I was born into a family that loved horses. My father was an international show-jumper and amateur jockey. My mother was a brilliant horsewoman who had ridden all her life. My brother Philip and I hadn’t been long in this world before we were sitting on a small felt saddle on top of a pony. I rode Blackberry, he rode Snowball.
As I grew older, ponies and horses were at the centre of my life. I kept scrapbooks full of pictures and stories from the racing pages of the newspapers. I idolised certain racehorses – Pas Seul, Mill House, Arkle. While other boys dreamed of becoming footballers, I knew what I wanted to do. I would be a top amateur jockey and racing journalist who would win great races and then, vividly yet modestly, write about them.
It never quite worked out like that. Philip became a successful professional jockey. I was an unsuccessful amateur until, at the age of 24, I left England – ran away, really – to work in a bookshop in Paris.
But the memory of that obsession, and the thrill of riding a horse at speed, has stayed with me. When I became an author, I knew that one day I would have to return to that world of my past and try to convey the excitement and heartbreak of horses and racing.
Racing Manhattan is that book. It’s a novel for young readers – 11 upwards, I’d say – and tells the story of Jay Barton, a teenage girl who is alone in the world, and a brilliant but misunderstood racehorse called Manhattan.
Here, on the publication day of the book, is a brief extract…
I know she will be a handful. Since she attacked Pete, her exercise has consisted of being led around the covered ride, and occasionally taken on the walker. Although her feed is more bran than high-energy nuts, she is still a racehorse in her prime.
When I saddle her up, she arches her back and gnashes her teeth but by now I am beginning to understand her.
Leave it, Hat. No messing around today.
I clamber on to the metal manger in the bull-pen, and alight into the saddle. I let down my leathers a couple of holes, so that I am riding long and low in the saddle, like an old lady going for a quiet ride in the park.
Out of the bull-pen, into the daylight. Manhattan stops, stands stock still, her head high, ears pricked. She gives a slow, superior snort.
I let her take in the sights and sounds of the day for a few seconds. Then I click my teeth. She walks towards the main yard, looking about her, as if expecting – assuming – that she is the centre of attention.
And I catch it from her, this mad pride. I sit up straight in the saddle, a big smile on my face.
Let’s go, princess.
The string is in the covered ride when we arrive.
‘What’s the big joke?’ asks Liam, on a bay four-year-old in front of me.
‘Nutter,’ says Liam.
I don’t bother to ask whether he’s referring to me or the horse I am riding.
It is a cold day and, although it is late morning, a winter mist still hangs over the town.
As we make our way down the horse-path towards the heath, I find I have to keep checking Manhattan, her stride is so much longer than those of the horses in front of me.
We cross the road on to the heath. She’s excited to be out. There is a rumbling, writhing feeling beneath the saddle, like an approaching earthquake.
Calm, Hat. No funny business.
We walk around the gallops, up Warren Hill, and I sense Manhattan’s impatience. When we’re about to embark on a second circuit, I call out to Deej.
‘Any chance of taking her for a canter up the all-weather?’
The other lads look at me in amazement.
‘What d’you want to do that for?’ Deej asks.
‘She’s jumping out of her skin. It’ll calm her down.’
Ahead of me, Laura looks over her shoulder. ‘Don’t be daft, Jay,’ she says. ‘The guv’nor will go mad.’
‘What difference will it make? If she’s finished anyway, it’ll just make looking after her easier.’
We walk on. Then Deej calls back.
‘Your responsibility, Bug. Meet you at the top.’
I peel off and, as I break into a trot, Manhattan shakes her head.
Easy, girl. It’s just a canter.
No other strings are on the gallop. As she feels the all-weather surface beneath her hooves, Manhattan can contain her excitement no longer.
I gather up the reins, and we are off.
The mare drops her head, takes a hold of the bit. We glide up the gallops. Now we are alone in the fog and the only sound is of my horse’s hooves on the track, the rhythm of her breath with every stride. For one crazy moment, I feel like a superhero riding a magical winged horse through the clouds, a girl on Pegasus. We are covering the ground fast, but she seems to float effortlessly.
When we pull up, there are tears in my eyes, and they are not caused by the cold.
I’m back, Hat. It’s you and me again. The old team.
We jog down the hill to the string. As I pass the other horses to take my place at the back, Laura shakes her head, but there is a little smile on her face. I notice the lads watching us. They still don’t like Manhattan, but they know a real racehorse when they see one.
‘She goes all right for you,’ Liam says, trying not to let on how impressed he is.
He laughs and repeats his favourite word.
RACING MANHATTAN is published today by Andersen Press at £7.99. You can buy copies in your local bookshop or online here.Published 2 June 2016