The book follows the entangled lives of a talented but ill ballet dancer who is at the end of her career and collapses on stage, and a supreme but flawed race horse tipped to win the Gold Cup. A chance trip to the races changes both of their lives forever when the horse Running Wind falls and is badly injured in front of Natalie. On a whim the ballet dancer buys the horse to save its life and the two embark upon a wonderful healing journey together. A story of hope, friendship and above all love.
One white foot buy a horse, two white feet try a horse, three white feet look well about him, four white feet do without him.
Chapter 1 2003
The wind blew hard all day, and then picking up to nigh on gale force; by dawn it was so strong that when Malcolm Shand arrived, Bill was alerted only as the car headlights swung passed.
“About time,” he muttered under his breath.
Malcolm looked over the door as the mare lay sweating on the straw, her flanks heaving as she strained, her neck stretched, and her head tossing in the straw.
“How long, Bill?” Malcolm asked.
“Nearly there now, —look the forelegs and head are there.”
“Can’t you do something? “Malcolm insisted.
“Oh no, old Catcher knows her job. She hates interference.” Bill replied confidently.
As they watched the mare gave one last heave and, with a sigh, pushed the foal into the world, her tangled mane slick against her wet neck.
Although he was nearly 60, Bill was into the stable in a flash to make sure the bag was ripped open and the foal could get air; he rubbed the shiny creature with a straw wisp as it bubbled to breathe. The wiry stock manger, with many years of experience behind him, looked on; he had seen hundreds of foals enter the world and nothing about this birth worried him. He reached out his hand to stroke the foal, bringing his head round so he could get a good look at him.
“A bay colt with a lightning blaze and a white sock, left hind.” Bill said.
“He’s fine, Bill?” Malcolm’s voice was strained. He didn’t dare think of how much the stud fees had cost him.
Bill knew what Malcolm meant; sometimes a foal was born deformed.
The first moments of a foal’s life are magical.
Bill fed Catcher a hot mash feed and she stood slowly and carefully whickering to her new- born; at the sweet sound of his mother’s voice the foal raised his head.
Both men watched as the colt tried to stand and control his out of proportion legs –for long minutes the little horse struggled with this most difficult first challenge in his life. Frequently he flopped over, but he was a determined little foal and after less than half an hour he was steady on his feet.
“Blue Maidens filly took two hours last week, “said Bill.
“You never know — a real star winner.” Malcolm replied laughing.
Despite the cold wind, the next day Bill led the mare and foal out into the paddock.
Almost as soon as they were set free the colt set off, just running round his mother at first, then up and down the soft grass and over the wind they could hear him squealing his pleasure at being able to run.
Bill turned to his boss.
“Well, what are you going to call him?”
“The wind blew when he was born, and it blows now as he runs, so if it passes Weatherby’s –Running Wind he will be.” Malcolm stated.
Whistling, Bill laid the feed bucket down; over the strong wind he could hear the drum beat of the hooves, long before he saw the colt. Two months old he seemed to be all spidery legs. He was running flat out, ears laid back. He was squealing as he ran.
“You had better be right –there’s a lot at stake –is he really worth it? “
“ I told you –I was there– I saw him born and he was up in less than half an hour running like a pro the very next day –stake my life on it –he’s the one. “Bill protested defensively.
“Well, you’ll be back looking for another job again if he doesn’t.” But never in his whole life of handling these majestic creatures had he even felt close to what he felt for Running Wind. He was also sure that in the wrong hands his young horse could go seriously wrong.
When Malcolm had announced it was time he was sold Bill had been devastated. Although he had known this was the colt’s fate all along it now came hard to him.
He realised that the only way to stay with his `boy` was to move to a training yard and hope to persuade the trainer to buy this colt.
“Lot Number 205 a Bay colt out of —-Jet Stream — by Catcher in the Rye, set to make 16.2 a possible future high stakes winner. “The auctioneer’s loud, but disembodied voice rang out.
As the bell rang a young man entered the ring being towed by a sleek but powerful yearling colt that, as they passed the stand where Bill and John stood, was dancing on his hind legs and squealing as he did so.
“Oh God, not this one.” John remonstrated Bill.
