Heart’s Gamble excerpt

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Heart’s Gamble

By S.J. Frost

Published by MLR Press on October 21, 2016

Blurb:

Shawn Carlisle has dedicated his life to rescuing horses. Having grown up around the Thoroughbred racing industry, he knows for every champion racehorse, there are thousands more who end up broken and forgotten. When he rescues a mare named Heart’s Gamble, he’s heartbroken over her poor condition and he sets out to find her former owner to hold him accountable.

Grant Arrington inherited a horse farm that’s deep in debt from his father. He left years ago, not in agreement with his father’s harsh training methods, and is now trying to decide how to move forward. When he’s confronted by Shawn, he wants nothing more than to do right by Heart’s Gamble, and in the process, get closer to the passionate horse rescuer. The only problem is, he has to convince Shawn to take a gamble on what they could have together.

 

Chapter One

Shawn closed his eyes, needing a moment of respite from the scene before him. How could anyone do this to another living creature? How could someone care so little? Have no compassion? A horse didn’t get into this kind of deplorable condition overnight. It happened slowly, gradually, day after day of not being given food and care, of being left ignored…forgotten.

Had the mare been kept in a little dirt paddock or maybe locked in a stall, waiting for food and water to be brought to her? Since she hadn’t died of thirst, his guess was she was most likely kept outside, probably drinking water out of muddy puddles or a mucky trough. Every time she saw a person, had she perked up with the hope of getting food and attention, only to watch them walk away, disappear, leaving her with nothing?

Shawn opened his eyes and glanced behind him, to the sides, at all the small pens holding horses, ponies, donkeys, and mules. There were so many others—so many—who at that moment were waiting for their fate to be decided, or who were being loaded onto the trucks for the “killers,” those people who came to these low-end auctions and bought cheap horses to sell for slaughter.

Technically, it was illegal to slaughter horses in the US…for the moment. It was an ongoing war between animal rights activists and the slaughter industry. The victor of each battle was determined by who could either voice the biggest outcry to the public, or fatten up the pockets of politicians with their “contributions.” And even though horse slaughter wasn’t currently legal in the US, it was a hollow victory, since the politicians had provided a loophole to the law; horses could still be transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.

Shawn looked again at the chestnut Thoroughbred mare. She stood in the holding pen, her head so low her nose nearly touched the ground. He could count every rib on her down to her sunken flanks and protruding hip bones. Mud caked her dull coat, and it along with manure covered the mare’s legs so thick, Shawn could barely make out three white socks, two on her back legs, one on her right foreleg.

The mare was littered with bite and kick marks from being crammed in the small feedlot pen with far too many horses, all their sanity pressed to the limits. When the lots were full, the horses could hardly move without bumping into another horse and one who was a stranger, not a well-known pasture mate, not a member of their herd. On top of that, he didn’t doubt the horses knew the danger they were in. Rough hands grabbing at them. Harsh voices shouting at them.

The horses who came to these auctions, they were the forgotten ones. They’d outlived their use to the ones who’d owned them and were dumped off at the auction with the hopes of getting a few dollars out of them, or just to get rid of them.

He understood that life changed for people. Sickness, employment, death, moving…there were many factors that could happen in a person’s life making it so someone would have to sell their horse. For those who put in the effort of finding a new, caring home for their horse, he didn’t begrudge them. His own family had gone through changes and he’d moved their horses on to better-suited homes. But to send a horse off where their fate was unknown and death was a high probability? That was something he had a problem with.

Each horse here had a story. An overworked plow horse from an Amish farm, ponies whose children had outgrown them, former show horses who’d failed at producing ribbons or were long past their glory, broodmares too old to continue breeding. There were ones too spirited or untrained to be considered safe riding mounts. Ones not pretty enough, not the right coat color, had a conformation flaw, or…the list was endless and ongoing.

And there were the ones like this mare, who from a glance he suspected was a former racehorse. Maybe she lost too many races. Maybe she was pushed too hard and broke down. As with the others, her story was known only to her.

He couldn’t save them all. He knew that, but he’d be damned if he couldn’t save a few and he was going to give his all to save this lady. He could see it in her, how beautiful she would be filled out and strong, her coat burning red, her mane and tail flowing free rather than the tangled mess they were now. She would have her second chance with him, because that’s what he did. He gave second chances to the forgotten ones.

Shawn walked across the pen toward the mare. He stopped in front of her and slightly to the side. The mare didn’t move. Not a twitch of an ear or flare of a nostril to show she heard or smelled him.

