“An impressive debut by a superb writer”–Publishers Weekly
“The Derby is run in less time than it takes to describe it—but the description itself is one of the most exciting whodunit chapters you’re ever likely to come across.” —San Diego Magazine
“. . .No racing novel since the advent of Dick Francis’s series of mysteries has captured my admiration like this book. . . . I have always felt that Dick has no peer. Now I am not so certain. . . . ” —The Maryland Horse
“. . . a page-turner. . . . Anderson’s words roll onto the page, vivid, stark, powerful, and perfect.”—The Associated Press
KING OF THE ROSES
By V. S. Anderson
Copyright 2015 V. S. Anderson
Monday, April 29
The story went around that Chris Englund did not attend his father’s funeral. The story wasn’t true. Not only did he attend, he arranged and paid for it. But it is true that he returned to Monmouth Park that same afternoon and rode three races. He won two of them. And it’s true that few of the other riders braved his silence to offer condolences.
Another story goes that once he rode the Widener Handicap with a broken foot, and won.
Wally Webb, the trainer then, remembers:
“We was running Bombadet. Chris had been galloping him every morning for a month, waiting for this race. Some two-year-old fell with Chris in the gate the race before. He walked away from the spill, came back out and got on my horse, won the race, and I never knew a damn thing was wrong. The next morning he was supposed to breeze a colt for me and he don’t show up. Here comes his agent.
“‘Where’s my man Chris?’
“‘Didn’t nobody tell you?’ he says. ‘He’s home with his foot in a cast. Broke a bone in his ankle. He wore the boot home and we had to cut it off him last night.”’
The stewards gave him days and called it recklessness. But if it mattered to Englund, you’d never have known it from looking at Bombadet’s win picture, at that big grin on that jock’s face.
Another story goes that one season on the backside at Hialeah everybody knew that if your horse had at least three legs under him and Chris Englund on his back they might as well mail you the money because you were going to win.
“The man could have been a legend,” says a New York jock agent. “As much as a race rider could be. Like McNair, or Whitaker. You hear they paid McNair half a million for his memoirs? Nobody wants Englund’s memoirs because half the people at the tracks don’t even know who he is anymore, and the ones who do will tell you he burned himself out years ago.
“What happened? He expected too much, that was his problem. He thought because he was good at what he did, and tried hard, life would be fair. When it wasn’t, he thought he could bull his way through like a jock in a pocket and nobody better try to take his number down.
“Hell, if you ask me, life was more than fair to him. You ever make five hundred grand in one year? Damned if I know what he wanted. Maybe he just wanted to be a foot taller. That make sense to you … ?”
He had been eighteen when he left home.
He remembered that all-night bus ride, remembered the door snapping shut behind him and propelling him into a space of ribbed half-lit compartments like the belly of a worm. He was on his way to a practical education, to a world where his scrawny, depleted, underfed body would no longer be a curse. He was going to the racetrack in Tampa to learn to ride horses.
He wasn’t thinking of horses. He was thinking of freedom. That long night he rode to the future the only thought he had for the home he was leaving behind was that he would never willingly go back.
My old man was a son of a bitch. I guess I should have appreciated the way he made me finish high school, kept me out of trouble. He never appreciated me too much either, though, not the house I bought him or the cars, or seeing my name in the papers. Well, I was the one who buried him. Maybe he appreciated that….
“Don’t you come back to me for no handouts,” his old man had said. “You better learn a trade, because if you come whining at my door I’ll kick your ass right down the steps.”
If he could have seen me that first day when Kelly Stafford handed me that horse to lead around! Boy, was I a hero! It might as well have been an elephant. I think Kelly thought I was retarded. Some jock he thought I was gonna make.
What was that mare’s name? Miss B. Cute, that was it. A year later I won four races on her. She could run some. She could really run….
Miss B. Cute seemed bent on treading on any part of him she could reach with her mile-long legs, and snapping off any appendages in range of her sloped yellow teeth. She yanked his arms out of joint grabbing between her feet for particles of dirty hay, and when he let her stop to drink as she cooled out she slashed the water bucket with the cutting edge of her hoof and spewed the contents the length of his trousers.
That afternoon Kelly Stafford took him to the races.
It had been raining. The surface of the track far below them as they sat in Stafford’s box was a treacherous mush sucking at the horses’ legs. The jockeys seemed inhuman and distorted in their awkward crouches behind the horses’ necks. He tried vainly to imagine his own body clenched like a faceless barnacle to the spines of those monsters.
When the first race passed the stands all he saw was a wheel of slung mud spinning by; then nothing at all as the rain thickened over the infield; then a brown cloud boiling around the turn. Right in front of him, yards from the wire, one of the horses slipped and fell. Others behind slid off their feet trying to stop and the whole chocolate mess caromed under the rail. Jockeys’ bodies flew through the air and settled into the muck, indistinguishable from the rest of the morass. Kelly Stafford raced out with a white face, leaving Chris alone to watch the ambulances churn slowly through the mud.