“Yes, but wait until you see him really move. “
As the arena quietened the colt began to steady at last. He was strutting his stuff, walking out well with great extension and trotting alongside his handler.
“His movement is too high –it’s a race horse I am buying, not a bloody ballerina!”
Bill was about to comment when the colt suddenly reared again and pulled free from his handler. He stood on the end of his rope tearing it free from the halter–he then sped round the arena for three laps and as the handler caught up with him, he swung his rear
at him and gave him a double barrelled kick sending the poor man flying; squealing and bucking he set off even faster as three men now tried to corner him. Bill fought his impulse to go down and help, he knew Running Wind would come to him, but then Malcolm might find out that Bill was there with John Stride and work out why he had left his job of 20 years. He could hardly watch as holding ropes the men closed in slowly on the colt. Eventually winded and lathered with sweat the recalcitrant colt was caught –John was impressed with his speed –if not his behaviour.
“He’s done us a favour. “Bill said sotto voice to John. “His price will go down.” but he was wrong. The speed the colt had shown round the arena meant that other eyes were now upon him.
The hammer went up – bidding had started and quickly shot up – John was not prepared to go higher than £ 35,000 and when the bidding slowed the colt was finally bought for £ 42, 750.
Bill was devastated— he had given up his job and now his colt had gone else where. He resolved to find out if he could possibly get a job in the yard his horse was going to.
“Right, Bill Harding –you say you are looking for a groom’s job – you certainly seem old enough to have the experience –but at your age can you still handle race horses?” Trainer Bert Smythe had already decided to bring out his new and very difficult to handle colt; Running Wind, to test him – if he could work with this horse –he would get the job as two of his current grooms were quite frankly afraid of him and he had badly kicked Stuart the previous day.
As they walked into the yard the horses stuck their heads out to see who was there – suddenly from his box Running Wind let out a huge squeal – he had seen and recognised Bill. Bill decided to play this one straight and told Bert. “I was there at his foaling. He knows me.” Bill went up to his horse that was nickering like a foal. As Bill came close Running Wind put his head onto Bill’s chest and let out a huge sigh.
Bert was impressed.” Lead him out, groom him and pick up his feet then lead him to the paddock. “
Slowly and calmly Bill entered Running Winds box and the horse dropped his head for the man to put on his head collar. Bert watched in amazement as this highly strung, difficult and often violent horse emerged from his stable like a docile puppy.
Bill kept the lead rope long and loose as he knew that most of Running Winds problems stemmed from insecurity and claustrophobia. Gently he groomed him all over – picked up his feet with no problems – after all it had been Bill who taught Running Wind to lift his feet and as he finished one the horse obligingly offered the next unasked. As Bill walked the colt to the turn out paddock Bert had made up his mind. “You can start tomorrow – your main responsibility is this colt – maybe now we can do some proper training with him. You have Siren in the next box as well.” Bill was elated and relieved. He was back with his boy. Knowing that this would be the last great horse in his life he had decided to dedicate all his energy to this horse. He has the talent if we can find the right way to control him, Bill thought to himself.
“Watch now, Colum, he’s leery with this wind.” Bill thrust the young Jockey into the saddle easily.
The colt set off bucking up the yard and Colum set his right rein hard over to try to steady him, Running Wind knew the drill now; a walk up to the downs then a brisk trot– followed by a gallop over the top, but Running Wind wanted to gallop now!!
Three year old Drencher, already a race winner, came up alongside the colt and he just blew. The two set off.
Bert high on the downs was looking through his binoculars.
“What the blazes?”
He watched the two specs as they appeared on the horizon until he could identify the horses. Amazed he saw the two colts; Drencher, the three year old seasoned horse; a winner of several races and Running Wind the untried two year old, Drencher should have been several lengths ahead but as they came near to Bert they were neck and neck. As they drew level Running Wind passed Drencher easily. Bert could still hear the sound of his squealing echoing in his ears even hours later.
“It should not have happened – but what a horse!” he muttered to himself.