Shawn kept his voice soft as he spoke. “Hey, pretty lady. I’m going to get you out of here.”

The mare remained motionless.

He saw that not only was she broken in body, her will was broken as well. That was a much more difficult thing to heal, but he’d done it before. Once he got her back to the farm, got good food in her, gave her a bath, treated her wounds and injuries, she would sense she was safe and under good care. Little by little, she would come back to the stunning creature she was meant to be.

Shawn pulled out his phone and switched it to the camera. He moved slowly around the mare, taking pictures. He would need “before” shots for his rescue’s website. People needed to see what cruelty and neglect looked like, then in a few months when he took his “after” pictures of her, what compassion and care could do.

Finished, he tucked his phone into his back pocket and approached the mare again. He stroked her neck, then bent forward, curling his arm under her head. “C’mon, girl. Lift your head up for me.”
The mare gradually brought her head up with his encouragement. Not to full height, but good enough. Shawn shifted more in front of her and took hold of her upper lip, turning it up. As he suspected, numbers were tattooed on the inside of her lip. She’d been a racer. Most likely ran too hard, broke down, not worth the cost to feed her, so she was chucked aside for the next young money-earner to fill her stall. At least with these numbers, he could contact the Jockey Club and get more information on her.

It wouldn’t be long before some of her secrets were revealed.

The mare protested him holding her lip with a shake of her head. Shawn smiled at seeing that little bit of spirit in her and knew she had heart. She might not have been a winner on the track, but to have survived all she had made her a champion.

Shawn slipped the lead rope off his shoulder and clipped it to her halter. He gave the lead rope a light tug. “Let’s get you out of here.”

The mare stepped forward to follow. He moved at a slow pace for her and kept watch on the right foreleg she favored. He’d seen bowed tendons enough in his life to suspect that was the cause of her lameness. That would be another challenge to get healed. Lots of stall rest would be in her future, but with her overall condition, he didn’t think she’d protest to it. He only hoped she wasn’t in foal.

With her condition, he doubted she was, but then again, he’d seen it before. He’d saved two mares before in condition similar to hers who were confirmed in foal during their vet check back at his farm and blessedly, were able to deliver healthy foals months later. Out of all he saw, pregnant mares in the feedlot pen bothered him the most. Whenever he came across a mare who was obviously in foal, he bid hard and higher than any kill buyers wanted to go to get her. Breed, color, conformation, none of it mattered. All that did was getting two lives saved.

Step by step, Shawn got the mare out of the holding pen, across the auction yard, and to his trailer. He tied the mare to the side of the trailer and went to the back to open it. As he lowered the trailer’s ramp, a big head peeked over the divider in the trailer and a deep whinny greeted him, despite the mouthful of hay in the Belgian’s mouth.

The Belgian gelding was in almost as sad of a state as the mare, but the big boy still had the sweetest, most loving disposition. Draft horses were also ones he tried to snatch up when he saw them at the auctions. They were favorites for the kill buyers because the slaughterhouses paid per pound and the drafts sold dirt cheap at auction. Even a malnourished draft horse brought in a bigger payout.

Shawn patted the Belgian on the rump and prepared a hay bag for the mare. He walked out and untied her, the mare hobbling up the ramp without hesitation. He secured the short trailer tie to her halter, unclipped the lead rope, and closed over the padded divider. Now he had to get the other three horses he’d bought and he would be on his way back to Forever Hope Farm with a full trailer.

He gave the mare one more pat on the back and turned to step out of the trailer.

A low, rough whinny left the mare.

Shawn glanced back to her, startled that the mare had finally made a sound. She looked at him with a tired eye as she pulled at the hay. He smiled and started down the ramp. “You’re welcome, lady.”

Chapter Two

Holding his head in both hands, his fingers buried in his hair, Grant stared down at the bills scattered across the desk’s surface. He had the money to cover them, but the figures were still daunting. As the saying went, if you want to make a small fortune with horses, start out with a large one. He knew that to be true, but it didn’t help that his father hadn’t been the best businessman. Or horseman. Or father. Or human being.

Grant leaned back in the chair and slumped down. He looked around the office, the walls lined with dark wood shelves holding trophies and photos of Black Oak Farm’s past champions. His gaze went to a picture of a bay Thoroughbred colt, his coat slick with sweat. At the horse’s head, a bald man firmly held the reins in one hand, a trophy in his other hand, and he frowned for the camera. Even standing in the winner’s circle, his father hadn’t smiled.

