I paced nervously back and forth in front of Royal Blue’s stall and wondered why Dad was taking so long talking to Mr. Fields. Mr. Fields wasn’t going to buy Royal Blue even if he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the successful racehorse, I knew, since Dad had told me just that morning that he wouldn’t sell. Dad turned down many offers already. Why wasn’t he giving Mr. Fields just a flat-out no?
I stopped walking and patted Blue’s satin nose, which was sticking out of the stall. The chestnut stallion was scheduled to race in the Kentucky Derby tomorrow, and since he had shown so well in races before, people from all over the country were coming to put in an offer before the race.
“We’re not selling you,” I said softly to Blue, looking up into his caramel-colored eyes. “You’re going to run in our barn’s colors tomorrow, boy. You can count on that.”
Finally, Mr. Fields appeared from the office and walked down the aisle. He looked a bit disgruntled, which I gathered to mean that Blue was still ours.
“Fine thoroughbred,” he commented, giving Royal Blue a small sugar cube from his coat pocket. “Good luck tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” I replied a little frostily, wondering why Mr. Fields was bothering to talk to me. When he had made offers on some of our other thoroughbreds, he had always ignored me.
“You’re going to need it. You know King of the Wind, my prized race horse, will be competing tomorrow, and it is well known that he has won just as many races as Royal Blue!”
My heart jumped to my throat. King of the Wind was one of the winningest horses in the Derby, and although I knew Royal Blue was just as fast, he was recovering from a strained tendon. It took months of rehabilitation and training until Blue was fit enough to run again.
“Well, good luck to you, sir,” I said, glad that I had a decent poker face. “We’ll see who the better horse is tomorrow, won’t we?”
Mr. Fields chuckled. “Yes, I think we will.” He smiled and left the barn, still laughing under his breath.
I grimaced from his mocking me and wished I thought of a good retort, but I was consoled by the fact that Royal Blue might win, letting us have the last laugh.
Dad strolled over to me at Blue’s stall and smiled. “Well, Sam, we still have Royal Blue.”
“That’s great, Dad,” I said, forcing a smile, not wanting him to know I was worried that King of the Wind might breeze ahead of us at the first of the Triple Crown races.
“Don’t worry, hon. Think of how Royal Blue has won so many other times.” Dad patted me on the back, seeing through my front. I nodded absently, thinking of just the opposite, of how many Blue hadn’t won without anything to explain for a poor performance.
“Good night, Blue. See you at the track, buddy.” Dad stroked Blue’s nose once before turning to leave the barn.
“Sleep tight, Blue! You’ve got a long day ahead of you, boy,” I said, smiling and following Dad.
* * *
The day of the race dawned bright and early for everyone at the track. We arrived at the barn before any spectators were around, yet before we were halfway through with grooming and saddling Blue, people started milling around, wanting autographs from trainers and jockeys and snapshots of the horses. I was Blue’s groom and the daughter of the owner; so as I walked him to stretch his legs, I had to put up with reporters asking question after question after question.
“Miss Sam Kinsley,” one reporter called out, running up to us as we walked. “How do you think your chances of winning are today, compared to your biggest rival, King of the Wind?” I thought carefully, knowing anything I said could be twisted into anything the reporter wanted.
“Well, racing is a gamble, and anything could happen on the track today. King of the Wind will be a threat, but I’m sure we’ll be up to the challenge,” I replied. The reporter wrote this down, but before he could press me more, another reporter came on the other side of Blue with another question.
“Mr. Fields, King of the Wind’s owner, is boasting that his horse can win the Derby, as well as the Triple Crown. Do you think this is so, Miss Kinsley?”
“Every horse out there has a chance today,” I said simply, knowing that was the most diplomatic response I could give. Luckily, I returned to the barn by this time and was able to get the door open and me inside. However, it isn’t so easy to fit a thousand-pound animal inside a small crack; so in widening it, a few other people followed me in. Thankfully, it was only Mr. Williams and Mr. Ridge, two friends of my father’s, and Jim Crawly, a reporter who respected our privacy and never published anything about us without asking our permission.
“Well, hello, Jim,” Mom said. She was dressed in a pretty print dress and a blue floral hat.
“How d’you do, ma’am,” Jim politely replied.
“Very well, thank you. I’m sorry I can’t stop to chat. I’ll save you a seat though.”
“In the winner’s circle?” Jim quipped back confidently. Mom left, and since everyone else seemed pretty busy, I decided I’d go warm up Blue. I led him to the exercise track and swung up on his saddle.