The sun was just appearing on the horizon giving an orange slanting light on the stables. A blackbird started his early morning serenade as Bill was tacking up. It was one of those rare mornings of complete calm, where every sound seemed amplified. The house door crashed as Bert came out; the ferocity of the crash telling Bill his boss was already in a bad mood.
He stood silently waiting to see who Bert would put up on Running Wind – whoever it was; it would not be a popular move with them.
“Joe Deakin can ride him. “ Bert announced.
“He told us last week he would not ride him again,” Bill reminded his boss.
“Damn these young jockeys. It is not up to him – well, put that new lad, Steve, up.
“I doubt as he has the experience, “Bill ventured.
“Damn you all – up he goes and he’d better stay there if he wants to have a job tomorrow. “ With that Bert strode off to drive his Discovery onto the downs.
Cursing Bill went to find Steve, finding the rookie lad washing feed buckets by the tack room. Bill called over to him. “You’re up on Running Wind in half an hour. “
Steve blanched and stuttered out “Nnnoo Mr Harding. I cccan`t ride imm.”
Bill should have barked harshly at the lad but he knew his horse, and found pity. “ Look lad I realise he’s a bit of a handful, but if you are going to be a jockey you have to learn to ride all horses, I`ll tell you one thing though, don’t hang on his mouth –whatever else you do. “
Bill wished he was thirty years younger. He would have got up on Running Wind himself. He felt sure he could have controlled him.
Six horses set off towards the downs; they had to go across the main street and up a track through the woods before reaching the downs, while Bill followed with the quad bike behind.
All six horses lined up at the bottom of the rise and one by one they set off at the pace Bert wanted for their training. Second from last came Running Wind. “A good working canter till halfway then open him up to full race speed for the last couple of furlongs, “Bill read off his exercise sheet.
As Steve set off gently at a good canter, Bill fervently hoped all would go well; this horse would never race if they could not train him to fitness.
Watching from afar as usual, Bert began to relax. His favourite moment of the day was seeing these beautiful creatures rise up the downs out of the mist, the plume of steam from their nostrils forming eerie clouds around them as they charged along, the heavy air covering the noise of their approach until they were very close indeed, when the thundering and pounding of their hooves, could be physically felt.
Running Wind passed Bert at full racing speed and carried on.
“Pull him up, lad! Bert shouted after him.
The horse carried on arcing round Bert and was now facing down the hill, still flat out.
“PULL HIM UP NOW!! “ Bert bellowed, furious. Too much galloping at this stage of his training could undo the work so far.
White faced and hunched over the saddle Steve was completely out of control of this horse as he careered down the hill, Bill stepped out arms stretched at the bottom trying to turn him, but Running Wind crashed past.
Steve clung on, but it seemed the harder he pulled on and hung onto the reins, the faster Running Wind went. Despite the running martingale intended to keep his head down, the panicked horse had hold of the bit firmly and his head as high as he could get it.
Bill watched aghast as the boy and horse pounded through the woods heading for the main road. Running Wind was squealing as he ran.
Steve could only close his eyes; he knew the amount of traffic which would be on the road at this time of day. When they reached the road junction they should have crossed the road but the noise of the cars was too much for Running Wind and he veered right and set off down the pavement. They carried on parallel to the road, Steve forgetting Bill`s words pulled even harder on the reins in a desperate effort to stop the horse. Already in uncontrolled flight mode, Running Wind started weaving and strayed onto the road then back; suddenly he swayed and Steve’s leg crashed into a lamp post. Howling with pain Steve hauled again on the reins. Blood was running at the sides of the horse’s mouth but no amount of pressure from the bit was going to affect him. The horse swayed again and this time he unseated Steve. The young lad lurched sideways off the horse, but his ankle caught in the stirrup his head bouncing off the tarmac inches from the steel clad hooves. The safety catch on the stirrup finally gave and Steve was left in a heap on the pavement.
Freed of the pressure on his mouth and Steve’s body hunched up over his forehand Running Wind gradually slowed his pace. At the end of the road was another track to the woods, Running Wind took this track and as his adrenalin levels dropped he slowed to a walk, his head hanging low with the effort his sides heaving as he fought to catch his breath. By the time Bill drove the quad into the woods he was standing with his head nearly on the ground, completely blown. ”Ach lad you won’t be galloping the downs for a few days now will you. You will have to learn patience boy.” Bill was relieved that neither horse nor lad had been seriously hurt though it would be a few weeks before Steve could ride again.
