me wonder whether I’d refuse to take her spot even if I could. I reminded myself the question was moot. The decision would be Chase’s, and it would be like choosing a starting QB. Set up the plays, then see who executes.
. . .
The next evening, Izzy was at the barn alone when I arrived. “Hey, guess what?” I called. “Looks like we’re after the same job.” I knew she knew, but I wanted it out in the open between us so I wouldn’t feel false, being her friend.
She responded in kind. “Fair warning,” she said, “I don’t roll over for nobody.” She put on a game-face and stared me down to show she meant business. “Why did you quit, anyway? Back in the day?”
“I didn’t quit!” I protested. “That last year in Birmingham, I was supposed to ride for Chase exclusively. But he abandoned me.” I elaborated a bit on the broken promise.
“Poor baby,” she teased. “An abandoned child.”
So she’d understand I hadn’t just given up, I told her about my subsequent travels to Ruidoso and Los Alamitos and a few other places, trying to salvage my career. Maybe my timing was off, or maybe, as a big fish from a small pond, I’d had an inflated notion of myself. Whatever. The trainers I approached were already committed to this or that rider; they had their staffs in place and weren’t looking to expand. I didn’t have an agent, and it was like credit: if you don’t have it to start with, no one will offer it to you.
Izzy reciprocated with a story of her own. Her parents had immigrated when she was three, and now she was on edge every minute to know whether the DACA would affirm her place in the only country she’d ever called home. Legal residency was the promise that had been held out to her as if it could never be revoked, but now it was in jeopardy.
“That’s rough,” I said. “I don’t envy you.”
“You’re trying to right a wrong, get back on track. I can respect that,” she said.
In spite of the differences in our situations, it gave us a certain understanding of each other to know we’d both been disregarded by people who should’ve known better. Meanwhile, I was more than ever determined to earn my place, regardless of what Chase did or didn’t owe me.
In the late afternoons, after a fitful daytime sleep, I’d jog down the stairwell from my fourth-floor efficiency and back again, times ten, then pull twenty-pound dumbbells from the closet and do a hundred bicep curls, followed by squats and push-ups. At MileWay, I parked as far as could from the barn and walked the rest of the way. And in my temporary role as Chase’s security detail, I prepared to slay dragons that never came.
“Wonder what happened to the bad guys?” I asked one evening as Izzy and I lingered outside Royal’s stall, appreciating what we saw. “They crawl back into the woodwork?” The backside of the racetrack was busy, people and horses, vehicles and supplies coming and going around us, yet I detected no furtive looks or whispers, no evidence anyone was paying attention to our end of the barn. Chase might have lucked into equine royalty, but in the Sport of Kings, he wasn’t sitting on the throne.
Izzy seemed to read my mind. “Mr. Latrelle is having a moment, but he’s not a wealthy man,” she said. “There isn’t much here to tempt a thief.”
“My thoughts exactly.” In fact, it had occurred to me already that Chase must’ve gotten really lucky to have acquired Royal to begin with. He couldn’t possibly have paid what the horse was worth now. “But if no one’s after him, why is he paying me to stand his night patrol?”
“You being here—it calms his nerves.” She lowered her voice. “He’s under a lot of pressure. That race you saw? I think he might have been manipulating the odds.”
I caught her drift. Chase might have instructed his jock to take the scenic route to the finish line, costing the horse several lengths. If they’d won by a bigger margin, the horse would be at short odds on Labor Day. Same with gearing him down in the final strides. If he looked like an easy winner, he’d be bet down next time out, and Chase’s payoff would be smaller, assuming he’d wagered on his own horse to win.
“The irony is,” continued Isabel, “he’s about to have some competition.” Reuben had heard that the Preakness winner would be shipping to MileWay to compete in our Grade 3 stakes—the same race in which Royal had been entered. The other horse’s connections wanted an easy race for him headed into the fall.
“Well, early day tomorrow,” Izzy said, cutting short the conversation. “I gotta get my beauty rest.”
“Hey!” I called after her on the spur of the moment. “Would you mind if I hung around tomorrow and watched the work?”
“Knock yourself out! You might learn something!” She smiled, but she meant it, too. I took her words as the tease they seemed to be—that was our manner with each other—but she looked troubled, and I thought maybe she had something in mind besides riding. “Make sure you stay back so he doesn’t see you,” she added. “Mr. Latrelle, he can be a little secretive.”
I promised her I would. And I vowed to keep my eyes wide open.
. . .
The next morning before sunrise, Chase led Royal out from under the shed row and gave Izzy a leg up. With only a few other horses on the work tab, the three of them started down the wide path to the backstretch gap. Chase opened the gate and led Royal and Izzy onto the track. She was to breeze him six furlongs. But instead of sending her off, Chase reached up and tried to hand her something.
Izzy stiffened. The shake of her head was so small, someone else might’ve missed it. Chase persisted. Another few seconds passed during which his body-language showed his sense of urgency. Finally, she accepted the object and shifted it into her right hand, which also held her riding crop.
The warm-up started. As the sky brightened, I could see Royal and Izzy in silhouette jogging the wrong way as far as the bend, then turning around and galloping counter-clockwise past Chase, who shouted something I didn’t understand. Izzy kept going.
Soon she entered the far turn. Now the horse was fighting her, drifting away from the rail. Only then did I fully grasp what she’d wanted me to know. American Royal had a flaw: he refused to run along that inside rail. Maybe because of a bad experience, like being forced to scrape up against it by a horse on his outside, he wouldn’t get near it, which meant he was incapable of taking the shortest route from start to finish. This was a secret Chase was keeping, probably so that other trainers wouldn’t take advantage of the knowledge.
