Colors of a Champion

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
May/June 2001

By Simon Reis, Illustrated by Lainey Guddat

It wasn’t the best night for the race. Earlier that afternoon, a torrential downpour had drenched the ground. The air was thick and humid and the sky a murky gray soup. Dense fog was beginning to envelop the landscape. The tote board flashed the condition of the track—SLOPPY.

Judy Garland was depressed. She had trained hard for weeks, enduring the whiplashes of her rider, Jose Montegna. Clearly, she was a champion, at least in her last few races. But that had been on other tracks, dry, fast tracks where her hooves could dig in like claws and propel her forward as swiftly as the rushing wind. She had never raced at this track and she had never raced on muddy ground.

The competition was fierce here and she knew it. There was Southwind Diamond, Arapamack, Frisky Fame and especially Stormont Zodiac, all of them stronger, faster and more sure of themselves. Judy didn’t have much of a chance. The odds on her were 45 to 1.

“Two minutes to post time,” the announcer warned.

The trotters were just finishing their show rounds, parading in front of the crowd in the stands hoping to attract more bets. You could bet any amount above the one dollar minimum. At 5-to-1 odds, the winner would collect ten dollars on a two-dollar bet, and half that amount if the horse placed or showed. Most people bet on either their favorite number, a name they liked, or the color of the horse’s outfit. It was mostly guesswork.

Colors of a Champion horse race

“And they’re off!” the announcer shouted

Judy was number 4 and she was all decked out in bright lemon. Southwind Diamond was number 1 in black gear, Arapamack sported number 5 in blazing pink, Stormont Zodiac was number 2 in red, and Frisky Fame number 3 in neon green. There were four others, numbered 6 to 9, all in hot, flashy colors. At 1 to 1, Stormont Zodiac was clearly the crowd’s favorite.

The riders guided their trotters to the back stretch and lined up behind and across the white truck that awaited them. Suddenly, the truck spread its gates like two straight wings on an iron bird. Slowly at first, it began to roll down the track, the horses and riders following close, all in a straight line.

“The field is in the hands of the starter” echoed from the loudspeakers in the stands.

The crowd had placed their final bets, and together as one group they surged to get as close to the rail as possible. People watched in tense silence as the horses came around the bend toward the starting line.

The riders leaned back in their two-wheel harnesses, one hand on the reins and the other whipping their horses’ backsides. Swish! Snap! The tail of the whip stung their hides. The animals, trying to get away from the next lash, sprung forward, their legs stretching, straining and pounding through the grimy mud.

Judy was scared. For a moment the giant, white lights in the stadium blinded her, and in that moment an image flashed across her mind’s eye.

She was in a stable, just born, stumbling to get up for the first time because her legs wouldn’t support her. After a few minutes, she felt some warm air on her face. She opened her eyes and looked up to see her mother breathing heavily, gazing into her eyes and almost whispering without even moving her lips, “Welcome to the world.”

Then suddenly, she felt a nudge on her rear. She turned around to see her father poking his nose under her belly as if to say, “Get up.” Judy struggled. She pushed her back legs out behind her, trying to get a foothold. When her feet were stable, she moved her front legs into position and pushed up. She pushed with all her might, her leg muscles straining so that every part of her was rigid. Her knees were still bent but she forced them upwards, shifting her body weight when she moved. Finally, with one last effort, she straightened her knees and stood up. She stood there panting and snorting, then looked up into her mother’s eyes once more. Again, without opening her mouth, the mother’s gaze penetrated her baby’s thoughts, “Your name is Judy and you are a champion.”

As the truck picked up speed, so did the field, but still close together and straight across.

Judy was fourth on the inside, next to Frisky Fame, then Stormont Zodiac and Southwind Diamond on the rail, and fanning out to the right of Judy, Arapamack, Charlie Whiskey, Great Expectations, Dreams Are Free and Anitra. There were nine in all, each one a champion, each one determined to wear the blue blanket of victory.

Around the turn, they came toward the starting line. The truck lurched forward, folded its gates and veered off to the side.

“And they’re off!” the announcer shouted.

Once around the mile-long track and one of them would cross the line first.

Instantly, the crowd began to cheer, each man for his horse, “Come on, Whiskey . . . Run, Stormont . . . Let’s go, Dreams . . . Move it, Frisky . . .” The babble of voices filled the grandstand, excited, angry, hopeful voices. Some people jumped up and down, others pumped their fists into the air, still others closed their eyes and prayed. A foreign language rose high above the crowd, “AndintheleadArapamackfollowedbyFriskyFameStormontZodiacAnitraCharlieWhiskeyJudyGarlandSouthwindDiamondDreamsAreFreeandbringinguptherearGreatExpectations.”