But after a year on the racetrack nobody had to tell him he was the best exercise boy on the half-mile “bull-ring” circuit.
He had five hundred dollars in a coffee can in the room he shared with Cass Crowder. He had a ducktail haircut and a girl friend who worked in the track kitchen, one he could screw anytime he wanted if he could get Cass out of the way long enough. He and Cass had bought a motorcycle that between them they had wrecked three times.
Cass was a blue-eyed, golden-haired, round-cheeked little con artist who rode Kelly’s horses in the afternoons. One day at Waterford Cass rode his horse point-blank into the tail of another runner whose jock wouldn’t move over fast enough, and the stewards grabbed him by the scruff of his downy neck and set him down for ten days. Kelly had said, “Was you so interested to see what the inside of a horse’s ass looks like you had to ride right up it?” The stable’s best horse had been entered for the following day.
“It’s okay,” Kelly said. “Chris’ll ride.”
Cass had said, “Chris?” And Chris had said, “Me?” To Kelly that night, timorously, he had pleaded, “I think I changed my mind. I don’t want to be no jock.”
But Kelly had only grinned. “You hear about that kid Richie McNair out at Hollywood? You hear he win six yesterday? You’re as good as him. You’re gonna ride.”
So there he was, miserably, for the first of what would be tens of thousands of times, writhing his meager body into racing silks. Outside the rain was turning to sleet. The other jockeys tacked in and out of his dark little bay on their own furtive affairs, nudging him kindly, patting his shoulder in parting, leaving him verbal tokens of luck and reassurance.
He was relieved. He had come in feeling like an interloper in a coven. He’d heard only hints of the devious plots that passed among the members of this secret cult: “batteries,” and “saving,” beaten favorites, and the hundred bucks the girl friends put on the other guys’ horses. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know more.
Kelly’s was not a betting stable. Kelly had no need to play his horses up and down the scales of the condition book from win to win, with just enough bad races in between to fill up the lines on the Racing Form, and deceive the bettors into putting their money elsewhere on the crucial day. Instead he had laboriously built up a barnful of decent horses and devout clients who would sit and wait for the right race, without tearing out their hair or his. The racing secretaries at the small-town tracks they frequented were his friends; they’d have written six races a day for Kelly if he had asked.
Chris had begun to think seriously that day about what it would feel like to win. To ride back to cheers and handshakes, to fortune. He had begun to wonder if he might not do it. Why not? Why not him?
Ray Fremont sat down beside him. Fremont was one of the tall boys, thin as a switch, with a narrow white face and pink lips. He was in his early thirties. He had ridden for a season at Belmont. His wispy dust-colored hair was still damp from the hours he had spent in the sweat box melting off last night’s steak and potatoes.
“You look a little nervous to me, kid,” Fremont said. “Get enough sleep last night?”
“Sure,” said Chris. “I feel fine.”
Fremont laughed. “I bet you’d like to win it, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Everybody’d like to win their first one. Too bad we can’t all do it. Get what I mean?”
He put his hand on Chris’s knee and left the simple phrase a silent moment to grow. Chris met his eyes and said, “Yeah,” while inside him the ghost of excitement that had been thinking itself some flesh and bone died back to a flicker.
“I’m sorry, kid, but today just ain’t gonna be your day. Hey, maybe you’ll hit it next time. Look, here’s what you do. Hang back like you’re scared of the mud, then make a big run off the turn. It’ll look good to Stafford that way. Nobody blames a guy for being scared the first time out.” He stood up, turned, and bent over Chris, moving the gentle hand to his shoulder. “Give me the word and we’ll put you down for five or ten in the right place, okay?”
“Good boy.” And with a pat, he wandered away.
“Hey,” said Kelly. “Don’t tell me you’re nervous. You know this son of a bitch is ready. You’re going to be just fine.”
Around and around them the brown horse trudged, head and tail dragging; his hair, where his shaggy winter coat had been hastily clipped short, stood up in uneven hedges on his shivering flesh. But Chris had galloped every horse in the paddock, and he knew the brown horse would eat them up. Its name was Two Twinkle, and on the board it was two-to-one.
The owner’s married daughter huddled with them, a long-haired brunette in a luxuriant fur jacket and matching beret. She smiled at him and caught snowflakes in her open mouth as she laughed at something Kelly whispered in her ear.
“Come here, Chris,” Kelly said as the horse, with old Peanuts at his head, stumbled up beside them. “The main thing I want you to do is stay out of trouble. He don’t have to beat a single horse out of the gate. But ‘long about the middle of the backside you’ll feel the others coming back to you. Stay outside; he can handle it. At the eighth pole just cluck to him and give him a clear run in. That’s my boy.”