But that’s how his dad was. He expected his horses to win. When they didn’t…

Grant pushed away from the desk and stood, walking to the large window overlooking some of the pastures and the few remaining horses on the farm. His father had slowly sold off most of the farm’s stock over the three years between his diagnosis of lung cancer and his recent death. Having been away for so many years, he hadn’t realized the extent of all his father had done with the farm. Had he known, he would’ve tried harder to intervene and keep the best horses. When his father’s health first started failing him, he’d told his father he would take over the farm, but his father wouldn’t listen to him. Instead, his father yelled, “You’ll get it soon enough when I’m dead!”, followed by accusations that he was trying to rush his father to the grave. After that, he left him to do what he wanted.

For as long as he could remember, his father had been a hard man and they never agreed on how horses should be trained. His father’s infamous saying was, “God put these animals here to serve man, and by God, that’s what they’ll do.” He really believed his father didn’t even like horses, but simply stayed in the racing business because it’s what he was raised in and it brought in money. Having a true passion for the horses and the sport, that most definitely wasn’t a driving force for his father. Any way to make a dollar in it, that was his father’s passion.

And Bob Boomer, Black Oak’s longtime trainer, had the same mentality. Heavy with a whip and hard on the horses, that man didn’t care what it took to win so long as the first horse under the wire was carrying a jockey wearing the farm’s trademark black silks. Firing that son of a bitch was one of his happiest moments in the past twenty years. Between his father and Bob, they took the prestigious reputation his grandfather and great-grandfather had earned for Black Oak Farm and tainted it.

Rumors of harsh training methods followed Black Oak horses at the track. Whispers that the horses were shot up with drugs circled around them. Then proof in blood and urine testing on more than one horse coming back positive for banned steroids and substances confirmed those beliefs. Fines and suspensions were issued. More races were being lost than won, and it was speculated that Black Oak hadn’t won a race fairly in years. The black silks of the farm became a black spot on the track.

Not that his father cared. Being unwanted at the big tracks wasn’t a problem, because he could move to the smaller ones. A twenty thousand dollar purse was a far cry from the two million dollar one of the Kentucky Derby, but to his father, money was money, and all of it was good. All it meant to his father was to get more horses running…and running…and running. The ones who didn’t run fast enough found their way off the farm, to whatever fate awaited them.

And that’s why twenty years ago, at eighteen years old and days after graduating high school, he left the farm, his father, Kentucky, and moved out west to California, where he mentored under Colleen Masters, training racehorses in the way he believed was right, where the horse came first.

After a couple of years under Colleen, he picked up a few clients to train their horses and now, he was settled with a couple who owned a large farm, but for them, racing was a hobby, not a business. Their main thing was the thrill of seeing their horses run, and if the horse won, great. If not, that was okay, too. It was a different world than what he’d grown up in. Now here he was, back in his old world again.

He didn’t know what to do. Should he find the remaining horses good homes, or work to rebuild the great legacy the farm used to have?

Grant sighed and rested his head on the cool glass of the window. He should let it go. The farm’s legacy was ruined. The glory, gone. He should get the horses new homes, hire a real estate agent, list the farm for sale, and go back to California permanently. He’d never been one to take the easy way out, but in this case, it might be the best option.

A knock on the door broke into his thoughts.

Grant turned from the window and looked at the door. “Come in.”

The door opened. Jimmy, the barn manager, poked his head in. “Sorry to bother you, but there’s a guy at the gates wanting in to talk to you. Says he’s from some horse rescue place, Forever Hope.”

Grant barely suppressed a growl of annoyance. He’d dealt with more than one supposedly nonprofit horse rescue over the years and seen a few who used their donation money to stuff their pockets instead of caring for the horses. He’d even been part of an endeavor to rescue a few ex-racehorses from a rescue who’d “rescued” them. “Go ahead and let him in. I’ll handle it.”

Jimmy nodded and ducked out of the doorway.

Grant stepped out of the office and to the aisle of the main barn. He strolled down the aisle, all the stalls empty with the horses out to pasture, but even when they were in, the barn was far from full. At one time, all thirty stalls had been filled with racehorses or young racers in training. Now all it held were three older broodmares his father hadn’t gotten around to selling and two older timer geldings who used to pony the youngsters around the track.

Grant glanced at the stalls, closed and no longer being used. At this point, maybe it would be better to let the farm go. It was certainly closer to being ready to sell than it was to being a fully operational racing farm again.

