Liberty and the Dream Ride (5 page)

BOOK: Liberty and the Dream Ride
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They spent two more days on the road, staying in horse motels. On Friday they spent the night in Arkansas where the motel had a round pen and a cattle yard, so Comet had a chance to stretch his legs. By Saturday they had reached Nashville, Tennessee, the country music capital of the United States. The motel here had theme rooms, each one dedicated to a different music icon. Avery had the Elvis room, while Issie and Stella had the Miley Cyrus room, which was decorated in various shades of bright pink with giant photographs of the singer all over the walls.

After the intruder at Rio Rancho, Issie was nervous about leaving Comet in the yards alone at night, but she figured that if there was any danger Mystic would alert her. As it turned out, both nights were uneventful and Issie slept undisturbed. Perhaps Marcus had been right when he said that the man in the stables that night had been after Liberty.

After three days of towing their dilapidated old horse float down the highways, and living off the fast food from the roadside diners, they were nearly at their destination.

“We'll be in Lexington by lunchtime,” Avery announced as they drove down the main highway, past a sign that said
You're now leaving Nashville
in spangly gold writing beneath a giant cut-out shape of a silver guitar. “The Kentucky border is only a few hours away.”

“If Nashville is famous for country music,” Stella asked, “then what's Kentucky famous for?”

“Racehorses,” Avery said. “There are over five hundred horse farms in the Lexington district alone.”

It was just before midday when Avery took the highway exit to Route 64 and they began to head into bluegrass country. Issie looked out the windows at the sprawling miles of white post-and-rail surrounding green pastureland. It was April and the dogwood trees were in bloom. In the fields the mares grazed with their young foals at foot. Most of the colts and fillies were still only a few months old and too young to be separated from their mums.

“It's so beautiful around here,” Issie said, staring out the window as they passed yet another racehorse farm, an elegant white Southern mansion surrounded by red barns. “It's like horse heaven.”

This was heartland horse country, home to some of the wealthiest Thoroughbred stud farms in the world and the Kentucky Horsepark was right in the middle of it. At first you couldn't tell the horsepark apart from the rest of the surrounding farms. It was fenced exactly the same as the other properties, with endless miles of white post-and-rail. The difference was the horses. Kentucky Horsepark had some Thoroughbreds grazing in their fields, but they shared the pastures with exotic breeds from all around the globe.

“Ohmygod!” Stella wound down the window of the Jeep to get a better look at the horses. “Look! Aren't they cute!”

A herd of multicoloured miniature ponies in every colour from piebald to palomino had their heads down in the long grass right beside the road. Their diminutive size made them look comical alongside the massive Percheron draught horse grazing nearby, towering above them like a gentle giant. In the field alongside the Percheron a jet-black horse with feathered legs and a flowing curly mane raised his head to watch the horse float drive by. “That is the most beautiful Friesian I have ever seen!” Stella said.

“They have over forty rare breeds at the Kentucky Horsepark,” Avery explained as they passed another field with spotted appaloosas and golden palomino Quarter Horses grazing without any rugs, their coats shining in the Kentucky sunshine.

They didn't take the main entrance to the park. Instead, Avery turned down a side road signposted as Nina Bonnie Boulevard. They drove on until they reached another gateway where a tall stand of clipped conifers marked the entrance and the sign at the gate read:
Access For Competitors Only

Halfway down the avenue there was a security gate with a guard posted beside it. Avery took off the lanyard that he was wearing round his neck and showed it to the guard, who examined it and gave them directions before letting them through.

“He says that the stables are just up ahead to the right,” Avery said. “Comet's stall is in Block C.”

“This place is totally massive!” Stella leant out the window to stare at the rows of loose boxes.

“The park has stabling for three hundred horses,” Avery explained. “Horses must remain on site the whole time while the competition is underway.”

He pulled the float up in a parking bay beside the stable block with the giant letter ‘C' painted on the front wall.

“This will be Comet's home for the next week. We're going to be staying nearby in the competition village. I've booked us two cabins.”

