In honor of Halloween, Horse Nation held a spooky short story contest, calling for readers’ best horsey tales of horror (and humor!). We’re sharing our favorites and here’s one of our picks — our horse racing fans will especially enjoy this one!
By Sarah Grable
The barnyard tang in the crisp autumn air smelled like home already to Johnny Dawkins, and he grinned as he got out of his battered yellow Toyota. The grandstand of Greenwood Downs loomed ahead, a hulking shadow in the early morning darkness. The light of the parking lot lamps drowned out the stars, and tendrils of mist coiled up from the layer of frost on the blacktop.
Johnny breathed deep and hugged his canvas jacket tighter around himself as he crossed the nearly empty expanse. The barn employees’ entrance was far less dramatic than the visitors’ area, but someone had taken the time to decorate the gate with corn shocks, pumpkins and potted mums.
“Card?” the watchman asked mechanically as Johnny approached.
Johnny shuffled in his pocket for his new track ID and handed it over.
“Ah, fresh off the presses,” the watchman said, squinting at the laminated card on its lanyard. “First day?”
“First day this early,” Johnny replied. “I started last week and Ed Regnery’s been showing me the ropes. I’m on my own today and Jenna Atherton wants a workout on the whole string before they ship south for the season.”
“Jenna’s cutting that deadline close again this year… October 31st is the last day the barns are open. She’s gotta have those stalls empty and ready for the deposit inspection by midnight tonight or the Downs management will be after her. Better get a move on, then, if you’re supposed to get a run under her whole barn,” the watchman said. “And take care running the horses out there. Not sure what it is about this track, but it does funny things when the night lights go on.”
“Funny things? Like what?”
“Sometimes jocks will say they see things they don’t expect out of the corner of their eye. Distances get tricky to judge. My guess is that it’s something about the spacing of the light poles around the track. Nothing to worry too much about. I just thought I’d warn you, especially since you’re the new guy and you’re looking at your first time on the track in the dark.”
“Appreciate it,” Johnny said, touching the brim of his new Atherton Racing baseball cap.
“Another word of wisdom… you’re working for Athertons?” the watchman gestured toward Johnny’s cap. “You’ve gotta pass Warrendale Farms to get to Atherton’s stalls. Their manager keeps a hot pot of coffee and a box of donuts out by their tack room every morning for everyone to help himself out of.”
“Thanks again!” Johnny could almost taste the sugar and caffeine.
“My pleasure. Take it easy on the track today! Buena suerte!”
“Mornin’, Johnny,” Jenna Atherton half-grunted from inside one of the stalls when he arrived at Atherton Racing’s stable block with Warrendale coffee and donut in-hand. Atherton Racing’s owner and head trainer was a wiry woman in her late thirties, with short-cropped hair, deeply tanned skin and the no-nonsense air of a woman accustomed to wrangling fussy animals and fussier people. “Looking to stay an exercise rider for your whole career?” she said with a playful gesture at Johnny’s breakfast.
“I’ve got a couple of hours until sunup,” Johnny said through a mouthful of jelly donut. “And almost everyone else has moved their horses south for the winter. Won’t be nearly the traffic to deal with, especially this early. And, last I checked, you hired me as a groom and exercise rider, not as a jockey.”
“You never know. The day might come that I need a jockey, not an exercise rider with powdered sugar in his stubble,” Jenna said with a genial grin. She gave the colt she had just been inspecting a friendly pat on the rump as she emerged from the stall. She adjusted her baseball cap over her straw-colored hair and wiped her hands on her jeans. “Sugar, the chestnut filly on the far end, is ready to run. I’d start with her and work your way up the aisle.”
“Here,” Jenna fished in her pockets and handed him a crumpled sheet of notebook paper. “Your marching orders.”
“Two-mile gallop. Just a stretch of the legs for the little lady today?”
“Yup. I only want her to blow a little energy before the long ride south. No big challenges or stresses. Big plans for that filly for next year, once she turns three…”
“What kind of plans?” Johnny asked, his curiosity piqued.