Izzy brought Royal back and jumped off. Chase shook his head in bafflement and led the horse towards the barn, while Izzy went straight to the 4Runner, hopped in, and drove away. Only one interpretation of this little drama made sense. I thought it likely Chase had forced her to carry a buzzer, palming it in her whip hand with instructions to wait until the turn and then deliver a jolt of electricity to the horse’s right shoulder.
Chase’s hope? That Royal would jump away from the shock and towards the rail. If it worked, a movement of the whip hand might have gotten the same result the next time. If not, Chase might’ve upped the ante, insisting his jockey use the device in a race.
Izzy, of course, hadn’t wanted any part of Chase’s dirty trick. When the time came, she’d refused to hurt the horse.
. . .
At my final stop in my delivery job, a middle-aged woman in leggings thanked me for her frozen peas in the offhand manner of someone who does not know you, never will, and does not care. That’s when I decided to walk away. If only you knew—I’d addressed her in a silent monologue—the power you no longer have over me! The power of complaint, the lie of insufficiency.
Chase, it turned out, saw me no more clearly.
That night at the shed row, he was waiting for me, never in doubt about what my answer would be when he asked if I’d like to be his new full-time exercise rider.
“What about Isabel?” I said. “Isn’t the job still hers?”
“That isn’t working out. The gig is yours, my friend.” He told me to finish out the night, then take twenty-four hours to reset my biological clock. “Thirty-three hours from now”—he checked his watch—“you’re gonna get your wish!” And with that, he left me alone to contemplate my good fortune.
Convenient, I thought, that the threat of harm disappeared at just the moment he needed me for other things. And what, I wondered, might those things include? Unethical and cruel training methods—trivial by some standards, but not by those of love? Illegal practices like doping, or causing injury to an animal? He’d kept me in reserve in case Izzy wouldn’t be manipulated. But I didn’t have to look far into the future to know what my answer would be. I wouldn’t advance my own career at the expense of Isabel’s.
. . .
I imagine Isabel and Reuben reborn at some other track, their futures bright. But I’m not hopeful. All three of us were hooked on an ideal of hard work and reward, of striving and deserving. These values turned into a kind of fantasy, a blind faith in our special destinies. But the faith blinded us, for awhile, to corrupt practices, as if it were a smoke screen behind which corruption flourished.
I looked behind the screen of my own desire and saw, as in a mirror, a face and body past their prime. My day was past. There would be no pageantry, no accolades, no matter what. At least, like Isabel, I’d refused to compromise myself, and thus the kernel of the dream survived, not in joy, but in virtue for its own sake.
That last night, I tried to find proof to back up my suspicions. If I had the buzzer in my hand, I reasoned, I could confront Chase with it, underscoring my refusal to do as he asked. How would he react, I wondered? Would he laugh at my naïveté? Maybe so, and maybe I had been naïve. Yet, with proof, I could make his crude practices known far and wide. Twitter would come alive with condemnation. Chase would be under scrutiny.
I didn’t like my chances—he probably kept the buzzer in his pocket—but there was also a slim chance he was keeping it on site. Since this would be my last night, I meant to leave no stone unturned. Izzy and I both had been given keys to the tack room, where there was a small refrigerator and a filing cabinet stuffed with the snacks she’d mentioned that first night. Once Chase left for home, I set out to see what I might find in the drawer with the Fritos and the Lays chips and the Kit-Kat bars.
I was rifling through the snacks when I heard my name.
I spun around. “Isabel!” I said. “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you tonight!”
“Did you see what happened this morning?”
“I did. I saw that something wasn’t right. Between you and him, and then with the horse, on the turn. Was he trying to get you to use a buzzer?” I pointed toward the cabinet. “I was looking to see if he hid one here!”
“Give it up,” she said. “You won’t find anything.” She looked sad, the way I felt. “Look, I just came to say good-bye. Reuben and me, we’re disappearing. But I had to warn somebody, and you’re it. Whatever you do, don’t trust him.”
“Is there more?” I asked. “Something you haven’t told me?”
“Reuben,” she said. “He’s undocumented. The boss said he’d turn him in if I didn’t toe the line.”
“That sucks,” I said. “After all you’ve done to help him stay afloat!”
“It gets worse,” she said.
“I’m afraid to ask.”
“He took out an insurance policy. On the horse, for if it dies. Or if it suffers injury.”
By that time my brain was spinning, imagining all the ways Chase could harm a creature that depended on him. No wonder his claiming horses had such evil temperaments! He didn’t even try with them.
“Sounds as though I’d better keep at my night job a little while longer,” I said, “even if he doesn’t know I’m doing it.” I was already calculating the best ways for me to sneak back during the wee hours. Only now, from the shadows, I’d be guarding American Royal from Chase himself.
“That’s a great idea,” said Isabel. She delayed her exit long enough to give me a big smile. “I knew I could count on you,” she said. And then she was gone for good.
Jane Marston has taught composition and literature at Vanderbilt University, Mercer University (Macon), and The University of Georgia. Her academic articles or poetry have appeared in journals such as Studies in Short Fiction, Crucible, Birmingham Poetry Review, and, most recently, serotoninpoetry.org.
She lives in Athens, Georgia, where she enjoys walking the nature trails at the State Botanical Gardens.