First Time Starter

By Mark Stanley

"Geez, Lottman, I know jocks don't have to make weight anymore, but you're ridiculous. This game has a tradition to uphold, after all."

Lottman slid his obese frame into the riding booth with a grunt and tossed an empty bag of chips onto the floor. He leaned back in the form-fitting chair and wiped a few crumbs off of his face. "Spare me the 'Golden Days of Horse Racing' B.S. and just give me the instructions," he told the tall, lean horse trainer standing over him. He was the leading rider at the track; he sure didn't have to take any crap from a half-assed trainer with only five horses in his barn. Lottman sighed. But if he wanted to break into the top twenty leading riders nation-wide he couldn't turn down a single mount. Once he got that high in the standings, he'd be able to leave this dump and move his tack to a decent track, like Saratoga or Santa Anita with their quality horses and trainers. Lottman burped and wiped his greasy fingers over his huge belly. It couldn't happen soon enough.

Walton, the trainer, cringed. "Ok, Ok." He leaned over and picked up a miniature jack on the end of a length of coaxial cable. "Remember this baby is a first time starter showing only modest speed in her workouts, so don't try and win with her yet. I only want to give her a test under race conditions until she gets used to the track. We have an inside post; you should be able to get her in a good position right after the start and then rate behind the leaders. Don't drive her too hard in the lane, but if you can get her up to fourth, that would help us a lot." Walton grinned. "Valley Princess is sort of the pet of our barn. My whole crew loves her. She's so even-tempered and responsive. I'm sure you'll love riding her."

Lottman snorted. What he loved was to win! Maybe that jerkoff trainer would be happy with the meager portion of the purse for finishing fourth in a maiden special weight race for two-year old fillies, but not him. When that horse came out of the last turn, it was going to run like it had never run before, "pet" or not. He had glanced at it down on the track as he headed for the paddock. The horse was a small, reddish, chestnut. Didn't look like much, but if it had any run in it at all, he would find it. "Gotcha," he said. Lottman shoved his sneakers into the mock stirrups at the base of the chair and grabbed the straps on the armrests. He was in a row of similar chairs tucked into a remote corner of the large "racino."

"Riders, go to your horses!" the paddock judge yelled from somewhere behind him.

"Plug me in." Walton inserted the socket into the back of Lottman's neck just below the hairline and he plunged into the bio interface.

Lottman, or rather Valley Princess, was being led in circles by her groom behind the starting line out on the track. She toe-danced, held her head up and her ears stood erect. Lottman felt her beating heart, her tense muscles and her deep, even breathing. What he didn't feel was anything extra in the horse's system. Either Walton was too broke to afford performance-enhancing drugs or he was too honest. Lottman sneered and Valley Princess pulled back her lips to reveal her teeth. Make that too stupid. Any trainer worth a damn juiced his horses; that was an open secret in horse racing, especially at this no-account track. The tests designed to detect drugs were a joke and easily gotten around, except for cheap trainers like Walton it seemed. Lottman would have to run this race with nothing but the horse's talent and his own skill. He smiled. No problem; he could outrace any jock at this track with half the horse.

They used to say the best jockeys in the old days won more races due to telepathic empathy with their horses rather than through soft hands on the reins. Modern technology now made that a fact. Everything Valley Princess saw, heard, felt and thought Lottman experienced through the bio interface. Outwardly, the chip buried in her skull could only be discerned by the tiny antenna poking out between her ears, but it allowed Lottman more control over his mount than even the most skilled rider on its back. Valley Princess knew he was there, of course, and wanted a piece of candy or a slice of fruit from him, or at least a scratch on the nose. Lottman mentally slapped the horse on the flank. Dream on, sweetheart. He wasn't here for that.

"Riders, up!"

Lottman squeezed the chair straps and took command. Valley Princess settled down, but remained wound up and eager to run. Lottman smiled. This was a good horse so far. Smart, too. She knew she had to race. Most horses were dumb brutes that didn't have a clue what they were supposed to do out on the track, even after years of racing.

"You treat my nina good, you hear Lottman?" the groom said, sensing that the jockey was now in charge. "Con mucho cuidado." Lottman laughed and Valley Princess dipped her head and whinnied long and loud. No wetback groom was going to tell him what to do. The groom said something under his breath that Lottman didn't catch. Valley Princess jerked her head so hard that the groom almost lost the lead shank.

"Riders, go to the gate!"

The groom removed the lead, mumbling as he did so. He gave Valley Princess one last pet on the nose. "Safe trip, nina," he said.

Lottman moved Valley Princess up to the "gate," which was a bright line superimposed on the track by a laser. The old mechanical starting gate was made instantly obsolete when the man/horse interface came along. With mounted jockeys no longer needed to ride racehorses the only tack they bore were bridles and weighted saddle cloths, the latter bearing the postposition numbers.

