High stakes

1

I looked at my friend and saw a man who had robbed me. Deeply disturbing. The ultimate in rejection.

Jody Leeds looked back at me, half smiling, still disbelieving.

‘You’re what?’

‘Taking my horses away,’ I said.

‘But… I’m your trainer.’ He sounded bewildered. Owners, his voice and expression protested, never deserted their trainers. It simply wasn’t done. Only the eccentric or the ruthless shifted their horses from stable to stable, and I had shown no signs of being either.

We stood outside the weighing room of Sandown Park racecourse on a cold windy day with people scurrying past us carrying out saddles and number cloths for the next steeplechase. Jody hunched his shoulders inside his sheepskin coat and shook his bare head. The wind blew straight brown hair in streaks across his eyes and he pulled them impatiently away.

‘Come on, Steven,’ he said. ‘You’re kidding me.’

‘No.’

Jody was short, stocky, twenty-eight, hardworking, clever, competent and popular. He had been my constant adviser since I had bought my first racehorses three years earlier, and right from the beginning he had robbed me round the clock and smiled while doing it.

‘You’re crazy,’ he said, ‘I’ve just won you a race.’

We stood, indeed, on the patch of turf where winners were unsaddled: where Energise, my newest and glossiest hurdler, had recently decanted his smiling jockey, had stamped and steamed and tossed his head with pride and accepted the crowd’s applause as simply his due.

The race he had won had not been important, but the way he had won it had been in the star-making class. The sight of him sprinting up the hill to the winning post, a dark brown streak of rhythm, had given me a rare bursting feeling of admiration, of joy… probably even of love. Energise was beautiful and courageous and chockfull of will to win and it was because he had won, and won in that fashion, that my hovering intention to break with Jody had hardened into action.

I should, I suppose, have chosen a better time and place.

‘I picked out Energise for you at the Sales,’ he said.

‘I know.’

‘And all your other winners.’

‘Yes.’

‘And I moved into bigger stables because of you.’

I nodded briefly.

‘Well… You can’t let me down now.’

Disbelief had given way to anger. His bright blue eyes sharpened to belligerence and the muscles tightened round his mouth.

‘I’m taking the horses away,’ I repeated. ‘And we’ll start with Energise. You can leave him here when you go home.’

‘You’re mad.’

‘No.’

‘Where’s he going then?’

I actually had no idea. I said, ‘I’ll make all the arrangements. Just leave him in the stable here and go home without him.’

‘You’ve no right to do this.’ Full-scale anger blazed in his eyes. ‘You’re a bloody rotten shit.’

But I had every right. He knew it and I knew it. Every owner had the right at any time to withdraw his custom if he were dissatisfied with his trainer. The fact that the right was seldom exercised was beside the point.

Jody was rigid with fury. ‘I am taking that horse home with me and nothing is going to stop me.’

His very intensity stoked up in me an answering determination that he should not. I shook my head decisively. I said, ‘No, Jody. The horse stays here.’

‘Over my dead body.’

His body, alive, quivered with pugnaciousness.

‘As of this moment,’ I said, ‘I’m cancelling your authority to act on my behalf, and I’m going straight into the weighing room to make that clear to all the authorities who need to know.’

He glared. ‘You owe me money,’ he said. ‘You can’t take your horses away until you’ve paid.’

I paid my bills with him on the nail