With the impending race so near, life became a whirl of activity, with much discussion between Jack, Alf and Nate regarding the pace and distance Trafalgar was capable of.
Apart from the training, other work was necessary. Jack and Alf worked on preparing the horsebox for the journey, fitting rolls of sacking around the inside to prevent any injury to Trafalgar on uncertain roads.
Two days before their journey into the unknown, they set about getting Trafalgar used to the horsebox. But, the horse, amenable to most demands, had decided that the horsebox was not for him.
With much hauling on the bridle, which had Trafalgar tossing his head in protest, they managed after twenty minutes of struggle to get him on board. Jack and Alf agreed that they needed a much swifter response.
Their thoroughbred, when requested, had backed out of the box most willingly. That made his reluctant entry even more annoying. After several vain efforts, both exhausted, they agreed to try again the following morning.
So, next morning Jack suggested they lower the door on the horsebox and have Trafalgar stand facing into the interior. “Just to see if he gets the message.”
As the horse stood there, casually looking around, Alf asked, “Think he’s got the message?” And grinning he added, “More like, he’s giving us one.”
Unexpectedly, halfway through the morning, Sir Oswald arrived. More pleasing from Jack’s viewpoint, Becky, looking wonderful in a fitted green gown, was with him.
“I must apologise about having the pest with me,” Sir Oswald said cheerily. “Any mention of coming to see Trafalgar and she will not be stopped.”
Becky gave Jack a sly smile as she reached out a hand to Trafalgar. The horse immediately strained forward towards her hand, and she fondly rubbed his muzzle.
That motion brought a sudden idea to Jack, “M’lady,“ he said, remembering to be correct, ”do you think you could shuffle carefully backwards up that ramp, keeping your hand out to Trafalgar?”
Becky frowned uncertainly, while Sir Oswald wore a surprised expression. But, after her initial hesitation, Becky was eager to do as Jack asked.
Jack, a little worried at her moving backwards said, “Slowly and carefully. Don’t want you to trip, m’lady.”
As soon as Becky began her ascent up the ramp, Jack eased his hold on Trafalgar’s harness. Instantly, the horse moved onto the slope, following Becky.
Very quietly, Jack urged, “Now, reach for the harness, turn and walk into the box, without tugging at him.”
Within seconds, Trafalgar was completely inside the box, and Alf was declaring, “My God, we’ve struggled for hours, m’lady, and you make it look easy.”
Becky was overjoyed at her success as she came out of the box to watch Alf back Trafalgar out. And Sir Oswald laughed, “You see, you do have your uses, my dear.”
“Quite honestly, Sir Oswald, your niece could be most useful at York,” Jack told him, in a tone that had no trace of his double meaning.
But Becky heard it and turned her knowing smile to one side. Sir Oswald told them that Alf would drive the carriage on the morrow while Jack, with Nate alongside him. drove the horse box. “If you’re happy with that arrangement, Jack?”
Jack nodded his understanding, as Sir Oswald continued, “Journey takes over six hours. Too long for the drays. So, I have booked us into the Black Bull hostelry, a very well set up, establishment catering for racing folk. And we complete the two hours to York the following day.”
Jack had just a twinge of worry at driving the horsebox for that kind of distance, but everything went smoothly on the following day.
Jack harnessed two sturdied and obedient horses to the horsebox, while Alf was checking the two drays fitted to the carriage, outside the manor.
Jack was leading Trafalgar from the grazing area, when with perfect timing, Becky arrived, telling him that Alf had said you would need help. Jack was so grateful that Alf was such a wily old man.
Becky immediately took charge of Trafalgar and led him unerringly into the horsebox. Jack quickly applied the fastenings that would support him.
As he turned from that task, Becky pressed her lips warmly against his. He responded but advised her, “Care and common sense must prevail.” And with a quick final peck, chuckled, “Trafalgar might kick me.”
Leading the drays and the horse box back in front of the manor, Jack told Sir Oswald what help his niece had been. She secretly squeezed his arm as he helped her into the coach. As he closed the door, Sir Oswald said, in a light tone, “Be careful with that horse, Jack.”
“Don’t worry about that, sir,” Jack replied.
To Jack’s relief, there were few severe dips in the road, and that 2ensured a smooth journey for his precious cargo.
The Black Bull hostelry was as well set up as Sir Oswald had said. There were smaller individual stalls where pack horses could have a well-earned rest.
Jack was frustrated by the fact that there was one building where the gentry could be comfortably housed, and another for, as Alf remarked, ‘lesser mortals’.
In the small bar, Jack sat with Alf and Nate listening to racing gossip.
Alf told a ginger-haired trainer the race Trafalgar was aiming for. “First time out?” Ginger hair asked, and he shook his head. “A red-hot favourite in that one. Pirate Gold, he ran second to a horse in next year’s two thousand guineas.”
