With Alf still joyous at his winning wager, he and Jack left the others and headed for the stables to prepare Trafalgar for his next big test.
Reaching the stall where their thoroughbred stood. ‘Much cooler and calmer than I am,’ Jack thought. They soon heard the hoofbeats of the horses going out for the second race. Alf checked Trafalgar’s hooves, ensuring the four shoes were firmly in place.
Trying to convince himself that his nervousness was out of character, Jack mentioned it once again to Alf. The old ostler stood up to face Jack. “Exactly as I told you before the York Race?” he asked. “And what happened there?”
A roar from the stands signalled the start of the second race. Jack paused briefly, before answering, “He won.”
“Exactly. Jack, the day you’re not nervous is the day you start getting careless. I’d be worried if you were calm.” He gave his young apprentice, a slap on the shoulder and a wide encouraging smile. “Now, let’s get this beautiful animal ready for victory.”
The roar of the crowd rose to a great crescendo before dropping to a low excited mumbling. The second race was over.
Jack and Alf saddled and bridled Trafalgar, who occasionally turned his beautifully shaped head as though to ask what the hell they were doing. As they finished, a smiling Nate appeared all rigged out in the patriotic coloured silks that suited the horse’s name.
He stroked Trafalgar’s muzzle before asking, “Did you know the Prince Regent’s horse is odds on?”
“Someone said eight or nine to one.”
Alf pulled a face, “That’s a bit low in a race of this quality.”
Nate shrugged, “His York performance may have attracted attention.”
Jack asked him, ”Did you get to see Lord Duckham?”
Nate shook his head, “He is here, but I couldn’t get near him.”
The caller’s bellowing voice broke in, “Parade ring clear!”
“Time for the show, “ Alf laughed and led Trafalgar out towards the ring, with Jack and Nate following behind, discussing race tactics.
“We know he handles the distance,” Jack said, and Nate nodded his agreement. ”With it being a mile, we won’t see much of the start from the finishing line, but I’m sure he’ll handle the hassle of the other horses down there.”
“I’ll make sure he’s kept quiet,” Nate assured him, and agreed that keeping Royal Standard within view was the most obvious ploy, “When he moves, Trafalgar moves.”
“There may be a surprise package in that field, “ Jack warned.
“Oh, I’ll be ready for that. But final furlong, I’ll have a word in his ear.”
Jack laughed as they entered the wide ring where horses were already circling, and groups of owners, trainers and riders were spaced around, “Just what is it you whisper in his ear, Nate?”
Nate grinned, creasing his young/old face. “Only two words, ‘Get him’.”
They quickly spotted where Sir and Lady Brandling were standing with a bonneted Becky, whose glance at him was heart-warming.
“Trafalgar looks magnificent, Jack,” Sir Oswald said, adding, “and you look very sharp, Nate.” He pointed to a larger group, “that’s Lord Duckham in the top hat and maroon coat.”
"And that’s the weasel beside him,” Becky growled, indicating the back of a man in a royal blue jacket.
“Oh, yes, I must try to catch Lord Duckham about that.” Sir Oswald said.
Jack looked at the circling horses and remarked, “A fine collection of horses.”
“In which Trafalgar is king,” Becky declared, with pride in her voice.
“Well said, my dear,” Sir Oswald said with equal pride.
Oh, God, Jack felt those comments piling extra pressure on him.
His tension was interrupted by the caller’s cry, “Jockey’s up.”
Jack held out a hand to Nate. “I know you’ll get him close.”
Smiling as he took the proffered hand, Nate replied, “Or even closer.” He was then given a leg-up by Jack into the saddle.
An assortment of encouraging calls came from rival groups, as Nate, after tipping his cap dutifully towards Sir Oswald joined the line of horses heading out of the ring.
Becky’s presence alongside him kept Jack’s breathing level as they neared the finishing line. Avoid the tension, he kept telling himself.
Given the quality and reputation of the field, they were disappointed when the bookmaker boards came into view. Trafalgar was no better than eight to one.
“His performance at York has clearly gone before him,” Sir Oswald observed.
Lady Brandling touched at grey hair showing below her vivid bonnet and put in, “I hope you are not risking too much, Oswald.”
“No risk, my dear,” he replied, smiling around at the others.
Sir Oswald, Jack, Becky and Alf all moved alongside respective bookmaker boards, Alf choosing the one where his winnings from the first race waited. At a nod from Sir Oswald, they each stepped in and placed their bets. Just as they’d done at York. Sure enough, as soon as they’d collected their tickets, Trafalgar’s price showed no better than four to one.
Just then a stentorian voice sounded over the buzzing throng, “They’re lining up.”
Surprised, Sir Oswald pointed to the top end of the stand. There on a platform, two men were standing, one holding a telescope to his eye, the other a wide tube to his lips through which he was issuing details.
