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Authors: Stacy Gregg

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BOOK: Riding Star
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Alice responded by knee-barging him once again, neck-reining Will hard to the side and clashing shoulder-to-shoulder with Cameron's pony, who fell away and let Alice take possession.

“That was a foul!” Cam raised his stick in the air.

“No, it wasn't!” Alice shouted back. She kept riding and passed the ball to Georgie, who stopped the ball and then took a shot at the posts. The shot dribbled forward pathetically and rolled to a stop right in front of the posts.

“Hit it again!” Alice yelled out.

Georgie rode Belle forward and swung again and this time the ball flew through the air, square between the posts.

The game was over – the girls had the final goal!

*

“That was the most fun I have had in, like, forever!” Alice said as the girls rode back to the stables.

“You were pretty harsh on Cameron,” Georgie said. “That last goal when you rode him off the ball was hardcore.”

“But you told me to do it, Georgie!” Alice frowned. “The other day when we were talking about me and Cam, you said I should try and do something to make him notice me!”

Georgie groaned. “Alice, I don't think beating him at polo was quite what I had in mind!”

Daisy agreed. “As a general rule, boys don't want to go out with girls who are always beating them at stuff.”

“It's not my fault that I'm a better polo player than he is,” Alice grumbled.

“It's a good idea to let boys win occasionally,” Daisy said airily. “It keeps them happy.”

“Anyway – it was brilliant fun and we should do it again,” Emily said. “I was only just getting the hang of it when the chukka was over.”

“We need four ponies each so we can have a proper game,” Alice said.

“I don't see why the girls' houses don't have their own polo strings,” Daisy harrumphed. “My parents pay the same school fees as the boys do – so how come they get one and we don't?”

Emily shrugged. “It's just tradition.”

“You know what,” Georgie said, “I'm a little bit tired of that excuse. Everything stupid here is ‘tradition'. I don't see why there can't be a girls' team.”

“They'd never provide us with sixteen ponies,” Emily pointed out. “It would be far too expensive.”

Alice agreed. “My dad has polo ponies and they cost a bomb. His good ones are worth about twenty thousand dollars apiece.”

“But what if they just allocated the stabling?” Georgie argued. “If we had the same facilities as the boys and we were responsible for getting our own string of ponies together?”

Alice perked up. “I could ask my dad for some ponies! He'd never let me have his best competition mares, but he's got, like, half a dozen old polo mares that he's retired.”

“And we could use our own horses,” Georgie added. “That's another four.”

“I'm not using Village Voice,” Daisy said. “I mean, I'm not trying to be a handbrake or anything but he's just too big to ride polo on.”

“Well we've got three horses then, plus the ponies that Alice says we could get from her dad…” Georgie did the maths.

“We've got a few polo ponies at home too,” Emily offered, “but I don't think my dad could afford to ship them over from New Zealand.”

“So they have polo ponies in New Zealand?” Alice asked.

“Loads!” Emily said. “They use Thoroughbreds – any mares that don't grow big enough to be raced on the track often end up being sold on as polo ponies.”

“They use actual racehorses?” Daisy said.

“Well, smaller ones,” Emily said. “I know a place back home where they retrain racehorses that used to gallop.”

“Ohmygod!” Georgie's eyes went wide. “I've got a totally genius idea! I know where we can get enough Thoroughbreds to start our own string!”

At that moment the sound of hooves echoed through the stables up ahead of them and, round the corner, three riders appeared. At the front of the group, riding a sleek golden chestnut, was a girl with glossy red hair.

“Kennedy alert! Let's get out of here,” Alice muttered.

“Where to?” Georgie hissed back. “She's already seen us. Keep calm, she's like a shark – she can smell fear.”

“I thought sharks smelled blood and horses smelled fear?” Emily murmured.

“Sharks can smell dogs if they're in the water,” Daisy offered.

Georgie groaned. “Not the point, guys.”

Now it was really too late to escape. Better to face the enemy head-on.

“Hello, Kennedy,” Georgie said.

