The Black Stallion's Legacy
Author's Note: This is associated with an original story, sci-fi, and is set at a point in the near future, when thoroughbred horse racing has become even more an industry, with genetic engineering making breeding even more selective (though direct cloning has been banned under what was termed the Man o' War Act.) Sarah bred a horse, a filly named Star Voyager (see the movie "The Right Stuff" for where the name comes from) after badgering the money out of her ex-fiancé, show jumper and horse-dealer Matt Olivet. The filly did indeed turn out to be the champion Sarah hoped for. This story picks up the year Star is four. (All "cheap" prices for horses are adjusted for a projected inflationary rate. If they sound high, they won't twenty years from now.)
Notes on this chapter: all mentioned horses are fictional, except Mr. Prospector. Alec Ramsay, the Black, Satan, Black Minx and Hopeful Farm belong to the estate of Walter Farley and are used without permission. The Keeneland September Yearling Sale belongs to itself.
The Keeneland September Yearling Sale had been underway for two days, fourteen hours, forty minutes and thirty-eight seconds. Matthias Olivet knew this because he was now counting. The plush seat that had been so comfortable on the first day was now one step up from sitting on cold concrete, and there had to be some polite way to scratch the itch, gradually becoming unbearable, just at the small of his back, without the movement being misinterpreted as a bid.
A slight movement to his left drew his attention, but it was only Sarah leaning a little farther forward in her seat. If his wife (after almost a year of marriage and eighteen years of courtship, he savored the sound of that word) was feeling the strain of the long sale, she wasn't showing it. It had been Sarah who'd wanted to arrive in Kentucky two days early, Sarah who'd had them up at the crack of dawn to walk the sale barns with other prospective buyers and trainers, and Sarah who'd had them in their seats in the sale room for every moment possible, even though the lot they were principally here for would not come up until the end of the sale. She thrived on the excitement of the auction-of the whole industry. Matt didn't, but it was almost worth the hours of tedium to see Sarah this animated again.
You'd think, he mused as a leggy bay filly was lead around the sales ring, that a Triple Crown winner would be enough. A Triple Crown-winning filly, no less, bred with no more science involved than Sarah's uncanny instinct and Matt's admittedly deep pockets. Star Voyager had been everything Sarah had wanted when she'd first pitched the plan to Matt-strong, fast, and with the courage of the classic horses like Man o' War. And for a while, it had seemed to be enough. Enough even that when he'd asked her again, almost five years after their first engagement ended, to marry him, he'd gotten a yes. With conditions-there were always conditions. So instead of riding at the two-hundred-horse show barn his father managed in the wealthy Virginia horse country, he was training as best he could at Lost Acres Farms in much-less-wealthy central Michigan. Sometimes he helped with Sarah's more advanced students. They weren't rich (even with Star's purses), but few who made their living with horses were, and they were happy. It should have been enough for anyone. He should have known Sarah better.
Her unrest had started after the Breeder's Cup, and Star's by-a-hair Classic victory over the four-year-old champion, her own half-brother Prospect Creek. Star was on her four-year-old campaign now, taking on her old rivals and older horses in the stakes and handicaps. School and fall weather were starting to keep Sarah's riding students away and her horses in the barn, and Matt's show season had ended without World Cup plans-unsurprising, given how much more time he'd spent at the track than on his jumpers. Sarah had begun searching the sale schedules, pointing out that their finances certainly allowed for the purchase of a new horse.
"It's not that I'm bored with Star," Sarah had said, after dropping the Keeneland catalog on his breakfast plate one morning. "Far from it. I'm making room for this year's Eclipse Award in the trophy room. But I've been browsing."
Matt, who'd just come in from morning feeding, had blinked. "I was thinking about finding you a horse, actually." He'd sat down and picked up the toast and the jar of Marmite, ignoring the catalog. "I have a line from my father on a nice Hanoverian colt. Four years old, and he's going to be big, the way you like them. You could even get back into the circuit."
"Matthias," and when the used that wheedling tone with his full name he always paid attention, "I have horses I ride. That's not what I'm talking about." She shoved the sale catalog at him again. "I've highlighted the best prospects. All yearlings, and all colts. If we get a good one, when he's done racing it might be interesting to do a home-bred cross."
"I thought that Star was a one-time deal." He took the cup of tea she offered him, with milk and sugar and no snide remarks about the English way of taking it, which meant she was in full persuasive mode. "You proving you could out-think the business breeders."
"I know, I know, and it really was, but what's one more?" She sat down across from him. "It isn't as if we don't have a trainer. It certainly isn't as if we don't have the money."
