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by Dick Francis
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It’s the third death on Cheltenham Gold Cup day that really troubles supersleuth Sid Halley. Last seen in 1995’s Come to Grief, former champion jockey Halley knows all too well the perils of racing—but in his day, jockeys didn’t usually reach the finishing line with three .38 rounds in the chest. Yet this is precisely how he finds jockey Huw Walker—who, only a few hours earlier, won the coveted Triumph Hurdle.
Just moments before the gruesome discovery, Halley had been called upon by Lord Enstone to make discreet inquiries into why his horses appeared to be on a permanent losing streak. Are races being fixed? Are bookies taking a cut? And if so, are trainers and jockeys playing a dangerous game, with stakes far higher than they realize?
Halley’s quest for answers draws him even deeper into the darker side of the racing game, in a life-or-death power play that will push him to his very limits—both professionally and personally.
Sadly, death at the races is not uncommon.
However, three in a single afternoon was sufficiently unusual to raise more than an eyebrow. That only one of the deaths was of a horse was more than enough to bring the local constabulary hotfoot to the track.
Cheltenham Gold Cup day had dawned bright and sunny, with a fine dusting of March frost showing white between the grass. The forecast for the day was dreadful, with heavy rain due to drive in from the west, but as I stood in my ex-father-in-law’s kitchen looking through the window at the westerly sky, there was no sign yet of the warm front that was promised.
“There you are, Sid,” said Charles, coming into the kitchen in his dressing gown over striped pajamas, with soft blue velvet slippers on his feet. Rear Admiral Charles Rowland, Royal Navy (retired), my onetime father-in-law, my confidant, my mentor and, without doubt, my best friend.
I still introduced him to strangers as my father-in-law, although it was now some ten years since his daughter, Jenny, my wife, had seen the need to give me an ultimatum: give up my job or she would give me up. Like any man at the top of his profession, I had assumed she didn’t really mean it and continued to work day in and day out. And so Jenny left with acrimony and spite.
The fact that a crippling injury put a stop to my chosen profession just a few months later was one of those little ironies from which there is no escape. Our marriage had been irreparably damaged and there was no going back. Indeed, by then, neither of us had wanted to go back, but it still took many years and many hurtful exchanges before we were both able to move on. In time, Jenny and I had divorced and she had remarried, to a title and some serious wealth. Nowadays, we are civil to each other, and I have a real hope that an arm’s-length affection may be the endgame of our tempestuous relationship.
“Morning, Charles,” I said. “It’s a good one, too.”
“Bloody forecasters,” he replied, “never have the slightest idea.” He leaned towards the window to get a better view of the weather vane on the garage roof.“Southwesterly,” he remarked. “That front has still to arrive. Better take an umbrella with us.”
I didn’t doubt that he was right. A life at sea had given him the uncanny ability to predict the future simply by sticking a wet finger in the air.However, on this occasion, I think it may have been more due to his listening to the radio in his bedroom. His years afloat had also left him with a preference for all-male company, there being no female personnel on ships in his day, and a slow but determined approach to a problem. As he had often told me, it takes many miles to turn around an aircraft carrier and it is better to be sure in which direction you need to go before you start zigzagging all over the place and showing everyone what a blithering idiot you are.
We went to the races in his Mercedes, with raincoats and umbrellas stacked on the back seat. As we drove west from his home in the Oxfordshire village of Aynsford across the Cotswold Hills towards Cheltenham, the sun began to hide behind high cirrus clouds. It had disappeared altogether by the time we dropped down from Cleeve Hill to the racetrack and there were spots of rain on the windshield as we parked; the racing festival at Cheltenham is one of the world’s great sporting occasions and a little rain couldn’t dampen our spirits.
I had ridden so often around this course that I felt I knew each blade of grass as an old friend. In my dreams, I still rode here, surging down the hill towards the home straight, kicking hard into the downhill fence when others would take a hold to steady themselves at this notorious obstacle. Here, many a partnership would come crashing to the turf, if not foot-perfect, but winning was the important thing, and while taking a hold might have been safer, kicking your horse hard could gain you lengths over the fence, lengths the opposition may not be able to regain up the hill to the finish line.
It had been a racing fall that had ended my riding career. It should have been easy. My young mount, stumbling while landing over the second fence in a novice chase, had failed to untangle his legs from underneath his neck and went down slowly to our right. I could have almost stepped off but chose to move with the falling animal and roll away from his flailing hooves. It was just unfortunate that a following horse, having nowhere else to go, had landed with all its weight on the outstretched palm of my left hand. But it was more criminal than unfortunate that the horse had been wearing an old racing shoe, sharpened by use into a jagged knifeedge, which had sliced through muscle, sinew, bone and tendon, leaving my hand useless and my life in ruins.