The only good thing about being kicked out of eventing class was that Georgie had hardly seen Kennedy Kirkwood so far this term. OK, the showjumperettes were still in the same class as Georgie for maths and German – but Georgie made sure that she arrived late and sat across the other side of the room. She had caught glimpses of Kennedy at lunchtimes, looking ridiculously perfect, like she had a team of hairdressers summoned to her dorm room each morning. The head showjumperette was a Ralph Lauren ad come to life. Even the drab regulation winter uniform looked good the way she wore it, with her kilt skirt shortened into a mini.

The other showjumperettes wore their uniform the same way as Kennedy. She was their leader and they idolised her from the top of their blow-dried heads to the tips of their fingers – which had been painted in Kennedy's new favourite shade – Chanel ‘grey 505 particuliere'.

But right now there was only one thing about Kennedy's style statement that Georgie noticed – her jacket. Kennedy was wearing Georgie's Barbour.

“Ohmygod. That's my coat!” Georgie never thought the showjumperette would actually have the nerve to wear it at school!

“You mean it
was
your coat,” Kennedy smirked. “My boyfriend gave it to me.”

“Give it back right now, Kennedy,” Georgie said.

“Or you'll what?” Kennedy said. “What exactly can you do, Georgie? My boyfriend is the head prefect of Burghley House.”

“Wow,” Alice said, “I never thought I'd actually meet someone who was proud to admit they dated Conrad.”

Kennedy's face turned dark with anger and she was about to snap back at Alice when Arden suddenly interrupted. “Hey! Why are you guys dressed like that?”

“Like what?” Alice asked.

“Like polo players,” Arden said.

“Because, Arden,” Alice said, as if she were talking to a five-year-old, “we have been playing polo.”

“You're kidding!” Arden giggled.

“It's not a joke,” Georgie said. “We've formed a girls' team.”

Arden was still giggling. “You look stupid. Polo is a boys' game.”

Georgie glared at her. “Arden, you can stand on the sidelines like a stick chick if you want, but some of us are actually interested in playing.”

“It's not a proper team though, is it?” Tori said, taking Arden's side. “You're not real polo players.”

“Yes, we are.” Georgie suddenly lost her cool. “In fact, Badminton House is getting its own polo string.”

The other three girls looked wide-eyed at her.

“You're lying,” Kennedy said. “No, I'm not.” Georgie was shaking. “I've been talking to the headmistress about starting a new girls' team. She's pretty keen on the idea.”

“No way!” Kennedy still didn't believe her. “This is Blainford Academy. Hell will freeze over before they give permission for a girls' polo team.”

“Well, get your pitchfork ready for a snowball fight, Kennedy, because we are totally forming a Blainford girls' polo team – we're going to be playing in the Round Robin Tournament at the end of the month!” Alice retorted.

“Oh, what-ever!” Kennedy rolled her eyes and looked over at Arden and Tori. “Let's get out of here.”

As the showjumperettes rode away Alice let out a groan. “And there it is, everyone! The sound of my pathetic hollow threat echoing through the stables.”

Georgie shook her head. “That wasn't a threat, it was a promise. We have to start a team now – even if it's just to get back at Kennedy!”

“Totally,” Daisy agreed.

“Uh, I hate to be a downer,” Emily said, “but don't we have to, like, get permission first?”

“You heard what Georgie said,” Daisy replied. “She's already been to talk to the headmistress about it!”

“Yes, but that was a lie, wasn't it?” Emily said.

“Um, yeah,” Georgie admitted. “But it's about to become true.”

She looked at the other girls.

“I'm going to see Mrs Dickins-Thomson first thing in the morning.”

M
rs Dickins-Thomson's office was on the upper level of the main building, directly above the library. The ancient wood-panelled room smelled of violets and horse leather. Harnesses, antique stock whips and various pieces of unusual equine paraphernalia were hung on the walls.