“Bloody hell, Bill. What do we have to do to train this horse? “Bert was beside himself with fury; his face always florid, was bright red.” Running Winds training programme will have to be put back by two weeks and his first racing season starts next month.”
Bill heard voices shouting, clattering hooves, and worrying crashes, as he approached the yard. Having put the two mares out in the paddocks with their foals, he was returning to take Running Wind to his field. He watched as John and two of the lads tried to get Springtide, a young mare, into the lorry. The mare turned her terrified eyes his way, as if appealing for help, and reared; striking out.
“Watch out!” Bert cried “The bitch is mad! She will kill someone “He lashed the mare with his long whip and as he said this, the two lads closed in with a rope behind her. The mare reared one last time; then lurched into the lorry.
“Quick – up with the gate – we must leave. We are 1 hour late already – the stupid bitch.”
Although Bill had not only witnessed, but also been party, to such treatment of horses before, he remained where he had stood long after the lorry had left the yard.
A loud neigh from the far side brought him back. Running Wind, his favourite horse, the best horse he had ever known, was calling to his buddy.
“Aye, lad, I’m coming to take you out, but I will never let you be treated like that.” He spoke to the horse. Looking into the future Bill had seen the day only a few months hence, when Running Wind must himself be put into the lorry to travel to race. Only last week Bill had seen Bert choosing the races for his `Star` horse.
It took Bill three whole days and nights to think of exactly how he could possibly get the very spirited horse into the lorry without him literally killing himself or someone. He knew that it must be secret, with no one else there, or it would not work. Late afternoons Bill decided were the best time as Bert had taken to going `into town` -to the Bookies; Bill surmised, and the lads were usually crashed out asleep in the dorm, before their evening chores.
He knew it would not take long each day. Little by little, he told himself.
With the lorry ramp down – Bill led the horse near to the vehicle, he snorted when brought too close, Bill backed off and when Running Wind was calm, he laid down the feed bucket near the tailgate.
Over the next two weeks Bill slowly brought the horse closer until he could lay the bucket on the ramp – what Bill did not realise in this experiment in horsemanship was, that it was Running Wind `s trust in Bill which was growing – not his fear of the lorry diminishing. At 60 you have a lot more patience than at 6 or 16 –after 10 weeks Bill could walk into the lorry with the bucket, the horse at his shoulder, but, if Bill backed out of the lorry before he had finished eating, his horse would quickly back out with him.
“Next Tuesday Running Wind runs in a novice stakes at Bath.” Bert was ecstatic. “At last we get to see our boy run!”
“Can we put the lorry here an hour early, and then I can walk him round the vehicle to get used to it?”
“Good idea, we do not want to set off late.” Bert agreed.
What Bill really wanted was to be left alone to load the horse without any “help” or interference which could jeopardise his chances of quietly loading Running Wind.
Fortunately for Bill, just as the lorry was positioned in the yard Bert received an important phone call and returned to his office.
As soon as the tailgate was down, Bill took his bucket of grain and opened the stable door. He did not put even a head collar on the horse talking to him as he had done over the last few weeks; he calmly and gently led him into the lorry. Bill called quietly to Jim the driver to close the gate, but he remained with the horse. At the closing of the gate Running Wind started, but as Bill was there with him and calmly rubbing his neck, he remained still, and then he resumed eating his grain. Bill knew he had won and that the horse would travel without trouble to the race.
Bert was amazed that Running Wind was already in the lorry. He and Bill were also going along to see the star run for the first time. Somehow Bert had managed to persuade ex champion jockey Rob Steel to ride Running Wind in his maiden race – Bill imagined a lot of money had changed hands but he was delighted with the way Rob took to the young colt – he had ridden exercise on Running Wind this last week and the horse had never gone better. With Rob realising how important Bill was to the confidence of this equine, he insisted that Bill be beside him all the time until the run up to the start of the race. Rob also listened to Bill when he told him to avoid unnecessary pressure on the horse’s mouth.