Avery pointed in the direction of the village, but Issie was looking out towards the green fields – she'd just caught her first glimpse of the cross-country course that she would be riding in four days' time.

She could make out a couple of the jumps. There was a vast trakehner and one of the water complexes. Even from this distance she could see that the fences were far bigger than anything she'd ever ridden before.

“When will we get the chance to walk the course?” she asked Avery, feeling the butterflies suddenly taking up residence in her tummy.

“On Wednesday,” Avery said. “The course is out of bounds until then. After that you can walk it on foot as many times as you like, but horses aren't allowed near the course until they compete. You can ride in any of the indoor schooling arenas that are marked with an X,” Avery said, passing her a fold-out map. “The big building is the dressage complex – that's where you'll be competing on Friday in your test. And those are the showjumping arenas where you'll be riding the final phase on the Sunday.”

“Wow,” Stella said, pointing to a flashy silver horse truck, “check that out!”

The truck was enormous – big enough to take at least six horses, and totally sleek and glamorous. Issie suddenly felt awfully self-conscious parked next to it with their rust-bucket horse float. Their arrival was certainly drawing a few strange sideways glances from the grooms in the stable yard. She watched as one groom walked past with a glossy chestnut gelding dressed in smart white bandages with a perfectly pulled mane and she thought about Comet, her loveable but scruffy 14.2 skewbald that she had brought to compete on. Was she kidding herself? Maybe this competition really was out of her league.

Issie's feelings of being out of place weren't helped when a brunette in khaki chinos emerged from the office at the end of the stable block and walked briskly over towards them as they were preparing to unload Comet.

“I'm sorry,” the woman said, shaking her head, “but you can't park your horse float here. This area is for eventing competitors only.”

Avery held up his lanyard tag that he had shown to the guard at the gate. “We are competitors,” he said. ‘This is Isadora Brown. She's entered on her pony, Blackthorn Comet.”

The woman was shocked. “I'm so sorry!” she said, looking deeply embarrassed as she stepped forward to shake Avery's hand. “I didn't realise. Welcome to Kentucky Horsepark. You must be Mr Avery. I'm Blaire Andrews, I'm the manager of these stables.”

Blaire coughed, still looking rather embarrassed. “I'll wait while you unload Blackthorn Comet and then I can show you to your loose box and give you the tour of our facilities.”

If Blaire Andrews had been shocked by the state of the horse float, the look on her face when she saw the pony inside it was priceless. You could see she was holding her tongue as she watched Issie backing the little skewbald out of the float.

Comet came high-stepping down the ramp, raised his head up and gave a look-at-me whinny, as if to say “I've arrived, everyone!”

“Well isn't he a friendly little guy! I can see he's quite a character!” Blaire said, trying to be positive, but clearly not entirely convinced that this pony was really Four-Star material. “I have Comet's stall ready and waiting if you want to bring him this way?”

Avery, Stella, Issie and Comet followed behind Blaire as she led them past the elegant rows of loose boxes.

“You've arrived just in time,” Blaire told them as they walked. “The meet-and-greet is tonight.”

“What's that?” Stella asked.

“It's a chance for the riders to get to know each other before the event begins,” Blaire explained. “You'll find your tickets and all the details in the competitors' orientation kit I've prepared for you. The event is in the museum at six.”

Comet's loose box was one of the last ones in the long row of almost thirty stalls in stable block C.

“It's got state-of-the-art technology,” Blaire said, swiping her passcard through an electronic monitor beside the door. “Riders, trainers and their teams are assigned their own passcards to ensure that horses are secure at all times.”

She pointed out the features of the stall. “There are thermostats to keep the climate regular, surfaces are hypo-allergenic, including the straw bedding, and water troughs fill automatically.”

As Blaire listed the features of his new stall, Comet was already snuffling about in the feed bin that was hanging on the wall in the hope that there might be some tidbits in there.

They left the skewbald in his stall while they continued the tour. Issie wanted to give her pony a hug goodbye, but with Blaire standing by watching her, she decided it would look unprofessional – Four-Star eventing riders didn't do that sort of thing, did they? And so she settled for a slappy pat on Comet's neck before leaving him in his new temporary home.

