Chapter Extract


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PART ONE -Chapter One

Joanna Kingsford felt the familiar bubble of excitement as she mounted Magic Belle at the stripping sheds at Sydney’s Royal Randwick Racecourse. It was five-twenty a.m. on Wednesday 10 July 1974. It was also five months to the day since she started working as a track rider for her father, Charles Oliver Kingsford, Australia’s leading horse trainer. Despite the predawn gloom, the sheds were abuzz with the routine activities Jo loved. Horses snorted, their breath escaping from flared nostrils in duel clouds of ghostly white. Hooves clattered against stone, bridles clinked against the metal railings of the stalls where the horses waited while strappers saddled them in preparation for exercise. As the stable foreman ordered riders to mount, stable hands busily hosed down horses returned from the track, steam rising in great clouds from their taut bodies, their glistening coats darkened by the water.

Wrinkling her nose in pleasure at the smell of fresh hay mixed with warm horse, Jo nudged forward the skittish chestnut thoroughbred, talking to her softly. Magic Belle was the third of the four horses allocated to Jo for exercise that morning, she was also Jo’s favourite of the eighty-six horses in the famous Kingsford Lodge. The two-year-old’s flanks gleamed eerily in the gloom, her great white blaze and two left socks making her easily distinguishable from the other shadowy horses.

‘Daddy letting you ride again?’ whispered a rider in his early twenties, passing too close to Magic Belle and upsetting the filly. A scruffy blow-in who had ridden a couple of times before for Charlie, Hawk was only peeved because Jo had refused his offer of a date. She ignored him.

‘One day you’ll be working for me - if I let you.’ she thought darkly.

Slightly taller than the small, mean eyed track worker, sixteen-year-old Jo was still shedding her puppy fat. Intense, dark violet eyes stared out of her oval face, accentuated by the violet shadows beneath; her untidy ash-blond plait was jammed under her riders’ skull cap, her whole being exuded a vibrancy that was always evident when she was near horses. Riding, horses and track work were the loves of her life. Tossing her head, she guided Magic Belle around a pile of steaming droppings towards Linda, her partner for the morning.

Linda, holding Jillaroo, a gentle brown filly, was chatting animatedly with Jo’s twin brother Rick, despite the antics of his mount Prestigee, a cantankerous three-year-old who was backing around, tossing his head and jerking at his bit. Keeping her distance from the big black colt, Jo called to Linda who quickly mounted and rode over to join her.

‘Reckon you can hold her, sis?’ quipped Rick his cheeky grin resting a moment on Jo before returning to Linda as he clicked his horse forwards.

‘You should ask! No worries with Bella,’ retorted Jo, using the horse’s stable name. ‘At least she’s not a bolter with four left feet.’ As she spoke, Rick steadied Prestigee as the colt stumbled. Known for his habit of trying to bolt to get his track work over as fast as possible, Prestigee was also renowned for stumbling at slow work. Yet let him stretch out in a race and he became the most sure footed of animals, usually widening the gap between himself and the other horses with ease. Nevertheless he was always led out to the track by a rider on a pony. Jo and Linda laughed as they waited for Rick and his escort to go ahead and then followed at a safe distance.

A chill breeze bit into Jo’s cheeks as the little party headed out towards the Randwick all weather track. Cutting through her light grey tracksuit top, the wind whipped at her legs encased in tight fitting jeans and knee-high leather boots. Snatches of conversation from other track workers reached Jo’s ears as, shivering occasionally, she moved forwards with the others along the dark cinder track which was flanked on either side by white railings, stark against the surrounding gloom. The training supervisor barked out an order. Jo shouted a greeting, the energy of horses and riders, as always, fuelling her excitement.

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Across the wide expanse of greyness partially illuminated by the giant stadium floodlights, Jo could just make out swiftly moving shadows. Reaching the crossing at the half mile she and Linda waited as jockeys hunched high over their mounts, emerged from the merky grey. Thundering past they disappeared back into the gloom, the horses’ rasping breath almost as loud as the rhythm of their pounding hooves. Walking the horses smartly across the track, the cinder soft under their hooves, the two girls headed towards the trotting track in the middle of the course to put the horses through their warm-up exercises.

