Victory and the All-Stars Academy, page 12
Kate vaulted down from Costa’s back, Issie grabbed the reins and Stella and Morgan raced forward holding her cross-country gear.
Kate stripped off her jacket and then Stella began to dress her in the jersey while Morgan stood ready with the back protector to slide over the top. There was a moment’s panic when the jersey got stuck on Kate’s head.
“Here!” Morgan said. “Let me help!”
“Got it already!” Stella snapped at her.
There was lots of fumbling to get the back protector Velcroed on, and then Stella and Morgan found themselves both scrabbling for the helmet. Morgan let go, raising her hands to show that she surrendered, and let Stella take over.
“Stella?” Morgan said as she watched her doing up the helmet straps. “I’m really sorry for what I said before—being mean about your boyfriend and all that. I felt really bad about giving you a hard time, especially when he crashed at the water.”
“That’s OK,” said Stella. “I understand why you got upset. But honestly, just because I’m going out with Shane doesn’t mean I don’t still want us to win…”
“Hey, you two!” snapped Tara. “Can you have your little kiss-and-make-up conversation later? Where are the gloves? We’re running against the clock here!”
There was a mad search as everyone realised the gloves had gone missing, and much relief when Issie found them hidden underneath Kate’s showing jacket.
It had been a slow pit stop—seventy seconds. Any lead that Kate had gained in the showjumping ring had just been lost.
“It doesn’t matter,” Tara said as they watched her take the hayfeeder. “She can make it up on the course.”
Kate didn’t look hell-bent on making up the time, however. She rode at a solid pace, taking all the fences as fast as she could, without losing her head. At the corner combination she acted sensibly, knowing that many riders had incurred run-outs here, and slowed right down to a steady canter to take the angles with ease. At the water jump, despite Tara’s instructions to stick to the fast route, she took the longer option. Issie looked at Tara’s face as Kate cantered down the bank rather than jumping the double brush route and saw her frown.
“She’s lost ten seconds there.” Tara shook her head.
But at least she hasn’t had a fall or a refusal, Issie thought to herself. With the Super Roos’ tally of four riders eliminated, suddenly it seemed more important to get round clear than it did to make a good time.
By fence number nineteen it did look like Kate was going to go clear. She leapt over the wooden bridge and galloped hard for the last fence of the course, the flower bed.
But the burst of speed came too late. Even though she had managed the first clear round of the day, she definitely had time faults.
Tara shook her head as she clicked her stopwatch. “She’s more than a minute over.”
“How bad is that?” asked Stella.
“There’s a time fault for every five seconds that you are over,” Tara said.
Kate’s time faults had earned her an extra eighteen faults. Added to her dressage score it gave her a total of sixty-eight. It was good enough to give them hope, but with seven riders to come, there were no guarantees that the All-Stars would win.
“If we all take it slowly though, and no one gets any refusals or a fall, then our group score would be good enough to win it, wouldn’t it?” Issie reasoned.
Morgan shook her head. “We can’t rely on getting four totally clear rounds. That’s just not going to happen with the difficulty factor of this course. Even with eight of us riding. You’ve seen how tough it is out there. We have to take risks or we won’t beat them.”
There was no time to debate tactics at this stage. Charlotte, the next All-Stars rider, was already on the cross-country course, and Laura was under way in the showjumping ring. Stella had already raced back to the trailers to get ready to ride, and as Kate came sprinting across the arena to take over the duties in the pit stop, Morgan ran off to get Arista ready.
The next half-hour was a rollercoaster ride as the fortunes of the All-Stars rose and fell on the cross-country course. Charlotte almost came to grief a couple of times and took the long, slow route through the water complex. In the end though she went clear with just a few time faults. Her solid dressage score meant she was on sixty-nine points.
