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Leave it to cheap Charlie Miller to wreck Teagan’s morning. She was done for the day and cantering her lead pony Fuzzy towards the track exit when she heard a frantic cry of “Whoa!” and staccato hoof beats coming up fast from behind.
“Sucker’s running off,” she muttered, reining Fuzzy over to the outside fence.
Two seconds later, the horse blew past and Teagan caught a glimpse of the rider’s face. No one she knew, just a young pretty girl, probably some jockey wannabe who landed at the stable gate with nothing but a headful of Derby dreams.
You picked the wrong track, kid.
To her credit, the girl kept her cool, instead of making the amateur mistake of trying to overpower an animal ten times her weight, she focused on simply steering and staying in the saddle. But she was starting to tire, riding high in the saddle on rubbery legs.
No, Teagan had never seen the girl before but the horse she knew all too well. Monster. Damn that tightwad Charlie Miller, hiring some desperate girl to gallop his iron-jawed bastard just to save a few bucks on pony fees. Her pony fees.
And not her problem, that’s what outriders were for. Atlantic City’s main track was about to close and she was just a twenty minute cool-down away from that chocolate milkshake she’d been craving.
She watched Monster fly past the finish line with no intent of slowing whatsoever.
That’s it, keep on running, give Brian something to do besides chugging from his magic thermos.
Where the hell was he anyway? She scanned the track, spotted the outrider slumped on his Appaloosa at the three-eighths pole. She knew that slump; it was his post thermos slump.
Teagan watched as the runaway horse motored right past Brian; he didn’t even bother to raise his head. Son of a bitch was passed out. Again. Must be nice to have a father-in-law for a steward.
Meanwhile, that poor girl looked as if she was about to fall off. Shit. Teagan whirled Fuzzy around and kicked him into a canter.
Anne was about to die. She was panting like a sheepdog in the desert and her hands were as numb as this asshole horse’s mouth. Two miles and counting.
Maybe I can just bail off.
She glanced down at the track - dirt footing with a concrete base. Furlong poles zipped by; she had to be going thirty, thirty-five miles per hour, there was no way she’d land unscathed. Best she could hope for would be to pass out, might even be a blessing, her relaxed body would be less prone to injury as it fell.
Anne closed her eyes…
Suddenly, a woman shouted, “Come here you common bastard.”
Anne opened her eyes, watched in disbelief as a ponygirl swooped up alongside of her horse, reached over and snatched her reins.
“Hey kid, you OK?” the ponygirl asked.
Anne swallowed a sob of relief and nodded.
“Good. Now drop your reins and leave the driving to me.”
Anne obeyed and twenty strides later, her horse had been slowed to a canter. She cast a grateful glance up at her six foot savior. The ponygirl was dressed in a Metallica “Master of Puppets” t-shirt and looked like she could single-handedly stop a herd of Clydesdales. Her fair-skinned face was strong instead of pretty, punctuated with freckles. She had thick, dark eyebrows, a straight but slightly long nose and a small mouth. A long, auburn ponytail poked out from the bottom of her English riding helmet.
Her slate gray eyes focused on Anne’s. “You’re new.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Two reasons: one, cuz I’ve never seen you before and two, every rider here knows better than to gallop this asshole without a pony. Lemme guess – Charlie plucked you from the stable gate line-up.”
Face aflame, Anne nodded.
“You’re lucky to be alive.”
The ponygirl settled the horses into a trot as they approached the gap, or track entrance.
Anne cleared her throat and picked up the reins. “Well thanks for saving me but I can take it from here.”
The ponygirl held fast. “Oh no, I’m taking you back myself. That cheap-ass Charlie’s gonna pay me my pony fee.”
“Please don’t,” Anne begged. “If Charlie finds out I got run off with, he’ll never let me gallop another horse for him again.”
The ponygirl snorted. “Honey, there ain’t a person alive who can stop Monster.”
“Monster? Who’s Monster? Charlie told me this horse’s name is Best Bet.”
“That’s his racing name. Around the barn he’s called Monster and now you know why.”
They reached the gap and the ponygirl slowed the horses to a walk as she steered them onto the horse path. Monster tossed his head and jigged sideways, trying to break free.
The ponygirl draped Monster’s head over her pony’s neck and cooed, “There, there. I know, you were just having fun and I had to go and ruin everything.”