He stepped outside and stopped. Glancing to his right, he spotted a blue Ford Super Duty dually coming his way…a newer model. So this horse rescuer was rolling up in a sixty-thousand dollar truck to beg for a donation. That took some balls.

Grant folded his arms across his chest. He had thought he might hear the guy out, learn a bit about his organization. Now, his interest had drastically gone down.

The truck stopped near him and the engine cut off. The driver’s side door opened. A lean, fit man hopped out, then turned and stretched back into the truck.

Some of Grant’s annoyance dissipated. The guy’s jeans hugged the curves of a very fine ass. He let out a low groan of self-deprecation. Was he really that easy? One glance at a hot ass and suddenly his interested was piqued again? But in his defense, his interest was piqued in a whole other way.

The man stepped back from the truck, holding papers in one hand, and closed the door. He lifted his sunglasses, setting them on top of his head of thick, dark brown hair and revealing bright blue eyes. His features were chiseled and strong, stubble dusted his jawline, cheeks, and outlined his lips. He wasn’t very tall, even toward the shorter side, but the gray T-shirt he wore conformed to the muscles in his torso, and his biceps filled out the sleeves.

The man flashed a bright smile at him. He spoke, his voice deep and smooth, colored with a Kentucky drawl. “Mister Arrington, I presume?”

Grant unfolded his arms. Damn, that voice. He may have grown up in Kentucky and there was a time when he’d had that accent himself, but he’d lost it from his twenty years in California. Hearing it in this man’s voice was enough to unravel him.

Yep, he absolutely was that easy. So, so easy.

Stepping forward, Grant extended his hand. “That’s me.”

The man took Grant’s hand, his grip firm. “It’s a pleasure. I’m Shawn Carlisle, the owner of Forever Hope Farm. I rescue and rehabilitate horses and get them into good, caring homes. Got a great staff of mostly volunteers, everyone working to do a little good in the world and by these horses that have seen the worst people can throw at them.”

With those words, Grant felt his defenses rising, despite how attractive the other man was. The guy was already making his pitch for money. “I see. And I’m sure you do plenty of good, but I’m afraid at this time, I’ll be unable to make a donation to your efforts. Judging by that truck, your farm is doing just fine. Now if you’ll excuse me…”

Grant turned, spotting Jimmy with Wyatt and Travis, the other two hands, standing nearby and knew they’d see to the guy leaving.

“Now wait just a damn minute!”

Grant startled at the shout and spun around. All cordiality had vanished from Shawn’s face.

Shawn stood scowling at Grant, pointing a finger at him. “I didn’t come here for a handout, and even if I did, what kind of truck I’m driving doesn’t mean a damn thing. And I don’t go around begging for donations. Do some people help out and give to the farm? Sure they do. But I don’t go asking for it. I’m more than capable of supporting it on my own. You ever hear of Castle Royal Farm?”

Grant stared at Shawn, taken aback by the man’s boldness and sudden fire. And he had heard of Castle Royal Farm. It was another racing stable and local. If forty-five minutes away was considered local. At any rate, one thing he knew about Castle Royal, they used to put out some great horses and had been one of the most respected farms to ever bring a horse to the track. But it was years ago that they were one of the rulers of racing. He didn’t know what happened to the farm, hadn’t ever looked into it, but they weren’t a presence in racing anymore. “Yeah, I know of it.”

“Well guess what, chief? That’s my place!”

Grant shook his head, knowing his confusion had to be showing. “What? You just said you owned some other farm.”

“Because they’re one in the same. It’s been in my family for generations and my granddad, Roy Carlisle, left it to me. My family made more than plenty of money in racing, as I’m sure you know if you know anything about the business, but when I took over before my granddad passed, he told me to do some good with it. Pay it forward to those who’d done so much for our family. And by those, he meant horses. He always treated his stock as if they were kings and queens, princes and princesses, and he wanted to give more back. Unlike some.”

Anger rose in Grant. Shocked as he was at all this man was saying to him, there was more than one implied insult to Shawn’s words. He took a step forward. “So since I’m not wanting to give you a handout, that means I’m not a good horseman?”

Shawn moved forward a step, also. “I’m not going to pass judgment on that, despite what’s known about this farm, but what I can say for sure is you don’t listen real well. I already told you, I’m not here for a handout.” He held up his phone, tapped the screen, and turned it toward Grant. “I’m here because of her.”

