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When I had the ticket, I said, 'I'll have another twelve to two on number four.'
This time, Whitecross pushed out his cheek with his tongue.
I put the ticket in my top pocket and said, 'Twenty-four thousand to four thousand. Please.'
No interest. I got it. Then I said, 'Same again.'
Whitecross's offsider said something in his ear. He leaned forward to look across at another bookie. I looked too. Cyril Wootton was there. The bookie had just shortened Steel Beach to 2-1.
'It's 12 to 6 now,' said Whitecross.
Between us, Cyril and I pulled Steel Beach down to 9-4 before we stopped.
We also pushed Dakota out to 100-1, which was when Cynthia, Elvis Peatbog and the others went into action.
The 100s dropped to 66s. They shrank to 33s. Then the word came through from Randwick. Cam had struck. The price went to 20s, 14s, 7s. When Dakota and Nancy Farmer set out for the starting gate, the price was 9-4 and n.o.body was taking very much.
Wootton drifted over. 'Mission accomplished,' he said, your World War II RAF squadron leader back from holding off Jerry above the fields of Devon.
'Part one,' I said. 'Part one.'
'Tremendous interest in this race,' the race caller boomed. 'A big plunge on number ten, Dakota Dreaming. Very big plunge. Interstate too. Hammered in from 100-1 to 9-4. Not often you see that. Lots of excitement. A three-State plunge. Someone must think they know more than the form shows. If this horse gets up, there'll be a lot of bookies stopping off at the teller machines on the way home to get some Sunday collection money. Surprise of the century some would say. Longer than that. Lazarus gets gold in the marathon. This horse hasn't seen the track for two years and didn't exactly go out in a blaze of glory then. Money too for Steel Beach in the early stages and it tightened for a while. Then the Dakota Dreaming avalanche hit the books.'
He went on like this until they were ready to go.
The interval between the time the light on the starting gate began flashing and the instant the horses lunged needed a calendar to measure.
Nancy Farmer missed the start. Badly. They were all on the way before Dakota Dreaming. That wasn't in the plan.
Dakota was coming out of barrier 10, which was not good news at Caulfield. Harry's instructions to Nancy were to get across onto the rails as quickly as possible.
'You don't need a Rhodes Scholar to tell you that,' he'd said to Nancy the night before, after we'd watched videos of all the main contenders racing. And a few Caulfield Cups for good measure. 'There's a heap of good horses never won from a wide gate at Caulfield.'
We'd watched videos of two of Steel Beach's races. 'Not much cla.s.s,' Harry said, 'but he's the danger. One-pace stayer. Genuine stayer. If he gets the drop on you, out in front, settin the pace, in his stride, I don't know if you can catch him. Even five kilos to the better. Might be too big an ask for this fella Dakota. Too big for this Shining Officer, that's for sure.'
Six hundred metres from the start, Nancy found a gap and got onto the fence. Just in time. The long curve began after the first chute and to be trapped wide then meant covering many more metres than the rails horses.
The caller said, 'At the eighteen hundred, Steel Beach's drawing away from Sir Haliberd, who's weakening, Shining Officer's coming up on the rails.' He rattled off a string of names before he got to Dakota Dreaming.
She was fourth or fifth last. This wasn't good.
I got my gla.s.ses on the field and picked out Nancy's black, white and green hoops. She had several horses outside her and a slowing one in front. I could see her looking around. Desperately.
At the 1200, the caller said, 'I don't know what the rest can do here. Bit of a procession. Steel Beach's looking good, Sir Haliberd's gone, Shining Officer's hanging on, third is Celeste's Bazaar, followed by Fear or Favour. Gap to Fashion Victim. Well back is the plunge horse, Dakota Dreaming. Deep sighs of relief from the books at this stage, I suggest.'
I had my gla.s.ses on Nancy. She was at least fifty metres behind Steel Beach, in a pocket and looking for a way out. A bad mistake had been made, I thought. I loved the Sisley drawings. Isabel had loved them. I'd hoped to give them to Claire one day. Now I'd lost them and $25,000.
I lowered the gla.s.ses and looked around. Harry was two rows back, a dozen metres along, anonymous-looking as usual. He had his gla.s.ses up.
The caller said, 'Signs of life from the plunge horse here. Farmer's taken her out wide at the turn. Don't know about that. And it could be too late now. It's eight hundred to go.'
Nancy had come off the rails, gone between two horses and moved Dakota wide, out towards the middle of the track. It was an act of desperation.
There were six horses between her and Steel Beach, strung out. The leader was fully extended, comfortable, ready to run all day. His jockey turned for a look. Nothing to alarm him.
Nancy was on Dakota's neck. They went up to horses number seven and six in what seemed like a dozen strides.
Then it was five's turn to be swept away. Next was Shining Officer. He appeared to lose heart, running out of pedigree, carrying five kilograms more weight than Dakota.
It was Celeste's Bazaar's turn. The horses ran stride for stride.
'Two-fifty to go,' shouted the caller. 'Celeste's Bazaar's gone. It's Steel Beach and Dakota Dreaming. Unbelievable. Come from near-last to challenge. They're at the two hundred. What a race. The plunge horse. Bookie's nightmare. Sayre looks back. Taken the whip to Steel Beach. Hundred to go. Can he hold?'
Nancy and Dakota. She seemed to be whispering in his laid-back right ear, all her weight on the horse's neck. Gradually, the gap closed.
They were at Steel Beach's rump.
Not enough track left for Dakota to win.
Nancy, only hands and heels, every fibre of her body urging Dakota to win.
The horse responded.
Dakota's stride seemed to lengthen by half a metre. They surged, seemed to drag Steel Beach back.
Metres to go.
Dakota stretched his neck and put his head in front.
'Dakota,' shouted the caller, 'Dakota! It's Dakota Dreaming! Steel Beach second, Celeste's Bazaar a miserable third. What a finish! What a disaster for the bookies!'
Nancy was standing in the stirrups, up above the horse. She raised her whip in triumph. That would cost her a fine. But she didn't care. She'd come from ten goals down at three-quarter time. Life would never be the same again.
We were home.
I looked for Harry. He was uns.c.r.e.w.i.n.g the top of the little flask of Glenmorangie. He took a swig. I caught his eye. He gave me a nod.
Down below, I could see Tony Ericson and Rex Tie dancing together. The boy, Tom, had his sister on his shoulders.
'Dakota,' said Linda from behind me. 'That's the word you said in your sleep.'
I turned. She was in her leather jacket, windblown, full of life. 'Don't tell Harry Strang I talk in my sleep,' I said. 'Get here in time?'
'Only just. But I didn't know what I was looking for.'
'As long as you found me,' I said. 'That's the important thing.'
She leaned across and kissed me on the mouth. 'Yes. That's the important thing.'
We didn't stay for the rest of the day's racing. On the way back, I put the radio on. Fitzroy was leading Collingwood by two goals with eight minutes to go.
'Got anything on it?' Harry said.
I said, 'Just my whole life.'
'That's too much,' Harry said. 'It's only a game. Not like the horses. You and the lady free for dinner? Cam'll show up, gets out of Sydney alive.'
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