By: Girl Bard
email@example.comDisclaimer: See Part 1.
A light, tickling sensation on the back of my neck wakes me and I let a huge yawn escape. Opening my eyes slightly, I see a grinning Dena lying next to me, her head propped up by her bare arm. Her long dark hair rests against my skin and I smile in reflex.
I could get really used to waking up with her. Even at 4:00 am.
"Hey." I croak, my throat thick with sleep.
"You're beautiful when you sleep." She tells me softly, tracing my profile with her slender fingers.
I can't help but blush, not used to being with someone so affectionate. "Thanks." I mumble, a part of me wanting to pull the covers up over my head and disappear from the thought of her watching me. It makes me feel so self-conscious.
"Hasn't anyone ever told you that before?" Dena asks, smiling. "Surely you know how beautiful you are."
My nose wrinkles. "Not really." I tell her honestly, finding it hard to meet her eyes. "You're kind of the first."
Dena looks at me, confusion evident in her expression. "I'm the first to tell you that you're beautiful?"
I nod in response, not missing the flash of emotion that crosses her face. "Well, I'll just have to tell you more often." She says, laying her head down on the pillow and pulling me close to her.
I go eagerly, enjoying the silken feel of her skin against mine. We drove throughout the day yesterday, stopping every four hours to diligently unload and walk the horses to avoid them getting stiff from the long drive. It took us almost thirty hours in total, having to go really slow with our cargo, and by the time we got in everyone was exhausted.
It feels so lovely to be warm in her embrace, but I know it can't last. There are horses to be fed and stalls to be cleaned.
"We should really get up." Dena's low voice rumbles in my ear.
"Yeah." I reply, my eyes closing involuntarily.
"The sooner we get up, the sooner we can come back here for a nap." She says and I smile.
"I like the sound of that."
After feeding our four horses and helping Charlie and Maya clean the stalls, I wipe my brow with my t-shirt, thoroughly enjoying the lovely spring weather of Kentucky rather than the blistering heat of home.
"How did they settle last night?" I ask the old groom who is carefully scrubbing Baby's water bucket.
"Good, the filly went right to sleep. The colt was a bit excited, but Elmer just snorted at him until he got over it." Charlie replies. "Slept like a baby, myself." He adds, his dark eyes smiling.
I chuckle at him, recalling his insistence to sleep in the cot in the barn with his horses rather than at the hotel like the rest of us.
"How did you sleep, Gen?" Maya asks in her lightly accented voice. I can't help but blush, and soon both grooms are guffawing at my expense. I don't even try to think of an excuse, and I realize that my relationship, whatever it may be, with Dena is way out in the open.
"Very funny." I manage to tell them, though I really just want to bury myself in the manure pile.
"What is?" Dena's low voice asks as she walks into the barn.
"Nothing." Maya says quickly as she sets out on the task of grooming Bits.
Dena glances at me curiously, and I flush red again before quickly excusing myself to go and change into my riding clothes.
We're just stretching the horses out today, Elmer included. They need a few days to recover from the long trailer ride before doing any serious exercise, so we'll jog them twice a day today and tomorrow.
I hear Dena's silken voice cooing to Baby as I return from the changing room, and I watch as the trainer effortlessly tacks up the filly. It's so evident that Dena loves her horses, and one of the things I respect most about her is the way she treats them as individuals. She takes the time to learn about each of their personalities and it shows in the adoration they have in return for her.
"She's all set, Gen." Dena tells me. "Let's see how she likes this track, she's never been out of Florida before, so it might take her a bit to get used to it, okay? Just jog her two miles, nothing fancy."
I nod in understanding as Charlie leads me over to the track. The filly is prancing and snorting, which is unusual for her, but perfectly normal for a horse in a new place. She's not being dangerous, just excited.
"Easy, Baby." I tell the intelligent filly who quiets with my voice. I walk her around the far outside of the track, staying well clear of any rider doing serious work. Baby quietly absorbs the commotion, Churchill Downs already in full-Derby mode, and glides into a smooth trot as soon as I ask.
Her strides are easy over the fast surface, and I'm inclined to think that she will respond better to this track than what she's used to in Florida. The good thing about training young horses down south is the amount of sand mixed into the track surface. The more sand, the deeper and softer the track is. That makes it easier on the horse's legs, but not as fast.
The more northern and western surfaces are made of more clay, because it is natural to the environment here. This results in a very fast surface, but the pounding overall is more intense on the fragile legs of the horses. The way Baby is gliding over the surface makes me believe she'll have no trouble adapting to this much-faster track.
Which is good, she's at an advantage over a horse that is used to this and then goes to the deep southern race surfaces.
