‘The boys tell me your little bro made mules of them in the Caulfield Cup, and now he’s favourite for the big one at Flemington. How’d you go yesterday at Warracknawhatsit?’
If horses could smirk Aqua Boy was human. Stable gossip spreads at a gallop and the grey, who had finished second in a Sydney Cup, figured he had braying rights. He knew perfectly well the bay had been humbled again at a poor race meeting in Victoria’s far west.
It was a day Duke wanted to forget...eight hours to and fro in a stuffy float, stuck in city traffic in stifling heat, sucking road fumes, then standing for two hours in a dusty tie-up stall before being given a chance for his skin to breathe in a shady parade ring.
‘What chance has he got?’ the jockey asked with frowning indifference as he mounted.
‘Well, let’s put it this way,’ his handler replied with a knowing grin, ‘if his little brother were in this race he could give him a furlong start and beat him by two furlongs. We call him ‘Carpet’ ‘cos he keeps getting beaten.’
The Duke’s big ears heard the sneer in the commentator’s voice when he whipped them in at the winning post.
‘And coming in after dark is King Conda’s big brother, but I doubt the Melbourne Cup favourite will bother waiting up for him!’
Duke whinnied to his trainer – about his wide run from a bad barrier.
‘The jock flailed away with the whip stinging into that sensitive spot on my right flank and pressed the saddle into that tender part of my back. Did you see the check that stopped me in my tracks ...?”
As usual his excuses weren’t heard in the ‘two-legs’ tiny ears. He was a six-year-old gelding, still a maiden after thirty-three race starts, and had run out of excuses.
The Duke hung his head low and looked forlornly into the empty courtyard from his box as a hot wind whipped wisps of straw into a whirling frenzy.
The clatter of feed bins and the rustle of fresh hay roused him from torpor as Barker, the stable dog, yapped excitedly before swooping on a spillage of gumnuts, a sweet-smelling treat reserved for Dodo, the stable’s old pony.
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‘Why is Barker man’s best friend,’ Duke whinnied, ‘when we shoulder his burden and all they do is make noise?’
Dodo shrugged. He had a mouth full of gumnuts.
If horses could count, Singing Duke would notice only ten bins were laid out for the twelve stalls. He nodded anxiously as the stable-hand hustled towards him with a loaded bin, but squealed in protest and spun agitated loops of his box when he was bypassed for the grey next door.
Feed is expensive and trainers rarely bother with a last meal when outcasts are cut from a stable – some to meet their fate in a killing pen, a steel bolt blasted into their brains.
The bay was a hungry horse that night and Aqua Boy, still chomping, popped his smug well-fed head in for an unwelcome chat.
‘Yum, barley, oats and even a carrot, yum, yum! I’m afraid I licked it clean, old chap. Sorry you missed out, but I guess that means you’ll be leaving us tomorrow. Where to, I wonder – hayburner headed for a new home, or for the last outpost? The ‘two legs’ say that’s where all you chaff bandits end up – in a can. Barker might be getting a taste of you next week. Pity really, you were always good for a snicker...did I ever tell you about that Sydney Cup I should have won?’
Aqua Boy nearly always finished his prattle with the same question, and The Duke was ready for him. Turning his back on the grey, he spread his hind legs and let go with a gigantic yellow pee he had been saving for hours.
‘There you go water boy, take that and lap it up because I wouldn’t piss on you in a fire.’
Singing Duke endured a restless sleep wondering what indignity would be next.
His belly had gurgled long and loud. He nibbled at the straw bedding in his box but couldn’t stomach the taste of his own pee.
‘Here we go again,’ he sniffed, as a human might sigh. ‘How can life in a stable be so unstable?’
A two-horse float arrived and Duke was bundled aboard with Taptoe, well named because she kept dancing on her toes with perpetual disquiet.
The spooky little mare had worked herself into a lather of sweat, ears twitching this way and that.
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‘Where are we going? Winawin went to the cannery when she couldn’t win one. Is that it for us? Why so calm? You’re slower than I am, but I try so hard. Why haven’t they fed me? I don’t eat much but I could eat a two-leg right now...’