From their standpoint, Jack could only just gain a vague impression of the horses milling about. “From this distance,” Alf said, “they could be ants.”
“An orderly line-up,” the voice called.
Becky gripped Jack’s arm as she giggled, “This is where my training ability comes in.”
“I don’t know what we would have done without you,” Jack murmured, hastily adding, “m’lady.” Her grip of her hand on his arm helped to keep his nerves under control.
“And they’re off, a good even break.” The voice called.
There had been the vague flash of the green flag, now all they could do was wait, and listen to progress before they were able to distinguish for themselves, when they were closer to the finish.
“Green Mission leads, with Franciscan close up, along with Royal Standard, the Prince Regent’s horse.”
“Where’s Trafalgar?” Becky hissed, and Jack could sense her growing agitation, matching his own, which was being overlaid by sheer stimulation, as the voice answered Becky’s question.
“The red and white cap of Trafalgar is in close attendance.”
Oh, God, stay with them, Trafalgar. He longed to be able to throw an arm around Becky as the voice came again, “They’re at the halfway mark and Royal Standard has moved into the lead, with Bishop’s Folly moving into second as Franciscan drops away.” That brought a small cheer from the crowd.
“Concentrate on Trafalgar, man,” Alf cried out in agitation.
The voice announced, “Yes, Royal Standard has moved into a half-length lead over Bishop’s Folly, with Green Mission just outside him. Viking King is showing up well and Trafalgar’s showing on the rail.”
Don’t get boxed in, Jack was saying under his breath. He was now able to pick out some colour and clearly the dark blue was leading, up to the centre of the track. The red and white cap on Nate showed close to the rails but Jack estimated that he was no more than one or two lengths behind the leader.
Again, the voice, “With three furlongs to go there is no doubt that Royal Standard holds a clear length lead over Bishop’s Folly with Trafalgar, Green Mission and Viking King neck and neck just behind the second horse.
Becky was beginning to dance up and down beside him as her fingers gripped into his arm. Jack was a little relieved to hear Alf, on the other side of her, mutter, “You have a hell of a grip, m’lady.”
The guttural call of Sir Oswald came as a surprise, “Come on, Trafalgar. Show them.”
The reporting voice was hardly necessary as it called, “With two furlongs to go, it is still Royal Standard by a length.” Cheers at that again. “Trafalgar, Green Mission and Viking King all challenging just behind Bishop’s Folly.”
“He’s got him beautifully placed,” exclaimed Alf.
Jack could see that, but his heart was pounding so hard he was almost unable to make any response. But he didn’t need to. Still squeezing her fingernails into his arm, Becky was jumping up and down, squealing, above the roar of the crowd, “You can do it, darling Trafalgar. Come on.”
The voice signalled, “Approaching the final furlong.”
Now was the time. Jack saw Royal Standard’s stride lengthen as he started to extend his lead. He could see Nate leaned forward his mouth close to Trafalgar’s ear. Now was the time to prove himself.
But that was the moment that Bishop’s Folly faltered, and lurched in front of Trafalgar Jack was horrified to see exasperation on Nate’s face.
“Oh, God,” That from Becky.
“Damn it,” from Alf.
“Bloody hell!” Loud and clear from Sir Oswald.
“Oswald, language!” Lady Brandling’s shocked tones.
Heart thumping, Jack watched as Nate skillfully swerved Trafalgar around the offending rival. But by the time he had Trafalgar moving again, the voice was telling the screaming crowd, “The favourite, Royal Standard has moved three lengths clear, ahead of Viking King.”
But now Nate was leaning over the ears of Trafalgar as he lengthened his stride. For less than a second, the gap between him and Royal Standard remained the same, but their wonderful chestnut strode past Viking King and was going after the favourite.
Jack could see the gap had shortened, but they were into the final furlong, and Jack found he had stopped breathing, wishing, willing a miracle. The gap was down to two lengths. Trafalgar’s stride was now longer and faster than that of Royal Standard.
Beside him, Becky was jumping up and down, and his own fervour had him mindlessly gripping her hand where it clawed into his arm.
One length only, Trafalgar’s nose was level with the tail of the favourite, whose jockey was desperately wielding his whip. Jack was sure he could still see Nate’s lips moving close to Trafalgar’s ear.
Half a length, but would the finishing line come too soon? Jack felt the tears of pride already on his cheeks as the horses were neck and neck. Screams of excitement from Becky. Moans, gasps and groans from the crowd as, with the Regent’s horse nearest to him, Jack saw Trafalgar’s head appear ahead of Royal Standard’s nose. Then they crossed the finishing line
And Jack discovered that there was no doubt about the result in Becky’s mind as she pressed her body close in a wild hug and almost screamed in his ear, “He won. He won.”
Joyful as it all was, Jack was compelled to remind her, “Alf too. Alf too.”
