Perched gingerly on the rotting gate of lunging yard Will closes his eyes and pictures a scene of the past. A young boy peeping through jarrah rails observes a feisty filly. She’s resisting the commands of master in the middle. A characteristic Akubra hat is slapped against his father’s thigh in an effort to urge the horse on. The rope is taut, the tension akin to that between thoroughbred and trainer. Agitated yet fiercely animated they persevere until a connection is established. Horse bursts forward into a steady gallop and Akubra is flung skyward triumphantly.
Will ambles to the nearby stable which still assumes the strong aroma of hay and hooves. He recalls a childhood spent coiled among the moist stable dirt with his horse called Willow (in part an ode to him). Will related to horses and when other kids created bedroom shrines to Warney and Waugh he preferred posters of Phar Lap and Archer. They could distinguish every footy team by jersey while he could name every jockey by silks.
On reaching high school Will took to carrying the form guide in his back pocket and spent lunch times mulling over tracks and times. The boys caught wind of his knowledge and he established an ingenious venture providing mail to dayboys in exchange for their lunch. Boarding house food was as appealing as an outside barrier. It was heartbreaking to abandon Willow when he returned to boarding school each term but he resolved to watch every start when she came to the city for campaigns. He negotiated his way to the track by way of bribery- blossoming punter peers were more than happy to facilitate his escape in exchange for red-hot tips. Will never missed an early morning track work session or trial watched from the depths of the racecourse bleachers.
Willow was destined to be a champion. Her condition was enviable, her stride impressive and the will to win was in her blood. She was up there with the short odds favourites at most race meets. Going in to the Group One Classic she was perfectly primed and Will’s bones ached in anticipation. So thoroughly had he studied Willow’s pace he was almost better qualified to advise the jockey than the trainer himself.
When the horses jumped Willow spooked in the barrier. Her leg smashed, all hopes dashed. Will had only ever lost his cool twice in his life- once after this race and again when his father sold Willow. Despite fierce resistance, screams and threats she was purchased and taken interstate to a stud in the sticks.
“Racing is a game for fools son. Lady Luck is ruthless- she’s bled me dry.” The disillusioned farmer crippled by drought and doubt crunched hat in hand as the last of their horses were pushed into a float.
His dad was a hard man with a frame that was as intimidating as his intense, dark eyes. He was direct and sharp with no time for emotion and distaste for affection. They weren’t inclined to bond over sport or banter about stock prices. At times they demonstrated a mutual respect for each other but when he sold out of the horses Will harboured an inherent and growing hatred for his old man.
A roar of thunder pulls Will from his reverie and loud rain begins to pound the stable roof as if giving him a standing ovation. He shakes off the nostalgia and heads for the farmhouse to endure dinner with his parents. The last supper before flying back out to the Pilbara for another laborious stint on the mines.
Boisterous men with beer guts and bad language hustle onto the plane hesitant to leave city comforts for the mundane mining life. For some, the return to relentless work up north is soul destroying, for others it’s a lifestyle choice. For Will there’s something more at stake. He gazes through the small window making out imaginary bloodlines in the red dirt below.
When the lads finish work the wet mess is teeming with testosterone. As men eagerly crack a can or throw back a frothy, Will retreats to his donga with a current edition of the yearling catalogue. A couple of the older blokes take a liking to the softly spoken man buried in his form guide. They fish for tips and bit by bit he imparts his wisdom. Sometimes when they’re really light on conversation (after ten days straight in the mines together) they quiz him on his breeding insights. His eyes blaze ecstatically when he’s talking stallions, pedigree and progeny. He becomes a celebrity of sorts when identified as the former owner of talented filly Willow and his contagious passion draws a captive audience. Before long, Will is surrounded by at least thirty men hungry for his expertise.
A horse enthusiast hails Will among a sea of fluros, “Oi mate, you heading to the Sale next Saturday?”
“Yeah, hope to.”
“Well make sure you’ve got some pocket money. There’s a horse I reckon you’ll fancy,” the miner smirks.
Prospective buyers in their ‘country chic’ moleskins and polos cast an eye over horses. They boast of past winners and runners to come. Will merges into a seat at the back anticipating Lot 34. The nervous atmosphere is unsettling, reminiscent of the days he used to accompany his dad to sales. He had actually summoned up the courage to broach the impending sale with his dad a few weeks back, “Give up on the dream Will. If you’re willing to spend your hard earned money on a bloody horse you’re more of an idiot than I thought.”
The auctioneer momentarily pauses for a drink and Lot 34 begins. The starting price quickly escalates. Will’s mouth is dry and his hands are clammy. A suit-clad man at the front whispers on a mobile phone and makes bids quicker than Will can think. He tentatively raises a hand, the spotter screams out and he’s in the competition. Will’s heart is racing as the price edges further and further towards his maximum spend. Can he go any higher? The auctioneer is demanding a response, suited man is looking perplexed- perhaps he has also overspent his cap? Will hasn’t spent the last two years battling temperature and temperament up North to lose this now.
Will’s arm shoots up and he’s back in the game, “Raised by fifteen!”
Raspy and low, another voice pushes the price up by ten more and the new bidder narrows his eyes at Will as if it’s personal.
Will’s got one more bid in the bag. He shoves up his hand, “Five thousand more!” shouts the spotter.
“Raise by ten thousand,” his opposition demands.
The environment is electric as the bidding war escalates to an intense climax. The auctioneer is dribbling with excitement ferociously waving his mallet and screaming as if his urgent pace and pitch is the sole reason for the spectacle,“This fine yearling, descendant of the gifted if not unlucky filly Willow going once going twi…”
Will has reached his limit…. It’s not meant to be.
“Raise by Fifteen!” booms an ever familiar voice.
Auctioneer consults all contenders with an expectant look. They all shake heads, out of the race.
“Sold to the man in the akubra!”
A man in tethered, torn Aukbra nods at auctioneer, winks at Will and shrugs out of the crowd.
Will soaks up the thrill of the track- tipsy ladies in fine frocks bustling around serious men on their ‘winning streak’ drinking away mortgage money; die-hard punters who cling desperately to the tote among the sombre owners wringing their hands.
“Jockeys please mount your horses,” the steward instructs.
Will grasps the fence of the enclosure with one hand and binoculars in the other; his knuckles white.
The horses enter the barrier and he holds his breath. It’s a blur of hooves thudding, audience shouting, and trainers madly muttering. Tufts of grass track flying, strong legs strike the ground, galloping around the bend, down the straight. His blood is pulsing, fist pumping, hairs tingling, euphoric and alive.
Up north, a loud cheer rumbles across the mine like a clap of dynamite as the boys throw hard hats into the blue and faraway in a small farmhouse an Akubra is flung skyward triumphantly.
Author: Eddie Tahnell
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