I smell the freshly cut grass and kick nervously at the ground. I’ve been training for this day a whole year now. John, my trainer, says that even though I’m still young, I’m a sure winner. He told me he’s put a lot of money on me to win. “You’re my golden ticket,” he whispers in my ear. I know how much this means to him and I’m nervous; I don’t want to let him down. He leads me out of the stable. The excited buzz from the crowd gets louder as we walk to the starting point.
Nearby, another trainer is leading Lil’ Bandit out from his pen. I nod to him; we’ve raced each other before, but nothing as important as this. He’s got the advantage though–he’s been around this track before. Came in a close third. It was incredibly close, apparently. Lil’ Bandit is real fast; his father was a champion–won three Grand Nationals in a row until he was forced to retire. He’s somewhere else now, living out his final days in a field of glory.
Lil’ Bandit kicks the ground and snorts at me. The competition is fierce and we all want to win, so I understand. John says something to the other trainer, who laughs. Then we walk on; no time for idle chitchat.
There’s a cluster of horses in front of me. I see a few faces I recognize. Clotted Cream, Wisp o’ Air, Denny’s Dozen and The Package are stood next to each other, jockeys on their backs. Lady in Red whinnies at me from the other side of the throng, and I shake my head back at her to say hello.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Will, my rider, appear beside me.
“Y’alright there John, how’s he looking?”
“Ah sure he’s grand Will, not a bother in him. Raring to go I’d say.” Will nods, pleased. John pats me affectionately on the neck, tells me to ‘give ‘em hell!’ and I reassure him by stomping my foot on the ground.
“What did I tell you? He’s ready for anything this one.” He laughs and walks off to watch the race from the stands. Will rubs my nose and looks me over one last time before putting his foot in the stirrup and pulling himself up onto my back. He’s small, much smaller than John, but I still notice the weight. He tugs on the reins and I trot obediently towards the other horses, all waiting anxiously for the race to start.
BANG. The gun explodes and the crowd roars. Will digs his heels into my sides and I burst into action, mud flying out from behind me. I hear the deafening sound of the other horses’ hooves as they pound the ground beside me, muscles flexing. My vision is focused straight ahead, but on either side I can just make out Folan’s Folly and Ban the Bomb looking determined, their legs pumping.
I see someone on the track, waving a flag—get out of the way!—but he quickly scrambles out of sight as the first horses stampede towards him. Almost immediately the first fence is in front of me. I feel Will’s legs grip tighter as he braces himself for the jump. I worry for a split second that I won’t make it, that I’ll be the only one who can’t jump the first fence. But I leap, pushing back into the ground with my hind legs. Will leans forward and I stretch my hooves out and over… and over…and I’m down again! A flawless jump!
No time to celebrate though; the next fence is right in front of me. I fly over it, and the next, and the one after that. My heart is pounding in my chest. Will is shouting encouragement in my ear. We’re squashed between Paddy Kierans and Folan’s Folly, both galloping fiercely, staring straight ahead, their riders standing on the stirrups and rocking forwards and backwards with the motion. It’s difficult to concentrate with them pressed so closely on either side, but I persist, and clear the next fence too, with only a slight stumble on the landing.
There’s a stretch of bright green grass before the next jump, the dreaded Bechers Brook. Will knows too, and he whips my rump with the riding crop to urge me on. I gather speed, focusing on working my legs, faster and faster. Paddy Kierans has spread out giving me more room on the left, but Folan’s Folly is still knocking into me, distracting me. I hear Will shout something, but neither the horse nor the jockey can hear him. We’re closing in on Bechers Brook. I see Lil’ Bandit in front, who just skims the top of the fence with his belly. At the last second, Will lifts himself higher in the stirrups and I feel a little bit lighter for that crucial moment. I jump into the air–it’s not enough! I’m not going to make it!
But I do, just.
My back legs kick through the brambles and the sensation of it and the panic means I misjudge the landing and stumble, causing Will to fall down heavily in the saddle. Folan’s Folly veers off course and she falls chaotically, throwing her rider to the ground. I’m shocked. I hear a voice booming across the track.
