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Knock Down


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He liked the Heath, he said. He liked to see horses running on grass. He liked the long straight course. He liked right-handed races. He’d always liked Newmarket, it was so quaint.

‘You’ve been here before?’ I asked.

‘Sure. Four years ago. Just for a look-see.’

We watched an untidy little jockey squeeze home after five furlongs by a shorter margin than he ought, and on the way down from the stands found ourselves alongside Constantine and Kerry.

She introduced the two men to each other, the big silver-haired man of property and the short wide-shouldered American. Neither took to the other on sight. They exchanged social politenesses, Constantine with more velvet than Pauli, but in less than two minutes they were nodding and moving apart.

‘That guy sure thinks a lot of himself,’ Pauli said.

Wilton Young arrived in a helicopter a quarter of an hour before the big race. Wilton Young had his own pilot and his own Bell Ranger, which was one up on the Brevett Rolls, and he made a point of arriving everywhere as noticeably as possible. If Constantine thought a lot of himself, Wilton Young outstripped him easily.

He came bouncing through the gate from the air strip straight across the paddock and into the parade ring, where his fourth best three-year-old was on display for the contest.

The loud Yorkshire voice cut through the moist October air like a timber saw, the words from a distance indistinct but the overall sound level too fierce to be missed.

Constantine stood at the other end of the parade ring towering protectively over the little knot of Kerry, his trainer and his jockey, and trying to look unaware that his whole scene had just been stolen by the poison ivy from the skies.

Nicol said in my ear ‘All we want now is for Wilton Young’s horse to beat Father’s,’ and inevitably it did. By two lengths. Easing up.

‘He’ll have apoplexy,’ Nicol said.

Constantine however had beautiful manners even in defeat and consoled his trainer in the unsaddling enclosure without appearing to notice the ill-bred glee going on six feet away, in the number one slot.

‘It always happens,’ Nicol said. ‘The one you least want to win is the one which does.’

I smiled. ‘The one you choose not to ride…’

‘They make you look a bloody fool.’

‘Over and over.’

At the end of the afternoon I drove from the racecourse, which lay a mile out on the London road, down into the town again, taking the right-hand turn to the sale paddocks. Nicol came with me, as Constantine was returning with Kerry to his hotel to lick his wounds in private, and we went round the stables looking at the dozen or so yearlings I had noted as possibles. He said he was interested in learning how to buy his own horses so that he wouldn’t have to rely on an agent all his life.

‘More like you, I’d be out of business,’ I said.

There was a filly by On Safari that I liked the look of, a big deep-chested brown mare with a kind eye. She had speed in her pedigree and her dam had produced three two-year-old winners already, and I thought that if she didn’t fetch an astronomical amount she would do very nicely for Eddy Ingram.

She was due to come up about an hour after the evening session started, and I filled in the time by buying two moderate colts for a thousand each for a trainer in Cheshire.

With Nicol still in tow I went outside to watch the On Safari filly walk round the collecting ring. She walked as well as she looked and I feared that Eddy Ingrain’s limit of fifteen thousand might not be enough.

Jiminy Bell did his appearing act, sliding with a wiggle into the space between Nicol and myself as we stood by the rail.

‘Got a note for you,’ he said.

He thrust a folded piece of paper into my hand and vanished again even before I could offer him a drink, which was as unlikely as a gatecrasher leaving before the food.

I unfolded the paper.

‘What’s the matter?’ Nicol said.

‘Nothing.’

I put the paper into my jacket pocket and tried to take the grimness out of my face. The message was written in capital letters and allowed for no mistakes.

DON’T BID FOR 182.

‘Jonah… you’re as tense as a high wire.’

I looked at Nicol vaguely. He said again, ‘For God’s sake, what’s the matter?’

I loosened a few muscles and said flippantly, ‘If you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.’

‘Go where?’

‘I expect I’ll find out.’

‘I don’t understand you.’

‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Let’s go and see this filly sold.’

We went into the big circular building and sat in the section of seats nearest the door, the section crowded as usual with breeders, agents and an all-sorts mixture of racing people. Ronnie North was in the row behind us. He leaned forward and spoke into the space between our heads.

‘The word is that the On Safari filly is likely to be sterile. Some infection or other…. No good as a breeding prospect, they say. Such a pity.’

Nicol looked startled and disappointed on my behalf. He asked Ronnie one or two questions but Ronnie shook his head sadly and said he didn’t know details, only that he’d heard it on the best authority.

‘She wouldn’t be worth so much in that case,’ Nicol said, turning back to me.

‘Not if it’s true.’

‘But… don’t you think it is?’

‘I don’t know.’

Lot 180 was being sold. There was so little time. ‘Got some business,’ I said to Nicol. ‘See you later.’

I scudded to the telephone. The On Safari filly came from an Irish stud I’d scarcely heard of, and it took two precious minutes for the Irish service to find me the number. Could they ring it at once, I asked.

‘Half an hour’s delay.’

‘If it isn’t at once it will be too late.’

‘Hold on…’

There were clicks and distant voices and then suddenly,clearly, a very Irish voice saying ‘Hello?’

I asked if the On Safari filly had ever had an infection or an assessment of fertility.

‘Well now,’ said the voice, deliberating slowly. ‘I wouldn’t know about that now. I wouldn’t know anything about the horses, do you see, because I’m just here minding the children until Mr and Mrs O’Kearey get home on the train from Dublin… they’ll be home in an hour, so they will. They’ll be able to answer your question in an hour.’

When I got back the filly was already being led round and the bidding, such as it was, had started. The seat beside Nicol had been taken. I stood in the chute through which the horses were led into the ring and listened to the auctioneer assuring everyone that she had a clean bill of health.

A man beside me shook his head dubiously. I glanced at him. A senior partner from one of the big firms. He stared morosely at the filly and made no move to buy her.

A couple of people in the crowd had taken the price up to six thousand five hundred, and there she stuck. The last bidder began to look intensely worried and obviously didn’t want her. I guessed he was acting for the breeder and would have to buy the filly back if she didn’t fetch a better price.

‘Six thousand five… any advance on six thousand five? She’s on the market…’ He looked round the ranks of bloodstock agents and took note of the shuttered impassive faces. ‘Six thousand five once then. Six thousand five twice.… All done?’ He raised his gavel and I lifted my hand.

‘Six thousand six.’

The last bidder’s face relaxed in pure relief. Several heads turned in my general direction, looking to see who had bid, and the senior partner beside me stirred and said out of the corner of his mouth, ‘They say she’s sterile.’

‘Thank you,’ I said.

No one else made a move. The auctioneer tried harder for another hit but without result, and knocked her down with a shake of the head.

‘Jonah Dereham,’ he announced, writing it down.

&nb

sp; A ripple like a shudder went through the small group round Vic Vincent. I didn’t wait to hear what they had to say but beat it hastily down to the stables to see about transport. On the way back an hour and a strong cup of coffee later I came face to face with Eddy Ingram who said loudly and without a smile that he had been looking for me.

‘If you’ve bought that On Safari filly for me,’ he said positively, ‘You can forget it.’

The bright lights around the collecting ring shone on a face from which most of the good nature had evaporated. The delectable Marji registered scorn.

‘She’s bound to be fast, with that breeding,’ I said.

‘I’ve been told she’s infected and sterile.’ He was angry about it. Not the usual beaming Eddy at all. ‘You’re not spending my money on rubbish like that.’

‘I haven’t bought you a dud yet, Eddy,’ I said. ‘If you don’t want this filly, well, fair enough, I’ll find someone who does. But she’s a bargain at that price and I’d have liked you to benefit.’

‘But she’s sterile. And you knew it before you bid for her. You weren’t acting in my best interests.’