Jack knew that the two thousand guineas were known as a classic race. He went to sleep that night worrying that they might be aiming too high. When his thoughts turned to Becky, and he fell into a surprisingly deep sleep.
Awake early, Jack’s mind immediately turned to the importance of the day that lay ahead. Could Trafalgar’s performance possibly shape his own life?
To his utter surprise, entering the stables, he found that both Alf and Becky were leaning over the gate into Trafalgar’s space.
“Is he all right?” he asked anxiously, then, as he drew nearer, he saw the horse’s muzzle pushing against Becky’s hand.-
“He’s fine,” Alf said, “and it looks like this lady has been here all night.”
Becky turned and warmed Jack’s heart with that special smile. “I was only just ahead of Alf. Couldn’t sleep.”
Alf firmly suggested that they have breakfast and get Trafalgar to the track, so he has time to recover from being trapped in that box.
The older ostler stalked away ahead of them to give them time together. As they came out of the stable Becky, stunning in her tightly fitting gown in floral shades, whispered, “I’ve changed my room to the ground floor, and the window can be left open.”
Jack mere said, “Such a very naughty lady.”
From that point, time took wings. Horses were harnessed. With Becky’s presence, Trafalgar easily entered his box. Sir Oswald, looking very smart in his original military outfit stated that he was looking forward to a “splendid” day.
~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~~ ~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~
After two hours they were at the York track, and Jack realised what high-class racing was all about. The ambience of the whole meeting made the Exhampton experience look like an amateur affair.
With open stalls for every racehorse, and easy access to an extended exercise strip. It was ideally.
The spectators filling the stand seemed there to impress. Some men wore military regalia, like Sir Oswald, but mostly they wore, foppish, light breeches, and suave long-tailed jackets. The bright radiance of the ladies really caught the eye, all vying for up-to-date styles and vivid patterns.
Jack was delighted that Becky was able to use her pretext of being near Trafalgar, stand near him. Jack was glad for her nearness as it kept his rising anxieties in check.
Nate walked Trafalgar around for a while, before taking him for a simple trot to free up his muscles. Later there would be a lung-freeing canter before his race, which was third on the card.
At one point, Alf had asked, “Are you having any wagers, Jack?”
“Only on Trafalgar.”
“Well, I still have the fifty pounds from Rascal’s village win. I thought maybe ten pounds at a decent price.”
“Ten pounds?” Alf had exclaimed, “You can buy a herd of cows for that.”
“Now, what could I do with a herd of cows.”
“Milk them,” Alf chuckled.
As the first race neared, Jack felt the butterflies fluttering inside him. Telling Alf this, the old ostler chuckled, “If you didn’t feel that way you wouldn’t be human.”
Horses for the first race were being led around a parade ring by stable lads. Alf having agreed to lead Trafalgar, chortled, “I’ll be the oldest stable lad in Christendom.”
Nerves on edge, Jack watched owners, trainers and jockeys discussing tactics and prospects. One more race and he would be out there.
He chanced standing with Becky and her uncle to watch the one-mile event as Alf joined them to say he had placed one pound on a horse called Regal Punch. “Took odds of six to one about him. Win and I can buy several barrels of ale.”
They all laughed, but Regal Punch did win, and Jack was so pleased to see Alf’s little jig of delight as Sir Oswald and Becky congratulated him.
“All on Trafalgar?” Sir Oswald teased.
Alf pulled an uncertain face, before laughingly saying, “Some of it. I couldn’t store too many barrels.”
The race was nearing, and Jack and Alf began to make their apologies as they left to attend to Trafalgar.
“Any nerves?” Sir Oswald asked,
Jack glanced at Becky and held out an exaggeratedly trembling hand, “You’ve done all you can, Jack,” Sir Oswald reassured him.
They found Trafalgar tethered quite peacefully and looking as good as ever. A loud voice called that the parade ring was clear for second race runners.
That, and everything that happened from that point, seemed to build on Jack’s growing unease. He needed the maiden race to be over, with a success of course, and therein lay the worry. Was he really good enough to get the best out of Trafalgar?
Trying to convince himself he shouldn’t be so nervous, he trembled when a roar from the stands told him of the start of the second race.
Together, he and Alf saddled and bridled Trafalgar, and as increased yelling and high screams told that the finishing line was being reached, a smiling Nate arrived.
The silks designed by Sir Oswald looked highly colourful. “Just perfect,” both Jack and Alf. Just the patriotic flavour that Sir Oswald had wanted.
“I like this outfit,” Nate declared, giving Trafalgar a friendly stroke down the muzzle. He jumped to see over the connecting fence, “Did you know Pirate Gold is in the next stall? Grey, and easy-to-spot.”
