Alec MacKenna was a gambler by nature and by choice. On any given day, a Thoroughbred trainer could stand at the pinnacle of success in the morning, only to plummet to the depths of despair by sundown. Alec had always found that risk part of the appeal. Yet, when he rolled out of bed before dawn on that fateful morning, falling from grace was the furthest thing from his mind.
The sky outside his hotel room window was the color of spilt ink; rain streaked down the glass, blurring the city lights in the same soft-focus way Hollywood cameras photographed aging movie stars. Born and reared deep in the embrace of the hazy green Appalachian mountains, Alec didn't like Florida.
It was too flat, too warm, and too damn bright. Day after day, the sun blazed unrelentingly down from the wide endless sky, tanning locals to the color and texture of beef jerky while exposing the sad seediness lurking just beneath the pastel Art Deco seaside landscape.
Five days ago, a tropical storm blew in from the Caribbean, colliding with a cold front swooping down from Tennessee's Great Smoky mountains.
Clouds gathered on that first day, a few at a time -- like crows flocking on a telephone wire -- just as blue-haired snowbirds were settling poolside for their afternoon canasta games and gossip sessions.
As the afternoon sky grew darker, worried mothers called their children indoors. Golfers in checked pants and cleated shoes hurried off rolling greens, knowing that standing out on a golf course while holding a metal club could turn a man into a human lightning rod.
On the second day, the steely Atlantic surf swelled; seabirds were reported to have been seen flying backward and migrating whales began riding the breakers inland to beach themselves on the glistening pearly sand.
Then the storm stalled, closing down over the south coast like a heavy iron manhole cover. Nerves jangled, tempers flared, yet still, despite the thickening mud at Gulfstream Park racetrack, Thoroughbreds pounded the turf, as they'd been doing each winter for more than sixty years.
As he walked across the paddock, Alec frowned at the turf, which, after four days of nonstop rain, was a quagmire.
"We're moving the Orchid Handicap to the main track," the race steward informed him when he checked in.
The filly Alec had trained to run in today's prestigious Orchid Handicap hated racing in mud. The fact that the track appeared nearly as bad as the turf did little to ease Alec's mind as he entered the shedrow. Usually the rich, familiar aromas of hay and horse would lift his spirits. Not today.
Lady Justice had left hay in the net from the night before, a sign she was nervous. The last time she'd run in mud, she'd barely avoided what could have been a fatal accident when a horse stumbled in front of her in the stretch.
Since fear served as a prime emotion in prey animals, motivating them to flee from predators, Alec was concerned that the incident had been programmed in the filly's memory, encouraging her to relate today's rain with that other near disaster. Rather than breeze her as he would have done on any other race day, he settled for having her walked around the shedrow. Her nerves were palpable, sparking in the thick moist air like downed electrical wires.
Making his decision, he headed over to the sleek orchid and white-painted grandstand clubhouse complex, finding the filly's owner in the Turf Club.
"Surely you're not suggesting we scratch?" Douglas Wellesley shot Alec a sharp look over the salted crystal rim of his Bloody Mary glass.
A senior partner in a silk-stocking New York law firm whose grandfather had once been elected governor of Connecticut, Wellesley had entered the horse business with the same intent with which he entered a courtroom: to win. That need, which went all the way to the bone, was something Alec and the attorney shared. The difference was that while Alec was driven to win, he wasn't willing to achieve victory at any cost.
Knowing Wellesley wouldn't appreciate the premonition prickling at the back of his neck, Alec stuck to facts. "She seems to be favoring her right hoof."
She'd suffered a hoof bruise two weeks ago. From what Alec had been able to tell, she was fully recovered, but if there was an outside chance she wasn't back to one hundred percent, he damn well didn't want to race her. Racetracks were unpredictable at best; running a horse that was less than sound was definitely stacking the odds against you.
"Of course you called the track vet."
"Of course." Calling for a consult had been the racing equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.
"So? What did he say?"
"She couldn't find any outward sign of injury, but -- "
"Then we're not scratching."
"Lady Justice hates mud in her face."
"Instruct the jockey to have her break out in front and stay there. Then she won't have to deal with mud."
The filly had never been a horse to break for a lead and hold it. She liked to bide her time, watching for an opening, then slipping through the crowded pack at just the right moment.
