BILL THE BASTARD BY ROLAND PERRY
CHAPTER 24 “THE RUSE”
Just before the betting books were closed at 6 pm a gentle plunge was placed from Jaffa by Chook Mulherin, who put ten pounds on Bill at 50 to 1. He had placed the bet ten hours earlier in a cable dispatch to Jericho HQ and it had just reached the bookie concerned.
The bookie with a booming voice laughed at the bet. ‘This is the second bet I’ve taken for the Bastard to finish the race with the jockey still on ’im!’ he roared to a fellow bookie a few yards away. ‘The rest are on where he will buck his rider off, with the exception bein’ the bloody jockey himself! Mullagh put a fiver on. Felt sorry for him and gave him 50 to 1.’
‘Is he allowed to be on himself?’
‘Only if he reckons he’ll stay on.’
They both laughed.
The stewards began to line up the horses as best they could.
‘Get on him or I’ll disqualify him,’ the chief steward ordered Mullagh.
In between exercises, Bill had been quite gentle all day but that meant nothing with his mercurial character. Mullagh kept on eye on Khartoum, knowing that these two had a ‘history’. The big black stallion was near the ‘fence’, or left of the track. Mullagh took Bill to the far side, where no other jockey wanted to be. Then he took a breath and mounted him. Bill remained impassive. Mullagh patted him.
Bill wandered up to the line. Ringing in Mullagh’s ears were Shanahan’s words of advice two years earlier: ‘Show Bill respect all the time and he will give it back, most of the time . . . Never hit him or yell at him. Keep a long rein. Don’t jerk him ever, but be firm. Let him know what you want. If he is feeling good, he will do some if not all of what you want . . . Never dig a stirrup into him. Use a gentle heel. Heel and hands, that’s what he responds to. Sweet words of praise in his ear never hurt. He knows your voice. Stroke his mane. You must have an inner rapport with Bill. . . He has to believe in you . . . Remember, this animal is the smartest four-legged anything that you will ever meet . . . Respect his intelligence . . . Embrace it and give it a chance to breathe and create . . .’
Mullagh looked along the line-up and noticed he was the only rider without a whip. The starter’s gun fired and the horses began raggedly. Mullagh used a feather-touch of his hand on Bill, who responded by building slowly from a light gallop to something resembling an interest in being in touch with the field. Khartoum blazed to the lead early, followed by Tut 1 and Blackham. Tut 2 was in a difficult mood and well back in the field after the first two furlongs.
Mullagh kept up an encouraging chat in Bill’s ear but tried not to sound too urgent. He lifted himself off the horse’s back to give Bill some sense of freedom from his rider. Mullagh recalled Shanahan telling him: ‘He is used to me and he accepts my weight, my presence. But if you are on him, try to make it seem as if you are not on him, like a jockey. It will help.’
Bill was running second last as they passed the rough first mile post marked by two palm trees near a disused well. Mullagh kept his head down, only looking up to see how far behind he was. All the horses were finding the going tough. The track was ‘heavy’, not from rain but the occasional thick layers of sand that made it a plough for every runner. Bill was pulling through well but his pace was slow. At a mile and two furlongs he was neck and neck for last place. The next furlong was very slow, even for the front runner Khartoum, who was forty metres in front of Tut 1 and Blackham, fighting out second place. The sand was deep and soft. All the horses pushed hard. The whips were out everywhere.
A Sumner Reed had positioned himself high on a sand-hill at the halfway mark. He could see the complete field. He used binoculars to watch Bill and noticed that Mullagh was stroking his neck all through the tough plough of that stretch. Bill was pulling harder than any horse. He pounded past six competitors and was running eighth when they all emerged onto red dirt. Reed saw something else from his vantage point. Bill was the only horse moving at pace. He was making up ground on the middle bunch. Reed pushed his horse down the slope and was galloping ahead of the front runners on a flat stretch next to the track. He reached the two mile point and looked back. Khartoum had stretched his lead to fifty metres but, like all the runners, he was struggling. He had done his training length run of the Melbourne Cup and seemed to be slackening off. His jockey was using the whip so much that the horse seemed distracted. The same applied to Tut 1 and Tut 2, who were gaining on the leader. The rider on Blackham was the only one not using the whip apart from Mullagh. Reed stopped to take notes. He scribbled ‘Bill, Fifth-one mile to go’. He watched as Bill grunted past, his nostrils flaring and pulling in the oxygen for his big lungs. Mullagh was hanging on, his derriere well above Bill’s back. Reed galloped on but could not keep pace with the front runners.
At two miles and a furlong, Khartoum was being challenged by Tut 2, who had settled down and was running on better than the others.
Mullagh felt in harmony with Bill for the first time in perhaps all their rides. The race had now been going for more than three minutes and Bill had not attempted even a playful buck. He seemed to be concentrating on what was ahead. At two-and-a-half miles, Bill was still running fifth. He could smell the water. Mullagh had given him a fair drink in the morning, although this had been against the race guidelines, which had suggested that a horse would run better without water for a day.