Lastings Park Racetrack grandstand.
Simon Banks looked up from his box seat. "Gentlemen! Glad to see you could make it," he called out to Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison as they approached. Joel Taggert, sitting next to Simon, smiled and shook hands with the men.
"Are you kidding?" Blair asked enthusiastically. "I wouldn't miss this. Opening Day of a new horse racing season." He rubbed his hands together. "I'm ready to make some money. The Volvo needs some new tires."
"I already told you I would pay for them," Jim said, obviously irritated. "I'd feel better knowing you weren't driving on bald tires."
Blair rolled his eyes. "Let's not have this argument again. Hey," Blair asked, as he looked at the empty seats, "where's the rest of the Cigar Club?"
"With summer colds going around, the whole station has been short-handed," Joel replied. "H and Rafe had to work an extra shift today." Banks, Taggert, Henri Brown and Brian Rafe had agreed the previous year to sponsor a racehorse Simon had inherited from his deceased uncle. As a cigar club, they thought it was a good omen that the horse's name was "Little Stogie".
"What a bummer for them, especially on Opening Day. Well, I'm going to check out the horses." Blair turned to Simon. "When is Little Stogie running?"
"Fifth race," Simon replied. "Why don't you visit him and rub some of your good luck on him?"
Blair ordinarily would have poked some good-natured fun at Simon's horse, but something in Simon's voice stopped him. "How has Little Stogie been running in the off-season?" he asked.
"Not so well," Simon admitted. "Herman says his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. He runs like the wind in practice, but seems to balk when he gets geared up for a race." Simon sighed. "Maybe we need to find a different jockey."
"I'll stop by his stall on my rounds. See you guys later." With a wave, Blair took off toward the stables.
"I'd sure like to know how he picks so many winners," Simon said.
Jim shrugged as he sat down next to Joel. "He hasn't told me." He turned serious eyes toward the two men who were his coworkers and friends. "How bad are things, really?"
Joel spoke up first. "Pretty bad. It was a lot of fun to sponsor Little Stogie last year, but none of us realized just how expensive it is to own a racehorse. Just feeding and boarding him is pricey. Then there's trainer fees, even though Herman's rates are reasonable.
"Add on money for the proper gear, a rider to exercise him, the occasional veterinarian visit, and then all the fees that go with the actual racing, and, well..." Joel let out a gust of breath.
"We have to decide which races are worth entering, because there are entrance fees, jockey fees and boarding fees while Stogie is at the racetrack's stables," Simon added. "Frankly, H and Rafe are ready to pull out. Stogie hasn't won any of his races, although he's come in second or third. That brings in some money, but not nearly enough to break even."
"Is it a matter of changing his training, or running him at a different track? Maybe he isn't a turf horse," Jim suggested.
"Nah, he just isn't a contender for the winner's circle," Simon admitted. "Herman and Ben Prince tried to tell us that last year.
"The problem is, it's not so easy to do something else with him. He doesn't have the pedigree or the track record to put him out to stud, which would bring in considerable money. And he's not bred to be a working horse. We're kind of stuck." Simon looked more downcast than Jim had seen him in a long time. "I'm really regretting my inheritance."
Not knowing what to say, Jim looked out as the horses from the second race sped by. "I'm sorry to hear that, Simon," Jim said as he stood up. "I'd better go round up Blair. We'll be back in time for Stogie's race."
Lastings Park Racetrack paddocks.
Jim found Blair talking to one of the stable hands. He came up behind Blair and gave him a little shove, which made Blair smile. It was as close as they got to a public display of affection, but he would take what he could get.
"How's the wagering going, Chief?" Jim asked.
"Beautiful! I got the trifecta in the first race and picked win and show in the second. I'm hot!"
"You'll get no argument from me," Jim said, which earned him another big grin. "How do you do it?"
"It's not much different from poker, really. Talking to the staff and jockeys helps. They may not want to say anything out loud, but they have tells," Blair answered. "But my biggest wins come from the horses themselves." Blair gave Jim his own little shove. "Here, let me show you."
Blair led Jim over to Pegasus, a horse that was running in the sixth race. Jim could see the horse was beautiful on the outside, but there was something in his eyes, clear and strong, that made Jim take notice.
"You can see it already, can't you?" Blair asked. "But here's the kicker." He guided Jim's hand so that it was not quite touching Pegasus' flank. Jim was surprised to feel the horse was quivering underneath his hand. "You can feel it, can't you? That quivering shows me a horse that is so happy and excited to be where he is that he just can't contain it. It gives him that extra burst of joy when he's let out of the gate--he wants to fly! Not every horse has it, and sometimes more than one in a race. But when it's the only one, that's when I bet big, no matter what the odds are."
Although Jim had always felt sorry for racehorses, calling racing "betting on helpless animals" last year, something in his own animal nature responded. He felt himself quivering in anticipation with the horse. "Good luck, boy," he said softly, giving Pegasus a gentle pat.