“If she starts running the way her pedigree says she can, she may be our ticket to the big leagues. Her granddaddy was a great horse. My dad was a jockey, back in the day, and bought him at auction for not much more than a bag of peanuts, using his own purse money to do it. The horse had been through a handful of barns, none of the trainers could handle him, much less get him to show on the track. Dad bought him for his pretty bloodlines, figuring on getting into the breeding game, but one morning he watched that stud cross the pasture so fast it made his head spin, so back out to the track they went.
“They entered a race, truly the underdogs on paper, but against a good strong field. The race went beautifully. You couldn’t have asked for a better trip, and every other jockey in the race was scrambling to account for a challenge they didn’t expect. The entire grandstand was on their feet for the horse that none of them had bothered to put money on. Then, leading the pack and coming down the home stretch, the stallion’s heart gave out….” Jenna’s voice caught and she dropped her eyes to the ground.
“That’s a two-mile gallop for Sugar,” Jenna finally said, her voice a bit huskier than usual.
“You’ve got it, boss,” Johnny said. Storytime was over.
Sugar met him at her stall door, her amber eyes bright and glittering. She nickered as Johnny found her saddle and bridle in her tack trunk, and he grinned at her Jockey Club name, engraved on all of her gear.
“Trick or Treat,” he said to himself. “Perfect horse for me to take out for the first ride on Halloween day.”
Sugar nickered and Johnny quickly got her saddled and on her way across the paddock to the track. An outrider held the filly for him as he swung aboard, and they set off at a swinging trot to warm up while Johnny adjusted his stirrups and put his goggles on.
The track was empty, save for the handful of outriders patrolling the oval. Johnny took a deep breath, easing Sugar up into a lope and relaxing her into the gait for a furlong before he began to let her out into a gallop, taking full advantage of the empty racetrack.
As they rounded the far turn, Johnny heard hoofbeats coming up fast behind him. He looked under his elbow and saw a burly black stallion gaining ground on his chestnut filly. The jockey guided the big black up alongside Johnny and Sugar, matching their pace.
“How’re ya doin’?” the jockey called out.
“Just a nice little gallop!” Johnny shouted back.
“Jenna wants you to open her up! See how she does alongside another horse!”
“She told me just a two-mile gallop!”
“Trust an Atherton jock who’s been around the track a few times! Let the filly strut!”
The black horse started to pull ahead of him, and the jockey glanced back at Johnny with a challenging grin on his face. Johnny grinned back and closed his hands on the reins, feeling a surge of energy out of Sugar as the filly sensed the change in their plan. She regained the ground to match the burly black stride for stride without Johnny even having to ask her for the speed.
“Come on, kid!” the other jockey shouted. “Race you to the wire!”
Johnny did a quick check of his bearings. “That’s a mile!”
“See you at the end of it!”
The black began to pull away again, his stride stretching out effortlessly.
“Let’s get ‘em, Sugar!” Johnny muttered, beginning to urge the filly onward. He only had to ask once, and Sugar responded instantly, finding another gear and matching the stallion’s pace again.
They raced around the track together, stride for stride. Johnny barely noticed that they were attracting the attention of the patrolling outriders, who began to canter down the rails behind them, ready to step in if they were needed. Still, the two riders pushed on, their horses running neck and neck and gaining speed as they rounded the final turn into the home stretch. Only then did Johnny show Sugar the whip. Not a touch, only a look was all the filly needed to understand what Johnny wanted from her.
With a great kick, Sugar surged ahead and took the lead away from the massive black. Johnny looked back only once as the filly passed. The black’s jockey was grinning ear to ear, shifting the reins into his left hand to raise his right to Johnny in a combination wave and salute as the filly pulled ahead by a length, then two, then three, and crossed the finish line still gaining speed.
“WHOOP!!” Johnny hollered, pumping a fist in the air. Sugar, sensing that the rush was over, backed off onto a brisk canter as the jockey on the black came up alongside them again.
“That was some nice riding, Kid,” he said. “There’s a great jockey in there, with some practice. And Jenna certainly has the right idea with that filly. She’s gonna be Atherton Racing’s ticket to the big leagues. Got her granddaddy’s speed, for sure.”
