Alec Ramsay had known entering this race was a bad idea.
The Black fidgeted and curvetted in the starting gate, his ears flat back against his wedge-shaped skull, snapping irritably at the horses on either side of him. His body was strung tight as a drum, and this transferred through the short stirrups into Alec's calves, tightening his own muscles when they needed to be loose and fluid in order to move properly with his horse.
The relentless rain had turned the dirt track into a thick, viscous morass. As they'd approached the gate, the Black had lifted each foot high in the air, baring his teeth as if the mud were an upstart challenger to be overcome. Perhaps the saturated track had felt too much like the treacherous sands on the low side of the island on which they'd been marooned, where the rising tide and loamy bottom had transformed the surface into an almost quicksand consistency.
Or perhaps it was merely that the Black hated the rain and mud with a passion born of all desert dwellers, who simply preferred the searing heat and the dry, blowing sands.
The Black crow-hopped in the stall, then kicked out with his rear hooves, almost dislodging Alec from his precarious perch high atop the tiny racing saddle. Alec spoke to him soothingly, patting his tightly arched neck, but the Black was having none of it, blowing out disgruntled breaths through his nostrils and tossing his head in the air again and again.
The big horse had just shifted his weight onto his forehand, likely in preparation for another kick with his hind legs, when the bell rang and the doors to the gates flew open.
Caught unprepared, it took Alec a moment to get the Black's hindquarters properly engaged, and thus they were late out of the starting gate, caught behind three other horses as their competitors surged to the front.
Alec cursed under his breath. They had drawn an inside starting position, which he normally would have preferred, but after the ceaseless, heavy rain of the last few days, the inside of the track was deep and sloppy.
And the Black despised it.
Alec didn't need to see the Black's nose carried high into the air nor the unnatural stiffness in his neck to know this. The stallion's unusually short, choppy strides told him all he needed to know about his utter loathing for the footing. Alec urged his horse to lengthen his stride, knowing he needed to get out of this pocket and onto the better footing on the outside of the track, but the Black fought him, his gait becoming even rougher as he rounded his back, bucking slightly in his intense displeasure.
Alec's grip on the rain-slicked leather of his saddle slipped and he pitched forward, needing to latch onto the Black's billowing mane in order to keep his balance.
He therefore momentarily lost contact with the Black's mouth, and the big horse uncharacteristically took advantage of this, veering even further inward toward the rail.
And further away from Alec's goal.
It took him precious seconds to regain control of a Black who was still actively fighting him. Alec glanced over his shoulder, attempting to see through the sheets of still-driving rain, hoping they might encounter a clear area if they merely dropped further behind, but he noted very quickly this was not to be.
The rain had insured that the size of the field was even larger than normal, given the fact that even a no-hoper might possibly place if the favorites should fall together amidst the treacherous footing. The rest of the huge field was tightly bunched behind them without the barest hint of a potential opening.
Muttering again under his breath at over-optimistic trainers who were certain the Black would handle the track just fine, and "besides, Alec, we need this particular race," Alec repositioned his grip on the sodden reins.
He then relentlessly drove the Black forward, feeling horribly out of sync with his horse, now that they had clearly decided upon opposing strategies for running this race.
At this point, Alec would be happy if they managed to finish at all.
As they slowly closed on the horses ahead of them, the Black again began to toss his head skyward as gobs of cold, wet mud were flung directly into his face and chest by the horses immediately ahead of them.
The Black grunted his displeasure, grabbing the bit in his teeth and tugging Alec's hands forward. Alec again had to struggle to maintain his seat, with his center of gravity pulled forward and his calves already slick from the rain and the mud.
Once he was no longer in any immediate danger of falling off, Alec wiped frantically at his goggles, attempting to clear away enough of the cloying mud so that he could at least see the predicament they'd gotten themselves into.
And unfortunately, Alec found that he did have to rely almost exclusively on his vision. He hadn't realized how much he'd depended on audible cues, now that the pouring rain drummed mercilessly on his visor and the incessant squelching of the horses' hooves in the deep mud overrode all other sounds. It was difficult to tell whether the other jockeys were in fact encouraging or checking their mounts, or whether the breathing of a nearby horse was labored enough to signal that he might be tiring.
As if to prove this point, a big bay gelding on their near side abruptly dropped back until his hindquarters were churning far too close to the Black's head, so when Alec saw the Black whip back his ears and fling his head around in a likely attempt to savage him, he was forced to yank hard on the reins.
The Black, furious to be denied this outlet for relieving his frustrations, fought Alec again, this time somehow managing to execute a perfect half-pass at a full gallop, nearly bumping into a dapple gray on their off side.
Alec managed to check him before they actually fouled the other horse and rider, but it was a close thing. They were both supremely frustrated now, and it showed in Alec's stiff seat and his mount's erratic, churning gait that was nothing like the stallion's usual fluid, ground-eating strides.
Henry had often accused Alec of resembling a 'sack of potatoes' when he was first learning the jockey's trade, but at this moment, Alec felt that the sack of potatoes would actually do a better job.
He was quite sure Henry would think so, too.
They finally edged a little ahead of the gray, who seemed to be tiring in the heavy going. The Black again whipped his head around with his usual astonishing speed, this time to the right, and he snapped with bared teeth at the other horse in his utter fury at life in general right then.
Perhaps the gray was intimidated by the enraged stallion or perhaps he was tiring even further, but he slowed just enough that Alec suddenly had his opening to move toward the outside.
Frantically praying that the Black would obey, and obey quickly since the hole was an exceedingly small one, he gave the horse some lateral leg, and then gently urged him to increase his stride and move out and away from the rail.
Thankfully, the big horse complied, sluggishly at first, but as the Black emerged from behind the tightly packed, seething hindquarters of the horses in front of him into relatively empty track, his ears perked forward, his head came down, and his neck stretched out as his long, slim legs tore into the slightly firmer going on the outside.
Giving a shout of relieved joy, Alec leaned further over the Black's neck, urging him along and forward, always forward. He balanced perfectly over his horse's straining withers, feeling the power of the magnificent animal beneath him, his hands and upper body moving in perfect rhythm with his horse such that he barely seemed to be moving at all.
The Black whistled shrilly with his own exultation, his head stretching lower toward the ground as his stride increased impossibly longer, and they passed the bright silks and straining horses beside them as if they were garishly painted but still hopelessly static ornaments on a carousel.
The rain abruptly stopped, the sun peeking out behind the glowering clouds, but Alec found that it hardly mattered. He felt himself smiling broadly as he and the Black finally connected, striving together, as if it were Alec's own muscles driving the hooves that flew across the track, eating up the furlongs with seemingly effortless ease.
This feeling was so completely overwhelming that Alec didn't even notice that there were no more horses in front of them, nor that they had the homestretch almost totally to themselves as they rounded the far turn.
Alec didn't hear the screaming crowds, nor the excited announcer's voice, nor even see that the finish line had come and gone beneath their flashing hooves.
All he felt was the Black beneath him, within him, encompassing him, and knew he was finally where he was meant to be.
One with his horse.