Her eyes glowed as she broke from him and grabbed Alf, before moving on to her uncle and aunt.
“Well, I’m glad all that fuss is over, “ Lady Brandling said huffily before shrugging and adding lightly, “Of course, I always knew he’d win.”
“Ah, my dear,” Sir Oswald replied, with a laugh, “aren’t you glad you paid so much money for him.” He then grabbed Jack’s hand and shook it warmly, half turning to Alf at the same time, “Thank you both so much for the way you’ve handled my risky venture.”
Lady Brandling suddenly queried, “Rebecca, where is your bonnet?”
Becky looked genuinely surprised as she gazed around in what Jack guessed was a brilliant act, she said, “It must have come off in the excitement.”
“Maybe you weren’t as worked up as I was” Becky suggested.
Jack struggled to keep the smile from his face as Sir Oswald snapped, “Rebecca,” as though he was about to scold her, but then a wide smile spread across his florid face as he went on, “Oh, let’s go and collect our winnings.”
After completing that pleasant task, they hurried down to the ring where Nate was roundly praised for his brilliant horsemanship. Nate’s modest response was to say, “He is just a dream to ride. Any other horse might have baulked when we were blocked in.”
The next few hours were like a dream for Jack, amid all the euphoria it became clear that a pathway to an amazing future could be opening out. Racing folk came to heap praise on him, Alf and the horse, while fittingly, congratulating Nate on his brilliant ride.
The trainer of Viking King, told him, “I felt no disgrace in coming third to two such grand animals,” He paused before asking, “I assume he’s entered for the Two Thousand Guineas?”
“Not that I know of.”
Then he saw a smiling Sir Oswald approaching across the ring accompanied by a tall, distinguished gentleman with thick silver hair, dressed in a long maroon jacket. Even before he stopped to have a few words with the stable hands in the second-place bay, Jack had guessed who he was, and that was confirmed when Sir Oswald introduced him.
“Jack, this is Lord Duckham, head trainer to His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent. He wanted to speak to you.”
Jack had never encountered a Lord before and was just a little uncertain. But a large friendly hand was held out to him, so he shook it, noting the firm grip, but he gave a little deferential nod of his head.
“I wanted to congratulate you on that wonderful victory, even though it was against one of the Prince Regent’s animals. Sir Oswald tells me how much he has admired your manner with horses.”
“Thank you, er- your Lordship,” Jack said, just a little uneasy as to whether that was the correct address. But the attitude of this upstanding man had already impressed him.
“His Royal Highness will be interested to hear that your magnificent animal will be challenging his two best three-year-olds next May. And I’m the idiot who talked Sir Oswald to enter him.”
Jack looked at Sir Oswald for some explanation which was immediately forthcoming, “Lord Duckham pointed me in the direction of a Jockey Club director, and they have accepted Trafalgar as an entry in the Two Thousand Guineas.”
“The classic?” Jack immediately realised that it was an unnecessary question.
Lord Duckham laughed loudly, “I may be setting myself up for a beating, and in that case, you and I, young man, may have so much more to discuss.”Jack saw that Becky, had made a tentative approach.
Lord Duckham had noticed too. He turned to Sir Oswald first and asked, “Is this pretty young lady your niece?”
When Sir Oswald affirmed that fact, his lordship turned back to Becky and said, ”I understand I owe you a massive apology for the ungentlemanly behaviour of my one-time deputy. There have been a far too many incidents when his attitude to ladies has been unpalatable. This was the final straw. You accept my apology, Rebecca?”
“Of course,” Becky replied, and Jack could not recall her being so subdued.
“When the Prince hears about this, as well as losing his job, Sir Arthur Devort will quickly become plain Mr Arthur Devort.”
“Wasn’t that very civil of him?” Becky enthused.
When they arrived back at the Black Bull hostelry in the early evening, Sir Oscar, just as he had at York, insisted on treating them all to a chicken dinner. The champagne toast he gave to Trafalgar and the success they had shared began a most cheerful evening.
Much of that, for Jack, was because of being close to Becky. But other racegoers came across with words of admiration for Trafalgar. Strangely, Jack felt that during his speech Sir Oswald seemed to want to say more about future prospects yet held back.
Alf had them laughing when he outlined what he might do with his winnings, “You know, I could buy eight horses or eighteen cows,” he paused, his lined face twisting disgustedly, as he added, “Ugh, all that milk! I think I’ll go for many, many barrels of ale.”
That had everyone laughing loudly. A brilliant end to a brilliant day.
Some hours later, Jack and Becky lay together, alone at last. Becky whispered, “Oh, Jack, can it get any better?”
“Only when we know it’s permanent,” he admitted.
Jack had sensed that Sir Oswald had been about to say something else. But what it could be he had no idea.
As they slept that night, neither could envisage the joys and pitfalls that lay ahead.