Thursday 13 April 2023

The Wyoming Whiz Kid by Alan Barker, green tea


I can see it now, the headline in the sports pages and online sites. I’ll go down in Grand National history.

One moment I was in control, the next I was jolted sideways like a rodeo cowboy, staring wide-eyed at the dazzling blue sky and catching gasps from the crowd and the thunder of passing horses, as I plummeted headlong – ouch! – to the turf.

These are my overriding thoughts after I wake up. But how did it come about? What happened exactly?

With an effort, I prop myself against the pillows and try to blink back the throbbing pain running rings round my head. Sunshine slants through the window, which for some reason makes me think it’s Sunday. A medical cart, pushed by a fair-haired nurse, trundles past the open door, and I sniff the familiar tang of disinfectant. I’ve an idea I’ve been in this lousy hospital not so many moons ago.

So my name is Lou. I’m better known as The Wyoming Whiz Kid, although that last word is wearing as thin as the rear end of my breeches. I’m happily married to an English gal, Shona, and we have a five-year-old kid called Kent. I grew up in Rock Springs where the whole family would go to the local race meetings. My ambition to be another Bill Shoemaker or Steve Cauthen changed with my weight, and as a youngster I learned my trade over fences. Before long, I heard folks call me the riding sensation of the twenty-first century! But soon I fell in love with Shona, whom I met while on holiday with friends in Cape Verdi. I couldn’t bear to be without her – I guess it was the same for her – and after much toing and froing I moved across the Pond and found a job as stable jockey for one of the top British trainers.

My reputation grew in the UK, and I was in constant demand. Within a few years I’d won all the top races – Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, King George – bar one: the Grand National. Failing to win the National – where you have thirty-nine rivals and almost as many fences to contend with – is hardly a disgrace; nevertheless, it’s a whopping hole in my CV.

So yesterday I was riding a nine-year-old mare called Saving Grace, our stable star and the hot favourite at 5-1. Surely my best ever chance of winning the race that has eluded me all these years. (My record speaks for itself: tenth, fell, pulled up, twenty-seventh, unseated rider, refused to race. Ugh!) I sink back on the pillows and try to recall what led to that dramatic fall.

In my mind’s eye we’re approaching Becher’s Brook, named after a jockey whose mount dumped him in the ditch a couple of centuries ago. I ask Gracie, as she’s affectionately known, for a big leap; she launches us over the fence, and we hit the ground running. From behind me there’s a strangled cry of ‘Aaargh!’ – one of the Irish jocks, by the sound of it – but I’m not about to dwell on his or her fate.

Then I’m soaring over Foinavon, where only one runner made it to the other side in ’67. Sure enough, another two crash out, birch flying in all directions, while the jockey on my inside, his orange silks glowing in the sunlight, miraculously comes back down on his horse after being catapulted skywards.

Presently we’re freewheeling towards The Chair. Yikes! At five feet two inches high – with a five feet ditch in front – it seems to fill the skyline and is the biggest fence on the circuit. I’m gonna have to sit tight over this one. There’s a bunch of horses galloping beside me, and we steady our mounts on the approach. I sense a buzz of anticipation from the crowd, then comes a collective gasp as a grey horse to my right somersaults and hurls its jockey into the turf. Gracie does another great leap, taking me safely to the other side, but the horse on my left is riderless – as if a giant hand reached up from the fence and plucked the jockey off – and I angle away from it.

Soon we are on the leader’s tail. I take a pull; Gracie’s bowling along and jumping like Red Rum in his heyday, but I need to conserve her energy for the long run-in. The scent of victory is in my nostrils, even though we’ve only reached halfway …

So, what went wrong?

A female voice breaks into my thoughts, one with a thick Scouse accent. ‘Good morning, Mr Davidson. How are we feeling?’

I crane my neck round to see the fair-haired nurse hovering over me. I gaze at her name badge.

‘Well, Linda O’Shea, I feel like a guy who’s gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson, so I could sure use some painkillers.’

‘Punch drunk, are we? I’ll get some right away.’ Her pretty face breaks into a smile. ‘Just so you know, you’ve had concussion after a fall at the races yesterday, so we had to keep you in overnight. But nothing seems broken, so as long as the result of the CT scan is okay we’ll let you go home this afternoon.’

‘So I’ve been out for almost twenty-four hours? No kidding. Any idea who won the Grand National?’