He gave Chris a shove that propelled him under the iron, and as quickly as Chris could bend his knee, came up beneath him and hoisted.
“Good luck,” said the pretty girl.
“Thataboy,” said Kelly. “You’re gonna be just fine.”
The old horse ignored the lead pony and plodded the familiar lane to the track. From the moment they broke shelter and faced the wind of the open stretch until he found himself pulling up from a slow gallop behind the starting gate, Chris was conscious of only one thought, that he might be lucky enough to fall off and be spared this misery forever.
In the gate he was next to Fremont, but Fremont had forgotten him. All the jocks looked straight ahead, down the long muddy channel. Miraculously the wet dirt glowed yellow for a moment and shadows appeared, but the pale snow never ceased coming down, and grayness fell again, like the shutting out of a thought. The gate opened.
At the clang of the bell his horse jumped mechanically forward like a trolley car on rails. The mud came back at Chris in fistfuls. With every breath he took he swallowed a stream of slop. Before he had gone ten yards his goggles were clogged and useless, but when he reached to his cap for the second pair the others had told him to be sure and wear, he realized with a rush of panic that he had forgotten them.
And under him the horse was running away.
He hauled blindly on the reins but nothing happened. The old creature had been transformed into a hell-bent demon; it nearly yanked his arms from their sockets and plunged on. He pulled back again and put his shoulders into it. He felt an impatient check. Again. The horse came back to him a hair’s breadth. Trembling and choking, he eased off on the reins and fumbled to scrape the mud from the goggles. Under him the horse veered left, leaning like a motorbike. The turn. So many people had told him things to do on the turn. He couldn’t remember any of them.
He managed to clear a dirty inch of space. With relief he looked around him. It was curiously bright ahead. He looked to his left. He saw no horses, though he could hear them. They breathed at his ear like elephants trumpeting. Behind him! He looked to his right. The stands. He looked ahead in time to see the wire go by. He needed to fall off fast. And get killed. Because they would surely kill him in the jocks’ room if he did not.
But he stayed on and when he rode back and saw the white light in Kelly’s eyes it hit him. He had won. They took his picture in the grim day, perched up on the tumbledown old horse. Someone he had never seen before shook his hand, and the pretty girl kissed him, mud and all.
There were a few moments when he thought he was going to get away with it, a few moments of backslapping and rib-poking that sparkled like the tail of a firecracker going up to burst. But he could not help looking for Fremont, nor could he help looking away when he saw him, watching him over a half-empty bottle of pop.
In the shower, naked and wet, he was suddenly alone. By the time he realized the others had all gone off, Fremont and two more were there. When he tried to run he slipped on the slick floor. The two lifted him and held him while Fremont split his lip open. The back of his head hit the wall and he sagged, but they raised him again and Fremont cut his cheek with a splintering fist. He went down in a cold puddle that was already flowering with his blood, but they got him up once more. Fremont bent close to him and said, “You play or you pay. Think it over.” He lowered his chin when he saw the fist coming again, but still the punch snapped his head back. This time they let him fall.
“So what’ll you do next time?” Kelly asked from the edge of the sofa in the dark room. Against the wall Chris lay among bundles of ice and wet towels.
“Won’t be a next time. I ain’t riding no more races.”
“You’re a real brave kid.”
“I like galloping horses just fine. I’ll stick to that.”
“Well,” said Kelly. “If you don’t want to ride in the Kentucky Derby someday.”
“Come on, Kelly,” Chris protested. “There’s no way you can tell I’m going to be that good.”
Kelly had shrugged. “I guess you know more than I do.”
“But they — they told me not to win.”
“It does happen. Once in a while.”
“So what should I do? I can’t — I don’t want to throw races whenever somebody tells me to. What’s the point?”
“Depends on how scared you are.”
Chris had fallen for it, just as Kelly had known he would. “I’m not scared!”
“Then that settles it,” Kelly said, getting up. “Oh, yeah. I forgot: congratulations!”
I owe you one, Kelly. I owe you a kick in the tail for saying “Kentucky Derby” to me when you did. Because when you come right down to it, that’s what did it. Me. The Kentucky Derby. Who would ever have dreamed. . . ?
Kelly put him on four horses in three days, and among them were two winners and a fourth. “New Sensation at Waterford,” the papers said. Fremont mumbled, “Whatcha know, pal?” every time Chris walked into the jocks’ room and the others handed him a Ping-Pong paddle or a pool cue and made room.
He took the motorcycle while Cass slept late and rode down to the Ford lot to look at the cars. There was a dark blue convertible in the third row. He shuffled on the sidewalk while the salesman showed a well-dressed couple through its mysterious recesses. When they disappeared into the office Chris ran forward to rub his hands along the fenders and poke his head through the windows.