Finishing our jog around the track once, we have one more mile to go. The filly is trotting lightly, and isn't even sweating. She seems to enjoy the cooler weather, and so far her progress here is excellent. We pass by the famous twin spires of Churchill, and suddenly it hits me that I'm here, riding a Derby horse.
Never in my life did I think this would happen to me. I glance to the outer rail, where I see Dena casually leaning on it, her arms crossed in front of her. Never did I think I'd be in love with someone like her, either.
Pushing away my thoughts toward the tall trainer, I concentrate on the filly. I haven't even begun to realize my feelings for Dena yet, and I don't want to go there. Not until after the Derby. I can't think about both at once!
We approach Dena and Charlie, and the trainer cups her hands around her mouth. "Looks good, Gen, let her slow gallop the rest of the way." She calls, and I nod in agreement and effortlessly slide the filly into a relaxed gallop.
As I expected, her long strides eat up the track and she feels even faster than she did at home. This is at her slowest possible stride; imagine what it will be like in full sprint! My mind can't fathom any horse beating mine in the Derby, and I feel confident we will make Dena very, very proud.
Baby is the picture of obedience, asking nicely for more rein as we gallop down the track, but not becoming upset when I don't give in to her request. Speed will come later; right now it's about getting her comfortable and limber on the surface.
I slow her at the half-mile pole back down to a trot and am pleased to see she's not even breathing hard. She's so fit; the picture of an equine athlete, that I know the Churchill clockers and track enthusiasts will start to keep a closer eye on her works.
Except for her small size, Foxfire looks like a Derby horse, and as the weeks fly by we will have to start beating the press down off our doors and having microphones shoved in our faces from people covering the always-popular issue of a filly in the Derby.
I finish jogging the filly and return to Dena and Charlie. They are both practically glowing, and my thoughts on the filly's chances are immediately confirmed.
Dena looks like a child on Christmas as she possessively scratches Baby's ears. The filly, in turn, adores the trainer's affection and shoves her nose into the trainer's stomach.
"Here, lady." Charlie says, removing a peppermint from his pocket and feeding it to the eager filly. Dena and I roll our eyes as we head back to the barn.
Once there, Maya has Bits ready to go and I swing up on her broad back, so different from Baby's. "Same thing." Dena mentions to me as we head back over to the track. "If she feels okay, let her gallop a half-mile."
"Sure." I tell her, my hand on the bay mare's neck. She is the picture of tranquility, and I wonder again why she was bound for slaughter. Bits has some speed and more guts than most horses, so it's odd she would be tossed aside so easily.
Then again, maybe she had an entirely different life than she does at Dena's. Sometimes horses freak because of their surroundings, so if Bits had a pushy groom or was handled roughly, she might not have been as lovely as she is now.
The little bay goes into a trot, and I have little problem keeping her in the pace directed. She is content to look around, but with a snort she dismisses the track horses in front of her.
"Been there, done that, huh Bits?" I ask the plucky little mare who snorts again. She's fun to ride, and I always admire a horse with her heart. She may not be the fastest one in the race, but she tries harder than most. The two times I've raced her I've really liked her style, we're going in a Grade III race next week and I expect her to do pretty well.
After galloping out the mare, I hop on Opie's back. The young colt is nervous as hell, pawing and trying to turn in little circles.
"Easy." I tell him, patting his wet neck. It's not good for him to be getting this worked up, I know it's a new place and he's just a baby, but he is seriously freaked.
We're not even racing him while we're here, just bringing him along to get him used to traveling and being in strange places. The Swanson's horses won't get serious about racing until early summer, we've had Opie and Chance in a race already just to see how they need to be trained, and I was proud of how collected and calm Opie was.
Today, it's like he's a totally different horse.
"It's okay, fella." Dena tells him as she holds onto his rein. "I'm not letting you go over there until he calms down." She says to me and I nod in return.
"I can hold him, he's okay." I tell her, worried the colt will do something foolish and the trainer will get hurt.
"I'll ride Elmer out there with you, okay?" Dena asks and I nod in agreement. That would probably be best.
Charlie and Maya both hold the reins of the nervous colt while Dena quickly tacks up my gelding.
The tall bay seems to have somewhat of a quieting affect on Opie, who at least stops his pawing as Dena heads over. Taking the colt's rein, Dena rides out to the track like an attending rider.
Opie forgets about being nervous and turns his attention to my quiet Elmer, who tolerates the nips and nuzzles from the overzealous colt.
"You okay to trot him?" Dena asks and I grin at her in response. From her perch on the tall bay, she is a great deal higher than I am. Opie isn't small and he's still growing, but compared to the gigantic Elmer he looks like a pony.