The Duke steadied her by arching his head over the partition and nuzzling her neck, but her fidgeting threatened to knock the teeth from his jaw.
‘You are safe with me, little one,’ he snickered soothingly. ‘There’d be an outcry if they dared dispose of King Conda’s big brother on the eve of the Cup, don’t you think?’
The horse, of course, had no idea what humanity had in store for him, but he shared some of the mare’s misgivings and was thoughtful as the float bobbled on its way to ... who knew where?
He’d heard that a racehorse gathers confidence after it wins a race.
‘Will I know what that is if I ever experience such a thing?’ he mused.
The bay was suddenly roused from his reverie by the odd, but somehow invigorating scent that roused a quivering in his muzzle when the float rumbled over dirt road corrugations.
Taptoe brightened in the eye and stepped on tippy-toes when she glimpsed treetops from the domed window.
Their big ears wiggled and wobbled this way and that to determine direction, but The Duke was baffled by a faint swishing sound in the distance.
He was soon to discover a wonder he’d never before seen ... the sea.
Singing Duke stood to attention in the morning sun, savouring a gentle breeze and the mysterious fragrances of garden beds as his new trainer rubbed a firm hand down his forelegs, feeling for heat, and then along his withers to the troublesome flank that flinched at his touch.
‘Mmmm, apart from a good feed,’ he said, ‘this horse has back and muscular issues. We’ll need to swim him a bit and give him time in a paddock.’
‘Take as much time as you like,’ the older man said. ‘For a few thousand bucks I thought King Conda’s brother was worth a punt, and he has the looks of a handy stayer.’
On alternate days for the next two weeks, The Duke joined Taptoe and his new stable-mates swimming off the summer heat and cantering in cooling shallows at Warrnambool’s Lady Bay Beach.
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From dusk till dawn, he and the mare shared a shady yard of river sand that was soft under-hoof.
They watched in awe, ears pricked and twitching, as kangaroos grazed peacefully in a parched paddock opposite.
If horses knew happiness The Duke was in clover. Having settled into this truly stable routine, he would soon be moved to a spelling paddock a short distance from the farm, there to encounter perils that would change his life ... if they didn’t end it.
The paddock had dried to crisp straw during a late summer heatwave in which temperatures soared to 38 degrees, but fresh hay bales were stacked in one corner and an open shed sheltered a water trough from the scorching afternoon sun.
The Duke, Taptoe and their new companions had shady protection from a grove of gums and lazy days were spent mingling and swishing tails at persistent flies.
Ashtar Gate, an ungainly brown with a white star between his eyes, told how he could smell death in his last sale-yard and feared the worst when he hadn’t been fed.
‘But I had some fight left in me and refused to be loaded onto this rickety old float. They were reaching for the horsewhip when a girl with a golden mane came along with fire in her eyes and paper in her hand. The men gave me up and here I am a happy horse again.’
With scarce meat on his bones Scotch Sun was a little languid, but who could blame him? Eeekkk! He was recovering from snakebite and was soon dear to Duke’s heart having once crossed paths with Aqua Boy.
‘Hrrrumph, that uppity old grey,’ snorted the Scot, ‘bugged me on the way to the barriers at Moonee Valley that he was robbed of a Sydney Cup. To shut him up, I lashed out with a kick aimed at his jaw. Too bad I missed. Still, I was determined to beat him that day, and it was worth a few extra slaps to run the race of my life and whip him.’
The bay made a firm friend of Flash Friend, a flashy chestnut with three white feet who told rousing tales about his ‘jumping’ career.
‘I love the speed of hurdle racing, with my mane flaring in the breeze,’ he neighed. ‘But nothing beats the thrill of a steeplechase. The bigger fences are a challenge, but when I leap I feel like an eagle in flight.’
Flash confessed that he was recovering from a bruised shoulder, suffered in a fall.
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‘Pilot error; not my fault!’ he whickered. ‘The jock tried to ease me over the last jump, but that took the spring out of my step. I clipped the top and crashed, but I’ve lived to fly another day.’
