By Keith Wilson MD
Horse Park Fairground
Vicki James tossed and turned during the night as she fought with the blankets, first burning up and sweating, then shaking with chills. When the first pale shaft of sunlight streamed through the windows, she threw back the damp blanket and rolled upright on the cot. Squinting against a painful knot in her stomach, she forced herself to get up. She wasn’t about to stay in bed on the biggest day of her life.
Declining a room in the guest house with the other riders, Vicki had chosen to sleep in the stable on a cot to be near her horse. She always slept in the stables when they were on the road.
Vicki peered across the stable in the direction of the big chestnut stallion but couldn’t see him through the dust-choked air. But she could hear the spirited, temperamental stallion snorting and banging his powerful body against the stall.
Vicki pulled her straw-colored, dishevelled hair away from her face. She was a thin, delicate-appearing twelve-year-old; her large gray-blue eyes added a sense of frailty. But first impressions were deceiving. Her small, wiry frame possessed great stamina; months of hard training had produced legs like strong springs and a back that held its posture after hours in the saddle. The quiet, intelligent girl was driven by a stubborn determination. Her relentless pursuit of the Cup would shortly be tested against the best riders in the nation.
Vicki went into the tack room and gathered her clothes and overnight case. She needed a hot shower. As she started to leave she clutched her stomach and vomited a small amount of bitter clear mucus. A churning nausea moved through her belly and she retched again, bent over with painful dry heaves. She felt shaky and broke into a cold, clammy sweat as she held on to the door frame to steady herself. She’d been sick for two days and knew she was coming down with the flu.
After a minute the bone-melting weakness receded, and Vicki wiped sweat from her forehead with a towel. She picked up her duffel bag and headed for the shower.
She paused in front of the stallion’s stall. Diablo stretched his neck toward her and shook his head violently, throwing his black mane out in a wide arc. With ears back flat against his head and eyes wide, showing white, he gave a loud shrill neigh. His muscles twitched, and he stomped the ground impatiently.
She slapped his thick, muscular neck. “Morning, you rascal. You’re sure perky. I’m glad one of us had a good night.”
A massive stallion possessing great strength, Diablo stood almost eighteen hands high. His bloodline was unique. He inherited muscle and raw strength from his dam, a tall, powerful Hanoverian; his fiery temperament came from his Arabian sire. The combination was a unique genetic blend creating the ultimate jumper. Vicki was the master of the stallion who was too spirited for most men to ride. There was a special bond between her and the great animal.
“Just wait, Diablo. Patience. Today’s our day. We can do it.” With a final quieting pat, she rubbed his soft muzzle and moved on.
Vicki was lightheaded and dizzy as she walked along the stalls. Her joints ached, her head throbbed, and her eyes burned. Wishing she had gotten more sleep, she wondered how she would make it through the day.
“Are you feeling all right, squirt? You look a little pale.”
A figure stepping from the shadows startled her.
“Oh! Morning, George.”
“You don’t look too good,” he said, studying her. “You sure you can go through with it today?” Seventy-year-old George Martin had been training horses on the James Ranch forever; what he didn’t know about horses wasn’t worth knowing. His wide-brimmed Stetson and bowed legs were his trademarks.
“We’ll do fine, George. Quite worrying.” Her smile showed braces.
George stepped up closer. “I’m not talking about Diablo, I’m talking about you.” He placed his hand on her forehead. “Gotta fever, don’t you?”
She pushed his hand away. “Nah, I’m okay. Are Mom and Dad here yet?”
“No, they just called from Boston to say their plane’s been delayed,” he said. “But don’t you worry,” he said when her shoulders sagged in disappointment, “they’ll make it. Get some rest this morning and let me exercise Diablo. You just take it easy.” George gave her an assuring hug and walked away.
Vicki’s parents owned a large horse farm on the outskirts of Loudonville, a remote picturesque town in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She had been around horses even before she could walk; the love of horses was in her blood, more natural to her than bicycles or roller skates.
She and Diablo had compiled an impressive record of three consecutive Grand Prix victories, including the President’s Cup in Washington, D.C., a week earlier. Today’s National Invitational in Lexington, Kentucky, was the final event of the summer.
One more victory and she would be in the World Cup competition.
Horse Park Stadium reverberated with the tension of the thousands of spectators and reporters jamming the stands. Only forty-five horses and riders out of a field of three hundred had qualified for the season’s final event. The trophy was the American Cup. The winner would quality for the World Cup competition in Sheffield, England.
The grass sparkled in the bright sunlight, and the temperature was a perfect seventy-two degrees, with just enough breeze to keep the flags rippling slowly overhead. The field smelled of cut grass, fresh paint, and sawdust, mixed with a faint hint of leather and horse.
The championship course had fifteen difficult gates.
During the first round, twenty-three horses were knocked out of the competition solely because of fence number eleven—a treacherous triple combination. It started with a small knoll that required just enough effort to make the first five-foot rail a cumbersome uphill jump that strained both horse and rider. Before regaining full stride, two short strides brought the horse to a six-foot wall and pole, followed immediately by another rail, then a drop down the knoll. Even if the horse made the jump without a fault, considerable time could be lost in a timed event.
Only nine horses had survived the first round without a fault, and they were now facing a jump-off round to determine the winner of the Cup. It would be a timed event; the rider who finished in the shortest time without a fault would be the winner. Tension spread through the crowd as it waited for the drama to begin.
The timed round would be brutal. Rider and horse would be testing the limits of their skill and endurance.