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘Now there’s a nice phrase. Not acting in your best interests. Who said that?’

His eyes flickered. ‘I don’t see…’

‘I do,’ I said dryly.

‘Anyway…’ He shrugged off his doubts. ‘Anyway, I’ll take the one you bought for me this morning, but I don’t want you to get me any more.’

Someone had been very quickly persuasive, but then Eddy was gullible and a fool. I wondered whether all my clients would desert with such speed.

Eddy came out with the clincher which had alienated him fastest. ‘You didn’t think I would find out she was sterile.You thought you’d collect your five per cent from me for buying her even though you knew she was probably useless.’

‘How do you know she’s sterile?’ I asked.

‘Vic says so.’

‘And is Vic going to buy your horses in future?’

He nodded.

‘Good luck to you, Eddy,’ I said.

He still hovered indecisively. ‘You haven’t denied it.’

‘I did not buy that filly just to get five per cent.’

He began to look unhappy. ‘Vic said you’d deny it and I’d be a fool to believe you…’

‘Vic’s a persuasive fellow,’ I said.

‘But you’ve bought me four good ones…’

‘You sort it out, Eddy. Think it over and let me know.’

I walked away and left him.

An hour later I again telephoned to Ireland.

‘Is she what?’

I took my eardrum away from the receiver and winced.

‘Of course she’s not sterile.’ The Irish voice yelled out as if crossing the Irish Sea without benefit of wires. ‘She’s never had a day’s illness since she was foaled. Where the devil did you hear that?’

‘At the sales.’

‘What?’ Alarm joined the indignation. ‘How much did she make?’

I told him. I removed the receiver a good ten inches and still had no difficulty in hearing. Vic Vincent’s victims all seemed to be endowed with good lungs.

‘I told a neighbour of mine to bid up to ten thousand and I’d be sure to pay him back if he had to buy her.’

‘His nerve broke at six thousand five,’ I said.

‘I’ll murder him.’ He sounded as if he meant to. ‘I told that Vic Vincent fellow I didn’t need his help, I’d get my own bidding done thank you very much, and now look. Now look.’ He gurgled.

‘What did Vic offer?’ I asked.

‘He said he’d raise the filly to ten thousand, and if it made more than that he wanted half. Half! I ask you. I offered him one fifth and that’s a bloody liberty, even that much. He said half or nothing so I said nothing and go to hell.’

‘Will you do what he wants next time?’

‘Next time!’ The idea of a next and a next and a next time slowly sank in. ‘Well…’ Some of the fire went out. There was a long pause and when he finally spoke it was clear he had thought of the advantages of Vic’s help and realised what refusing him might cost. ‘Well now,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I will.’

When next I saw Eddy Ingram he was beaming away at Vic, and Marji likewise. All three of them in a little huddle, as thick as thieves.

I reflected uncharitably that I was in no way bound to tell Eddy there was nothing wrong with the filly. If she turned out to be the best brood mare of the century it would serve him damn well right.

Towards the end of the evening, after Nicol had left to have dinner, my arm was grabbed by a man who said fiercely, ‘I want to talk to you,’ and such was the readiness of my flight reflexes that I nearly hit and ran before I realised that his grievance was not with me. He was, he said, the breeder of the Transporter colt which Wilton Young’s agent Fynedale had bought for seventy-five thousand pounds. He nearly spat the words out and did not look as one should if one’s produce were among the top prices in the sales.

He insisted that he should buy me a drink and that I should listen to him.

‘All right,’ I said.

We stood in a corner of the bar drinking brandy and ginger ale while the bitterness poured out of him like acid.

‘I heard Vic Vincent’s out to get you. That’s why I’m telling you this. He came down to my place last week and bought my colt for thirty thousand.’

‘Oh did he,’ I said.

