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Authors: John R. Tunis

Grand National

BOOK: Grand National
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Grand National
John R. Tunis

To Thomas H. McKoy,

who won the Grand National in

1969 with his horse Highland Wedding.

Gallant horse, gallant owner.

Contents

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

One

T
HE ROOM WAS
large and comfortable, with a lived-in feeling, showing the traces of money and the things money can buy: old furniture, pictures, an Oriental rug. Over the fireplace hung the painting of a bay mare, posed, conventional. A silver plate at the bottom explained that the horse was Dusty Miller, winner of the 1952 Maryland Hunt Cup, ridden by J.I.B. Cobb, Esq.

On the various tables were trophies of every kind: silver cigarette boxes, photographs of horses in silver frames, silver cups large and small. Shelves on two sides of the room were lined with books, giving it a warm appearance. On close examination these books turned out to be all about horses and hunting:
Fifty Years with the Quorn
,
The History of Steeplechasing
,
Saddle and Equitation.

The young man across the room slumped into his easy chair until he was reclining on his spine. He had a mass of tawny hair. His father sat opposite, asking questions. Both were tense, their voices sharp and bitter.

“But Stan, you must have known your thesis was due. What happened?”

“Oh, Dad! Why should I break my neck cranking out a useless thesis? So I could graduate and join the rat race you’ve been in for thirty years? No thanks. I told you how I felt, but you never listened.” He rose, tall, thin, with long legs. Then, seeing the pain on his father’s face, he said, “All right, Dad. It’s just that I want something more helpful than the things I studied at college.”

“But Stanley, last year you were going for honors in history.” The father felt stunned by the suddenness of his son’s decision to leave school.

“I gave it up. How would you feel, Dad, if someone asked you to spend six months working on the origins of power in English town and village life in 1655?”

The father hesitated. The objection sounded reasonable, but the boy had thrown away his future without consulting him. He doesn’t really know what he wants. Except to ride that horse.

The boy sank back into his chair. “When that topic was suggested, I walked out of the professor’s room. Riding is a damn sight more
meaningful
than college.”

“Stan, I doubt that your mother would have been happy to see you a gentleman rider.” The older man spoke with an edge in his voice.

A silence settled over the room. Her death from leukemia the previous year cut into them both. “Maybe. But I know one thing. She wanted me to be myself. She often told me so.”

“Perhaps,” said his father coldly. “But it seems to me that you simply find it more fun to ride Quicksilver at some race meeting in Virginia than to dig down to get an honors degree at college. Aren’t you using that horse as a cop-out?”

The boy flushed, and Jack Cobb sat thinking how much worse the situation was than he imagined. Maybe he should never have given Stan that wonderful horse. This boy presents the illusion of maturity, Cobb thought, but how awful to be so incapable of compromise.

“Stan, if you leave college now to ride that horse, your name will get back to your draft board right away.”

“With my number, sixteen, I’m elected no matter what I do.” He got to his feet again, tall, fit, and implacable. “But I want some good races before I go. Y’know, Dad, I had Quicksilver over the fences for an hour today. I believe I have a chance at the Hunt Cup next week—if old Smitty leaves me alone. And if I win, I might try for the National in England.”

How can he make such a suggestion with the draft facing him? Cobb was aghast. And at this time. It had been the worst of weeks for the firm of Cobb and Stevenson. Rumors of its bankruptcy were all over town. Customers were even asking for their securities. The older man rose wearily, a hand involuntarily passing over his forehead. “I have a hard day tomorrow. I must get to bed. Lock up for me, please, Stan.”

Up the stairs he went in the silent, lonely house. What would the next day bring? Yet his thoughts were on the boy. What will become of him? What on earth will become of him?

Two

H
E KNEW PERFECTLY
well why Stanley had chosen to sleep away from home the night before the Maryland Hunt Cup. After the scene of the previous week, Stanley did not want to risk another argument, so had phoned to say that he was going to stay with his roommate, who lived at Pikesville on the edge of the course.

On Saturday Jack Cobb rose early. He knew well enough that Stanley had a great chance to win. After all, who was better over those fences? With a magnificent horse on a sunny spring day with the sky blue above, he felt his boy was better than anyone in the race.

At six thirty in the morning he was on the road, noticing that the signs leading to the course were up already. In a few minutes the whole expanse of the race stretched out before him. The Maryland Hunt Cup was the oldest as well as the stiffest cross-country timber race in the nation. Immediately Jack Cobb noticed something else; the rain-soaked turf was shimmering in the dew of early spring.

Jack walked slowly along, testing the turf at each fence, recalling the history of each jump. There was the third—five rails and five feet high—where trouble began. The sixth was also dangerous. At the seventh, an old friend had gone over the neck of his horse and died from the fall. The eighth was another uphill jump, and hard. He had heard of many horses breaking their neck at it. One of his own mounts had caught a rail and brought him down there a number of years ago. The thirteenth, almost five feet in height, was called the Union Memorial, because it sent so many riders to the hospital of that same name in Baltimore.

Jack walked along, studying the terrain, locating the best place from which to take each jump. The quickest way around was to stay as close to the inside as possible. He noticed that the ground was much softer inside, but still he felt that Quicksilver would be better there.

That afternoon, over a course only four hundred yards shorter than the Grand National in England, Stan had to face the best jumpers and leading amateur riders in the country. Beyond the two-mile circle stretched twenty fences, mostly constructed out of West Virginia chestnut. Five feet in height, the rails were formidable and grim. Few horses ever broke one and remained standing.

