Originally created 08/20/04

The Winner's Circle: And They're Off!



EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the 14th chapter of an 18-part story that The Augusta Chronicle will publish in Your Life on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays.

STORY SO FAR: It's Gogo's big race. Ben should be happy, but he's not. He's so miserable he wishes Joe would spoil Gogo's shot at the winner's circle - until a phone call hints that something might have gone wrong.

Mr. Brennan pulled his cell phone from his pocket and flipped it open. Ben didn't want to eavesdrop, although he was almost on the edge of his seat, wondering if it was Leo on the other end of the line with bad news about Gogo.

"I guess I should show you how to bet," Rachel broke in, opening a program on the table in front of him. "Look, here are the horses in the first race."

Ben tried to listen with one ear as Rachel explained the betting process. He followed her finger as she traced along the rows and columns of statistics under each horse's name. Trained by ... two furlongs ... last race ... muddy ... maiden ... speed ... The words made no sense to Ben as he tried, with his other ear, to keep track of Mr. Brennan's side of the conversation. He stole a glance: the man was smiling. There was nothing wrong with Gogo.

And then Ben realized that he didn't want anything bad to happen to the horse. Or to the Brennans. He didn't wish them harm. With a sense of relief so powerful it made him dizzy, he followed Rachel as she led the way to the betting window. He recited to the pari-mutuel clerk the bet Rachel told him to make, handed over two dollars, and returned to the box with his ticket in hand. He couldn't believe he'd wanted Gogo to lose.

The first four races went by in a blur. Ben won twelve dollars, then lost four, and Rachel won fifty-four and change, and he discovered with elation that he and Rachel were studying one program, their heads bent over it and their pens scribbling notes next to each other while they laughed. Maybe she'd forgiven him for the lighter, or maybe she knew she'd misjudged him, but whatever the reason, her frostiness seemed to have faded away. Mr. Brennan ordered drinks and shrimp cocktail for them all, and then, before Ben knew it, it was time to go to the paddock to watch Gogo get saddled and their jockey get weighed.

"Good luck, Brennan," someone called as they climbed the steps.

Rachel and Mrs. Brennan were ahead, talking about hats, and Ben found himself walking with Mr. Brennan.

"This is it. The whole farm is riding on this race," Mr. Brennan said.

Ben looked up at him, suddenly nervous. "What do you mean?"

Mr. Brennan laughed. "I mean, Ben, that I'm carrying two mortgages on the farm, and if Gogo doesn't turn into a moneymaker today, I lose everything."

"But - but I thought you were rich."

"Were. A long time ago. A very long time ago."

At that moment, Ben had an image in his mind of the big front hall of the house, bare of furniture or rugs. Most of the rooms in the house were like that: strangely bare, as if three generations of antiques had been sold off one by one - most likely to help pay for hay, and blacksmiths, and veterinarians, and countless other things the horses required. Ben felt the sun burn his shoulders through the dark cotton of his shirt. Mr. Brennan might lose it all today.

The next twenty minutes were busy ones, with stops at the weigh-in where the jockeys were officially weighed with their saddles, to the paddock where the horses in Gogo's race were paraded around for a final look-see by spectators, and back to the box, where well-wishers crowded the Brennans with handshakes and shouts of "Good luck!"

Out came the horses, and Rachel cheered as Gogo pranced by. The loudspeaker droned with the track announcer's voice, giving information about the horses, the trainers, the owners. Ben's hands were slick with sweat.

A tractor pulled the big starting gate with Saratoga across the top into position in front of the grandstand. Behind, the racehorses sidled and backed as they were led toward the loading chutes.

"Come on, Gogo, come on," Rachel whispered.

The last horse was loaded into the gate, a bell clanged, and the doors sprang open with a bang. The horses exploded onto the track.

"And they're off!" called the announcer. "It's Starshine in the lead, with Landed Gentry and Beautiful Dreamer in the two and three spots."

The horses thundered around the first turn in a tight pack by the inside rail. Every pair of binoculars was trained on the cluster. Ben kept cutting his eyes from the track, to the monitor, to the track, trying to pick Gogo out of the pack behind the leaders, while people around him began yelling. "Go, Starshine!" "Come on, Gentry! Run!"

Down on ground level, the crowd at the guardrail was ten bodies thick and every gaze was on the racing horses, but as Ben glanced down, one man turned around and stared straight up at him with burning intensity: Joe.

Ben tore his eyes away, his heart pounding. The horses were on the backstretch now, and it was still Starshine, Landed Gentry, and Beautiful Dreamer in the lead. And then on the turn, Gogo began to move up, pulling away from the pack and gaining on the number three horse. The crowd was on their feet now, yelling their heads off, and Ben was on his feet, too, as the horses made the final turn into the homestretch and Gogo began to pull from fourth to third, and from third to second. The crowd was wild.

"GO GO GO GO GO!"

(To be continued)

TEXT 2003 BY JENNIFER ARMSTRONG; ILLUSTRATIONS 2003 BY C.B. MORDAN

REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF BREAKFAST SERIALS INC.