Blair then led Jim over to Little Stogie's paddock. Although Stogie looked healthy and strong, he also felt placid when Jim put his hand over his flank. Not a quiver of excitement, not even a shiver of anxiety. "Stogie just doesn't have that joy, does he?" Blair asked. Jim could only nod his understanding.
"Simon and the guys are thinking of getting rid of Stogie." At Blair's questioning look, Jim added, "Too expensive. They're losing money just by keeping him."
"It's not so easy to find something else for a racehorse to do," Blair said, shaking his head. "Lots of them end up abandoned, like greyhounds, after they stop winning races. What are they going to do?"
"They don't know yet, but they're starting to get a little frustrated," Jim answered. "So, just go easy on them. I know you're excited about your winnings, but try not to rub it in their faces, okay?"
But Blair was no longer fully paying attention. "Mm? Oh, yeah, Jim, good idea. Why don't we head back and cheer on Stogie with the guys?" It was obvious to Jim that Blair's mind was elsewhere and remained so for the rest of the day.
Cascade Police Department, Major Crime Division, three days later.
Blair came into the bullpen and looked around, satisfied with what he saw. Henri and Rafe had their heads together, going over some case files. Although he was Captain of the Bomb Squad and housed on a different floor, Joel had obviously stopped in to buy a donut off the cart and was socializing with Detective Hogan. Jim was scheduled to be in court all morning. All Blair had to do was wait until Simon arrived at his office to put his plan into action.
Fifteen minutes later, Simon showed up. Blair intercepted him, putting on his most earnest expression. "Simon, I'd like to talk to you about something personal, if you've got the time."
Simon looked around and sighed. "I guess now's as good a time as any, before I get any more swamped than I am."
"Great! It won't take long. I'd also like to include Joel, H and Rafe. It concerns them, too."
Simon raised his eyebrows in surprise, but called the other men to his office. After handing out coffee and getting everyone seated around the conference table, he turned to Blair. "Okay, Sandburg, the ball's in your court."
Blair cleared his throat. "I understand that owning Little Stogie has turned into more of a burden than a blessing. That you might be thinking twice about owning him. Is that right?"
The men silently looked at each other, all eventually nodding.
"Well," Blair continued, "I've got a proposition for you. It may take a little while to lay this out, so just bear with me."
"Hairboy," Henri spoke up, using his favorite nickname for Blair, "you're never short of words, but you come up with some good ideas. So, just spit it out."
Blair grinned, not taking offense at H's words. "Okay, then. I'm suggesting that you donate Little Stogie to a charitable organization. If you do that, you'll immediately stop hemorrhaging money, plus you can take a big tax write-off, probably over the next several years.
"If you agree, I'll help you make some money to offset what you've lost." Rafe and H both sat up a little at that statement. "Labor Day weekend is coming up and that's three big race days at Lastings. I'll pick horses for every race for all three days. You've seen that I've got a good knack for it; I win a lot more than I lose. I'll do my best to pick winners so you can make some decent cash."
Blair took a deep breath and let it out. "So… what do you say?"
Joel, a big man with an even bigger heart, spoke his main concern. "Where would Stogie go? Would we be able to see that he's taken care of?"
Blair's eyes lit up. "That's the best part, Joel. He'll become a therapy horse. There's a ranch not far from here that uses horses to help all kinds of kids. Autistic kids, kids with cancer, kids who are having trouble at school, maybe 'cause they're being bullied or they need a shot of confidence. The kids not only learn to ride, they learn how to care for the horses. Stogie has such a sweet disposition, he'd be perfect."
"And you're sure this is a good place?" Rafe asked.
Blair nodded. "Definitely. I checked them out. They've been doing this for three years and are a bona fide 501C charity. Their record with the ASPCA is impeccable and there's no reports of any accidents or injuries involving the staff or guests. I took a drive out there yesterday. The stables are clean, the horses all look healthy, and everyone seems happy to be there. I got really good vibes from them," Blair enthused. "Of course, you can check it out yourselves."
"Nah, you research better than anyone else I know," said Henri. "I'm in, if everyone else is." The rest of the Cigar Club nodded.
Sporting Chance Ranch, two weeks later.
The former owner and sponsors of Little Stogie watched as he was put through his paces. Stogie seemed to have infinite patience as many small hands washed, curried and petted him. He took to a Western saddle easily. A young girl was given a boost up and Stogie stood good-naturedly until she was settled in.
Blair and Jim were walking in among the horses as they were mounted. The leader was calling out to the rest of the riders, getting them ready to head out on a trail.
"Hey, Stogie," Blair called quietly, running his hand down the horse's mane. "How are you doing, boy?" He grinned and beckoned Jim over. "Feel that?"
Jim put out his hand just over Stogie's flank, feeling the former racehorse quiver with anticipation. "Yeah, babe," he said softly to Blair. "He's definitely where he belongs."