By: Girl Bard
firstname.lastname@example.orgDisclaimer: I don't own Xena or Gabrielle. But these girls are mine.
Subtext: Yes. J
Summary: What can I say; I'm a horseracing nut who has Derby fever. This story is the result.
Feedback: Pretty please with a cherry on top. email@example.com
Dedication: My beta readers and fans are a constant source of support and encouragement. I appreciate all your time and effort!!! I also thank my girlfriend for just being herself. I'd still be living in crappy Ohio if it weren't for you.
It's amazing how one's life can change in a second. Three days ago I was here, at this very same track, riding for Mr. Lewis. Now, I'm here riding at the track, but with a completely different (and way better looking) boss. It's pretty cool.
Dena warned me Irish would be a handful on the way to the starting gate. She said she bought him as a two-year-old who couldn't be raced because of his unruly antics. She has done a lot of work with him to turn him around, so I guess the fact that he's only bucked and kicked a few times is a big improvement.
The massive Hector is Irish's groom, and the Hispanic man treats him with kindness but doesn't let him get away with anything. It's obvious that Irish has bonded somewhat with Hector, he doesn't try anything with him and in turn, Hector slips him treats and gives him pats for behaving.
I, on the other hand, haven't had time to bond with Irish and he knows it. Dena assures me that he's behaving better for me than any other rider she's tried him with, but I can't say I'm not nervous about the race.
Irish is a big horse and I'm strong, but not as strong as some of the male jocks that have been doing this a lot longer. I don't want him to grab the bit and take off or anything, so I need to be on my toes at all time.
The last horse loads, I prepare for the break. Irish is behaving, but I know he's ready to freak out. He isn't thrilled with standing in the closed gate, chomping the bit and tossing his head as the horse next to us rears in the stall.
"No sir!" The rearing horses' jockey calls to the starter as he struggles to get his horse down. This causes a domino affect and many of the other horses start acting up in the gate.
"We're not going until everyone's set." The tinny voice of the starter calls over the loudspeaker. At that precise moment, Irish loses it and practically throws himself backwards in the gate.
I desperately grab onto his mane and try to remain upright, but the enraged horse slams me into the side of the gate. The assistant starter tries to grab Irish's bridle to pull him down, but to no avail. Falling to the track below, I avoid his stomping hooves as I slide under the gate and onto the open track.
"Get him out!" The assistant starters cry and luckily are able to grab Irish and back him out of the gate. All the other jocks are having a difficult time controlling their horses, but no one else seems in danger of falling off.
"You okay Dietz?" The assistant starter asks as two others hold on to a bucking Irish's bridle. I dust the dirt and sand from the track off of my silks, amazed at how fast my hands are shaking.
I swallow the lump of fear in my throat and nod. "Yeah, thanks." I think I just peed my pants; I was so frightened at that moment. Holy crap.
My heart won't stop racing but I try to calm myself down and shake the incident off. It happens all the time and you've got to just get back on and start over.
"You scared us there, you're pretty fast on your feet to be able to slide under. I thought he was gonna stomp you to death." The starter jokes, trying to ease my nerves.
Giving him a small smile, I approach Irish, knowing the horses in the gate have got to break soon or they'll all start going nuts.
I get a boost up onto Irish's tall back. The horse is worked up and angry, and I hope he doesn't try anything again.
"As soon as we get you in, he's going to open the doors so be ready." The assistant tells me as the three of them force Irish into the gate.
Irish doesn't even have time to act up as the gates spring open and he bolts out ahead of everyone else. I direct him to the now dry inside rail and keep him just in front of the others, like Dena said he usually likes to run.
We have some competition, another bay just to our right, but I ignore them and allow Irish to increase his pace. I want to keep his nose out in front the entire time, but close to the pack so he only can concentrate on the other horses rather than killing me.
It's a short race, just a sprint, and I'm grateful. Irish is settling, but I can still feel his previous rage simmering. I know if I make one wrong move it will boil over and we'll all be in trouble.
My stomach is still shaking and I try to make the image of Irish's stomping hooves go away. I've been thrown from a horse before; all jocks have, but never actually in the gate. That was really close and I have no desire to ever repeat it.
The marker poles whip by and I sit as still as possible in the saddle, hoping Irish will just forget all about me and focus on winning. Three furlongs to go and I give him a tiny bit more rein. He gladly takes it and increases his lead by a fraction over the close-running bay.
He runs so differently from Foxfire, I can feel the power of his speed whereas on the filly it's almost impossible to tell how fast she's really going. I think the filly is faster, but Irish has a lot of natural talent and speed; if he could just concentrate on running rather than fighting he'd be a top contender.
Two furlongs remain, and I start our sprint. I let the slick leather slip through my hands and encourage Irish to take the bit and bolt, knowing it's what he wants. Irish responds with a huge increase in speed that leaves me feeling breathless, like the wind has been knocked out of me. The bay falls behind as Irish races down the track alone.