“Any betting?” Alf asked.
“The last show he was a strong even money bet.”
“And Trafalgar?” Jack asked, hoping he was keeping his nervousness out of his voice.
Nate shrugged, “Any price, but that could change when the money goes down.”
“Oh, hell, yes,” Alf said immediately, “must have a word with Sir Oswald about that. He’ll be putting a bundle on him.”
Jack wished Alf hadn’t said that. He was eager to ask why he’d want to talk to Sir Oswald about betting, but the caller’s bellowing voice, roar, “Parade ring clear!”
Alf reached for Trafalgar’s reins, winked at Jack and Nate, and said, “Well, here we go. And may the gods go with us.” With that, he led Trafalgar away towards the ring. The clopping of their opponents being led out created a mild cacophony in Jack’s head.
“Any special instructions, Jack?”
Suddenly, Jack felt as though his feet had been placed back on the ground. This jockey who had experience riding horses almost as long as Jack had lived, and here he was asking Jack for instructions. And, strangely, giving his answer was no problem at all.
With his confidence raised, he told Nate, “You know this horse’s capabilities better than anyone, Nate. You’ll need to be cautious at the start. Keep close to the first four. At that five-furlong marker, have a word in his ear.”
Jack had to laugh at this point, “Hell, it’s like telling you how to boil water. You must have done this so often. But am I right about whispering in his ear?”
Nate nodded, and shared the laugh, “Honestly, Jack, of all the horses I’ve ridden, Trafalgar responds to my voice like no other. If I may say so, you’ve done a fine job.”
After giving his thanks, and getting that extra lift, Jack went out with Nate to the parade ring, where he immediately saw Becky and her uncle standing together, turning to follow Alf as he circled with Trafalgar. Becky’s welcoming smile became a further balm.
The largest group was more animated than the rest. Sir Oswald told them, “Followers of the favourite, the grey horse there.”
Jack nodded, seeing that horse being led by a young lad. “Pirate Gold. A fine-looking animal, sir.”
“Any better than Trafalgar?” Becky asked moving closer to Jack.
“What do you think, m’lady?” Jack asked, longing to stroke her delicate cheek.
“You know what I think,” A subtle pause, and then she added, “about Trafalgar.”
She turned to Nate, “Oh, those colours look so good. You chose well, Uncle Oswald.”
“All a tribute to your dear father. All we need is another Trafalgar victory.”
That was the moment when a caller bellowed, “Jockeys up!”
Amid cries of, “Good luck,” all around them, Jack gave Nate a leg up into the horse’s saddle. Their jockey touched his cap in Sir Oswald’s direction. And joined the line of mounts leaving the area.
Jack’s breathing was becoming difficult again, but as they sought a good vantage point, Alf’s wagering query came to the fore.
“If you’ll pardon my assumption, Major,” he said quietly, “I assume we’re all having a wager.”
“Of course,” Sir Oswald said.
“I’ve got five pounds to put on,” Becky announced.
“And I’ll be risking a little more than that,” Sir Oswald declared.
Alf nodded and stopped at a point near a line of bookmaker boards. “Now, excuse any intrusion on your intent, Major,” the old ostler said, “when we have wagered, Trafalgar’s starting price will tumble.”
“Understandable,” Becky ventured.
“Yes, m’lady, but if we each go to a different bookmaker, keep our eyes on each other, and all move in at the same time and place our bets, we should get the best price available.”
“That’s brilliant, Alf,” Becky said admiringly.
“I know you’ve done this before, Alf,” Sir Oswald observed.
Alf gave a half-smile. “Oh, many years ago, Major.”
Alf’s plan worked perfectly. They all stepped up to individual bookmakers in unison, and Alf, Sir Oswald and Jack all got odds of ten to one. Then Becky came waving her slip of paper in the air. “The kind gentleman over there said he always gave an extra point to a pretty face. I got eleven to one. Wasn’t that good of him?”
Alf sniffed as though offended. “I mustn’t be pretty enough. Look at the price now.”
The boards showed that Trafalgar’s price had dropped to five to one, and as the punters who followed the money moved in, the price dropped further.
From their chosen viewpoint, Nate’s colours seemed brighter than all those around him. Jack became worried at the way Trafalgar seemed disturbed by the closeness of the other horses. He saw Nate turn him around before easing him back into the rather uneven line.
Jack whispered to Alf that they should have done more about that, but all Alf said was, “Too late now.”
Then the green starting flag went up and there was a general murmur of expectation around the crowd.
As the flag fell, the start looked rather ragged, one horse refused to start at all. But the red and white cap of Trafalgar looked to be well placed, as the horses edged to the fence on their right, while Nate was keeping Trafalgar out wide, out of trouble.