Lottman was in the two hole, which meant he had one horse inside of him and six outside. That was perfect. The one path was quicksand at this track; very few horses won with a rail trip here. The two and three paths were where you wanted to be. The only speed horse in this race was on the outside in the seven path. It was a monster filly with a huge, muscular rear end. The two horses that flanked Valley Princess were nags; they wouldn't even factor in the race. Lottman figured he'd let the speed take the lead until the middle of the turn and then make his move. If he was lucky, somebody would go with the speed and burn it out, making his job easier. Walton would probably be happy with the first part of his ride, but lose his mind at the second when he saw his precious horse fully extended and driving to the wire. Tough. A win would make him happy.

In a few moments, all the horses stood in an even, well-behaved line. The starter up in a stand on the side of the track raised a flag. Lottman tensed for a moment and then consciously relaxed, as did Valley Princess. They saw the backstretch before them, leading to the grandstand turn that would take them to the stretch and the finish line. There was no open-air grandstand; just beyond the outside rail was the curving glass wall of the casino that allowed patrons to hold off playing the slots, or the wheel, or blackjack long enough to take in the race, assuming they had a bet on it. The infield was the traditional track pond and garden setting, although here it was given over to boat rides and sunbathing. Horse racing was merely a minor attraction at the average gambling casino/resort these days.

Lottman gritted his teeth. That damn starter loved to hold his flag up in the air longer than necessary to build up suspense. Bastard! Get on with it already! Lottman twitched his nose at the smell of pungent horse liniment that arose from the horses on either side of Valley Princess. They really had to be hurting! He had Valley Princess tap the track with a front hoof and felt it's thin cushion. This two-bit track tried to compensate for its third-rate horses with a hard surface to keep those finish times down, no matter how much the pounding wore down the equine athletes.

The starter dropped his flag with a flourish and Lottman mentally spurred Valley Princess forward.

"And they're off!" the track announcer yelled and began his droning call. Lottman tuned him out. All he heard was the drumming sound of hooves on dirt and the rushing sound of air passing in and out of Valley Princess's large lungs. She easily passed the horses around her and settled into an efficient stride only a few lengths behind the seven, which had gone alone to the front in the backstretch. Lottman almost giggled. His experienced eye noticed that the seven was already straining from the fast fractions it was setting. The dumb horse was even moving its head around looking everywhere but at the track in front of it. It wouldn't be long before the mindless brute hit a wall. Who needed a speed duel with a rank horse like that in front of him?

Valley Princess ran effortlessly, gliding over the track like she was a sled on ice. She kept her head up and pointed straight ahead. The horse in front of her was all she saw. Lottman felt her muscles working in harmony as if they were the pistons in a well-tuned engine. Valley Princess did not have articulate thoughts, but Lottman still sensed what passed through her mind. "Run, run!" Valley Princess urged herself. "Pass horse! Pass horse!" It was all he could do to hold her back and save her for the stretch run.

"Damn!" Lottman hollered out loud. Now this was a racehorse! It had tons of class as well as speed and burned for the front like no other horse he had ridden. He had to keep his mount on this magnificent beast no matter what; it would be his ticket out of here. Didn't that fool Walton know what he had on his hands?

As they entered the turn, Valley Princess changed leads from the left leg to the right leg easily without prompting from Lottman. He whistled and shook his head. What a horse! The seven changed its lead awkwardly, but did not slack off the pace as it raced through the turn and entered the stretch. Lottman bit his lip. You couldn't doubt that the seven had speed and stamina. Probably juiced to the gills, too. He relaxed his grip on the chair straps. Time to turn this bitch on! Lottman stopped restraining Valley Princess. She shot forward like a funny car getting the green on a drag strip. She changed her lead back to the left leg as she came out of the turn and closed on the seven, still leading with its right leg.

"Yeah!" Lottman yelled as they drew even with the leader. Damned if the seven didn't finally change its lead back to its left leg and pull ahead again. OK, that was a tough horse, but he was tougher. The eighth pole flashed by. Sweat rolled off of Lottman's pudgy cheeks as he urged Valley Princess on with everything they both had.

Time to use the bat. Lottman brought out his mental whip: an image of a large, fast, toothy predator nipping at the horse's heels. That did the trick! For all practical purposes, he was wailing the tar out of Valley Princess with a genuine whip. They began to edge away from the seven. Lottman focused on the bright line across the track barely a sixteenth of a mile away. Saratoga, here he came!

Lottman felt a twinge in his front left leg. He ignored it. So did Valley Princess. "Come on! Come on!" he shouted and whipped. The twinge instantly swelled to a searing pain. Lottman bulled his way through it. So did Valley Princess. "Wire! Wire!" he yelled. The wire was a moment away. Valley Princess was a head in front of the seven. Lottman screamed in ecstasy. The searing pain exploded and the track came up and slammed Lottman in the face. He now screamed in pain and fear. Lottman backed out of the interface enough to clear his mind and see what had happened. Damn, damn, damn! The horse had broken down and sprawled onto the track.