One furlong to go, and I glance behind me, surprised to see the remaining horses not even close. I give Irish full control, and amazingly the dark horse stretches out even more, increasing our lead over the others.
We cross under the wire, in front by seven lengths. The crowd cheers, and I struggle to get control back from Irish. He is blowing hard and I can feel the exhaustion in his body. He ran his heart out the last few furlongs, when he thought he was getting away with something. I let him gallop out until his breathing slows enough for him to be walked and the attending rider escorts us over to the paddock. I have to make a final weigh-in for it to be official, and as soon as I do Irish's number 6 goes up on the board as the winner.
"Good race." Hector tells me as he takes the dark horses' bridle. I pat Irish on the hindquarters as Hector leads him away to be cooled out and bathed.
"Gen!" Dena calls and I turn to see the dark-haired trainer approach me. "You were incredible!" She tells me as she picks me up and twirls me around in the paddock, causing everyone around us to chuckle.
I know I must be getting her filthy, on race days she always dresses so beautifully, and she was wearing a cream pantsuit this morning.
She finally puts me down, and sure enough, she has dirt and sweat smeared over her formerly stunning outfit. Looking down at herself, she laughs, a full and rich sound before shrugging her shoulders.
"Are you okay? Did you get hurt when he dumped you?" She asks, suddenly remembering my fall before the race. Removing her dark sunglasses, her startling blue eyes run up and down my body as if searching for injuries.
"I'm fine, just scared me." I tell her honestly and she nods in understanding.
"Let's go, we've got to celebrate!" She responds, putting her arm around my shoulders as we walk back to the barn.
I like the feel of her embrace, and I relax in it as we pass Mr. Lewis's barn where I can hear the trainer's shouts all the way from here. Glancing up at my gorgeous boss, I can't help but grin.
I definitely made the right decision.
Glancing around and feeling really underdressed; I uncomfortably tug at my shirt. When Dena mentioned that we 'had to celebrate' I thought it meant go back to the farm and have dinner with everyone else.
Not come to a fancy restaurant where I look like a homeless ruffian compared to the cool elegance of my boss.
I'm not complaining, I was thrilled when she said she wanted to take me somewhere nice for dinner, her treat. Until I remembered that my wardrobe consisted of riding gear, old t-shirts, and a tattered jacket.
I was too proud to ask Maya or Alice if they had anything, so I picked my best shirt and jeans and cleaned my boots.
Dena didn't even look at my outfit twice; just motioned me into her truck and off we went.
So now were are here, drinking wine, and rehashing the race. I must admit the more I talk about falling off of Irish, the less it continues to haunt me.
"So, Gen, where are you from?" Dena asks, her blue eyes curious. "And how did you get involved in this sport?"
I nervously twist my napkin under the table. I don't want to talk about this, but I also don't want to hide things from Dena. I feel as if I can trust her and don't want our working relationship to start out with lies or hidden truths.
"Wisconsin, originally. I moved a few years ago to Kentucky and started working as a hired hand on the farms. I eventually made my way down here for winter." I say neutrally, hoping she doesn't press the issue.
Of course she does. "Where's your family? You look awful young to be on your own." She asks kindly.
"I'm twenty-three actually. I just look a lot younger. And I've been on my own since I was seventeen." I tell her.
"Oh, I see." Dena responds, sitting back and folding her hands over her trim stomach. "Well, I'm glad you found your way from Wisconsin to here." She comments before digging into her meal.
"Me too." I tell her, cutting my steak into small pieces. "So, are you from around here?"
Startled blue eyes meet mine over the table. "Yep, a Floridian, born and bred." She states.
"How long have you been training?" I question. "Al mentioned your father was a trainer too. I'm sorry to hear about his death." I tell her honestly.
"I'm not. My father was a horrible man and trainer. We didn't get on well." Dena mentions, her eyes taking on an icy glint.
"Oh." I say, immediately ashamed to have brought something hurtful to her up. Appreciating her openness, I meet her cold eyes. "I didn't get along with my father either, or my mother to be honest. So I guess I understand how you feel, and if you ever need to talk, just let me know."
Dena's eyes become human again, briefly flashing me a smile. "Yeah, thanks." She takes a long sip of her red wine before setting her glass back down. "Same goes for you, if you need a friend."
"Okay." I tell her, grinning.
"So, onto better and brighter things. Let's talk about Foxfire." Dena begins, and I eagerly join in the conversation, eager to tell her my thoughts on the talented filly.
Lying back on the soft mattress, I fold my arms behind my head and close my eyes. I don't think there's anything else I could want right now, well I can think of one thing.