Grant moved his gaze to the phone. His breath left him as if he’d been punched in the gut. On Shawn’s phone screen was a picture of a chestnut mare, her head hanging so low her nose was nearly on the ground. She was malnourished, ribs clear, hip bones protruding, flanks and temples sunken, and even in the picture, he could tell her right foreleg was swollen with a bowed tendon.

The screen slowly began to blacken. Shawn lowered the phone and tucked it into his pocket. “That mare is Heart’s Gamble. You remember her?”

Grant slowly shook his head.

“Of course you don’t,” Shawn said, his tone sharp. “She was just one of many, right? A winner as a two-year-old. Big hopes for her at three. But when enough money was offered, you were still willing to let her go. Except, she was already having soundness issues, wasn’t she? Too many races, too young. But hey, you made your money off her, so why not make a little more and sell her off before those issues became known. Only problem was, her new owner didn’t want to deal with her problems, either. Just had her shot up with some painkillers, ran her in a few more races, then dropped her into a claiming race.”

“She raced a couple of more times after that, then she dropped off the circuit for a year and her next stop…a low-dollar auction. Thanks to the Jockey Club’s record keeping, I was able to get her papers and track down her other owners to learn about her, up until her last racing owner who sold her to some lady who won’t return my calls.”

Shawn held up the paper in his hand before Grant’s eyes. “According to her registration papers, she was born here. Since you raised her, I thought maybe you’d give a shit about what happened to her, but I can see now I was wrong.” He spun around, storming toward his truck. He tore open the door and jumped in. The vehicle rumbled to life, and he leaned out of the window. “On the off chance you do care, I’ll have you know I’ve had that girl under my care for the past three months and she’s fought hard to recover and she keeps fighting. And I’m not going to give up on her like you and everyone else did.”

Caught in the whirlwind of Shawn’s anger—and passion—Grant couldn’t get a word out. By the time he thought of a response, Shawn had the big truck swung around and was heading down the lane toward the gates. Grant stood motionless, watching until the truck disappeared from sight.

“Well, shit. That’s a hotheaded man if I ever met one.”

Grant slowly came back to his surroundings at hearing Jimmy’s voice. He turned to him. “Do you remember the horse he was talking about? Heart’s Gamble?”

Jimmy pushed his baseball cap back as he scratched his head. “It’s been a few years, but I remember her. It was a damn shame your daddy let her go. That girl was quick. Put down times faster than the colts he had in training. I told him she could be a Derby contender, but he blew me off. So did Bob. Neither of them thought a filly could hold against the colts in the big races.

“But I didn’t think the same. She could’ve been the next Winning Colors, the next Ruffian, the next Zenyatta. She could’ve ran with the big boys and showed them nothing but tail and dust as she pulled away in front of ’em all. Wouldn’t have mattered anyway, though, since Black Oak wasn’t running at the big tracks anymore when we had her, so they were racing her at the smaller tracks, no stakes races. That’s probably why you never heard of her.”

Grant nodded. Heart’s Gamble had been one of thousands of horses running every day in small purse races across the country. That was racing. Only a handful of races had the prestige and fame the likes of the Kentucky Derby, the Santa Anita Derby, the Breeder’s Cup. Same as only a handful of horses made the cut to that elite level of racing, and for all those champions who did, there were countless others running their hearts out in nameless races.

“She was a beautiful filly,” Jimmy continued. “Coat such a bright red. A real sweet disposition to her, too. She was filling out to be a big girl, but same as he did with all his youngsters, your daddy got her in training and running early. I can’t remember off the top of my head how many starts she had as a two-year-old, but I know it was a lot. Probably what got her broken down later on. A damn shame.”

“Yeah,” Grant mumbled. So many thoughts, images, and words raced through his mind—the mare’s horrible condition, the disgust in Shawn’s handsome face, in his tone, the accusations…wrong accusations. Shawn was right on all he’d said, but he was pinning the blame on the wrong guy.

It seemed even in death, his father’s reputation was dogging him.

Resentment burned through him, though it was pointless since no matter how much he yelled or screamed, his words would never reach his father. They never had when his father was alive, either.

Grant turned to go back into the barn and to the office. “C’mon, Jimmy. Let’s see if we can dig up some information on Heart’s Gamble, maybe some training or racing videos of her.”

He stepped into the barn, his gaze lowered as he walked. Along with the image of Heart’s Gamble, there was one other he couldn’t shake—how damn fine Shawn Carlisle was, even in anger.

Copyright 2016 by S.J. Frost and MLR Press