‘I’m afraid not, sir. It’s all football with our family: Everton and Liverpool.’ The way she says ‘Liverpool’ makes it sound as if there are a dozen ‘O’s in it.

Nurse Linda smiles again and breezes out of the room. I turn my thoughts back to the previous day, wondering which fence I came a cropper at. Valentine’s, maybe, or the Canal Turn, where you have a ninety degrees turn to make, if you’re lucky enough to get to the other side.

Now we’re nosing into the lead. The mare hasn’t put a foot wrong – yet. We cross the Melling Road then take the sweeping left-hand bend towards the packed stands, which are bathed in sunshine; I adjust my goggles a fraction. Gracie’s name is called over the tannoy, prompting a roar from the crowd. I try not to think how much dough is riding on her.

But are we on the final circuit or have we got to go round again? You only have to jump The Chair once and we’ve done that so … that means we’re on the home stretch, right? And there are only two fences left. Right?

So what the hell …?

If I came down at the last, and I was clear of the field, I’ll tell Nurse to go get me some stronger painkillers. Preferably ones that’ll send me to sleep forever.

‘Here we are,’ she says in that hoarse tone of hers, placing two tablets and a glass of water in front of me.

As she moves away a familiar figure dawdles in, and I groan inwardly. Ronny Barnett. Gracie’s trainer, my boss and general pain in the butt. I wait a beat, hoping he’ll speak first, but he merely gazes at me in a dispassionate way.

I hold up my hands. ‘I’m sorry.’ What else can I say?

He jiggles coins in his pocket. I have no idea what’s coming. ‘Don’t do it again,’ is all he says.

‘What happened? I remember going out the side door, but I’m sure Gracie jinked to the left.’

Ronny gives a mirthless smile and moves to the window. ‘Always the horse’s fault, eh? Luckily for you, she had the sense to pull herself up, before she came to any harm.’

I figure I’m screwed. Too tired to argue, I lean back in bed and close my eyes, slipping back in time again.

Gracie takes me over another fence and I know there’s only one more. The last obstacle between me and victory in the Grand National. I peek over my shoulder, calculating I must be twenty lengths clear of the field. My rivals are all hard ridden, while Gracie has barely come off the bridle.

We come to the last. I keep my hands steady on the reins and … we’re up and over!

A deafening cheer from the stands. Gracie pricks her ears, as if she’s already won. Now I’m having to cajole her along, keep her going.

Suddenly, a horse lopes up alongside us and I gasp. Then realise there’s no jockey on it. Phew!

Now we’re approaching the fork known as the Elbow: bear right to the winning post, or left to do another circuit. It seems to be rushing towards us and I need to move over …

‘So, how’s my brave soldier then?’

My heart is thudding as I blink my eyes open to find Shona leaning over to kiss me. Kent is beside her and I breathe a sigh of relief, knowing Ronny won't kick my sorry ass in front of them.

‘All set to jump in the Mersey,’ I quip.

‘That wouldn’t be very clever, would it? Just because you fell off a horse. It happens all the time to you jump jockeys.’

I look away, reliving that ghastly moment when I realised I was slipping out of the saddle. Then the dreaded nosedive and – what? I imagine myself prostrate on the ground, medics rushing to my aid. Disgruntled spectators watching as I’m carted off in an ambulance, their money down the tubes. Another beaten favourite, they’ll say. Another ‘unseated rider’ for the Whiz Kid’s form figures.  

‘We’re proud of Daddy, aren’t we, Kent?’ That’s what I love about Shona: her I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude.

I turn to face them. ‘So, where did Gracie get rid of me? At the Elbow, I bet. I needed to go right but she went left. Or was I cleaned out by that loose horse pestering me on the run-in?’

Shona and Kent burst out laughing. Even the boss manages a quizzical smile.

‘Darling, you are such a twit!’ Shona says. ‘You came off after the finishing line, right in front of the grandstand.’

‘You punched the air in celebration. That’s why the horse jinked and you baled out,’ Ronny adds.

With the biggest grin I’ve ever seen, Kent holds up the Racing Post which has a picture of Yours Truly careering past the winning post, right arm waving to the crowd, presumably a second or two before the horse and I parted company. The headline reads: GRACIE WHIZZES TO VICTORY!      

About the author 

Alan lives in Epsom with his wife, Judy, who came up with the idea for 'The Wyoming Whiz Kid'. He writes short mystery fiction and feel-good stories, and has been published in various magazines in the UK and Ireland. He is also a certified proofreader. 


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