Laura and Emily came next, and the two sisters, renowned for their cross-country skills, both came unexpectedly unstuck. Laura decided to take the short route at the water, but her chestnut mare disagreed, dumping her suddenly in front of the second element, giving her an instant sixty faults for the fall. It wasn’t a dramatic tumble like Shane’s, but the result was the same—Laura retired, wet and shaken.
Emily didn’t fare much better. Her Skewbald, Jigsaw, caught a leg at the trakehner and injured himself. It wasn’t a bad cut, but it looked grim with blood streaming down his foreleg, and because of this, the stewards were obliged to pull her up and ask her to retire.
Issie was in the warm-up arena getting Victory ready to ride when Dee Dee entered the start gates. “Wish me luck, roomie!” Dee Dee gave her a wave. But it turned out that Dee Dee didn’t need luck—she had skill instead, and it showed. Her showjumping round was clear and her cross-country was also clear. Dee Dee had taken Floyd on the long route at the water and at the bridge, chalking up two minutes of time faults, but even so, her brilliant dressage score kept her ahead and she made it home with only sixty-six points. The best so far that day!
With three really strong rounds so far and three riders to go, things couldn’t have been more tense as Stella entered the start box.
The Super Roos had a total score of 262. So far, counting their three best scores, the All-Stars had accumulated 203 points. The lowest team score on the day would win it, so the All-Stars needed to score less than 262 total. That meant they needed one of their remaining riders to score less than sixty to bring the cup home.
Even before Stella set off, Issie knew that she could never make it. It wasn’t that Issie didn’t have faith in her friend—it was simply impossible for her to do it. Although her test was tidy, Stella’s dressage score was one of the worst of the day. She already had a hefty sixty-two points on the board and Woody wasn’t the fastest horse at cross-country. There was absolutely no way she could deliver a winning score.
“Are you ready?” Avery asked Stella in the box. “Get set…go!”
Watching Stella from the warm-up ring behind the start box, Morgan had figured out the same maths and realised, just like Issie, that Stella couldn’t save this competition for them. No. It had to be Morgan or Issie. Both of them currently sat on solid dressage scores. Morgan’s dressage test had left her with just forty-five points. Issie’s test had been slightly less good so her total was forty-eight. That put both of them in with a chance of beating the sixty-point margin. Neither of them could afford a refusal on the cross-country—that would cost them a massive twenty faults. And they couldn’t afford to go too slowly either. Too many time faults would be enough to push them over the tipping point as well.
“Are you ready, Morgan?” Avery reached out a hand to lead Arista by the reins into the start box. Morgan cast a sideways glance at Issie.
“It’s down to you and me now, huh?” She took a deep breath.
“Good luck out there,” Issie said to her.
“You too,” said Morgan. Then she turned her eyes to the showjumping arena ahead.
“Are you ready, Morgan?” Avery asked again.
“Get set…go!” Avery called and the stopwatches were set. Morgan was off!
Issie watched as Morgan and Arista made their way around the showjumping ring. On the sidelines she could see Araminta Chatswood-Smith holding her breath before every single jump, willing her daughter to do well. There was so much riding on this for Morgan, and Issie could see it in her mother’s eyes. The will to win, the determination to be the very best, was so strong in their family. What must it be
Either the pressure was too much for Morgan or it was just bad luck. When Arista reached the treble—the last combination in the ring—she dropped one back leg over the middle element. The tap was enough to send a rail falling. Four faults were now on the board. There were another four faults at the oxer and then on the last jump Arista’s leg sagged again and another rail fell. Twelve faults. Morgan’s total score now sat on fifty-seven.
“Can she still make it?” Issie asked Avery. Her instructor looked at his watch. “I doubt it. Her time isn’t good enough and she knows it. She’s slow in the pit stop right now. Even if she races through the cross-country phase, it’s going to be almost impossible because of time faults.”
Issie felt the bottom of her stomach drop away as Avery said this. The All-Stars’ hopes were riding on her now. She needed to tackle the course with everything she had and bring Victory home fast and clear to win.