Private sales before the auctions were not supposed to take place. Every horse in the catalogue had to appear in the sale ring unless excused by a vet’s certificate, because otherwise, as the auctioneers complained with some reason, the buyers and sellers would just use their catalogue as a free information and advertising medium, and not send their horses to the auction at all. The auctioneers produced the catalogue and set up the sales, and wanted their ten per cents for their trouble. At one or two sales the catalogue had not been produced until the very last minute because of the number of private bargains which had been struck at other times before the auction.

Late catalogues made my job a lot more difficult. On the other hand I knew that some breeders were avoiding paying the auctioneers’ commission by selling privately for a good sum and then doing everything they could to keep the auction price at rock bottom. One couldn’t blame the auctioneers for fighting back.

‘Vic gave me a double promise,’ said the breeder, his lips tight with fury. ‘He said they wouldn’t bid the price up to thirty thousand if nobody else was trying to buy.’

‘So that you wouldn’t have to pay the full commission to the auctioneers?’

He stared. ‘Nothing wrong in that, is there? Business is business.’

‘Go on,’ I said.

‘He said that if the price went up to fifty thousand he would give me half of everything over thirty.’

He drank, nearly choking himself. I watched.

‘And then… then…’ He spluttered, hardly able to get the words out. ‘Do you know what he has the gall to say? He says our agreement only went as far as fifty thousand. Everything over that, he takes it all.’

I admired the beauty of it in an odd sort of way.

‘Was the agreement in writing?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he said furiously.

‘Unfortunate.’

‘Unfortunate! Is that all you have to say?’

I sighed. ‘Why didn’t you let the colt take its chance at the sale instead of selling to Vic first?’

‘Because he didn’t think it would make as much as thirty at auction, but he had a client who would give that much, and he said I might as well benefit.’

‘Have you ever dealt with Vic before?’ I asked curiously.

‘Not directly. No. And to be honest, I was flattered when he came to my place specially…. Flattered!’

He crashed his empty glass with a bang on to one of the small tables scattered in the bar. A man sitting at the table looked up and w

aved a beckoning arm.

‘Join the club,’ he said.

I knew him slightly; a small-scale trainer from one of the northern counties who came down south occasionally to buy new horses for his owners. He knew as much about horses as any agent, and I reckoned his owners had been lucky he could buy for them himself as it saved them having to pay an agent’s commission.

He was lightly smashed, if not drunk.

‘That bastard,’ he said. ‘Vic Vincent. Join the anti-Vic-Vincent club.’

The breeder, hardly attending, said, ‘What are you talking about?’

‘Can you beat it?’ the trainer asked of the world in general. ‘I’ve bought horses for an owner of mine for years. Damn good horses. Then what happens? He meets Vic Vincent and Vic persuades him to let him buy him a horse. So he buys it. And then what happens? Then I buy him a horse, like I’ve always done. And then what happens? Vic Vincent complains to my owner, saying I shouldn’t buy the horses because it does him, Vic Vincent, out of the fair commission he would be getting if he bought them. Can you believe it? So I complain to my owner about him buying horses through Vic Vincent because I like to train horses I choose, not horses Vic Vincent chooses, and then what do you think happens?’

He threw his arms wide theatrically and waited for his cue.

‘What happens?’ I supplied obligingly.

‘Then my owner says I’m not being fair to Vic Vincent and he takes his horses away from me and sends them to another trainer that Vic Vincent picked out for him and now between them they’re rooking my owner right and left, but he doesn’t even realise, because he thinks horses must be twice as good if they cost twice as much.’

The breeder listened in silence because he was deep anyway in his own grudges; and I listened in silence because I believed every incredible word of it. People who bought racehorses could be-more easily conned than any old lady parting with her savings to a kind young man on the doorstep. People who bought racehorses were buying dreams and would follow anyone who said he knew the way to the end of the rainbow. A few had found the crock of gold there, and the rest never gave up looking. Someone ought to start a Society for the Protection of Gullible Owners, I thought smiling, with Constantine and Wilton Young as its first cases.





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