"This horse is talented. She has the best gift for spotting an opening than any I've ever worked with. On the right day and the right track, she can run with the best of them. And win. But her kick is only good for an eighth of a mile. There's no way she can hold a lead for a grueling twelve furlongs. Asking her to do it in mud is flat out impossible."
"I didn't hire you to make excuses." The older man's voice turned as hard as his marble gray eyes. "I hired you to win races."
"I believe I've done that." Alec left unsaid the little fact that under his training, Lady Justice had gone undefeated as a two-year-old, winning the Eclipse award as America's top juvenile filly.
"The Orchid Handicap is the most prestigious distaff race in the Florida racing season. I intend to be standing in the winner's circle when it's over."
He'd certainly dressed for the occasion, trading in his usual pinstriped suit for charcoal slacks, a custom-tailored brushed wool blazer and silk Hermès tie. Alec gave the attorney reluctant points for somehow managing to still appear patrician in the orchid purple jacket.
"You're being extremely well paid to stick to the original battle plan: today's Orchid, the Burbonette Breeders Cup at Turfway, the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, finishing up with the Kentucky Oaks. Then the horse can rest on her laurels all she wants when I set her to breeding champions."
Deciding that this wasn't the time to resume the argument that the filly loved racing too much to be turned into a broodmare at a mere three-years-old, Alec stared at Wellesley, who stared back. Finally, feeling as if he were eight-years-old again, facing down some bully on the playground who'd called his father a drunk, he broke the stare and looked out the window to the sloshy track.
Alec knew how addictive the exhilaration of watching your horse come in under the wire first could be. To some, winning became like a drug in the blood; they couldn't get enough of it. He'd long ago accepted that his own reasons for needing to win were more complex.
"There'll be other days. Other races."
"I don't give a flying fuck about other races. At this moment, I'm only concerned with the Orchid Stakes."
"This isn't some New York City courtroom where you can manipulate the jury with legal sleight of hand and mental gymnastics. You've got to play the cards you've been dealt, and if you insist on running that horse in this weather, I'll quit."
It was not a bluff. Alec refused to take into consideration the exclusivity agreement he'd signed with Wellesley last year, which resulted in the only horses currently boarding in his training stables belonging to this man. Even as he admitted to himself that there wasn't any real reason to keep the filly off the track, and that throwing away what most trainers would consider a dream job working for a man with seemingly bottomless pockets might be considered reckless, Alec couldn't force Lady Justice to run a race that wasn't hers.
Douglas Wellesley's mouth thinned. "The horse runs as planned."
"Guess I'm out of here, then." Alec turned and strolled out of the restaurant.
He might not be officially Lady Justice's trainer, but that didn't stop him from hanging around long enough to watch the outcome of Wellesley's arrogance.
Despite the miserable weather, the mood at Gulfstream Park remained unrelentingly upbeat. Umbrellas popped up all over the infield grass like mushrooms, conversation in the stands buzzed like a swarm of hornets as tips were traded, odds debated. At the betting windows, business was so fast and furious horseplayers found it difficult to hear over the sound of money being exchanged.
Rumors of the race being called due to rain swelled from shedrow to the clubhouse to the grandstand. Ten minutes before post time, the downpour lessened to a drizzle, causing the stewards to gather and confer over printouts of satellite weather photos.
A ten-minute delay was called. Then another. Then, finally, as the crowd who'd come here today expecting pageantry began to grow impatient, the signal was sent to the saddling paddock that the race would take place.
A voice boomed over the loudspeaker, announcing the beginning of the post parade. Despite his misgivings, the sight of the magnificent four-legged athletes -- all gleaming muscle and lithe grace -- parading by on their matchstick legs, the colorful silks worn by their jockeys brightening the gloomy day like a rainbow, sent a surge of pure adrenaline through Alec's bloodstream. The familiar thrill was quickly replaced by an ominous dread as Lady Justice passed by the grandstand.
It was obvious that the filly didn't want to be here. Rather than her usual joyful prancing, she was plodding through the motions like a workhorse weary of the plow, head down, jet black tail hanging limp, nearly trailing in the mud. She was equally reluctant during her warm-up gallop around the track.
And then it got worse.
Displaying a temperament Alec had never witnessed, she refused to enter the starting gate. They tried putting a hood on her, which only made her more anxious.