"We are putting up new fences, and getting new footing for the indoor ring," he pointed out. "Not that it's a huge chunk of Star's winnings." The Triple Crown carried with it a considerable bonus above the purse money. "But investing in another racehorse? You know that means training, equipment, travel, insurance, riders, you don't even know if Don is taking other horses-"
"After we gave him Star? He'll take a colt if we send him one." Sarah smiled at him, and he knew in spite of the calculated approach she was sincere. She always was, that was the problem, throwing herself heart and soul into whatever project she was involved in. Including, he had to admit, winning him over. "Come on, Matt, you love the track. You'll miss it when we retire Star." Her brow furrowed. "We'll probably have to next year anyway. Stakes entry fees are expensive, the handicappers are packing weight on her-Jaime says if she keeps winning they'll make him carry an anvil next year. Besides, think of the excitement, prepping a two-year-old, aiming for the Derby again . . . ."
He sighed. "You have me there, though I think it's more nostalgia. How many have men proposed while their horse was running in the Belmont?" For the first time he really looked at the sales catalog.
"And winning the Triple Crown in the process? My guess is none." She fiddled with her wedding band-he'd tried to persuade her to wear her emerald-cut diamond but she had pointed out that wasn't a good idea for someone who worked in a barn most of the day. "Look, we don'thave to buy a colt. If we go to the sale, we can set a top price, and if the ones I like go over then forget it. We can talk to your father about that Hanoverian." But he knew she didn't mean that. If they went to Keeneland, they'd be coming back with a horse.
Her voice in his ear startled him back to the present. "Two more hip numbers, and we get to the one I want," Sarah said, in the decorous whisper that was de rigeur at Keeneland.
Matt ran his eyes down the list. The first four yearlings she'd marked had quickly raced past the one-and-a-half-million dollar price tag they'd set for themselves. He'd tried to nudge her in the direction of some of the fillies or the lower-end colts, but apparently Sarah had something specific in mind.
He found the highlighted hip number and his eyebrows shot up. "Hopeful Farm?"
She nodded, barely, not wanting to draw unwanted attention from the auctioneer. "By Victory Charm out of Black Raven by Faded Ebony. The damsire is by Satan, and he by the Black! Can you imagine owning some of that blood?"
Matt didn't reply. The colt's sire was equally impressive, with Mr. Prospector five generations back on one side and six on the other. The colt was listed as dark brown or bay, no surprise there, and he'd be willing to bet any horse with that breeding would be big-not tall and long-shouldered like Star, but compact, with powerful haunches and a heavy neck. The weight could be a blessing or a curse, but with the blood of Satan, who had been great at all distances, it might just be to the colt's advantage.
And then he looked at the opening bid.
He blinked, stared, and checked to see if there was a smudge obscuring a fourth zero. There wasn't. "Sarah," he whispered out of the corner of his mouth, "did you see the starting price?"
She grinned. "Starting that low, we should be fine."
Alarm bells were going off in the back of his mind. "Starting at $25,000? For a colt with those bloodlines?" He shook his head. "Did you look at him in the barns?"
The way her eyes lit up should have been a warning. "He's beautiful, Matt. Wait 'til you see him! Big and black, with two white socks in front and a white nose. He's already huge for a yearling-he looks just like Satan does in the old pictures."
"What about his legs?"
"He does have all four of them," she retorted. "I looked, Matt. A little turnout in front, that's all, and he moves well. Yes, I had them trot him on the dirt and the grass. If he's really a huge flop on the track, he'll be just fine for a jumper."
Matt shook his head , earning him a slightly confused and annoyed look from an auctioneer's assistant. It wasn't just the possibility of him being a racing flop. There were other reasons to set such a low asking price for such a well-bred horse, not all of them visible on inspection. Hopeful Farm had a good reputation and he couldn't quite believe that they'd be trying to pass off a sick colt or weak legs. But there had always been rumors about that blood-that Satan had been a demon to train, Black Minx too temperamental for her own good, and the Black himself so wild only a select few could control him. Would that pedigree alone be considered a 'buyer beware?'
The hammer fell and the muscled, Phalaris-type chestnut that had just sold was lead from the ring. A sharp jab in the ribs told him "their" colt was next. Matt turned expectantly toward the entrance of the ring, as did several others in the audience-there was obviously interest in this colt. There was a brief commotion, as the chestnut seemed to balk at the gate, and then Hip Number 401 stepped into the ring.
Matt caught his breath.
The colt was big, as Sarah had said-in fact, with the muscle, he looked more like a two-year-old than a yearling. At first he thought the head was coarse, but then he realized it was an optical illusion, created by the white mark that broadened his muzzle and made him look as if he'd dipped his nose in a can of paint. He had a refined head, in fact, perhaps even a bit small for the heavy neck, but he carried himself so well it was a minor flaw, easy to overlook. The white legs in front had another disconcerting effect, making him look almost as if his legs were cut off below the knees. The hindquarters were just a bit higher than the withers, and his tail, thick and full, hung past his hocks, and it was flicking restlessly. The colt had stopped just inside the gate, his head up, the lead pulled taut, and he seemed to be surveying the crowd of bidders as if deciding who was worthy of taking him home.