In the start box Issie’s hands were shaking as she reached over to reset her stopwatch. Every second was going to count on this ride and she would have one eye on the clock the whole time.
“Are you ready, Issie?” Avery asked her as she lined Victory up and focused on the fences ahead.
“Then get set and…go!”
From the moment that Victory shot forward from the start box, Issie felt like her body was running on pure adrenalin. She was still calm and clear-sighted, but her mind was in overdrive, her muscles primed to react as she approached the first showjump with a perfect stride and popped Victory straight over it.
Beneath her the brown gelding was keyed up too and ready to perform. This was when the quality of a schoolmaster like Victory really showed through. With the crowds cheering all around him, the horse knew that this wasn’t a practice run. He sensed the pressure in the atmosphere, but wasn’t fazed. As the applause followed him from fence to fence, he rose to the occasion, taking the jumps with perfect poise.
Issie was riding him beautifully, never missing a beat. As they came down to the final fence and took it cleanly, there was a huge cheer from the stands. They were clear through the showjumping phase and on their way to the pit stop. Only the cross-country could stop them now!
In the pit stop Issie flung herself down to the ground, landing nimbly on her feet as Kate took Victory’s reins and Laura and Emily rushed forward to help her dress.
“No!” Issie said firmly as they tried to grab at her. “Please! Let me do it myself!” She had been watching the quick-changes for every single rider and she was certain now that it would be faster to dress herself. She tore off her jacket and whipped the jersey out of Laura’s hands. Then she grabbed the back protector off Emily and shoved it over the top, restrapping her helmet.
With trembling fingers she pulled on her gloves and grabbed her whip, then Laura was legging her up and Kate was shouting at her that she was ahead of the clock and she needed to GO-GO-GO!
Issie had completed the pit stop with the fastest time of the day—thirty-six seconds. Ahead of her was the first fence, the hayfeeder with the golden marigolds. She pressed Victory on and he flew it at a flat gallop. Suddenly one metre-twenty was no longer an obstacle. Issie and Victory were going to take Delaney Swift’s enormous course and ride it into the ground!
Over the next four fences Victory barely even slowed out of a gallop at any stage. Issie had one eye on her stopwatch and the other on the course ahead. At this rate they might even make it inside the time! Ahead of her on the course she could actually see Morgan and Arista not far in front. They were clear, but their time was going to be very slow.
Morgan had lost her nerve at the water jump and taken the long but safe route. It had cost her ten seconds. She had been slow over the other complexes too. Her time faults, plus the twelve faults she’d racked up in the showjumping ring, would push her over the edge and out of the contest. There was no hope of Morgan and Arista winning it for the All-Stars now.
Issie, meanwhile, was riding like a total speed demon. She had slowed down only once to a canter—and that was to take the corner combination at fence number six, neatly without error. With her time already strong, she was now approaching the water jump where so many riders before her had come unstuck. The longer route was safer, but it would cost her precious seconds. The shorter route might mean elimination if she got it wrong.
On the sidelines Tara Kelly watched as Issie approached the water. She knew how hard she had pushed Issie over the past two weeks. Had she been wrong? There’s a lot riding on this moment, Tara thought to herself. In fact, there was far more riding on it than just the result of today’s contest. For Tara Kelly, the decision that Issie was about to make would change everything.
As Victory approached the water, Issie gathered up the reins.
“She’s going to turn and take the long way,” Dee Dee said to Tara.
“No,” Tara Kelly responded, smiling to herself. “No, she’s not. She’s going to do it.”
Issie had never even considered the long option. She was committed to the fast route as she approached the water complex, gathering the brown gelding up between her legs and hands, collecting him into a bouncy canter and driving him forward.
They took the brush with a perfect stride, Victory flying the fence and plunging into the water with a solid splash. There was a moment when the water slowed him down, but Issie had been anticipating this and she leant back in the saddle, almost lying on the horse’s rump to balance him as his back legs followed through.