Anne couldn’t believe it – it actually worked! Monster settled down, offering little resistance as the horses plodded along the sandy horse path and entered the backstretch. Inside each barn they passed there was a final flurry of horses being brushed and bandaged as their grooms prepared for the noon feeding. Anne crinkled her nose at the sickly potpourri of cooking grease from the track kitchen, fresh manure roasting in concrete pits and weedy grass from the overgrown grazing area.
This was not how she’d imagined her first day would go – getting run off with and almost killed by the very first horse she galloped. Then again Atlantic City Racecourse wasn’t exactly what she had envisioned either – no grandstand twin spires or lush pastures of bluegrass, just twenty-three tin-roofed barns that hadn’t been painted in decades. The track was like an aged Rolls Royce, once glamorous but now had way too many miles and an owner unwilling to shell out any money for upgrades or repairs.
It was as depressing as being towed back to Charlie’s barn by a lead pony.
Charlie. Crap. If Charlie sees me being ponied back to the barn, then he’ll know that I couldn’t hold Monster.
Anne needed to win this chick over; she couldn’t bear the humiliation. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Whatever,” Teagan shrugged.
Anne dropped her voice to a near whisper. “Please, I’m just a girl who’s just trying to make it on the track, like you. Please, I’m begging you - cut me loose.”
Teagan snorted. “Spare me the sister act. Only thing that matters here is money and right now I intend to collect my ten bucks from Charlie.”
They were halfway down the horse path now; Charlie’s barn was just coming into view...
“Look he owes me seven bucks for galloping. Will you take that and keep quiet?” Anne pleaded.
The eyes of granite gave her the once over then she was abruptly cut loose. As Teagan trotted away, she called over her shoulder, “I’m in the pony barn, right across from Barn W. Don’t make me find you.”
Anne almost fell off with relief. She put on her best nonchalant expression as she rode Monster into Charlie’s barn.
La-de-da, just back from galloping…
“Bout time, thought I’d have to send out a search party,” Charlie growled.
Snow white hair stuck out halo-like around his head as he reached out and grabbed Monster’s bridle.
Anne slid from the saddle, knees buckling as soon as her feet hit the ground.
Charlie jerked his head up. “He run off with you, didn’t he?”
“What makes you say that?” Anne replied innocently. She unfastened Monster’s girth and pulled off the saddle.
His voice turned cold. “Don’t lie to me, girl. I ain’t paying no seven bucks for you to run my horse into the ground.”
Anne set the saddle down on a bale of hay and waited. Charlie yanked off Monster’s bridle while the hotwalker, a Mexican boy who didn’t look a day over fourteen, quickly slipped the halter into place.
“You owe me seven bucks,” Anne said quietly, stepping directly in Charlie’s path.
“I don’t owe you shit.”
“Tell that to the stewards.”
Charlie muttered something under his breath then rummaged through several pockets of his stained jeans before finally producing a grimy five dollar bill. “Here. It’s all I got. Now get the hell out of my barn.”
Anne snatched the money, retrieved her duffel bag from his tack room, and set out for the pony barn.
Teagan never had any intention of collecting that pony fee yet when she looked up from raking out her pony’s stall, there was Miss Jockey wannabe. The girl was either incredibly honest or stupid.
The backstretch’s gonna eat her alive.
Anne looked even smaller on the ground, barely hitting the five foot mark and weighing maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. She had high cheek bones with full lips and eyes the color of amber. Her neatly French-braided hair reminded Teagan of freshly tapped beer shimmering with gold. The girl belonged in Vogue, not on the backstretch of this shithole track.
Anne slapped a five dollar bill in her hand. “Here. It’s all I got,” she announced then sprinted towards the exit, duffel bag slapping against her thighs.
“Hey kid,” Teagan called.
Anne stopped and spun around. “Stop calling me that. I’m eighteen years old which makes me an adult.”
“Right, so does your adult ass have any money?”
“Spent it all on bus fare,” Anne confessed, stabbing her boot toe into the ground. “I planned on going to Belmont and getting a job with a big trainer like Woody Stephens or Wayne Lukas.”
Teagan snorted. “Other than cheap-ass Charlie, you got any other galloping gigs?”
Anne toed the ground then shook her head.
“OK, so you need a job and there’s been a ponygirl shortage here for years…”
Anne looked up. “Thanks for the offer but I came here to gallop horses, not pony them.”
Teagan snickered. “Listen kid, other than morons l
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