By Geraldine Brooks
It was only when Lexington walked right into a barrow that someone had carelessly left in the midst of the paddock that Jarret began to suspect the truth. He pulled a kerchief from his pocket and flapped it. The horse leaped sideways and Jarret felt a rush of relief. But when he tried the same test on the other side, the horse made no response at all.
One eye was failing. There had been signs: a manner of tilting his head to favor the better eye, the way he dropped his muzzle to probe the ground, especially where surfaces changed suddenly from dark to light. The horse had been resourceful. In the familiar surrounds of Metairie, he’d made his own mental maps and compensated even as his world began to darken.
A blind horse has other acute senses: smell and hearing and the delicate sense of touch in the fine hairs of his face. He can travel well through his known world using these. But away from his familiar home, there was fear.
Harry had always told Jarret that Boston went blind because of a savage beating. He’d been sure that the blindness wouldn’t be passed down to his foals. But now Jarret wondered if his father had been mistaken. Perhaps Boston’s blindness was hereditary. He walked Lexington to his stall on the Saratoga farm and examined his eyes closely. There was no discharge, no clouding. But then his fingers found the lump of misshapen bone. He felt the other side—no lump. That, at least, was good. He knew of many horses who raced just fine with sight in only one eye. But what could have happened to deform his bone in this way? Jarret had been with the horse his whole life, except for those hard weeks at Fatherland, and even there, he’d watched him from a distance and would have known if the horse had injured himself. Pryor had called on him for the colic; he would have done the same, surely, for any other crisis. He couldn’t think what, besides a bad injury, could misshape a bone and rob a horse of vision in that way.
When they left Saratoga and transferred to the stables at the National Race Course in New York City, Jarret made various excuses as to why Lexington should not be turned out with other horses and why he alone should have the handling of the stallion. It was easy enough to convince the hands that the stallion had a foul temper, since so many did. They were willing to take Jarret at his word and leave everything, from the mucking of the stall to the morning gallops, entirely Then, when Captain Stuart sickened and died from the cholera, the misfortune gave cover for their untimely return south. Stuart had been the one with good connections at the new course, and Ten Broeck had relied on him to create interest in a northern contest. With the death of his friend, Ten Broeck seemed to lose heart for promoting such a race, and sent word to bring the horse home, by slow stages, keeping him in condition for the Race Against Time.
Jarret had done so, taking every opportunity on that journey south to build on his strong bond of trust with the horse and to expand the range of verbal commands Lexington responded to. They had stopped for long rests at farms where Ten Broeck had connections, and in every strange place, Jarret worked from first light to last on building Lexington’s confidence. He slept in the pasture so that the horse would be reassured by his familiar scent. By the end of the journey even a strange paddock held no terrors.
He had been confident Lexington would run brilliantly in the Race Against Time. He was just as certain that if he had time to heal the soreness in his feet, Lexington would defeat Lecompte. Maybe, with a worthy challenger to press him on, he would even beat his own world record.
Jarret wanted this chance. The blindness was progressing rapidly. Despite his hopes, the sight in the good eye had begun to fade. Soon, he feared, Lexington would be completely blind. And no one would risk racing a stone-blind horse.
But if Lexington beat Lecompte, he would prove himself beyond doubt the champion stallion of the age, assured of a good life as a coddled stud sire. He didn’t need to see to do that.
Jarret lifted Lexington’s hoof out of the soaking tub and dried each leg vigorously. Gilpatrick held the stall door as he carried the tub to the barn entrance and threw the water in a wide sparkling arc.
The two men stepped out into the warm spring morning. A grimace of vexation deepened the lines on the smaller man’s face. Jarret sighed. “You really think he gone call this thing off if you tell him?”
“Yes, I think—I expect—”
“Then you don’t know him. There ain’t nothing gone make him do that. He plans to make this thing the race of the century. He reckons it’s bigger than American Eclipse and Sir Henry back in 1823, bigger even than when you raced Boston up against that Fashion filly in forty-two.”
“But there were seventy thousand people at that race! He can’t possibly think—”
“But he does. That’s exactly what he thinks. He saw how many folk came out just to watch a race against a clock, and now he reckons this rivalry—the two great sons of Boston—is sure to take hold of the racing press and fire up every single person ever liked a horse race—rich, poor, old, and young. That what he thinks. You, me—nothing we say is gonna stop him.”
Jarret looked around, to make sure they weren’t overheard. “But what you might do is rowel him up to some kind of foolishness. Just like we talked of last time. That man might do anything. You know that.”
Gilpatrick stared up at the tall youth, considering. He’d raced against talented Black jockeys all his long career and ridden winners trained by expert Black horsemen. Any notions he’d had about natural inferiority had long ago been rasped away by the evidence of his own experience. He knew Jarret’s gift with horses was prodigious. But was he also a judge of the motives of men—especially of such a subtle player as Ten Broeck? Gilpatrick wasn’t sure.
In the end, he said nothing, and the race date was set for April 14. The sporting press waxed enthusiastic, as Ten Broeck had predicted, hailing Lexington and Lecompte as “the great lions of the day” and proclaiming that their contest merited the “same interest and avidity as the probable fate of a nation.”
Readers apparently agreed. New Orleans filled to brimming, once again, with racing fans lured by Ten Broeck’s promotional flair. Wells’s friends from the Red River district crowded the city, avid to see their man put the northern interloper back in his place. The Kentucky-bred horse and his New York owner could not be allowed another triumph. Wells’s sister boasted that half of Rapides Parish had come to bet on Lecompte, “not only because they considered him the best horse in the world, but because he was Jeff Wells’s horse.”
By midday, coaches and drags packed the infield, carrying their noisy parties. As the clock eased slowly to the three p.m. race time, strolling bands of minstrels, acrobats, and Creole dancers entertained the crowd. Vendors carried trays piled high with fruits and iced drinks. Ten Broeck had ordered the stands decorated with festoons of bright fabric and soon the gaudy tiers were crammed. Trees sagged and boughs cracked under the weight of spectators. It was, the French denizens proclaimed, a “succès fou,” even before the horses left the stable.
From HORSE by Geraldine Brooks, Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Copyright © 2022 by Geraldine Brooks.
*This story was originally published in the February 2023 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!