Then, as Victory cantered forward, she sat up again, hastily picked up the reins and adjusted the brown horse’s stride, preparing him neatly for the second element, asking him to jump at just the right moment. Victory took the second brush in the middle of the water complex as if it were a piece of cake. Then he cantered on through the water and popped out tidily over the retaining wall that completed the complex. The crowd went wild with applause and Issie gave the gelding a huge slappy pat on his damp, sweat-soaked neck. They had done it! The only horse and rider to make it smoothly through the short route in the water that day!
“Well done,” she murmured to the horse. “Good lad, good lad.”
They were back on course now and already over the next fence, the rabbit hutch. Issie was buzzing with the raw thrill of making the water jump. And then suddenly the thrill was gone and her blood ran cold.
She looked about the arena at the maze of jumps spread out in front of her. She had been so busy concentrating on getting the water jump right, she hadn’t thought beyond that. And now here she was…where exactly?
In a panic Issie wheeled Victory around. How could she have been so stupid? She had heard Tara say that the course was complicated! Why hadn’t she focused more on keeping her course to the next jump? This was ridiculous! She looked about wildly. Where was she? More importantly, where was fence number nine? Which one was fence NINE?!
It was no use. Her mind was blank. Issie was in the middle of the cross-country, the clock was ticking, everything was riding on her…and she was hopelessly and utterly lost.
A sudden thunder of hoofbeats shook her out of her numb panic. She looked up and saw a grey horse galloping towards her.
The grey horse was familiar to her, but she couldn’t make him out against the glare of the sunlight. Issie blinked and looked again. And then she realised who it was.
A few moments ago Issie had been bewildered and alone in the middle of the arena, watching the seconds ticking by on her stopwatch as she lost all that valuable time she had saved by taking the short path at the water jump! Soon she would be running up time faults—but what else could she do? Her teammates tried to yell out where to go, but they were all too far away and she couldn’t hear what they were saying.
She was on her own and they couldn’t help her. The cross-country spread out around her like a maze. She had no idea which fence to jump after the rabbit hutch. If she guessed wrong, she would
Then she heard the hoofbeats and saw the grey horse heading towards her. Suddenly Issie caught sight of a girl on the horse’s back, and heard a voice shouting at her. It was Morgan and Arista!
“The birch rails!” Morgan was yelling. “Issie! Fence nine is the birch rails! To your right! Go now—you can still finish within the time!”
Without hesitation, Issie picked Victory up into a gallop again and veered hard right. Of course! The birch rails were straight ahead of her now, and she remembered that she should have turned back to take them after the rabbit hutch.
Victory pricked his ears forward at the sight of the birch rails and took the fence cleanly. As Issie and her horse landed on the other side, she heard Morgan’s voice calling after her. “Keep going! You’re on the right track! The wood pile is next! Good luck!”
Issie rounded the outside of the water jump and lined up the wood pile in her sights. She didn’t need directions any more. She knew the rest of the course off by heart. How could she have panicked and got so lost? She looked at her watch. She had squandered maybe twenty seconds back there. Now she would have to ride like a lunatic if she wanted to make the time up again.
The next fence was a straightforward brush and then Issie was back at the bank-and-corner combination, taking it in reverse this time as fence twelve. There was a moment’s hesitation on the bank as Victory jumped down and almost shied at the upcoming corner jump. Issie had to pull hard on the right rein to keep him on track inside the flags, and then they were over it and racing for fence thirteen, the rustic dog kennel. Victory popped over that one as if it weren’t even there. They were seven jumps from home now and still clear.
The brown gelding had been maintaining a strong, steady gallop, but now that they were three-quarters of the way around the course, he was flagging a little. Could they keep up the pace all the way home? Victory was already drenched with sweat, and white foam was beginning to show where the reins rubbed against his neck. He was galloping like a true Thoroughbred, giving his all as they rode each and every fence.