But I shouldn’t complain. I had been Champion Jockey for four consecutive years, having won more jump races than anyone else, and would probably, by now, have had to retire anyway. At thirtyeight, I was well past the age at which even I thought it would be considered sensible to inflict the continuous battering on a human body.
“Sid,” Charles said, snapping me back to reality,“Remember, I’m the guest of Lord Enstone today, and he asked me whether you’d be coming up to his box for a drink later.”
“Maybe,” I said, still half thinking about what might have been.
“He seemed quite insistent that you should.”
Charles was pressing the point and I knew him well enough to know that this was his way of saying that it was important to him.
“I’ll be there.”
If it were important to Charles, I would indeed be there. I owed him a lot and paybacks such as this were cheap. At least, that is what I thought at the time.
We joined the throng pouring into the racetrack from the parking lots.
“Hello, Mr. Halley,” said the gateman. “What do you fancy for the big race?”
“Hello, Tom,” I replied, reading the name on his badge. “Oven Cleaner must have a good chance, especially if we get much more of this rain. But don’t quote me.”
He waved me through with a laugh and without properly checking my badge. Ex-jockeys were a thorn for most tracks. Did they get free entry or not? And for how long after they’d retired? Did it depend on how good they had been? Why wouldn’t they go away and stop being an embarrassment, always carrying on about how much better it had been when they were riding and that the jumps were getting too easy and hardly worthy of the name.
If Tom had studied my badge more closely, he would have seen that, like me, it was getting a bit old and worn. I had simply not returned my metal jockey’s badge when forced to retire and I had been using it ever since. No one seemed to mind.
Charles disappeared with a wave to make his way to the private luncheon boxes high in the grandstand while I walked unchallenged to the terrace in front of the weighing room next to the parade ring.
“Sid Halley!” I turned with a smile. “How’s the sleuthing business?”
Bill Burton, ex-jockey and now a midrank racehorse trainer whose waistline was getting bigger rather more quickly than his bank balance.
“Fine, Bill.”We shook hands warmly.“Keeping me in mischief.”
“Good, as long as you keep your nose out of my business.” He said it with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
We had ridden against each other regularly over many seasons and both of us knew that he had never been totally averse to a little extra cash for ensuring that his horse didn’t get to the finish line first. He would adamantly argue that he would only “stop” those who had no chance, anyway—what crime was there in that? I could read in his face, I thought, that he had probably not changed his ways in moving from the saddle to the saddling box.
Shame, I thought. Bill was not a real villain, but rumors were beginning to circulate that he was not fully honest, either.As always, it was much easier to get such a reputation than to lose it. Bill couldn’t see that he was never going to be the leading trainer as he had hoped, not because he didn’t have the ability but because he would not be sent the best horses by the most knowledgeable owners.
“Do you have any runners today?” I asked.
“Candlestick in the first and Leaded Light in the fifth. But I wouldn’t risk your shirt on either of them.”
I wasn’t sure whether he was warning me that they might not be trying their best. My doubts saddened me. I liked Bill a lot.We had been good friends and racing adversaries for many years.
He seemed to sense that I was looking deeper into his eyes than was prudent and briskly turned his head away.
“Sorry, Sid,” he said in my ear as he pushed past into the weighing room, “got to go find my jockey.”
I watched him disappear through the door and then looked up in the paper who his jockey was. Huw Walker. One of the sport’s popular journeymen. He’d never yet made it to number one but had been consistently in the top ten over the past eight or nine years, with numerous rides and plenty of winners. Son of a Welsh farmer with, it was said, a fondness for fast women and fast cars in that order. I hadn’t heard that he was ever suspected of “pulling”— horses, that is.
In one of those strange almost supernatural moments, I looked up to find Huw Walker coming towards me.
“Hello, Huw,” I said.
“Hi, Sid. Did you get my message?” He looked far from his usual cheery self.
“No,” I replied. “Where did you leave it?”
“On your answering machine. Last night.”
“A London number.” He was clearly anxious.
“Sorry. I’m staying with my father-in-law for the Festival.”
“It doesn’t matter. I can’t talk here. I’ll call you again later.”
“Use my cell,” I said, and gave him the number.
He then rushed off, disappearing into the weighing room.
Excerpted from Under Orders by Dick Francis. Copyright © 2006 by Dick Francis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.