Directly over the vast walnut desk where Mrs Dickins-Thomson sat was an oil painting of a horse. He wasn't exactly a ravishing beauty. Even the untrained eye could see that the horse was a rather donkey-ish sort. He was plain brown in colour, with no white markings to speak of and a heavy head, a bit like a Wellington boot with big ears.

This oil painting was well-known by most of the senior pupils at Blainford. It was a bit of a rite of passage for Mrs Dickins-Thomson to sit her pupils down in the chair facing her desk and ask them to tell her the name of the horse in the painting. And this morning Georgie was in the hotseat.

“Can you tell me who the horse is, Miss Parker?” Mrs Dickins-Thomson asked.

Georgie shifted uncomfortably. She had never laid eyes on the painting before now and the horse seemed entirely unremarkable.

“I'm afraid I don't know, Miss Dickins-Thomson,” Georgie said.

“I'll give you a clue,” the headmistress said. “He's a famous racehorse, who won the match race of the century, beating the great stallion War Admiral to the post in nineteen-thirty-eight.”

“Really?” Georgie said.

“You seem surprised, Miss Parker.”

“Well, he doesn't look up to much, does he?”

Mrs Dickins-Thomson smiled. “No, he doesn't,” she agreed. “If horseracing was based on looks, his chances would have been slim.” The headmistress walked over to the painting and Georgie noticed that the brown tweed of her coat matched the colours in the portrait. Mrs Dickins-Thomson looked a little bit like a horse herself, with her long face and aquiline nose.

“His name was Seabiscuit,” Mrs Dickins-Thomson continued. “He was born undersized, a Thoroughbred foal with the worst conformation they'd ever seen at Claiborne Farm stud in Kentucky. He had knobby-knees and weak hocks. When they put him on the track he failed to win his first ten races – most of the time running dead last.”

“I thought you said he was a famous racehorse?” Georgie frowned.

“Oh, that came much later,” Mrs Dickins-Thomson said. “You see, Seabiscuit might not have looked like a star in the beginning, but underneath his humble exterior he had huge heart.

“Everything changed when he was sold to a new owner and suddenly he became a racing legend. Seabiscuit beat the mighty War Admiral head-to-head in a match race, outrunning him by four lengths. He won all the big races including the Santa Anita Handicap – in fact, there is a life-sized bronze statue of him at the Santa Anita track.”

Mrs Dickins-Thomson put a hand up to the painting and traced her finger along the horse's muzzle. “Seabiscuit needed the people around him to nurture the greatness that was hidden within. It wasn't until others believed in him and worked hard to bring out the best that he could truly shine. That is our task here at Blainford Academy. We must believe in our riders, train and guide them so that they too can become stars.”

Mrs Dickins-Thomson stared at the painting for a moment longer and then she shook herself out of her reverie.

“Anyway, Miss Parker, what can I do for you today?”

“I want to start a girls' polo team,” Georgie said.

*

It was pitch-black at 5am when the pick-up truck pulled up outside the Badminton House dormitory. Nervous that Riley would honk and wake the whole place up, Georgie ran down the stairs to meet him.

Riley leapt out of the truck and came around to open the passenger door and it was then that he realised she wasn't alone. Alice, Daisy and Emily were trooping down the stairs behind her.

“They're coming too?” Riley looked surprised.

“I'm sorry,” Georgie said. “I thought I'd mentioned it. I hope you don't mind?”

“Of course not,” Riley said, “I just don't know how I'm supposed to fit all of you in the pick-up.”

“Don't worry about it,” Emily joined them on the driveway, “I can ride on the back. I do it on the farm at home.”

“Me too,” Alice said, grabbing the side of the truck and hoisting herself up on to the flatbed alongside Emily while Daisy took the other seat inside the cab next to Georgie.

“Are you sure?” Riley said to Emily and Alice. “It's freezing. You'll be icicles by the time we get there.”

“It's not that far,” Emily said. “We'll be fine.”

“Hold on a second.” Riley reached over to a stack of Hessian sacks. “There's an old horse rug under this stuff. Throw that over yourselves to keep warm.”