Alec rubbed the back of his neck, which felt as prickly as if he'd walked through a spider web as he watched the track officials coax, cajole, then split up, some in back pushing, others in front pulling, literally wrestling the filly into the starting gate. They quickly slammed the back gate behind her. Having seen other Thoroughbreds become violent in such situations, Alec held his breath, then let it out on a long slow whoosh as she appeared to have accepted her fate.
But still he watched.
The gates sprang open. "They're off!"
Hooves pounded, mud flew, the bright hues of the silks blurred in the mist. Alec cursed when Lady Justice missed the break. The rest of the horses, which had broken in a tight pack, began to spread out. Lady Justice remained dead last.
"Come on, sweetheart," Alec murmured encouragingly over the roar of the crowd. "You can do it. Just run your race and you'll be fine."
Johnny Devaroux, the veteran jockey from Louisiana's bayou country Alec had hired to ride the filly today, knew her well enough to let her relax, keep her off the pace and allow her to close at her own speed.
She was at the rail, boxed in by three horses in front of her and another on her outside, making Alec wonder how the hell she'd be able to get through the traffic when it did come time to make her move.
Then, as she made the far turn, Johnny found a sliver of daylight. Eager to escape the mud flying in her face, the filly exploded through it.
Her closing kick had the crowd on its feet as she accelerated dramatically, pounding her way from the back of the pack, streaking past the other horses, going from last to second place in record time. Her long legs lifted, stretched, pounded. Her head was thrust forward; her tail streamed out behind her like a jet flag as she dueled with the leader, neck and neck.
It was the most remarkable comeback Alec had ever witnessed. Her magnificent heart and the desire to win were proving stronger than her hatred of mud.
They were nose to nose.
She forged ahead and was flying down the final stretch when a single ray of sunshine streamed through a break in the bruise-colored clouds, casting a shadow from the timekeeper's box atop the stands.
Startled, the filly did what came naturally: she tried to jump it, her speed causing her to land on her foreleg in a way nature had never intended. There was a massive gasp from the crowd as she went crashing down. Screams as she somersaulted into the rails. Weeping when she struggled gamely to her feet, the foreleg that had snapped just above the fetlock swinging hideously, uselessly.
Alec jumped the rail and was running toward the horse when the track crew leapt into action. An outrider managed to immobilize the stricken filly while high screens were erected around her. The waiting ambulance raced toward the scene.
When Alec reached the horse, she whinnied weakly.
"I know, baby." He stroked the velvety dark face of this horse he'd begun training shortly after her first birthday. "You never should have been out there." His voice cracked. A ball of crimson mist rolled toward him from the infield. He managed to ignore it. For now. "But you've never run a stronger race." He didn't need to be a vet to know that it was also her last.
She whinnied again, softly, raggedly, as if pleased by his approval.
rdThe ambulance arrived. The veterinarian emerged, face grim, bag in hand.
Alec pinched the bridge of his nose to stem the hot moisture threatening at the back of his eyes as he knelt beside the filly who possessed worlds more heart than its wealthy Yankee owner ever would.
It did not take long. Lady Justice breathed a short, shuddering sigh. A filmy mist rose from her body and drifted off over the track like a freed spirit. After they'd loaded her into the ambulance, Alec gave the filly one last caress. Then, without a word, headed to the Turf Club.
He found the attorney in the bar, staring at the television screen. The camera had moved back to a long shot, panning the obviously stunned crowd that was watching the catastrophe unfold with the same ghoulish compulsion that made drivers slow down to gawk at accidents.
"I suppose you're here to gloat." Wellesley tossed back a martini and signaled to the bartender for another. "To rub in how, by not scratching the horse, I'm out a goddamn fortune."
Myriad responses reverberated in Alec's mind, but not one of them could do justice to the powerful emotions battering at him. Guilt, as bitter as bile, backed up in his throat. His hands balled tightly; disjointed, painful memories flashed like strobe lights; the red mist returned, shimmering in front of his eyes.
The collision of fist against bone reverberated all the way up his arm to his shoulder. Alec felt as if he'd just hit a brick wall. But, sweet Jesus, the unmistakable sound of that patrician glass jaw breaking was satisfying!
Without a word, Douglas Wellesley crashed backward off the stool and landed in a graceless heap on the floor.
Ignoring the excited buzz of conversation, Alec left the clubhouse.
He did not look back.
Copyright © 2001 by The Ross Family Trust created 10/23/97