“Hello, Miss Kinsley.”
I stiffened at the voice behind me. Carl Davis, the head exercise rider for the horses at Mr. Fields’s stable, rode up behind me on King of the Wind. Carl was definitely not my favorite person and, since he always condescended to me because I was just a groom, I avoided him as much as possible.
“Your job is on the ground, not in the saddle,” he sneered.
Blue, full of energy, reared up to his competitor, challenging him with a loud call. King of the Wind faced him and neighed back, both horses ignoring the riders on their backs. Carl shouted something incoherent and brought his crop down hard on his horse’s flank, making him whinny again, this time from fright. Blue, shying from the whip, crab-stepped sideways. I steadied myself with Blue’s mane and calmed him instantly with my voice, but King of the Wind bolted down the track, and Carl tumbled off into the dirt. Having dashed speedily around the ring, King of the Wind cantered past me. I quickly leaned over and grabbed his reins, stopping him in his tracks.
“Everything’s OK, Windy, calm down,” I murmured, glancing around at the other riders who had stopped their horses to watch as Mr. Fields had made his way to the fallen Carl and started to berate him.
I rode up to Mr. Fields, and he looked up angrily and confusedly.
“Pardon me,” I said, handing King of the Wind’s reins off to the red-faced Carl with a wry smile. I quickly rode off before Mr. Fields could recover and start yelling at me.
I threw my leg over and dismounted, hurrying Blue along so no reporters could stop me on the way.
“All ready?” Joel asked when I returned to the barn.
Joel Shaw was our jockey and was dressed up in our farm’s silks, blue and white stripes. Dad gave Joel a leg up, and I went to Blue’s head. It took a lot of persuading to make Dad let me lead Blue to the track, but since I was the groom, he relented. After handing off Blue to the lead pony, I dashed up to the grandstand and looked around for my parents and friends.
“Sam!” Jim Crawly called, waving me over. I slipped into the empty seat between Dad and the keyed-up reporter, who loved writing about Royal Blue more than any other race horse on the field.
* * *
“There he is!” I exclaimed as the horses walked past. Blue held his head high, completely confident that he would sweep the field easily as ever. I wished I could feel as confident as Blue looked, but there was still a twinge of doubt when I saw King of the Wind prance past. Yet when I saw his jockey, I started! What on earth was Carl Davis doing on his back? Jim Crawly answered the question written on my face.
“After the last big race Blue won, Mr. Fields fired his jockey and hired Carl, who just got his jockeying license.”
Seeing Carl’s arrogant and cocky expression made me want Blue to win even more.
“One back!” the announcer called out, meaning there was only one horse left to load: Blue. Being on the outside gave him a disadvantage, but he was known for coming around the outside to first or second place.
The seconds of silence before the bell were always suspenseful, but this time, the entire stand seemed to be waiting on edge for the clang that would break the tension and send the horses flying.
I jumped from the noise as the gates burst open, and the horses charged down the field.
“Night Magic is in first place, holding an easy lead. Ace of Hearts is coming up behind with King of the Wind at his tail. Royal Blue is taking his place at the back,” the announcer said with monotone precision. I sat on the edge of my seat, willing with all my might that Blue could hurry and move up! Dad’s knuckles were turning white from the strength with which he gripped his seat, and Jim’s eyes were open wide, ignoring the pad and pencil on his lap.
“They’re halfway around!” the announcer continued, his voice rising in excitement. “Night Magic is losing his lead! Now, King of the Wind is in first! Royal Blue is creeping up to third, but he’s pushing for the lead. It seems to be a race between these three, while Ace of Hearts and the rest of the pack are falling behind!”
Royal Blue stretched out his legs and pounded the field with his long strides, pushing his nose ahead of Night Magic’s. There was only King of the Wind left, his hindquarters pumping the dirt in Blue’s face. Then—Blue drew even. I wanted Blue to win so hard, and I couldn’t stand the suspense. All of a sudden, Carl raised his whip high—my heart sickened and plummeted. One horse flew down the rest of the track to cross the finish line by three lengths.
That horse was Royal Blue.
“He won, he won, he won!!!” I screamed, hugging everyone around me in frantic excitement. The released nerves made me so dizzy that everything was a huge blur until we were down in the winner’s circle, and Blue’s noble head came into view.
“I knew you’d win,” I whispered proudly to Blue as the wreath of roses was draped across his glistening, high-carried neck. “I just knew it.”