The girls snuggled together on the flatbed, hunkering down beneath the rug.

“Just knock on the window if it gets too cold, OK?” Riley said, as he opened the driver's door.

He jumped into the cab beside Georgie. “So what's this all about?” He turned to her. “Why are you girls suddenly so desperate to go and watch trackwork at Keeneland Park?”

Georgie dug into the pocket of her coat and pulled out an envelope. She opened it up and showed Riley. It was full of hundred-dollar bills. “We're buying horses.”

*

Georgie had laid out her plan to the other Badminton House girls after they ran into Kennedy Kirkwood wearing the stolen Barbour.

“All the trainers take their Thoroughbreds to Keeneland Park for trackwork on a Saturday morning. We'll turn up and watch the horses train and figure out which mares are too small and too slow to race. Then we'll buy them off the trainers and school them up into polo ponies.”

“It's a genius plan,” Daisy agreed. “Except for the bit where we buy the horses. I don't know about you guys, but I don't get enough pocket money to stretch to a string of polo ponies.”

“Me neither,” Emily said. “You heard what Alice said. A good polo mare can cost as much as twenty thousand dollars!”

“But we're not going to be buying the good ones,” Georgie pointed out. “We're looking for the washed-up, useless racehorses that no one wants. We should be able to pick them up dirt cheap!”

“OK,” Alice frowned. “So how much have we got?”

“I've got three hundred dollars in my savings account,” Emily offered.

“I've got the cash my nana gave me at Christmas and my savings – that's almost five hundred pounds,” said Daisy. “What about you, Georgie?”

Georgie looked at her friends. “Are we really serious about this? We're going to start our own polo team?”

“Totally,” Alice confirmed.

Georgie took a deep breath. “I can get the money,” she said, “I just need to talk to my dad…”

Her phone call back home started out all right. Dr Parker had just walked in the door and was having his Friday night glass of brandy, which always put him in a good mood. But the tone of his voice changed abruptly when he discovered the reason for the call.

“Let me get this straight,” her dad said. “You want to buy a squad of ponies?”

“Not a squad, Dad, a string,” Georgie said. “Alice's dad is giving us six of his old mares, and we already have our own horses, so I only need another three ponies for me.”

“Oh, so it's just three?” Dr Parker said sarcastically. “Right, where do I sign the cheque?”

“You don't have to sign a cheque, Dad,” Georgie said. “I've got my own money from selling Tyro. I'm just asking you to let me spend it.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “I'm getting three for the price of one, so it's saving money in a way,” Georgie pointed out. “Plus we're going to school them up so they'll be worth more – it's like an investment.”

In the end, Georgie's strange logic and her dogged persistence wore Dr Parker down.

“All right,” he told her. “How much are the other girls' parents letting them spend?”

“Well, Daisy has five hundred pounds…”

“Fine. Then you can have the same,” Dr Parker said. “That ought to be enough for three ponies.”

“But—”

“Georgie, don't push your luck. Take the offer and hang up now,” Dr Parker cautioned her.

“OK, thanks, Dad.”

As Georgie hung up the phone she realised she was shaking. Her dad was wiring her five hundred pounds. She was going pony shopping!

*

The guard at the gates of the Keeneland Park track knew Kenny's red pick-up truck by sight, although he was a little surprised when the truck pulled up and Riley was behind the wheel.

“Morning, Riley, where's your uncle Kenny?” the guard asked.

“Hey, Earl,” Riley leaned out the window of the truck. “Still in bed, probably.”

The guard shone his torchlight on to the flatbed where Emily and Alice were sitting under the horse rug and then shifted the beam into the cab of the pick-up where Georgie and Daisy were sitting alongside Riley.

“Does Kenny know that you're using his truck to transport a herd of fillies?” the guard said with a grin.

Riley looked embarrassed. “Can I drive on through, Earl?”

“Sure you can, son. Park up by the stables. I think your father is already here.”

Riley eased the pick-up through the gates and steered it towards the ivy-covered limestone buildings up ahead to the left.

