EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the 12th chapter of an 18-part story that The Augusta Chronicle will publish in Your Life on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays.
STORY SO FAR: Things have been going downhill fast. Ben fears he'll never fit in at Wind Rider Farms. Is Joe Pastore right? Is he a born loser? Is he destined to turn out bad?
The next day, Ben's first glimpse of the famous Saratoga Racecourse was obscured by early morning fog. Beyond the fence that skirted Union Avenue, he made out the looming, shrouded bulk of the grandstand curving in a crescent along one long side of the oval; roof peaks jutted like turrets, and he could faintly make out a still, glassy pond in the center of the field. He was surprised that the track itself came so close to the street, and just as they stopped - a uniformed New York State Trooper was holding traffic up so that a horse and rider could cross the road - he saw two thoroughbreds gallop past on a morning workout. Dirt flew from their hooves like splashes of water. Ben felt an unexpected jolt of excitement. The trooper waved them on.
"We're boarding at the Oklahoma," Mr. Brennan said, putting the big truck into gear. "The training track."
The weight of the horse trailer behind them gave Ben another little burst of adrenaline. No matter how out of place he felt in the Brennans' world, there was no denying the thrill of being involved in such a big event. He was with Wind Rider Farms, with the horse favored to win the meet's biggest race. It was a glamorous brush with the high life that Ben had never felt before. They pulled into a large complex of barns across the street from the racetrack, were stopped again by a trooper, and Mr. Brennan showed his identification before they could continue.
"This is the Oklahoma," Brennan said, easing up on the gas. The road was muddy and rutted. On either side, enormous heaps of horse manure and sawdust bedding steamed like miniature volcanoes. Trailers and trucks and expensive cars were parked all over the place.
And everywhere Ben looked, there were incredible, beautiful horses. Horses, trainers, hot-walkers, grooms, women and men leading horses, horses in blankets, horses with bandages wrapped around their legs, horses who pitched their heads and sidestepped skittishly around imaginary enemies, horses being hosed and sudsed and scrubbed, horses rubbing their necks against the sides of their stall doors. Ben had never seen so many horses in one place in his life. He wondered if he could ever feel part of this world, where everything shone like glossy horsehair.
They made their way down a long row of stables and dormitories - he guessed they were dormitories because of the laundry hanging out to dry - decorated with banners advertising the names of the owners and trainers: Kentucky Racers, Oldway Farms, DeGroot Thoroughbreds. At last they came to a stretch of stables with a Wind Rider Farms banner stretched across the front, and just as Ben spotted it he also saw Leo coming around the corner with his hitched, lopsided gait. The old jockey put one hand on the open truck window as Mr. Brennan stopped.
"Let's get Gogo unloaded and settled in," Leo said by way of greeting. "Ben, help me with the tailgate."
Mr. Brennan climbed out and went to talk to two men in clothes that had the look of casual luxury, and Ben plodded toward the back of the horse trailer. In an instant, it seemed, he'd become a hired hand. He was doing the hard work while Mr. Brennan chatted with a couple of rich guys. Not even a hired hand, because nobody had offered to pay him for anything. Adding insult to injury, Gogo lifted his tail and let go a pile of droppings that plopped onto the ramp and rolled to Ben's feet.
"Figures," Ben muttered as he stepped aside.
"What's that?" Leo called from up by Gogo's head.
All of the excitement had drained from the morning. Five minutes ago, everything had been gilded with a sheen of glamour, and now everything was just dull and muddy. The men pushing wheelbarrows full of muck looked angry. The South American laborers looked poor and dirty. Who were all these people, catering to a bunch of high-strung animals? The horses were probably better fed than some of these guys. And the rich types with the gold bracelets and Lexus sedans who were trying to keep their fancy shoes from getting dirty probably paid those South of the Border guys less than minimum wage just because they could get away with it. For the first time since he'd arrived at the Brennans', Ben's thoughts churned with bitterness; he gritted his teeth as he helped Leo get Gogo settled into his stall under the Wind Rider banner.
"Come on, Ben, let me show you around," called Mr. Brennan.
Ben waited just a bit longer than was polite before he turned around. "What?"
Mr. Brennan smiled. "Let me show you around the place."
As Mr. Brennan led the way between two blocks of stalls, Ben kept his attention on the ground to avoid puddles and manure. But he happened to look up just as Joe passed behind one of the buildings.
So Joe could come to the racetrack, could he? Ben glanced at the row of stalls, where Gogo was getting a good scratch on the forehead from Leo. A prickle of fear crept up his neck. Had Joe followed Ben to the track? Or Gogo? And why?
(To be continued)
TEXT COPYRIGHT 2003 BY JENNIFER ARMSTRONG
ILLUSTRATIONS COPYRIGHT 2003 BY C.B. MORDAN
REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF BREAKFAST SERIALS INC.