The first two horses in the final jump-off had completed perfect rounds, with only seven seconds separating them. The horse just finishing the course had been an Olympic finalist and a previous Cup winner, but it had knocked down a rail at gate fourteen, an automatic elimination in a jump-off. Seeing the horse ahead of her fault at post fourteen unnerved Vicki.
“Don’t push Diablo too fast on the turns. Keep him reined tight.” George looked up at her and winked. His thick gnarled fingers checked the buckle on the cinch for the third time. “Go get ‘em, fella,” he said, slapping the stallion on the rump before he left to join her parents in the grandstand. He turned back toward her and gestured a thumbs-up, then continued on, his old stained Stetson soon lost among the crowd.
Vicki sat high and straight on the massive chestnut stallion as they waited their turn to enter the arena. They were beautifully matched for color and grace and were always favorites with the crowds. Her straw-colored hair flowed over the shoulders of her crimson jacket, and her black, polished boots gleamed in the sunlight. George had groomed Diablo’s coat to perfection, and the stallion looked magnificent with his black saddle and contrasting red girth. The awesome size of the horse demanded attention.
A tangled network of black cables fed into a large truck bearing the ABC SPORTS logo that housed the control center for a bank of cameras. A man with a portable camcorder moved beside Vicki for a close-up shot. She looked up into the crowded stands; George and her parents were somewhere among the sea of faces. Her parents had arrived an hour ago and had just had time to give Vicki a quick kiss and a hug before the event started.
Diablo ground the bit in his teeth, threw his head up, and snorted. She felt the stallion tremble and he pawed at the ground. The noise of the packed stadium excited him. His sides flared as he gulped air through his nostrils and his powerful shoulder muscles twitched nervously. She needed to maintain absolute control of her horse to achieve the critical timing necessary at the start of each jump, or the large horse could become too feisty even for her. The stallion’s ribs strained against the tight cinch of the saddle as Vicki fought to subdue two thousand pounds of raw nerve and muscle. She jerked on his reins, her own nerves frayed. The stallion neighed back in protest and snapped his head down.
Vicki leaned forward and grabbed a handful of thick mane and forced a firm “Diablo!”
A wave of nausea hit her again. Vicki shivered. Cold sweat soaked her back. She had vomited several times during the morning and gulped down enough Pepto-Bismol to turn pink.
A skull-crushing headache made her wince in pain. Vicki reached up and loosened the hard hunting cap and wiped her forehead with the back of her glove.
She placed her hands on either side of her head and tried to squeeze the pain into submission. Weak and dehydrated from vomiting, she prayed for relief, just for a little while. The nausea ebbed a little.
Why did everything have to come at the same time? Her first National Invitational event, the flu, and a jump-off round for the championship. The illness that now threatened to undo her months of disciplined training angered her.
“Number thirty-seven, Miss Vicki James riding Diablo.” That was her cue. She adjusted her cap and nudged Diablo with her knee. He turned sideways, jerked against the reins, then trotted into the arena.
She eased Diablo into a progressively faster gallop. His powerful body moved effortlessly toward the first jump, his thick muscles rippling in the sun. Vicki’s hair streamed out as she leaned low on his back, her arms stretched forward in perfect form.
The first jump was a five-foot gate and Vicki pressed her knees tightly and moved up on the pommel of the saddle. She stretched low over the Hanoverian’s thick neck as he bolted easily over the obstacle. Rhythm and balance were essential between horse and rider. They moved through the air as one and landed smoothly.
She felt dizzy again. Her eyes watered. She squinted against the stinging wind and turned Diablo to face the second jump, a six-foot rail that he took with ease. Time was the only thing separating the winner from the losers and Vicki let Diablo go. The fiery horse sensed the free rein and steel muscles responded as he accelerated, a faint layer of foamy sweat forming on his withers as long legs ate up the ground. The unchecked horse moved like a demon possessed, nostrils flaring and ears back.
Charging at the gates with pure instinct, the stallion jumped the next seven gates effortlessly, his stride never faltering, never pausing. Vicki struggled to keep her balance as Diablo gained momentum for the jump at gate ten, a wall and pole combination. He lunged upward, and she found herself sliding up onto his withers as she struggled to hang on. Again, he cleared it easily.
Everything dimmed and Vicki thought she was going to faint. What was happening to her? Her ashen-gray face was beaded with a cold sweat She didn’t dare stop now; she couldn’t do that to Diablo when they were so close to victory. They had worked so hard and had come too far.
They arrived at the ultimate challenge, gate eleven—the feared triple combination obstacle on the steep knoll. She should have reined Diablo in a bit, but she didn’t His powerful legs could easily carry them over the jumps, and she planned to do it quickly to put time between them and the other horses. When Diablo ran with free rein, nobody could catch him.
Vicki nudged him on. Her head pounded with each stride and she grew sicker by the minute. Unable to focus on anything ahead of her, she followed through the jumps by feeling his cues beneath her. She felt his muscles pull as he climbed the knoll and jumped the first rail.
When he took the second jump, she was too far forward on his neck, which would have prevented most horses from even starting the jump. But Diablo’s great size and strength kept him in stride and he cleared it. The jump threw Vicki wildly off balance. She grabbed his sweaty neck and dug her fingers into his mane to hang on, but she couldn’t recover in time for the third jump. She went flying over Diablo’s head.
She slammed into the ground with a thud and didn’t move. Diablo tore off at a full gallop, circling the area with reins flailing behind. The crowd’s moan was followed by an unsettling quiet.
Diablo walked back to her and nudged her body firmly with his nose. Vicki didn’t move. Her mother stood and screamed.