“..And Folan’s Folly is gone! Folan’s Folly is gone at Becher’s!” I recover quickly though and so does Will.
We race to the next fence, horses clustered all around me. Up and over and down.
“Cherry Garcia is down! Cherry Garcia is down! And he takes out Maroon Skies with him!” yells the voice. I don’t see the fallen horses. I’m ahead.
But Lil’ Bandit and Paddy Kierans are still out in front by a long way. Ban the Bomb, another ex-champion, is gaining on them fast. Behind me, I can hear the hooves of the other horses ploughing into the grass. Me and The Package are nose to nose, but Will whacks me with the crop and I steam ahead. I clear the next seven fences effortlessly, and hear Will shouting encouragement after each one. I hear the voice call out the names of the three leaders and am thrilled to hear mine called out next. Fourth place, I think. I can do this! The track turns and narrows, forcing us all closer, but my confidence is soaring and I breeze over the next fence.
The crowd is cheering; I’m halfway through. We’re coming to The Chair and the track is narrowing. Lil Bandit, Paddy Kierans and Ban the Bomb are closing in ahead of me, lining up for the jump. The Package and Lady in Red flank me and increase their speed. Their enthusiasm is pushing me out of line. I’m falling behind! Will anticipates the problem too, and we fall back ever so slightly. I brace myself; it’s so high! I push my back legs into the ground and kick as hard as I can off the ground.
“Ban the Bomb and Lil’ Bandit in the lead!” screams the voice. I don’t hear my name. I am lost amongst the other horses.
The Water Jump is fast approaching. Will whacks my rear end again with urgency; he knows we need to pick up speed. The hedge is in disarray from my competitors’ enthusiastic leaps but I clear it, although my legs feel the splash of icy water on the other side.
I am ready for what comes now. We turn the corner at full speed, Will rapping the reigns against my neck. We manage to make room for ourselves on the next stretch–I see Jacky Boy and Clay Feat slowing down and I overtake them. They’re not as fast as they used to be. This may be their last race, I think.
But there’s no time. Becher’s Brook is ahead again. But what’s this? A black curtain looms up from the other side, and a flag man is waving frantically at us to go around. I’m uncertain, but Will knows what to do and turns us down a bypass lane. As I speed past, a corner of the black curtain flap opens in the wind and I see a hoof attached to a thin brown leg. It’s not moving.
Will whacks my rear again, harder. I oblige and vault over fences twenty-three and twenty-four, narrowly avoiding collision with The Package on the sharp turn.
My legs are starting to ache, my heart is on fire. My muscles are screaming. Will shouts in my ear, but it’s lost in the din from the crowd and the other riders and the deafening sound of the other horse’s hooves. The Package stumbles on the approach to fence twenty-five and veers into Lady in Red, sending them both plummeting to the ground, but I miraculously miss the pile up and land safely.
“…and it’s Lil Bandit and Paddy Kierans in the lead, followed closely by Ban the Bomb…”
I hurtle over the next two fences. Ban the Bomb loses his footing and throws his rider off his back. Will loses all abandon and unleashes the crop on my rear. My vision is blurring, but I force myself forward, closer and closer to Lil Bandit and Paddy Kierans. You’re gaining on them! But Lil Bandit’s rider hits him with the crop and he surges forward, soaring over fence twenty-eight. I’m neck and neck with Paddy Kierans on the grassy straight and we jump in unison, but I land straighter, giving me a sudden advantage. Paddy is left behind.
The finish line is just two fences away…one fence…it’s just ahead! My eyes are watering, my legs are throbbing and my backside stings where Will has slapped it repeatedly. The crowd is thick and heavy, screaming, cheering. I fly past yellow bibbed officials; Lil’ Bandit is so close I can almost smell him. I pound the ground. My nose is level with his rear. His rider whips him furiously. We’re neck and neck. I think of John, my trainer. I think of Will. I lower my head and charge.