With Bill at his side leading him on a long rope Running Wind walked calmly round the parade ring. His coat shone in the spring sun like burnished copper and his black mane and tail were silky – he looked the picture of health and his pedigree had ensured quite steep odds. Bill surveyed the other 6 runners and guessed that there were two main contenders in this novice classified stakes —River Bay, a big rangy colt, and Tide of Serenity, a grey filly who looked impressively fit as she danced and pranced round her groom. When Bill un hooked the rope and started to turn away Running Wind followed until Rob pulled him back round. As Bill looked back his horse was rearing and spinning. Bill was about to return and re hook his horse when Tide of Serenity came by at a gentle canter, Rob seized this chance and gave Running Wind a hefty kick sending him forwards out of his upwards spiral hot on the heels of the filly. “Whoa, man,this is not the race.” Colum O `Tool cried after him as horse and rider sped to the start. Rob knew he would be in trouble with Bert for his speed in the run up, but it would be worse if he could not even get the horse up to the start. Calling him by Bills nickname for him “Toady” and gently patting his neck Rob calmed the tense horse.
It had been arranged that a Monty Roberts loading blanket designed to help claustrophobic horses go into the stalls and a blind fold were to be used. Rob was pleased that they had been drawn midfield of the eight runners. Although he put up a bit of a struggle, getting Running Wind in was not as difficult as he had feared. Almost as soon as he was in and the gate behind him closed, the blindfold was removed and the gates in front opened. Bill watched from afar on the rails. The race had started and his boy was off, he was relived to see. There were two front runners pace-making, followed by five other horses well bunched and last was Running Wind – Rob had told Bill that he would keep him back at the start and let him settle then see if he could open the throttle about a third from the finish. Bert had given him no real instructions for and he was truly unsure how this horse would run – “Could he channel this power and speed?”
The noise from eight pounding animals was impressive as Rob, perched high on Running Winds withers, used the five horses in front to steady his horse knowing how touchy this claustrophobic horse was about his mouth being pulled. They swung round the tight bend and Rob was acutely aware of the horse, feeling his muscles thrust him forwards, hearing the pounding of the hooves, the air passing his head as the pace picked up again, and he thought, they are going too fast – we’ll never keep up this speed, but was amazed how easily his mount was running. The ground going was good to hard giving a very fast pace.
He had to decide whether to swing right to the outside or left into the rails when he made his break –he had just decided on the freer running but longer route on the outside when the horse directly in front of him made a break right through the two front runners leaving a gap– Rob did not hesitate and urged his boy after River Bay. The two horses surged through between the pace makers and accelerated again leaving the rest of the field behind –too late Colum tried to follow with Tide of Serenity. The filly made a brave running but was left in the wake of the two horses ahead of her. As they pulled away swinging in towards the rails Running Wind and River Bay were neck and neck; the crowd were cheering and Rob was elated. This was a much better position than he had dared hope for. His horse still felt powerful under him, his breathing loud but not laboured. Did he dare ask for more?-He lent even further forward his arms pumping and shouted “Go on, Toady, go. “Running Wind’s ears were flat back and as if in a direct reply he powered up from behind again. Rob felt as if he had changed gear in a racing car as they easily passed River Bay on his outside. Robs heart was pounding; he was amazed. “We’re winning— my God we’re going to do it!” – Wryly he thought of Bill and how he had put a conservative £50 on each way not convinced of his boy winning first time out. Realising that he had not even had to raise his crop, Rob saw the finishing post so close he could nearly touch it. The cheering of the crowd was deafening as spent, the jockey sat back to try to ease the pace. Normally horses pull up not far beyond the post, but Running Wind carried on for many lengths until Rob finally managed to slow him to a trot and walk. Bill appeared as if from nowhere and a delighted Running Wind nickered at him as he threw a cooling string blanket over his boy. Bill was beyond happy. They had done it – his trust and faith in this superb horse vindicated, he was filled with such pride to see Running Wind in the Winners enclosure. Bert was not happy – “Bloody hell you nearly blew it racing up to the start – but a brilliant win! none the less! “He conceded– “that’s it you are a team. I want you up on him every time out. “Rob patted Running Wind. Not a bad afternoon he reflected, an important win and a definite ride on this talented horse in the future.