Matt felt a chill down his spine, but it was not a good feeling. "Sarah, are you sure-"
"Sh!" Another nudge in the ribs. The auctioneer had begun his opening pitch and Sarah was leaning forward, her body taut and her eyes fixed on the black horse, now being lead in small circles, his steps short and springing. The lead shank remained taut, the colt's head in the air, his small, finely-made ears pricked forward.
Sarah let someone else open the bidding at the rock-bottom price. When the auctioneer asked for thirty-five thousand, she raised a finger and an assistant called the bid. Matt heard the slight murmur in the room as people realized Star Voyager's owners were finally bidding after three days of inaction. There were at least two other bidders, Matt decided, as the price climbed inexorably past one hundred thousand. A look around couldn't confirm who the other bidders were, but he did notice a slight man standing in the back, thin and wiry with the tough look of an ex-jockey. He had a cap pulled well down over faded red hair, but beneath the brim his eyes were intent on the colt being sold. After a minute's looking, Matt recognized him-Hopeful Farm's owner and head trainer, Alec Ramsay. The jockey who'd ridden this colt's predecessors to fame and fortune was watching him go now for a ridiculously low price, his expression unreadable.
The bidding reached $250,000 and slowed. Someone had dropped out. Matt could see Sarah's finger moving with frightening regularity as the climb slowed to five-thousand dollar increments. The colt was still circling restlessly, his thick black tail lashing back and forth, back and forth across his hocks. The finely-made ears were flicking, turning to catch the auctioneer's patter, the calls from the spotters, the rustles and whispers in the audience.
The price reached $285,000, Sarah's bid, and stalled. The spotters kept scanning the room, the auctioneer rested a moment with his hammer pointing towards the other bidder-Matt could see now it was one of the Arab sheiks and his trainer. They were holding a brief conference, and finally the trainer shook his head firmly "no." They were out. Matt felt another of those cold twinges. They could easily have gone a lot higher. Maybe they simply weren't that interested in this colt, but why not? The auctioneer scanned the crowd a final time and then he let the hammer fall. Sarah grinned gleefully, and he was half-afraid she'd start giggling as she held up their number for the auctioneer to read. The handler turned the black colt and started for the gate.
It happened so quickly Matt was never sure exactly what he'd seen. The next lot was waiting outside the gate, a bay colt perhaps a hand smaller than their black, and he started forward as the handler lead the black out. Suddenly the lead snapped taut and the black colt was on his haunches, striking out with his forelegs. For a moment Matt thought he was going after the other colt, who had shied and spun away, but then he saw the black's handler stagger and the lead shank fly free. Sarah was halfway out of her seat before he grabbed her arm. There were two other handlers closing on their colt, and he whirled on his haunches, leaping sideways and striking out with his heels, forcing the man he'd knocked aside to duck back to the ground.
Trying to evade the pursuers now, he charged, keeping the other, still-frightened bay between him and the huamns. But the original handler was back on his feet and had grabbed the lead. The chain tightened across the colt's nose and he plunged to a halt, shaking his head in fury at being restrained. Before he could rethink his flight, a second handler closed in and snapped on another lead. For a moment the black was still, muscles taut beneath the glistening coat, his ears flicking rapidly back and forth. Suddenly a tremor passed through the tense frame and his head dropped. He followed the two handlers obediently out of sight.
Matt released the breath he'd been holding and turned to Sarah. "I know the yearlings can be nervous . . . ."
And to his surprise, she was grinning more broadly than ever. "Just like Star-you remember how she would kick up her heels when I'd pony her. She still does. And did you see the control when he turned on his haunches? If he doesn't make a racer, we might even have a dressage prospect."
The cold twinge settled in his gut and turned into an icy lump. What Matt had just seen had not looked like a youthful display of energy and high spirits. The colt had struck deliberately, with the intention of freeing himself, and in less-confined quarters his evasive tactics might well have succeeded. Sarah was right in saying that their Star liked to play-but the black colt had not been playing. It had been a calculated, malicious attack. He'd not only knocked down the man leading him, the colt had struck out to keep him on the ground while making his bid for freedom. More frightening, perhaps, the colt had shown not only a vicious urge to fight his handlers, but the intelligence to chose his escape route and to know when it was better to cooperate. If that intelligence could be put towards his racing training, he could be a champion. If instead, the colt used it to fight human attempts to curb him . . . .
A movement out of the corner of his eye drew his attention to the back of the room. Alec Ramsay had left his post against the wall and was walking towards the exit where the colt had gone. Matt found himself hoping the trainer would look their way, that he'd see some hint in the older man's face that would tell him this was a fluke, a surprise . . . but Ramsay kept his head down as he walked past, the brim of the cap obscuring his eyes.