THE PALE HORSE
Copyright 2018, Sarah Hartwell
Jig-jogging towards the tape is when jockeys tell each other who wants to lead the pace, whose horse jumps to the left or pulls to the right or, deity forbid, kicks out at the start. The starter is happy and the flag goes down and we’re off. It’s not a big field, and I tuck Red - my mount’s nickname - into position behind the leaders, content to follow them in spite of the mud kicked up into my face.
The first fence quickly looms before us – a plain fence – and there is the brief break in hoofbeats and the crashing of birch as we all clear it safely. Red settles into his stride and we’re quickly upon the second. The distance between the two fences means we must put in a short stride before take-off or risk landing too steeply. Red puts in a “short one,” and is over safely, but one of the horses behind me wasn’t so clever and I hear the yell as his rider is dumped over his mounts shoulder, leaving the horse to continue rider-less and the jockey swearing at his premature departure from competition.
Another plain one, then an open ditch, and now the field is starting to stretch out with some playing a waiting game and others keeping up with the pace. Out of the corner of my eye I see a pale grey keeping pace with me. I don’t recognise the jockey or his pale colours, so he must be one of the amateurs. From his cheekbones, it looks like he’s been starving himself to keep his weight down. The grey stays level with me for the next two fences, and then I ask Red for a bit more speed to move up a position. Red ups the tempo, but the grey is still keeping pace with us, perfectly matching us stride-for-stride.
The next one is another open ditch and we’re meeting it wrong. With no room for fancy footwork, Red takes off early and lands steeply, his forelegs buckling as he pitches me over his right shoulder. I land hard with a ton of racehorse on top of me. Red snorts, catching his breath, but makes no effort to get up. Trapped underneath him I can’t catch my breath either. Then someone is pulling me by the shoulders, pulling me free at the same time as Red rolls to his feet and is caught by the reins before instinct sets him in pursuit of the fast disappearing herd.
“Easy, easy,” says the man who pulled me clear, and from my prone position I see the legs of the pale grey horse, one hind-leg resting on the tip of the hoof in rest. He’s pulled up. Maybe he was badly hampered when I was pitched “out of the side door.”
“Cheers mate,” I cough, as I get my feet under me. I double over to catch my breath.
There’s a hubbub and green screens are being set up where I fell. Maybe Red is being attended to. There’s a lot of shouting though, and paramedics, rather than vets, are giving instructions. Someone is dismantling the running rail to back an ambulance onto the track. Only thing I can think of is that a photographer got too close and got a blow from thrashing hooves when Red came down. I can hear the approaching thunder of horses on their second circuit and a steward is shouting and waving his flag, telling them to bypass this obstacle. They sweep past us, kicking up divots of turf, and the pale grey shows no signs of wanting to follow them, even though no-one has a hold of him. There’s a light mist descending and they are quickly out of sight.
I’m anxious to know what’s going on behind the screens. It must be serious because the officials holding the screens in place are taking no notice of us. I look towards the other jockey standing with me. He’s gaunt and whey-faced with dark shadows round his eyes, like someone who hasn’t slept for too long. His horse seems totally unperturbed by everything going on around us.
“Multiple broken ribs,” he says, “crushed pelvis, two broken thoracic vertebrae, severing the spinal cord,” he added, “if you go back you’ll be paralysed. Punctured lung, ruptured liver …. Yes, that’s you in there.”
Then I understand who the gaunt rider of the pale horse is.
The mist thickens into a fog and I can hear a muffled public announcement telling everyone that the race meeting is being abandoned due to “serious incident on the course.”
Death offers me a leg up onto his pale horse, then takes hold of the bridle and leads us into the fog.