Lottman cursed out loud for several seconds. Just his luck! Why now? Why on this horse? He could've taken it to the Breeder's Cup! Lottman uttered one last curse and made a concentrated effort to cool off. Well, that was horse racing. At least he wasn't on the horse when it went down like in the old days. Lottman shook his head. Only an idiot would ride a horse for real. He shrugged. At least you couldn't say he hadn't tried. Lottman prepared to exit the interface. The standard procedure was to keep the horse prone until the track vet, following the horses in a cart, could arrival and check out the horse. Then the trainer would pull the plug leaving the horse in charge of the vet and his assistants.

Lottman concentrated on the interface again only to find that Valley Princess had risen off of the track and was stumbling forward. Idiot horse! Lottman tried to get the horse to drop, but found it hard to override the horse's agitated mental state. He made her look down long enough to glance at the hurt leg. The limb had broken just above the hoof and the severed section flailed around as if it were a sock half-pulled on a foot. Valley Princess continued to try and run on a stump and three good legs.

Lottman whistled. It was the big red needle for this one. Tough luck, sweetheart. Just another horse put down at another track during your typical day at the races. Lottman could see the end of the chart call now. "Broke down in stretch. Humanely destroyed on the track." Welcome to the Sport of Kings! Well, it was no concern of his. Walton would be pissed, but screw him. There would be other mounts from other trainers.

Lottman dove as deep into the interface as he could to stop the horse. Its mind was in confused turmoil. "Pain, pain!" it silently screamed. But also, "Run, run!" The seven horse as well as the other horses were out of sight, already past the clubhouse turn in the gallop out. All Valley Princess knew was that she had to follow and ultimately pass them despite her condition. Lottman paused at that. My God, this horse had guts as well as smarts. He made a half-hearted effort to stop her, but quit after a moment.

Valley Princess staggered across the finish line and then began to wander aimlessly, her mind and purpose finally overcome by the pain, and the fear, and for the meaning of it all. Crudely as the last thought was expressed, Lottman understood it. She was also looking to him for an answer. It was as if a critically injured child was begging for help and wanted to know why she had been hurt even though she had been as good as she knew how to be. Lottman felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him. He could stop the horse now, and the vet would see to it that she was shortly out of her pain, but he had nothing else to offer her.

Lottman made Valley Princess drop to her knees. "Life is like that, sometimes," he said. "We almost won. We would have, but... " His voice cracked. "You get to go home now. Home, you know, the farm you were raised on. Your dam, I mean your momma, is waiting for you. You don't ever have to do this again. You did it and you did it well, but now it's over." Valley Princess responded with an image of being cooped up in a tiny trailer on an endless highway. She was in his mind as much as he was in hers. The horse was telling him she didn't know where she was. She didn't know which way was home. Lottman didn't know either. He didn't know what else to do or say. Did the horse even understand him or was it only his imagination? "Stay with me," he said. "I'll show you the way."

"We got her, Lottman." It was the voice of the vet. "You can pull out now. She's a goner." Lottman felt a prick in his neck. Relief rushed through him and the pain disappeared. He found himself sleepy and ready to pass out. But he also felt the panic of being abandoned in a strange and lonely place. Lottman felt a hand on the back of his neck, his real neck. He put his own hand over it to keep the plug in place.

Lottman saw something in Valley Princess's mind. A memory. He merged with it and brought it to the fore. "We're there," he said. "Home." Lottman tickled Valley Princess on the nose and fed her a sweet. Rolling green pastures surrounded them. A stand of trees was nearby. A reddish chestnut mare stood on a rise off in the distance and whinnied. A red foal left Lottman's side and ran to the other horse on spindly legs. Halfway to the rise the foal stopped, turned her head to briefly look at Lottman and swished her tail. Then she continued on her way. "Goodbye," Lottman whispered and closed his eyes.

"Wake up, Lottman." It was Walton. He stood over him and massaged his hands. The trainer's features sagged as he stared down at the jockey. "What happened out there?" he asked. He sounded as if had just lost his first-born.

Lottman let Walton pull him upright in the chair and then he rubbed his cheeks with his palms. "Sir," he said, "I'm sorry. That was the finest race horse I have ever been on and I would be honored if you let me ride the other horses in your barn."

Walton took a step back. "Uh..."

Lottman stood up and interrupted the other. "Please think about it." He kicked an empty bag of chips into a corner. "Excuse me, I need to see the chief steward about a few things. There's someone in my mind... I mean there's something on my mind right now."

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Griswold

Mark Stanley is a forty-something avionics technician, former Marine, dedicated bachelor, borderline alcoholic, degenerate gambler and unapologetic hack writer. He lives in South Florida.



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