Running Wind’s win at Bath boosted the morale of the whole yard, and a second outing in a fortnight to Liverpool was planned Bert had decided to go for a longer race at 7 furlongs which would be a challenge for most young horses, but Running Winds ability to keep going after the race had impressed his trainer.
From the first moment when Bill had helped Rob onto his horse it was obvious that he was really on his toes. Even with Bill beside him Rob could hardly control this powerful athletic equine.” If you can keep him steady and stay on, you should have a good chance. I doubt a lot of these youngsters are up to this length.“
“Staying on will be the hardest part! “ Rob laughed he had found to his cost last week how quickly Running Wind could spin and deposit his rider.
The strategy he had used at Bath worked for a second time as waiting for two horses to be making their way to the start Rob slotted in behind them.
Although this time just the Monty Roberts blanket was used, Running Wind went into the stalls without too much opposition.
Bill watched nervously as the last horse was loaded. Suddenly a horse reared up and crashed down onto the gate in front of it –designed to open to prevent injury in such an event the gate swung clear of the horse. Horrified Bill watched his boy as he set off down the track. Cursing Rob realised his chances of winning were slim as the horse wasted his energy; he used one rein to pull his mount round knowing he would simply rear or buck if he pulled too hard.
With Running Wind safely back in the stalls the gates opened and they were off. Running Wind in third place as the 9 horses galloped over the hard ground. Rob decided to just let his horse run and by the halfway mark they had gained on the second place horse, Molten Discovery. Rob could see Aiden Roach hitting his mount hard as he felt another horse approach. Digging in his heels he steered Running Wind away from the rails and passed the big chestnut gelding. Out in front the brown Walnut Grove was covering the ground with an easy long stride. Although they were slowly gaining on the front runner Rob knew they could not pass him before the post –one length behind they finished in second place. This time Rob leant right back and dropped his reins – his horse slowed immediately. Running Wind was blown completely. Rob’s admiration for this delinquent horse now knew no bounds; a much longer race and a false start and still second place. This horse was going to one of the best rides of his career. Typically though, Bert did not share his admiration of the horse. “Wasted his energy again, bloody animal he should have won.” Rob imagined Bert had had a lot of money on his horse and was unable to look at things in the long term. As Bill appeared Bert harangued him as if the horses well known character was all Bill`s fault.
Later when Bert had gone off for a drink Rob reassured Bill that his faith in Running Wind was warranted. “He’s a great horse. Wait and see. He will win again next time out.”
Rob was right as Running Wind went on to win his next two races. One was a handicap race and due to his wins he was carrying quite a lot of weight – born in February, however, meant that he was actually 26 months old and therefore had a big advantage against the later June foaled horses. Nothing seemed to phase him once he was actually on the track. He knew what was required and was keen to win. As the odds on him increased, Running Wind was himself becoming more domineering in the yard– only Bill of all the men could really control this horse. Bert did not care; he was winning more money through this horse than any he had ever had in his yard before.
Late September Rob drove into the yard for a briefing with Bert. Running Wind was to race the next day at Kempton Bert’s Land rover Discovery was not in its usual place. Rob climbed out of his car looking for Bill but there was no sign of either man. Increasingly frantic he ran to Bert’s house, the office was on the ground floor, his chair was on its back on the floor and the telephone receiver had not been replaced in its cradle, signs of a hurried departure. Now Rob wondered what was going on, the evening before a race Bill was always with his boy, brushing and talking to him. Rob’s heart sank; a shudder of premonition ran through him. Running in from the yard, one of the lads shouted, “Bert’s gone to the hospital in Newmarket. There’s been a crash! Bill’s van has been hit by a lorry on the ring road. He’s been badly hurt, his legs have been crushed they had to cut him out.” Rob walked out again and stood staring at the horses` heads all out watching, waiting for their evening feed, his eyes rested on Running Wind for a long time. Bert would not withdraw a horse from a race just because his groom was hurt.
Many thanks Avril and the very best of luck with the book.