Taptoe began to bob and weave, ears flicking to and fro. If horses had instinct she had foreboding, but it was a mob of roos, leaping and bounding in a scatter of panic ahead of the surging smoke, that alerted her to danger.
Two legs are told they can never outrun a grass fire, but fear and the same adrenalin that might make them try, coursed through Singing Duke’s veins as he led his companions in a charge along the fence line. They had to dodge and weave away from the smaller roos as they tried to force their way through the tangled wire that kept sheep in an adjacent paddock.
Black smoke threatened and visibility dimmed when a two-metre fence, topped by a single strand of barbed wire, loomed ahead.
The Duke did not hesitate. Like a coiled spring he tucked into a crouch before take-off and cleared the fence by a foot. On landing, something in his back seemed to click into place. Relief was immediate, but it hardly compared with the exhilaration of flight.
Flash Friend, the big, bold steeplechaser, baulked ahead of the others, not in fear or refusal, but in awe of the majestic leap he’d witnessed.
The Duke sensed timidity and galloped back along the fence line, towards the advancing flame, in search for higher ground to reduce the difficulty of the jump. He stood, reared and whinnied ‘Hhhheeere, hhheeere!’ at a spot where scrambling roos had caused the barbed wire to sag.
The bay needed Flash Friend now to prove to the others there was no obstacle to fear and the chunky chestnut didn’t let him down, sailing easily through the gap, bringing the brave, trusting Taptoe with him.
Scotch Sun faltered, wheeled around to reconsider and turned to face the burning grass, as if ready to risk his fate with fire.
The Duke pinned his ears back and squealed ‘Sssnake, sssnake ... tiger snake!’
The once-bitten Scot reversed in fright, reared high to the lie and cleared the fence in a diagonal bound that was clumsy but spectacular.
Four horses were now a short dash from relative safety in a paddock so vast that not a sheep could be spotted. In widening circles they whinnied and screamed, willing Ashtar Gate to join them.
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But the raw-boned brown stood frozen on a mound staring listlessly into the distance.
If horses could reason, Ashtar Gate would have opted for a steel bolt spearing into his head, but was jolted from his stupor when bales of hay were consumed in a whoooshhh of fiery splinters and swirling embers.
With radiant heat searing his hide, Ashtar harnessed a burst of energy to lunge over the fence, scraping his belly on the barbed wire and snagging a great clump from his tail.
The five daring horses galloped fast and free, crossing one permanent firebreak, then another, and caught a cooling breeze from the sea which turned back the smoke and flame almost as swiftly as it came.
King Conda was galloped on in the Melbourne Cup that year, finished at the tail of the field, and was retired to stud.
Taptoe’s owner was apologetic for having parked his Jaguar in long, dry grass that ignited when it came into contact with the hot exhaust.
‘It seems right,’ he said, ‘since Taptoe and Duke beat the blaze together, that the mare’s first mating should be with the gelding’s little bro, King Conda.
The Duke, however, was no longer in his shadow.
His confidence surged when he won his first hurdle race by twenty-five lengths and his first steeplechase by twenty-seven.
If horses could read, the big bay would know he was unbeaten in his first six starts over fences and was favourite for Japan’s Nakayama Grand Jump.
The scribes were already comparing him with Australia’s most famous Ê¼chaser, Karasi, a three time winner of the world's richest jumps race.
‘If horses could talk,’ one asked the bay’s trainer, ‘what might he say?’
‘Ah, but horses do talk,’ he replied. ‘I watched Singing Duke lead four of my horses away from the fire and the old boy urged every one of them to make that leap to safety. This horse tells me he loves to jump and I’ve had many faster gallopers who say ‘No way’
Aqua Boy bragged less about the day he should have won the Sydney Cup. A light of his (almost) glory days, he was reduced to the ignominy of trying to earn his keep over jumps, but if horses had egos, his was too damaged to try.
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Stable gossip spreads at the speed of a grassfire.
When the grey learnt he would be facing the unbeaten Singing Duke in a prestige steeplechase at Flemington, he affected a limp on race morning and was scratched. Who would have thought that horses could act?