Normally the quietest day in the week, today was unusually busy. Jo and Linda were working left handed to give the horses practice riding the opposite way around the track. Bella was always more nervous with the left-hand canter and Jo’s hand tightened on the reins as the filly shied nervously away from a pair of horses returning from the track, clouds of steam billowing from their bodies. Leaning forward Jo patted Bella reassuringly with her gloved hand, talking softly to her as the two girls set off around the trotting track at a steady pace.

Jo had loved Magic Belle from the moment the nervous, skinny yearling had come to Kingsford Lodge. Always around her father’s world famous stables from the moment she could toddle, Jo had naturally absorbed many of Charlie’s special techniques in dealing with horses and their different characteristics. In awe of his ability, she had watched in admiration the way Charlie had summed up this frightened, scrappy yearling at the sale, then settled her down back home, building her confidence and her frame so that now, while still highly strung, Bella was a healthy, responsive two-year-old. When Charlie had put Jo on Bella six weeks ago for slow track work, Jo could hardly believe her luck.

‘If you can train her up at slow pace work, she’s yours,’ her father had promised. Jo was stunned. They both knew this horse was destined for great things. From then on horse and girl had been as one, Magic Belle responding to Jo’s every command, Jo in tune with the chestnut’s quirks and marvelling at the horse’s plucky nature.

As she and Linda continued to work the horses, warmer now from the exercise, Jo was glad the gloom hid the pride that shone from her dark, pansylike eyes. Gone were concerns of unfinished school assignments, low grades and detentions from falling asleep in class. Here was her great love. Here lay her dream to become Australia’s greatest female trainer. Riding track work was another step closer to that dream. With typical Kingsford stubbornness Jo refused to accept that racing was a male world with little place for female trainers. Ever since she could stagger at the age of two she had seen the best trainer in the world operate. Half her childhood had been spent being baby sat by horses. Typical comments around the traps that women couldn’t handle the heat of the track and were better off in the heat of the kitchen, made her blood boil.

For the umpteenth time Jo felt her excitement build as she imagined Magic Belle coming round into the final straight in that mecca of all Australian races, the Melbourne Cup. Surging forward, Jo saw Bella pulling on that extra reserve, stretching out her lead against the other horses, Jo’s own colours vibrant on her chosen jockey’s back, She could feel the rush of exhilaration as the gentle horse strained to give that bit more. Every nerve taut, Jo watched her strides lengthen, screaming herself hoarse as Bella turned into the final straight amid the tumultuous roar of the crowd and then watched in awe as Bella pulled ahead in those final vital seconds to thunder victorious across the finishing line a clear head in front. Then, clutching her hat as she burst from her place in the member’s stand, she grabbed the reins to lead Magic Belle and her jockey in the victory walk, laughter on her full red lips, tears of joy streaming down her face, the magnificent gold chalice held high for all to see. And her father Charles Oliver Kingsford, the greatest Australian horse trainer of them all, his face alight with pride stepping forward to acknowledge her triumph before the cheering onlookers. Just imagining all this made Jo’s heart beat faster. Sensing her excitement Magic Belle started to back away. With a quick sigh Jo bought her mind back to the present, settling them both down again.

‘Has Rick asked you out yet?’ she tossed at Linda as they settled into the second lap of the track, her stirrups pulled halfway up Bella’s side, her legs bunched up almost to her chest..

‘Sort of’ replied the slim dark haired seventeen-year-old with an embarrassed laugh.

‘Are you going to say yes? You know he’s batty about you.’ Dear Rick. Linda was the first girl her cocky brother had seriously fallen for and he was not at all bothered that she was nearly two years older than him and a good head taller. Linda didn’t seem that fussed either.

Just then Rick cantered past, reins pulled in tight, Prestigee’s head bent sideways as he strained against Rick’s control. The older of the twins by three minutes, to Jo Rick had always been her elder brother. From birth each had known what the other was thinking. She had not needed to tell Rick how much she wanted to ride track work. He had just understood. Unlike their brother Bertie, the eldest of the three Kingsford children, who was so moody and jealous. At nineteen studying law at Sydney University, he continued to sneer at Jo’s passion for horses and the twins’ involvement in their father’s training stables. Jo could never understand how Bertie could be so disparaging about the very livelihood that was giving him everything he wanted: position, academic opportunity and a generous allowance. What infuriated her most was the way he kept ramming home their mother’s view that Jo should choose more feminine activities. Showjumping and pony club were fine. Track work was not. Right now Jo didn’t give a hang about femininity and she loved the buzz of the racetrack.