Colors of a Champion horses running

She was suddenly back racing her father in the golden fields of home

Thirty-six hooves splashed mud as each horse in the field of nine fought to gain an early lead. The riders in their chariots, their goggles all splattered with dirt and water, sliced their whips through the air. Frisky Fame lunged ahead in a burst of speed, followed close behind by Stormont Zodiac and Anitra.

Judy was doing her best to keep up with the rest of the field but her back legs, not used to the sloppy mud, slipped and she fell back to seventh place. Ahead of her through the pack she could see the favorite, her arch-rival Stormont Zodiac, in second place challenging Frisky Fame in the lead.

Around the bend they went and into the back stretch.

Judy heard the voice, “You are a champion . . . you are a champion . . . you are a champion.” Not this time, she thought, not today, not on this track, not in this mud.

Back at home, in the hills of yore, she ran wild through the fields and pastures. Whenever she got thirsty, she stopped and drank from the cool, flowing waters of the creek, and in the lazy afternoons of sunlit days, she rested serenely under the cool shade of linden trees.

But her father had other plans for her. One day, as she stepped out of the stable for her morning run, she saw her father standing sternly before her. “Follow me,” he snorted. She obeyed, not knowing what he wanted or where he was going. “I want you to chase me and keep up with me,” he said gently but firmly.

And that’s how Judy’s training began. At first, of course, she could barely keep up with her father. Weeks and months passed when she wanted to stop, to quit. She just wasn’t made to race. It was tough going but her father persisted, and Judy was devoted to him and didn’t want to disappoint him. And so, she ran and ran and ran, faster each day and finally, faster than her father.

Faster, she thought, faster, I must go faster. I can win this. I can. I just have to go faster. Judy looked around her. She was still in seventh place. Southwind Diamond was now ahead of her by a few meters and Dreams Are Free had moved up to fifth. She could see Frisky Fame in the lead. Behind him was Arapamack, followed by Stormont Zodiac and then Anitra. She expected Charlie Whiskey and Great Expectations to be behind her but she didn’t want to look back, she wouldn’t look back.

Then the strange words boomed out again from the loudspeaker, “IntheleadFri skyFamebehindhimArapamackStormontZodiacAnitraDreamsAreFreeSouthwindDiamondJudyGarlandGreatExpectationsandCharlieWhiskey.”

Judy wasn’t listening. She was now running as hard and as fast as she could. Behind her, she could hear the cart carrying her rider bouncing along the track. She had felt his whip several times in this race and now it was coming at her full force. Each stroke was a sharp pain on her backside. Clearly, Jose Montegna wanted to win this one.

Suddenly it was like she had shifted into a new gear. Her legs felt longer, she felt like she had new energy, and her will was restored. The distance between her and Southwind Diamond shortened. They were now neck and neck. Judy was determined. She would win. With a sudden rush, she pulled ahead of Southwind Diamond and put distance between them, two meters, three meters. But she wasn’t thinking about that, all she was thinking was, one down, five to go.

A voice from the loudspeaker spoke in what she recognized as English, “The field remains the same except for Judy Garland who has moved into sixth place ahead of Southwind Diamond.”

Her muscles strained and ached. She was suddenly back racing her father in the golden fields of home. “I’ll show him, I’ll do it, I’ll beat him this time.” With a sudden burst of speed, she hurled herself forward, and as she inched ahead of him, she could see the glint in his eyes. She heard his snort of pride, and from then on nothing could stop her. Her father slowed, came to a standstill and watched with a triumphant toss of his mane as his champion disappeared into the distance.

The weather at the track was worse now.

By the bend at the paddock a gray, obscure fog was hovering, so dense that there was no telling what was within it. It was something out of the twilight zone, a place of nothingness.

And as the crowd watched, the field disappeared into the darkened haze and nothing more was seen.

The grandstand suddenly went silent, dead silent. The only thing heard was the distant honking of cars some miles away and the cries of babies in parents’ arms. Binoculars were trained toward the bend but nobody knew for sure where the field was now.

After what seemed an eternity of time, they began to appear. Like ghostly shapes emerging from the mist, the herd of gladiators sprang into the clear. The leaders were all in a pack now, running like a tribe of one, their mud-splashed bodies next to one another so that they were nearly indistinguishable from each other. Four horses led the field: Stormont Zodiac, Frisky Fame, Anitra, and Judy Garland half a length behind.

But something was wrong, something that the crowd couldn’t really see clearly. Judy was limping! Her left hind leg was out of rhythm with the others. A white foam oozed out of her mouth and she had a wild look in her eyes. Something had happened in that dark fog.

People were on their feet now, all urging their horses on toward the finish line, a hundred meters ahead.

Judy could hear the announcer’s voice, “And in the stretch, it’s Stormont Zodiac by a nose, Frisky Fame in second, Anitra third, and Judy Garland half a length behind . . . . Folks, Judy Garland is hurt! She’s stumbling! . . . Something must have . . .”