“It’s Pirate Gold,” a woman’s voice behind them cried out, and it was clear that the grey did have a slight lead at the two-furlong marker.
At three furlongs the grey still had a length lead and three horses, one of which was Trafalgar seemed to be in a line.
A strange calmness had settled on Jack as he watched. His horse, their thoroughbred, was lying very handy. Then he heard Becky’s rising high-pitched tones, “Oh, come, Trafalgar. Come on.”
“He’s doing all right, m’lady,” Alf growled his reassurance.
Four furlongs marker and little change. The backers of Pirate Gold were really calling out his name now, amid excited cheers. But Nate was holding Trafalgar in place along with two other horses.
The pack was near enough now to make out details, and Jack saw the grey lengthen his stride. But Trafalgar was still well in touch.
Jack sucked in a deep breath as they approached the five-furlong marker, and he saw, without any uncertainty, Nate lean close along Trafalgar’s neck, as though talking into those pointed ears. At the same time, he gave an extra shake to the reins. As Pirate Gold moved further ahead
But it was only momentarily. Entering that final furlong, the effect of that shake of the reins was startling. Trafalgar, as though shot from a cannon, surged past Pirate Gold, and with every stride drew further ahead.
“My God.” That from Sir Oswald.
“Jesus.” That from Alf.
All around them, there were gasps and screams of sheer wonder.
“Pooh, Trafalgar.” That squeal of delight came from Becky, and Jack felt her hand gripping his arm. Momentarily worried, he glanced sideways but saw that she had stepped between him and Alf and was also clutching the older man’s arm. Her face was alight, she was jumping up and down like a madwoman.
Jack just stood there, only just aware of what was going on around him, as he watched this beautiful, wonderful animal, his chestnut coat gleaming, stride across the winning line a clear six lengths ahead of the rest of the field.
All around there were cheers and roars of approval, and Jack was shocked to feel tears streaming down his cheeks. Becky, having given Alf a cautious hug, moved in on Jack and checked as she looked into his face. “Are they real tears?”
Jack sniffed. “Of happiness,” he said, and then Sir Oswald was edging his niece to one side as he held out his broad hand.
“May I shake your hand, young man? That was magnificent.” His grip was firm and genuine.
“You chose the horse, sir. Not to mention an excellent jockey.”
“Never be too modest, Jack. I know how much work you’ve done with our horse.”
Then Sir Oswald was distracted by Becky throwing her arms around him and crying out, “Trafalgar won, uncle. We did it.”
“We, did it?” Sir Oswald said, winking in Jack’s direction.
Nate, dismounting in the winner’s spot, was flushed with the excitement of the race, “Getting him to run was no problem,” he joked. “Getting him to stop was the hard part. He would have run all day.”
Trafalgar’s coat gleamed with perspiration, but that didn’t stop Becky from hugging around his neck. They all were eager to give their horse a joyful patting and stroking.
For Jack, the rest of the day went by in a wave of folk wanting to congratulate him. Some even said that he had “a very special horse” on his hands. Jack had already become aware of that fact.
They were back in the Black Bull, by early evening, where Sir Oswald insisted, they all gather in the dining room, firstly for a champagne toast to the efforts of Trafalgar, followed by a delicious chicken dinner. For Jack, it was a joy to be able to exchange loving glances across the table with Becky.
There were many diners who had been at the races, and many were keen to talk about the race, the performance, and some were full of advice. And this led to Sir Oswald making one more announcement.
“And that is?”
“A top-grade owner who, having seen Trafalgar perform, has advised me to enter him in a two-year-old trophy race at Doncaster. Owners pay fifty pounds for entry, and the winner takes all, but there’s more.”
“More?” Alf queried.
“This is a very high-class race. Two of the recent winners have gone on to take the two thousand guineas.”
“The classic?” Jack’s heart began beating double pace. “Do you think we have a chance?”
“Trafalgar does.” Becky piped up excitedly.
“Do I?” Sir Oscar, giving her a warning glance, but smiling at Jack’s obvious uncertainty. “Do you? Jack, I’ve taken the liberty, without first getting your approval, to enter this Doncaster race.”
Jack’s hand trembled. Was this an impossible dream? A knight of the realm needing to seek his approval.
But alongside that was the newly looming prospect of Trafalgar qualifying to enter a classic race.
Much later on that joyous night, Jack had no trouble finding the third window in the gentry block. He knocked on the glass, but the window went up so easily, and it was wonderful to hear Becky’s gentle voice ask, “I hope you’re somebody who’s friendly.”
“Very friendly,” Jack laughed as he scrambled over the sill, and together they held their own private celebration.
He slept very well that night.