Alcantra

A man, a horse, and a mysterious jockey

I had secured a box and had invited a few of my intimate friends to occupy it with me. I had chosen those who had been in the secret of my ownership from the first, and who seemed to regard my entering the racing game with less concern than some others, notably my business associates.

The first races on the fiat, and a minor steeplechase or two, seemed to me perfunctory and spiritless, though the crowd seemed to enjoy them. Late in the afternoon the Bedford was announced, and there was an evident stirring of interest among the lookers-on. The board at the judges' stand gave the field, and I noted with some concern that none of the favorites had been scratched. Proudly I saw the name of T. Starkweather appear with the number nine. As I sat tearing my programme to shreds with nervous fingers, I tried to think what suggestions of good fortune the number nine indicated. I could think of nothing but the Muses, and their connection with horse racing seemed remote.

Then came the parade from the paddock. Led by a scarlet-coated official, the eleven contestants passed the grandstand. Had I been in a normal condition, I should have been thrilled by it. Eleven creatures, sleek, sinewy, nervous, with tossing, impatient heads, foam-flecked fore quarters, and dainty tread, they seemed hardly to touch the soft earth beneath their feet. On the back of each a crouching little figure brilliant in gaudy satin.

They weighed in. I watched Alcantra. For sheer beauty he was peer of the best. He seemed strangely docile, and I tried desperately to read the secret of those baffling eyes. I finally got them in my glass for a fleeting second, and I saw the same strange, tired look, the same eternal interrogation that always appeared there. As Tobias remounted I watched his face. Sallow, thin from weeks of training, there was not a shadow of expression of any sort. His face was as baffling as Alcantra’s eyes.

They were off to the post just within my line of vision. For a while confusion reigned. Turning, milling, rearing, it seemed impossible that an orderly start could ever be made. This was the crucial moment. Would Alcantara start? This was the uncertainty. If he did, there was a fair chance that he would finish well up; if not, it was all over. I watched him closely. Tobias had his hands full, and was maneuvering skillfully. I had noticed that he carried no whip and his heels were innocent of spurs. Now he seemed to need them. Instead he leaned still farther over and caressed the nervous neck before him.

They were off. Thanks to some strange good fortune, Alcantara had consented to start with them. They thundered by in a blur of-color, closely bunched, with Alcantara holding a respectable position to the fore. The race was twice around a prescribed course, beginning and ending on the home stretch of the race track. In a few seconds they were on the turf and out of sight for the moment. As advised by Tobias, I at once joined a throng of spectators rushing to points of vantage. With a hundred others I sought the water jump, the last jump before reentering the race course. Being long of limb and spurred by an excitement I had never known before, I outstripped the others and placed myself where I commanded a perfect view of the jump and its approach.

How long I waited I do not know. It seemed hours. Then a stableboy, whose ears were acute from constant attendance at races, smote me mightily on the back and shouted in my ear. Now I could hear that matchless sound, the beat of hoofs on firm turf, and over the crest of a little hill appeared the head and shoulders of a rider. It was not Tobias, and my heart sank. Down a steep dip they came, headlong for the brush and water. Singly and in pairs they rose and sailed incredibly, landing in their stride, and tearing off again in a welter of color and confusion.. The jump took its toll, for here two horses went down. Some mischance, some misstep or ill-considered move by their riders, brought them down, one clear of the water, the other half in it. The jockeys rolled like balls of bright silk and were barely missed by the following horses, and the field went on. Of the eleven starters I counted nine at the jump. The two that went down left only seven in the running, and of these AIcantara was the fifth. They had to complete the circuit twice, so I rushed back to another jump near enough the grandstand to permit me to regain my box to see the finish.

At this jump Alcantara had moved up to third position and was running easily. Of the two horses ahead of him was faltering, but the other had evidently not extended himself, and was running easily under the restrained hand of a smiling and confident rider.

Here I got a good look at both Tobias and his mount. Tobias was well forward on his horse's neck, tense and rigid, his enormous lavender sleeves ballooning out behind him. His lips were moving—not in prayer, I fancy, but in some strange jockey incantation. He was telling Alcantara something, and the horse was listening. As they flashed by I saw a new Alcantara. Gone was the cynic's pose, gone the bewildered, questioning look in the eyes; in their stead were a fire and a will to win that had transfigured him. After the jump was cleared Tobias sat down to ride. As they vanished, the stooping shoulders were sinking lower and lower, the cramped knees coming higher and higher, and the hands reaching out nearer and nearer the tossing head.

I returned to my box. There was nothing to do now but to live through the dreadful moments until they reappeared. I pressed my hand to my aching eyes. I was dimly conscious of some jocular remarks from my companions. I did not have long to waft. On the brow of the hill just before the water jump they appeared for a second, and almost even with the leader I saw the lavender and white. Tobias had moved up! Would he survive the water jump a second time? I closed my eyes again. Then the throng rose as a man, and far off I heard cheering. The moment of my dreams had come. Down the stretch they raced, stride for stride, the rival jockey resorting to whip and spur. Tobias was so far forward that he could almost whisper in the sensitive ears, and his lips were moving convulsively. On they came. A few scant rods ahead was the finish, and, as yet, it was the race for either. Suddenly Alcantara seemed to gather himself. Tobias raised his head and shoulders a bit and Alcantara pushed his nose by his rival. The horse faltered for a second, and Alcantara swept under the wire a clean length in the lead.

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