The stable blocks each had their own hose-down areas, tack rooms and electronic horse-walking machines. There was a horse swimming pool to the rear of the complex for all the horses to use, and a feed bin room where grains and chaff were kept and the special dietary needs for each horse were catalogued on wall charts for the grooms to follow.

After touring the stables, Blaire walked them through blocks, D, E, F, G and H until they had come out the other side of the stables and were in the riders' village.

“You've got cabins two-four-one and three-two-three.” Blaire gave one cabin key to Avery and one to Issie and Stella.

The cabins were small, self-contained units with twin beds and a bathroom. Issie was dying to collapse on her bed as the dreaded jetlag had struck yet again, but she knew there wasn't time. They had to unpack their bags right away and get changed for the meet-and-greet.

It was nearly 6 p.m. when Avery came to meet them at their cabin and they walked together back through the stables, checking in on Comet, using their new passcards to visit his stall before continuing on towards the main buildings of the Horsepark.

There was a Stars and Stripes flag flying in front of the entrance to the museum and over the doorway a gold banner read:
Welcome Competitors to The Kentucky Four-Star Three-Day Event

In the foyer there was a table with name tags arranged on it for the guests. Not that most of the riders needed to wear them – Issie recognised their famous faces by sight. New Zealand riders Andrew Nicholson and Mark Todd were helping themselves to a tray of club sandwiches while British equestriennes Daisy Berkeley and Mary King stood nearby chatting.

“Ohmygod!” Stella suddenly took in a sharp gasp of breath and grabbed at Issie's arm as if she'd just seen Justin Bieber. “Is that Oliver Townend over there? He's so cool! And look, there's Pippa Funnell!”

Issie couldn't believe it. She had ridden against a few of these riders at Three-Star circuits in Europe, but she'd never seen so many equestrian super-celebrities together in one room before. “Look!” Issie hissed in Stella's ear. “Over there! It's Paul Tapner!”

The dashing, dark-haired winner of the Badminton Horse Trials was chatting away to a fellow Australian, Clayton Fredericks and his wife, Lucinda.

There was a fourth rider standing with the Australians. He had his back to Issie and Stella and at first they couldn't see who he was, but a moment later he turned round and when he caught sight of the girls his smile lit up the room.

“Hey!” he said. “Fancy seeing you guys here!”

Stella's jaw dropped open. “Ohmygod!”

It was Shane Campbell, former captain of the Australian junior team and Stella's one-time boyfriend!

“What are you doing here?” Issie asked. “I never saw your name on the list for Kentucky!”

“Bruce McDonald's horse pulled a ligament so I replaced him on the Australian team,” Shane said. “I'm going to be riding against you in the Four-Star! Cool, huh?”

“Totally!” Issie said. She was pleased to see Shane – but at the same time her competitive streak made her assess him as a real danger. Shane was a really good rider and he already had some experience riding Four-Star – he'd gone clear on the cross-country at Adelaide in Australia last November on his talented mare, Queen Latifah.

“I could use a groom if you're available, Stella?” Shane said, giving her a cheeky grin.

“Sorry,” Stella smiled back, “I'm Team Issie.”

“Maybe I can change your mind over dinner?” Shane said, flirting shamelessly with her. “Maybe you and I could go get some food after the meet-and-greet is over?”

“I'd love to—” Stella began but Avery interrupted her.

“—but she can't.” He finished Stella's sentence. “Stella has an early start tomorrow morning at six to get Comet ready for his first day of training. I'm sorry, Shane. I'm sure she'll have time to catch up with you after the competition is over, but the girls are on a nine p.m. curfew until then.”

“You're kidding me!” Stella was wide-eyed.

“Do I look like I'm kidding?” Avery asked.

“So what happens if I'm not back to my room before nine?” Stella pouted. “Do I turn into a pumpkin?”

“No,” Avery deadpanned, “you turn into an unemployed groom.”

BOOK: Liberty and the Dream Ride
12.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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