At that moment Jack noticed a determined figure approaching. It was P.J.M. Smith, old Smitty himself, clean-shaven so that Jack noticed his jowls were blue in the crisp morning air. Dressed immaculately in tailored jodhpurs and a smart sports coat, Marshall Smith made everyone else feel shabby. He was an older and more celebrated rider, a well-to-do banker who lived outside Baltimore. Despite the many years he had ridden in this race, he never had won it. All winter he had worked and trained faithfully, bringing his big mare, Norman Blood, into perfect form. His racing days were ending, so he had to win this year or not at all. Everyone in racing knew Smitty was a rough, aggressive rider, taking chances, giving away nothing, fighting every inch of the way to get the maximum from his mount.

“Morning, Jack.” Was there a patronizing touch of contempt in his tone, as his eager eyes swept over Jack’s baggy pants and patched coat?

“Morning, Smitty. Nice day after all the rain this week.”

“Yes. The turf should be fairly well dried out by this afternoon.” Smitty spoke with authority.

Jack’s eyes moved over the grass. “Likely it may be on the slow side, though.”

“I guess you’re right. You know,” he said suddenly, “I always felt you made a mistake on that horse of Stanley’s.”

Last week there had been moments when Jack came close to hating his boy for the risk that he was taking with his future. But to hear someone speak slightingly of Stan’s chances was unbearable. He hardly trusted himself to speak. At last he said, “I guess you know the kind of rider Stan is, Smitty, and I got him the best horse I’ve seen in a long while. After all, I’m a fairly good judge of horseflesh. You remember in 1960….”

His words struck home. In 1960, Cobb had been ahead of Smitty at every jump. Cobb saw Smith go pale, but his expression never changed. With a quick “See you later” he strode off.

I hope Stan beats the life out of him, Cobb thought furiously.

A half hour later, having walked the entire circle carefully, he moved along to the big red barn up the hillside. The stableboy was leading horses outside and greeted him cheerily. “Morning, Mr. Cobb. How’s your son feeling today?”

“Oh, he’s all right. How’s the horse?”

“Raring to go, Mr. Cobb, but everybody’s talking about how Mr. Smith is dead sure to win the race. Mister Stanley has sure got his hands full, and that’s the truth.”

Jack nodded and stepped inside the barn. Immediately a familiar neigh came down the rows of the stalls, and he could distinguish the stamp of Quicksilver’s hooves, crisp and expectant. Slowly he approached the stall. Quicksilver was a big bay gelding with fine quarters, good shoulders, and a marvelous head, which he extended as Jack came toward him. On being touched, the horse at once responded, as if to say that he realized what Jack felt at this moment.

Cobb had bought the horse, as a foal, from a country doctor outside Lexington, Kentucky. The sire was a Thoroughbred once entered in the Derby; the mare had won the Colonial Cup in South Carolina. As a young horse, Quicksilver had good lines, and Cobb had told the story of his purchase many times. “Imagine, a horse like Quicksilver for a hundred and fifty bucks.”

Now this beast was a trained racer. As Jack stroked the animal’s neck, he felt him nuzzle his arm. Quicksilver wanted to be liked; he had a real feeling for Jack and also for Stanley. For a moment Jack stood there, stroking Quicksilver’s neck. He felt the immense spirit of the animal, the fire and drive deep inside. With what Stan had learned about racing, he should do well with the horse.

Two horses had been scratched that morning and another had turned up lame, so the field was reduced to seven. Yet all seven were top riders. Buzz Scott, Stan’s senior by five years, had ridden two Hunt Cup races on an eight-year-old named Jet Plane; Peter Lambeth on Ground Mist had pushed the winner of the previous year. Then, of course, there was Smitty.

The horses and riders worked their way through the crowd inside the circle made of red-painted snow fence, people standing ten feet deep on both sides of the start. As Stan moved in a few yards down, Jack could hear the boy’s name coming from that sea of faces around him.

“Have a good ride, Stanley. Have a good ride, Stan boy.”

Quicksilver reared slightly and moved nervously as Jack Cobb appeared at his side, took the bridle, and led the horse, with Stanley astride him, a few yards down the track and away from the crowd.

“Now, son, let him run his race and get over the fences his own way. He’ll have the stuff when you need it. And just remember that the inside can be worth more than a half length or more. I’ve walked the course, and I know what I’m saying.”

Stanley looked down, frowning. “Yes, Dad, sure. But I walked the course, too, later than you did. It’s softer on the inside, and Quicksilver doesn’t do well in that kind of stuff.”

Suddenly Stanley’s name boomed out over the loudspeaker. “Mr. Cobb, Mr. Stanley Cobb, Number 5. At the judges’ stand, please.”

Still Jack held onto the reins. “And whatever you do, watch our friend. Oh, he’s tricky all right. He’ll try to cut you off at the slightest chance, because he knows that you can beat him in a fair race. But you won’t have any trouble, son. You’re going to be okay.”

“Right, Dad, right.”

Jack could feel that Stanley didn’t want to hear any more of his suggestions. The boy was patting Quicksilver’s neck, trying to soothe him. Obviously Stanley was tense and trying not to flare out at his father. Jack knew the boy wished he would clear out and let him ride the race his own way, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself talking.

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