The salesman stepped out to see what he wanted.
“Just looking,” he said.
“Mind the upholstery,” the salesman said, turning distractedly back to his customers.
“I’ll be back,” Chris said in his mind. He said it again, with conviction, as he lurched away on the motorcycle. “I’ll be back.”
On the fourth day Fremont sat down beside him as he dressed. “I’ll let you in on some big numbers if you’ll lose this afternoon.”
Chris considered him silently, remembering the taste of his own blood. “All right,” he said.
But on the track Chris made his move on the rail at the quarter pole, just as Kelly had told him to. He moved out to hook the horse ahead, his own mount boiling under him with run. Suddenly Fremont was beside him. The jock ahead flashed a look over his shoulder. Where there had been ample room there was now a shrinking fissure, as Fremont and the jock hemmed him in a pocket. In an instant, in a horse’s single stride, a furious rage overtook him: now, on the very eve of his deliverance, no wan, gnawed waste of a human being like Fremont was going to stop him. He drove his horse through the hole. Fremont screamed at him but he outran the words. His horse finished first a scant nose, each inch squeezed out of his own soul as he lay with his face in the mane.
This time in the jocks’ room he knew what to expect. He couldn’t hear them coming for the thudding of his heart, but when they appeared, dangerously soft-footed, he lifted the soft-drink bottle he had behind his back and smashed it against the wall. “Keep away from me,” he said. “Keep away.”
They eyed each other.
“You’re crazy, you know that?” said one.
“Nobody’s gonna tell me when I can win and when I can’t.”
“Come on,” said Fremont. “He ain’t worth it.”
They turned and marched off, leaving him shaking with unexpended terror. The exultation came afterward, slowly, like a sunrise.
It was late afternoon. In the distance he could hear races being run, but in Barn 17 the shed row was still. The horses hid in the backs of their stalls, resting on one hip, ears drooping. Sparrows pecked in the raked dirt, leaving pronged footprints. Knidos was asleep in his stall. If he saw Chris he gave no sign.
Down the shed row Neil Myrick lounged in a folding chair, holding Spanish Dancer for the blacksmith to shoe. Spanish Dancer was four-to-one for the Derby. Muscles ran down the inverted pear of his haunches like long coils of glazed clay.
“Goddamn, there’s Chris!” called Myrick. “Now I know it’s Derby time! The champ is back in town!”
“How’s it going?” Chris said.
“I believe it may be all right. How’s Miami?”
“Them guys who stay down there year round do beat me,” said Myrick. “Maybe they can air-condition the stands, but they can’t air-condition the barns or the paddock or the racetrack, and that’s where you do your sweating.”
The colt tried to hike his leg out of the blacksmith’s hand. “Stand up here!” the blacksmith growled. Nails projected from his lips like wayward fangs. “You gonna be the Big Horse, you act like one.”
“So you’re gonna win another Derby, huh, Chris?” asked Myrick.
“Let me talk to my trainer first. Then I’ll let you know.”
“Old man Vello’s not here. He made a run to the hotel. First time he’s stopped to scratch himself all day.” He clucked and shook his head. “Man, the way he’s prowling around here, I’m glad I’m not training no Derby favorite. I’m glad my horse is just second choice.” He rattled the shank to keep Spanish Dancer from biting the toe of his boot. “I think that new assistant of his — what’s his name, Cole? — he’s around somewhere.”
“No, I’ll get hold of Vello. If he comes back, tell him I stopped by.”
“Will do, champ,” said Myrick.
Saul Regan accosted Chris as he got back into his car. “Hey, Chris, any news for all your friends in New York at the Courier?”
“Horse looking all right?”
Chris ignored him. He was reaching for the door to pull it shut when Regan stopped it with a hand.
“Come on,” he said. “What have I ever done to you?”
“Let go of the door,” Chris said.
Regan backed away but stooped to talk through the window. “What will one interview cost you, Chris?” he asked. “I’ll tape it, you can read it, anything you don’t like can come out.”
Chris said nothing. He started the car.
“Look,” said Regan. “Every reporter in town is out for your ass. Maybe you think winning five Derbies makes you God around here, but buddy, you’re going to need a friend before this week is over. Here’s your chance to make one.”
“Don’t do me any favors.” Chris slapped the car into gear and backed out. Regan stepped wide, arms folded, watching. Chris reached forward to shift.
“You’ve heard what they’re saying, haven’t you?” Regan called. “They’re saying you’re getting old. Old, washed up, and broke. You got nothing to say to that?”
“Sure,” said Chris. “I’ll say it. Saturday afternoon on the track. Be watching.”
He stepped on the gas and the car shot forward.
“Little shit,” said Regan to his dust.