“Thanks, man,” Johnny said, beaming. The jockey’s big black slowed to a brisk trot and the pair turned into a loop back toward the grandstand and the winner’s circle.
“Hey!” Johnny shouted. “I didn’t quite catch your name back there!”
“It’s Galloping Gordie!”
“JOHNNY!” a shrill shriek cut through the crisp predawn air. “Pull up that horse THIS SECOND!!”
Johnny instantly obeyed, bringing Sugar back down as quickly as he dared from her pace. His exhilaration vanished like mist on the track, replaced with terror at Jenna Atherton’s fury as the trainer stormed across the dirt toward him.
“What… what were you thinking?” she fumed, barely able to speak. “Get off of my horse!”
“I-I was just followed directions!” Johnny tried to explain as he kicked his feet free of the stirrups and slid to the ground. Jenna took the reins from him and began, with trembling hands, to inspect Sugar’s legs.
“Your directions were to take her for an easy two-mile gallop! You just ran a mile like there was a Triple Crown trophy at the wire!”
“The jockey on the black said that you-”
“Don’t make this worse by making up some story,” Jenna cut him off with a snap. “You’re lucky I don’t have security march you out of here this minute!”
“I’m not making this up! The jockey-!” Johnny spun on the spot, searching the now-empty track for the big black stallion.
Jenna shut him down again with a withering glare. “Johnny, you’ve been alone out here. Just you and the outriders and whatever idiotic possession you had to disobey my orders and put a valuable racehorse at risk!”
“Um, Jenna?” one of the outriders jogged up. “The filly just turned a mile in a minute thirty-five…”
“What? That can’t be right, Ed…”
“That’s what I’ve got, too,” another outrider rode up to add. A minute thirty-five.”
“Galloping Gordie said it was impressive that we beat him! He said you were right about Sugar being Atherton Racing’s ticket to the big leagues!” Johnny blurted desperately.
Jenna froze, the color draining from her face.
“W-what did you say?”
“Galloping Gordie said Sugar is your ticket! He said that with practice I could be a great jockey, and that Sugar is going to the big leagues!”
Jenna stayed silent, finishing her inspection of the filly. Johnny held his tongue, afraid that anything that he said would have him escorted from the track.
“Jenna…” Ed murmured, his voice shaking. “Jenna, look at the hoofprints…”
“Good Lord…” the other outrider said, seeing what her partner observed. “There are two sets of galloping tracks…”
“Laura, hold the filly, will you?” Jenna said. “Keep her walking, she needs to cool out… I need a closer look…”
Laura rode up and took Sugar’s reins, leading the filly off around the track. Eddie followed Jenna and Johnny as they picked up and followed the black’s hoofprints. Their path matched Johnny’s story perfectly, running alongside Sugar’s path on the outside, before peeling off in a trot toward the grandstand. A collective chill ran down all three of their spines when they discovered that the tracks vanished halfway across the track.
“Johnny… we’ll hot walk the rest of the horses only today. We can finish packing their gear to move out while they’re in the walker. We’ll talk later about getting you more ride time.”
“So, I’m not fired?” Johnny asked.
Jenna Atherton didn’t answer, instead silently walking the rest of the way to the grandstand and vanishing through the ladies’ room door.
“Want a ride back to the barn?” Ed asked Johnny.
“Sure,” Johnny replied, accepting the outrider’s hand for help up to ride double. “What was that about?”
“Galloping Gordie Atherton was a legend of a jockey on this track,” Ed said. “Jenna was just a wee little thing when his horse went down in a race. Gordie died in the wreck; that black stallion of his rolled clean over him. Looks to me like old Gordie’s still keeping an eye on his little girl and the horses, though.”
Johnny’s flesh prickled as Eddie put his horse up into a jog and they returned to the barn. The sun was just beginning to creep over the horizon, painting the sky in pale blue and orange. Johnny tried to shake the feeling that someone was watching them, and wondered, after the morning’s events, what else his career with Atherton Racing would bring.