I grin up at the ceiling in the dark, thinking of the way Dena's graceful hands twirled her wine glass during dinner tonight, the way her dark hair flows gently around her face, and her eyes. Those incredible eyes that make me feel scrutinized and accepted at the same time.
My smile quickly fades. I shouldn't be having feelings of attraction toward my boss, despite my certainty that she's been flirting with me. She's probably trying to make sure I feel welcome here, not flirt necessarily.
Sighing, I close my eyes and try to get some sleep. I'm on feeding rotation this entire week, meaning I have to meet Al out at the barn at four am. And then there are horses to be worked, chores to be done, and Elmer to exercise. I'm glad Dena is letting him stay, I have a feeling I'll enjoy having the big bay gelding around.
I hear noises in the long hallway, the other workers going to bed and the low, rich voice of Dena telling everyone to have sweet dreams.
Someone raps on my door. Looking down at my pajama-clad frame, I think I'm presentable enough.
The door opens slowly to reveal Dena, bathed from behind by the warm hall light. My eyes squint at the sudden brightness, but I am still able to make out how beautiful she looks with her features highlighted.
"Hey Gen, sorry to wake you but there's been a change of plans." She says, her alto voice turning my insides to mush.
"Sure, what's up?" I ask, sitting up and looking at her with my head cocked.
"Charlene got a call from some potential clients this evening while we were out. They have a few horses they'd like me to train and I need to meet with them in the morning. I'd like to take you along to ride the horses and tell me what you think." She asks, and my heart rate picks up at the thought of spending the morning with her as opposed to Al.
"Sure, I'd love to." I tell her. "I'm on feeding duty though."
"No problem, Fernando said he'd cover for you." Dena mentions with a wave of her hand. I remind myself to kiss Fernando the next time I see him. "So I'll see you in the morning, okay? We'll leave at 5:00, it's a couple hours drive up to their farm." She says before smiling and closing my door.
Alone in the darkness, I pump my fist in the air. An entire morning with the beautiful trainer, and no morning feeding duty! Life rocks.
Closing my eyes, my mind races with thoughts of tomorrow.
While Dena speaks with the owners the Swanson's, a stuffy-looking wealthy couple, about their horses I look over the three young colts I just finished exercising critically.
They are all two-year-olds, young babies who are just making their mark on the track. To my eye, they all seem sound and in good health. They all worked well, showing their inexperience about what they are doing, but they all seem like they will be good and solid runners, one in particular. The glowing liver chestnut colt with three white stockings has a ton of speed and I liked what I felt riding him. He's confident and careful over the track, but eager to run. I took to his personality and like his conformation, he's taller than the rest, and has almost an authoritative air about him. The tall bay is nice, and has something about him I like.
I wonder if Dena will agree to train their horses. Dena explained to me on the drive up that she only trains horses she herself owns, unlike most other trainers who don't own any of the horses they work with. Dena believes in having complete ownership over the horses in her care, and is only considering taking these clients because they are friends of Charlene's parents. They are new in the business and want to expand rapidly, a sure moneymaker for Dena.
"Gen?" Dena's voice snaps me out of my thoughts. I look at her expectantly. "What did you think?"
I look at her in surprise, knowing it is unheard of for a trainer to ask a jock about a horse in front of the owner's. Usually jockeys and owners interact very little, and I try to speak professionally to the middle-aged couple standing before me.
"The chestnut, in particular has a lot of talent. The other two show signs of progressing, but will probably be in Grade three races. The chestnut has the potential to run in a higher level." I address them formally, my hands clasped behind my back.
"I thought he was nice looking, we bought him because I liked his name." The wife states, smiling proudly. I glance to Dena, who looks as if she's trying not to roll her eyes. It's not good for people who know nothing about racehorses to just go to a sale and buy them without the advice from a professional.
"What's his name?" I ask curiously, biting back a smile.
"Swan's First Chance." The husband says gruffly. The wife beams, adding, "It's our first chance to be horse owners, and our last name is Swanson, so just felt right!"
Dena glances at the horses and than back to me, giving me the tiniest of winks. "I'll make arrangements to have them shipped down to my farm later today. And from now on, don't buy any other horse unless consulting me first." She tells them firmly and the Swanson's smile as they shake her hand.
We walk back to the truck in silence, and I can tell the wheels are turning in the tall trainer's head. Before we get in, she pulls out her cell phone and gives Frank directions to pick up the three Swanson horses. "Hungry?" Dena asks as we drive away.
I laugh. "I'm never going to keep making my weight if you continue to take me out." I respond, patting my slender stomach.
Dena glances over at me. "Please, you won't have any problem. Besides, it doesn't matter to me; I'm not about to ask my jocks to have eating disorders in order to continue riding. Nothing is that important, even a horse race." Dena says, smiling.
I bait her, adding, "Even the Derby?"