When Jo had pleaded to be allowed to help train her father’s horses as soon as she turned sixteen, she had refused to accept his argument that there was no future for her on the track. In the end it had been Rick with his quirky smile, blond hair and deep violet eyes, identical to her own, who had persuaded her father otherwise. Rick recognised Jo’s innate ability with horses, he also recognised that she was better than he at training them. While they both naturally assumed he would step into Charlie’s shoes as head of Kingsford Lodge, Rick acknowledged that Jo had greater dedication, a greater love of the animals and a greater attention to detail. Charlie had recognised his daughter’s natural aptitude too, but he hadn’t taken her seriously. The real problem for him was that she was a girl. However, to Jo’s great joy, three weeks after her sixteenth birthday he had capitulated.

Kookaburras’ raucous cries heralded the arrival of dawn as Jo and Linda cantered around the sandy track. Hugging the inside rail and shielded by Jillaroo, where Bella would feel more secure as other horses pounded past, Jo exulted in the rhythmic sway of the horse beneath her. Her cheeks tingled from the rush of cold air, bringing tears to her eyes and with them the sudden sense of loss she always felt as her ride with Bella drew to its end. She could hear her father yelling orders from the Pizza Hut, the octagonal tower in the centre of the racetrack where trainers watched their horses and riders perform. Jo gave a small sigh. Once more round the track and she would have to hand Bella over to Archie, her father’s leading jockey, to complete the fast track work in preparation for Bella’s first trial on Friday.

Light seeped slowly over the horizon, fighting for recognition against the stadium lights. Bella was fussing again over the left hand canter. Still hugging the rail, Jo steadied her down as the cold dawn mist rose from the course and a towering grey mass revealed itself as the imposing Royal Randwick grand stand. Rick thundered by on Prestigee, the horse now less frantic to bolt as the pace work quickened. Jo smiled briefly, alert for any change in Bella’s steady canter. A few paces on Prestigee stumbled.

‘That horse really does have four left feet. To anyone who didn’t know he could be mistaken as going lame,’ Jo thought, glancing at Rick to check everything was all right. With a stab of intuition she sensed Rick was becoming unsettled.

Suddenly a sparrow flew out of the grass. Startled, Bella shied into Jillaroo. Linda swerved her mount just in time to avert a collision. Then Jo’s heart lurched as out of the mist a riderless horse thundered straight towards them. Digging her heels into the horse’s flanks, Jo urged Bella forward, trying to swing her out of the path of the runaway horse. Already unnerved, the sight of another horse careering towards her was too much for Bella. Whinnying in fear, ears back, eyes staring, Bella bolted. Unable to hold her back, all Jo could do was cling on, fingers dug into the thick chestnut mane, as Bella, showing the speed Jo always believed she possessed, hurtled towards Rick and Prestigee, tail flying, eating up the distance between them in seconds.

‘Rick! Look out !’ screamed Jo, her voice snatched by the wind. She was almost on top of him.

Feeling Jo’s terror, Rick glanced quickly over his shoulder into the wild-eyed Bella. Prestigee stumbled again. Cursing, Rick jerked the horse’s head savagely round to save himself from being thrown off, and lost his balance. The next few seconds were crystal clear in Jo’s mind. Like a slow-motion film a part of her watched detached as the colt stumbled a third time and Bella cannoned into him. Rick was tossed from the saddle like a doll and came crashing to the ground as Prestigee fell and Bella ran over the top of them. Lifted by the force of the impact and thrown clear, Jo heard the snap of bone as Bella fell on Prestigee, the two petrified horses thrashing about on top of one another, before she crashed against the rail. Excruciating pain shot through her shoulder and she tasted blood in her mouth before she blacked out.

Simon &Schuster Australia

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Anne McCullagh Rennie 2013