The colt goes into an even trot, and I admire his elastic stride. I don't think he'll ever have the natural speed of Swanson's other colt, the recuperating Chance, but Opie will make an okay racehorse.
I feel him start to become nervous again, and I take a firmer hold on the reins. He isn't acting out, but I can feel the tension going through his body. "Dena, careful." I warn the trainer who looks at me.
"What's wrong?" She asks, and I see her hand involuntarily clench on the reins of the colt.
Shaking my head in response, I will my stomach to settle down. "Not sure, he's acting strange though, just be extra cautious."
"Sure." She says, slowing Elmer's pace and forcing the colt to slow from his forward trot.
Opie's ears flatten against his head, and he darts his neck out, savagely baring his teeth toward Elmer.
Naturally, the bay swerves away from the colt's teeth and Dena has to struggle to hang on to Opie's rein without being pulled from her saddle.
"Let go, I've got him!" I call to the trainer, and I see her blue eyes widen with fear. She's terrified that if she lets go, the colt will bolt and I won't be able to control him.
I wrap the reins around my hands, feeling the strength of the colt as he works to clasp the bit between his teeth. Dena stubbornly hangs on as she tries to convince Elmer to return to the colt's side.
The bay finally relents and scoots close to the colt, glancing at him warily. Opie thrusts out his neck angrily in response, and although it pains me to do so, I pull the reins back with all of my strength as well as give him a smart kick in the side.
Admonished, the colt stops trying to extract the bit from my control and seemingly calms down. I glance at Dena, who gives me a wry smile.
"Sorry I had to kick him." I tell her, upset at myself.
"Don't be. You didn't beat him, Gen, you reprimanded him for unwelcome behavior. Think of how a herd horse would discipline him if he acted that way. The herd inclination is to bite or kick, and by you giving him a firm and quick punishment, he realized his behavior wasn't to be tolerated." Dena says and I nod in agreement.
"I just hate seeing people push horses around, it doesn't make any sense." I respond, patting Opie, who has seemed to settle down. We're one mile through our jog and I know Dena won't want the colt galloped at all until he settles down more.
"I understand, I feel the same way. And I never think using physical punishment is good for horses. But there's a big difference between smacking them around and giving them the accepted herd reprimand. It's what they understand, biologically." The trainer smiles, clearing her throat, "So, on a better subject, what had you so flushed this morning?"
I grimace and glance at the tall trainer. "Um, I think our secret is kind of out."
"And what secret would that be?" Dena responds, mercifully teasing me. "The fact that we're screwing like rabbits or the fact that you make me so crazy that I can't stop thinking about you, even in my sleep?"
I feel the heat rush to my face. "The first one, I think." I tell her and she laughs, a low sound that is rich to my ears.
"Oh well. I'm not trying to hide anything anyway. Life's too short." Dena says, winking at me. "You should know that well."
"Is that a short joke?" I answer in mock outrage. "Because I'll have you know, if I wasn't so short you wouldn't have yourself a Derby jockey!" I tell her jokingly.
She purses her lips, deep in thought. "I wouldn't have myself a jockey at all. And that would make me so sad." Dena answers, pouting her full lips.
Grinning at her I meet her blue gaze. "You're in an awfully good mood this morning."
"Waking up with you does that, I guess." She responds quickly. "Guess we'll have to make it a tradition."
Before I can reply, I turn my attention back to Opie, who is shaking again. His ears flick nervously back and forth and he acts as if he's trying to crane his neck to look behind him.
Looking over my shoulder, I see a fast-moving horse being worked who is coming up behind. He isn't in our lane of traffic, but apparently it's too close for Opie's comfort.
"Easy!" I call, harsher than I would have liked to the colt as I feel him start to bolt.
"Whoa." Dena says calmly, her hands tightening on the reins. Elmer stays calm, but the colt isn't swayed by the big geldings' piece of mind.
"Let go, he's going up!" I shout to Dena as Opie screams shrilly and rears up in the air, his front legs pawing at the sky.
The trainer doesn't let go and is almost pulled out of her saddle from the force of the colt.
"Let go!" I scream to her as I try and throw my weight to the colt's front end, trying to encourage him to come back down on all fours. Dena pulls with all of her might, but the colt resists and is unable to find his balance.
"Jump!" Dena calls to me, seeing the colt is about to go over backwards. I kick my feet out of the stirrups and try to throw myself off to the side, but the next thing I know is the solid thump of the hard track on my back and the colt's struggling body falling from the sky right on top of me.
And then everything goes black.
Part 9 is Coming Soon!
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