“Your dad is here?” Georgie asked.

“Yeah,” Riley nodded. “We've got a couple of horses in work at the moment – I'm riding track for him today so I'll have to abandon you guys for a while.”

“It's OK,” Georgie smiled at him, “I know my way around.”

She had been to Keeneland Park before to try her hand at riding trackwork for Riley's dad. Now that she was back here, smelling the familiar scents of the horse sweat, liniment and tobacco, and listening to the jockeys' voices floating out of the darkness, she wished she was about to mount up too.

Riley parked the truck and headed for the stables on foot, and Georgie led the girls over to the railings where the bright spotlights above the track illuminated the jockeys mounted up on their first rides of the day. On the sidelines by the white wooden railings the trainers stood in their heavy overcoats, binoculars dangling round their necks, with stopwatches clasped in their hands.

As they approached the railings one of the men in a brown wool coat and baggy corduroy breeches turned round to give Georgie a wave. “Georgie Parker!”

“Hi, Mr Conway.”

“Riley told me you were coming out with him this morning,” John Conway smiled at her. “I hoped you might be considering riding trackwork for me again? Clarise sure could do with a jockey.”

Georgie smiled. “Thanks, but I'm not here to ride today, I'm here to buy some horses.”

John Conway looked taken aback. “You're planning to become a racehorse owner?”

“Oh, no!” Georgie shook her head. “We're looking for Thoroughbreds that are too small and too slow for the track.”

Georgie introduced Alice, Daisy and Emily to Mr Conway. “The four of us are starting a girls' polo team and we need horses,” she explained.

“So what are you looking for?” John Conway asked.

“Fifteen-two hands and under,” Daisy ran through their checklist on her fingers, “any colour, with strong muscly hindquarters, short-coupled and short pasterned, but long-necked—”

“And they've got to be cheap,” Georgie added.

The girls leaned up against the railings with Mr Conway and watched the horses being breezed.

“That brown mare looks good,” Alice said, pointing to a horse that was being taken down to the sixth furlong marker by her jockey.

“She is good,” John Conway said. “Too good for you. That's one of my mares – Scandal. I'm expecting her to run in the Oaks this summer.”

He pointed over at a skinny-legged chestnut that was currently putting up a fight on the concourse as his jockey tried to convince him to step out on to the sandy loam of the track.

“Now that's more your speed. That chestnut is one of Tommy Doyle's horses. He's run in three graded races so far since he turned three years old – and he's been last in every single one of them.”

“No surprise,” Daisy said. “He looks like he doesn't even want to set foot on the track!”

The little chestnut Thoroughbred was putting up such a fuss, it took two handlers, one on either side holding his bridle, to convince him to leave the concourse.

Once he was out on the track the little chestnut showed no more inclination to move forward than he did before. When his jockey attempted to ride him round the track at a steady gallop, the horse kept napping and at one point he actually stopped dead in his tracks and spun round!

“Did you see that?” Alice was wide-eyed.

“Well at least we know he can turn,” Daisy said.

“Yeah, but do we want a gelding?” Emily asked. “I thought they had to be mares.”

Georgie watched as the chestnut pulled up to a halt and a man in a grey tweed coat walked over with a stern look on his face to talk to the jockey.

“I say if the price is right, then a gelding is fine,” Georgie said.

She turned to Mr Conway. “Is that Tommy Doyle?”

John Conway nodded. “Right now, I'd say if you were to offer him the price of a bullet it would save him the cost of putting one in that horse.”

“Is he kidding?” Emily whispered, horrified.

Georgie knew that John Conway's comment probably wasn't far off the truth. A gelding that didn't have any value as a racehorse couldn't even be turned out to breed more colts and fillies. If he couldn't run then he was useless and worthless.

“I'll be back in a second,” Georgie told the others. She ducked under the railings of the fence and strode out across the track towards Tommy Doyle and the skinny chestnut Thoroughbred.

BOOK: Riding Star
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