She glances at me. "If you can't make 121 lbs, then you better find a new job."
I smile, realizing she said 121 lbs, which is what fillies carry in the Derby rather than the 126 lbs colts carry. She must really be serious about pointing Foxfire toward the big race.
"What's next for Foxfire?" I ask, thinking if I were Dena, I'd point her to the Florida Derby.
"March 15th Florida Derby." She answers, mirroring my thoughts. I want to ask if Gomez will be up on her, but I feel it's foolish. There's no way Dena would take Gomez off the filly to put me on, I haven't had nearly as much experience and would probably do something to blow the race.
"She'll win." I tell Dena confidently. I have faith in the filly that surprises even me. I've only ridden her once, but am completely sold on her.
"Let's hope. So, what did you really think about the Swanson horses?" Dena asks as she pulls into the driveway of a cute diner.
Parking the truck, we head out into the humid afternoon. "What I told you, the chestnut impressed me."
She nods thoughtfully, opening the door for me to enter. The cool air conditioning is a welcome relief as we are quickly seated.
After ordering, she returns to the conversation. "That's the real reason I told them I would train for them." Dena mentions. "I saw that chestnut at the January sale and really liked him. I couldn't afford his $1.2 million price tag the Swanson's shelled out for him though."
My eyes bug out at the price. "That's insane, that much money for an unraced horse."
Dena nods. "I know, but he might be worth it. I like his breeding, he's a full brother to Serena's Song, remember that filly from a few years back? She ran in the derby and lost, but had a good four-year-old season."
"Oh yeah, she was great." I tell Dena enthusiastically. "The other two were nice, there's something about the gangly bay that's sticking with me."
"He's a Native Dancer colt, I think he's going to surprise us all once he grows into his body. I liked his movement; did you see how his hocks are almost perfectly shaped? He'll be a speedball next year I bet." Dena responds, chewing on a French fry thoughtfully. "We'll start them slow, the Native Dancer bay in particular. You can't rush a colt built like him or you run the risk of him breaking down. I want to put him out to pasture and leave him be for a few months. The chestnut, however, is ready to go now and I want you to brief Fernando on how you rode him so well."
I nod in agreement to Dena as I eat my sandwich. Fernando will be a good match for the chestnut, but I would like to be the one to exercise him in the mornings.
Dena grins at me, as if she knows what I'm thinking. "The third Swanson horse, the other chestnut I want you to work with. He's ready to race, but needs some fine tuning I trust you with, breaking from the gate and such. And I want you to get more comfortable on Irish, I'm thrilled with the ride you gave him yesterday and if you keep it up you have a real chance to go further with him. The time he ran yesterday was incredible."
I still feel the twinge from yesterday's race in my arms and shoulders. Usually riding helps the stiffness fade, but it hasn't yet. And my butt is bruised from my spill, though I would never admit it to Dena.
"I was surprised as you were." I tell her. "I know he has speed, but I never thought he had that much." We were only a 1/16 of a second from breaking the track record, a fact that surprised everyone. "Speaking of speed," I continue, "Tell me about Foxfire. What's her breeding? Did you buy her at the Saratoga yearling sale?"
Dena's eyes meet mine and I'm unable to break her icy blue gaze. "I bred her, actually."
I look at her in surprise. "I didn't know you had a breeding business."
Dena shrugs modestly. "I don't. I had a nice mare I trained and before I sold her, I bred her on a hunch. Foxy was the result."
"Really? So she was bred and raised on your farm?"
"From the day she was born." Dena smiles. "Her mother is a Storm Cat mare and her father is A.P. Indy."
"No shit?" I ask, realizing that Foxfire is as regally bred as any English nobleman.
Laughing at my outburst, Dena raises a French fry at me. "It's true. The Storm Cat mare I had was brilliant as a two-year-old, but a freak injury forced her into retirement. I didn't want to sell her, but her bloodlines would have gone to waste on my farm. I just don't have time to run a breeding operation. A.P. Indy would have probably won the Triple Crown if an injury hadn't kept him out of the Derby and Preakness. But I saw him come back to commandingly win the Belmont, and I knew he was the perfect sire. Foxy was the result, and she's everything I hoped for."
"Holy crap." I mutter, realizing how much Dena knows and just how committed she is to her horses. "No wonder you're pointing her for the Derby, she's bred top and bottom for it."
"Let's hope she makes her parents proud." She mentions as we finish up our lunch.
Hopping into Dena's truck, I pull the visor down to shield my eyes from the bright sunlight. "It's too nice to work today." Dena mutters and I nod in agreement, knowing I have to muck Fernando's stalls in exchange for him feeding for me this morning.
"At least you don't have to shovel manure." I tell her, my eyes conveying that I'm just kidding around.
She glances at me, chuckling as she pulls out and points us on the highway toward home.
Home. I like the sound of that.
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