As Charlotte rode the last horse of the morning back into her father’s yard, she thought about how desperately she needed a coffee. Perhaps she should have had her mind on more important matters, but as she listened to the steady clip clop of Buster’s hooves on the concrete, Charlotte was acutely aware of the fact that she had been riding since four thirty that morning and hadn’t stopped for anything to eat or drink. It was early January, her favourite time of the year to ride track work. The sun rose early and the mornings were mild. It wouldn’t be long before the Ballarat chill set in and the early starts became a little more challenging.
Buster was the longest standing member of Patrick Delaney’s team of horses and at eight years of age, the staying gelding was still up and racing successfully at country meetings. He was miraculously sound, knew how to gallop and was easily Charlotte’s favourite horse to ride in the stable. That particular morning, Buster had fallen into his characteristic, effortless rhythm as Charlotte galloped him up the long straight at Ballarat. Charlotte felt Buster strong and steady in her hand as the thrum of his hooves on the turf filled her ears and for those short minutes, time stopped, there was no outside world and there was just the two of them, the wind whipping Charlotte’s cheeks as she galloped past the tower.
“Nice bit of work this morning Char,”, said Richo, as Charlotte and Buster walked back into the yard. Whilst no-one was entirely sure whether Richo was the assistant trainer, the foreman or the strapper, he was the only other staff member at Patrick Delaney Racing. “Thanks Richo!” said Charlotte as she swung off Buster and handed Richo the reins. “Hey, have you seen Dad anywhere?” Richo took a drag on his cigarette and grimaced, “You can go and look for him, but I think he’s still on the phone blowing up over Jonathan Simcock’s bill.”
“Oh no”, Charlotte thought to herself as she walked across the yard. Jonathan Simcock was supposedly the most successful car dealer in Melbourne and he was meant to be the big break Patrick Delaney Racing had been waiting for. He had made a splash in the press over the last few of years by spending millions at the yearling sales. One day, out of the blue he rang up and sent her Dad six tried horses from big city stables. Jonathan had told her father that he would consider buying him a few yearlings if he managed to get some good results, and Charlotte still remembered her father’s excitement the day the horses arrived. He’d spent two hours with James, the horse vet from their local practice trotting, flexing, scoping and basically going over the horses with a fine tooth comb.
At the time, Charlotte had doubted whether they could possibly improve horses coming out of big, successful metropolitan stables and she had asked James “Hey, James, no offence, but do you think you can actually help any of these horses, you know, from a veterinary perspective?” The easy going Englishman had laughed and replied with a gleam in his eye, “Shit yeah.” Not a very British expression, but as James would often say himself, “Char, I’ve been here ten years, I’ve assimilated.”
Much to everyone’s delight, improve they did. A mid-week win here, a country win there, people were starting to notice. The night Charlotte’s father won a listed race was the happiest she had seen him in years. The only downside was that Jonathan never paid a single bill. He was full of promises, that is until the day they received a letter from Jonathan’s lawyers. Jonathan had placed his car dealerships into administration and the last anyone at Patrick Delaney Racing had heard, Jonathan was sailing a yacht around the Caribbean still owing Charlotte’s father thousands.
Just next to the door of the stable office sat an old, rickety wooden bench, a schoolyard relic from days gone by, it’s red and white paint flaky and peeling after years outside in the weather. It had been there for as long as Charlotte could remember and as she unclipped her helmet and sat down to pull off her boots, she could hear her father’s speaking on the phone.
“You are kidding me! I need another mouth to feed like a hole in the head! What I need is the fifty thousand dollars the Captain of that Caribbean yacht owes me!” Patrick Delaney very rarely lost his temper, but when he did, his long faded Northern Ireland accent grew stronger with every indignant word. “Dats a joke! A three-year-old, unraced colt! A barrier rogue and a bolter at dat!”
Charlotte stood in the doorway and waited for her father to calm down. He saw her and motioned for her to sit down on the couch that sat along the wall next to his desk. Charlotte sank down into the well-worn cushions and listened to the rest of the conversation. “Aye, aye, aye.” Patrick sighed. “Ahh, bleedin’ forget it. We’ll pick it up. Yes, yes, within the next week.” Patrick put the phone down.
Patrick fiddled with his baseball cap in frustration, lifting it off his head and pulling it back down again. “I’ve just had Tom Dobson the blood stock agent on the phone. He’s working with Jonathan Simcock’s administrators and he’s trying to get me to take a horse they have in one of the Randwick stables to settle the debt I’m owed.” Charlotte felt a mixture of surprise and dismay. “Dad! I thought you were friends with Tom Dobson!” “Char, I’m friends with lots of people, but business is business and Tom’s just doing his job. He says it’s the pick of the bunch, aside from the fact that it’s wild and no-one can get it to do anything. He reckons it needs to go somewhere they can handle a stallion with a good stable rider.” Patrick looked at his daughter apologetically. “Okay Dad, but, um, if it’s that bad, can I at least wait until after the Boneo Classic to start with it?”
Charlotte thought of her two showjumpers, Millie, an off the track thoroughbred she had trained up to jump in World Cups, and Fantasy, her dream horse, the first good horse a client had ever bought for her. It was tough trying to compete on a tight budget and Charlotte had to fund both Millie and Fantasy’s campaigns. Sarah Jamieson, a wealthy ex-showjumper and long standing acquaintance of her riding coach, Simon Glastonbury had bought Fantasy for Charlotte on the proviso that Charlotte would pay all of the upkeep herself. Initially Charlotte’s father had baulked at the idea of her taking a horse for free, but she had begged. You couldn’t just go out and find horses like that in Australia and Charlotte knew that if she wanted the ride, she had to deal with the finances herself. Charlotte had been riding track work for other trainers and saving for months to pay her entry fees and stabling at Boneo and with the show only a week away, all she wanted was a smooth run into the competition.
“Oh Char, it’ll be okay, it’s not like the money problems are going to disappear if you start riding the horse this week or next week or even the week after, so just go and enjoy yourself. I’ll book the horse on transport and we’ll deal with it all when you get back.” Charlotte felt a twinge of guilt for going off to a show when she could have stayed home and worked. “Dad, how bad is it?” “Ahh never worry Char, it’s okay, the feed bill is due, but I’ve been getting by on the punt. I saw one get pulled up in a trial on Tuesday and I think they’re setting it up for a plunge. I’ll find the money for the feed bill.”
Charlotte stood up from the couch shaking her head and covering her ears. “Okay Dad, honestly I don’t want to know”. She pushed all thoughts of wild colts, bad debtors and mad punters out of her head. The Boneo Classic was just around the corner and there was one thing she wanted to do. Win.