Judy was hurt but nobody knew when or how. She was in pain and was fighting to keep up the pace.

It was now down to the wire. Bright lights suddenly flooded the finish line. The crowd lined the grandstand rail. The roar drowned out the announcer’s voice.

The four contenders in the lead now surged toward the line that would divide the winners from the losers. There was only room for three: Win, Place, Show. There was no glory for number four and Judy was now four, inching her way up to Anitra until they were almost head to head.

She knew that she didn’t have a chance to win or even place. Stormont Zodiac and Frisky Fame, numbers one and two, were now well ahead. The best she could do was to show.

But the pain was getting worse and her spirits were sinking. She felt herself drifting back.

The crack of the whip stung her side and snapped her out of her daze.

Fifty meters to go.

Judy was now alert and fully aware of what was going on. She was still neck and neck with Anitra. Every few seconds or so, she would slip back and Anitra would take an inch lead. Then, Judy would come up and Anitra would slip back. Back and forth like that. They were evenly matched. The announcer had trouble keeping up. “Now it’s Anitra, Judy’s coming up, Anitra’s behind. It’s Judy! Anitra! Judy! Anitra!”

Judy was having a hard time now as her leg was hurting more than ever, her muscles all strained, her energy all used up.

Twenty-five meters to go.

She could see the bright lights that marked the finish line.

The crowd was on its feet, the noise deafening.

Twenty, fifteen, ten, five.

From a silent place deep inside her, Judy found the last breath of strength she had. It was enough.

“Across the finish line, it’s Stormont Zodiac by half a length, Frisky Fame by a head, Judy Garland by a nose, Anitra, Southwind Diamond, Arapamack, Dreams Are Free, Charlie Whiskey and Great Expectations.”

It was over.

The crowd slowly began to thin out. Winners were rushing toward the betting counters to collect their profits. Losing tickets littered the ground like leaves on an autumn day.

But suddenly, the tote board began to flash “Photo Finish” and beneath that, “Inquiry.” It wasn’t yet official. The people stopped and stared at the board to check the results. Several minutes passed, the tension building.

Finally, the board scrolled down: Number One Stormont Zodiac, Number Two Judy Garland, Number Three was Frisky Fame, and Number Four was Anitra. The crowd was confused and you could hear all kinds of boos and cheers. The announcer called out, “Judy Garland has moved up to place second because, according to photos, Frisky Fame interfered with her in the fog.”

Nobody was sure what had happened. Somewhere in that dense fog, Frisky Fame got too close to Judy Garland and accidentally collided against her. Judy stumbled, her leg buckled under her and her weight fell on it. The pain was unlike anything she had ever felt. It stopped her in her tracks. From then on, she was a wounded runner.

Now it was over and Judy didn’t know what she was feeling. She was relieved but she was in a lot of pain. She didn’t win but did she deserve to place? Had she done her best? What would her father say? There was no prize for being second.

She saw Stormont Zodiac being led to the Winner’s Circle where he got his blue victory blanket and she looked at him with admiration and envy. Next time, she thought, there’s always next time.

But there was not going to be a “next time” for Judy. The doctors at the track did their best, they fixed her leg, but she was going to limp for the rest of her life. She would never race again. She would never again feel the heart-pounding excitement of competition, the danger of the battle, or the thrill of victory. It was over.

They sent her home where her father and mother greeted her like a conquering heroine. Her father told her how proud he was of her. Her mother gave her lots of hay and apples. Judy was glad to be home, but she was also overcome with disappointment, and she stayed in the barn for days and days. Nothing could console her. It was hard.

One morning, after a rain shower, her father was at the gate of the barn. He called her to come outside. She didn’t move until he approached her and nudged her several times. “Come on, come with me,” he said, “I want to show you something.”

Judy obeyed. She followed her father and he led her toward the open field. “Go,” he said, “there’s something out there I want you to see.”

She limped slowly into the pasture. The rain had stopped and everything was brightly colored. The grass was greener, the field more golden yellow, and a clear blue sky was peeking through the thin clouds. Judy stood there and stared at the God-made beauty of nature.

“Up there,” her father said, tossing his head upwards, “look!”

Judy slowly lifted her head toward the sky, and somewhere off in the distance, arcing across that sky, she saw a rainbow.

Colors of a Champion Simon Reis

Simon Reis, 12
Port Hope, Ontario, Canada

Colors of a Champion Lainey Guddat

Lainey Guddat, 11
Kent, Washington

Related Posts

Three Friends. One cookbook. A chance to change the world. “Just Add Magic” is an Amazon Prime...

My fingers crept along, slowly following the pattern–wrapping the yarn, twisting, poking, prodding....

First Place ($50):  “The Pendulum” by Sabrina Guo, 12 Second Place ($25): “The Sycamore Tree” by...

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: