Gary McLaughlin smoked a cigarette and leaned against the fence that encircled the exercise track in back of Belmont Park. He was a last minute substitute in the eighth race. A half hour earlier, Distant Sun’s regular jockey had twisted his ankle. Nobody saw what happened.

Distant Sun ran well in New York. He’d won nine straight, coming from behind each time; and three days earlier, he’d worked five furlongs in a breezing 1:02. Based on the two-dollar track program, this horse couldn’t lose.

It wasn’t that simple. McLaughlin knew. He’d seen colts go out too fast and tire. He’d watched them stay too far off the lead and be unable to make up the ground. Horses dumped their riders, or got knocked around at the start, or came up lame. Jockeys got disqualified. And sometimes, despite whipping and urging, the stupid nag just loped along in the middle of the pack and didn’t fire.

A chunky exercise rider led Distant Sun out of his stall. McLaughlin saw only the colt: light bay with a milky stripe on his nose; seventeen hands tall, good size for a come-from-behind horse. Eyes told the story—arrogance toward fellow horses and disdain for the two-legged humans who used him to run their races for them. This one was a competitor. He’d be hard to catch once he got moving.

The exercise rider approached with trepidation, searching the jockey’s taut face for danger. McLaughlin’s foul temper was common knowledge among the stable hands. Standing only five-feet tall and weighing ninety-eight pounds, he carried himself like a giant—especially in the barrooms. His tiny nose, reddened by booze, had been beaten flat.

The jockey glared at the exercise rider. This pantywaist looked ready to bolt at any second. He was holding the reins as if they were burning his hand. “Who’s leading who?” McLaughlin asked.

“This one’s got a mean streak,” the exercise rider explained. “Bit a nice chunk out of a stable boy’s arm yesterday. Had to be taken to the hospital. Took fifteen stitches to close him up!”

McLaughlin stroked the horse’s nose without hesitation. “Any racehorse worth his weight in shit has a little spunk,” he said. For a 100-pound jockey to have any hope of controlling a 1000-pound horse, he had to establish authority without antagonism. McLaughlin sought a horse’s trust before taking the reins. Distant Sun snorted and pawed the ground, but tolerated the jockey’s overture.

Relieved to hand over the reins, the exercise rider shrunk back—too abruptly—and Distant Sun reared on muscular hind legs. McLaughlin acted fast. Mindful of flailing hoofs, he secured a tight hold on the colt’s bridle. A horse couldn’t stand on his back hoofs forever. After a couple of seconds crawled by, Distant Sun returned to all-fours. The jockey patted the colt and pulled the reins, firmly, but not forcibly, using mindset rather than strength to bring the temperamental thoroughbred under control.

“I told you he was mean,” the exercise rider whined.

“I ought to knock the hell out of you!” McLaughlin snapped, secretly pleased. He loved aggressive horses.

Twenty minutes later, the jockeys rode out onto Belmont Park’s racetrack for the post parade warm-ups. They kept their mounts reined in as they ambled up-and-down the home stretch in front of the grandstand. This easy jaunt was a thoroughbred’s only race-day activity. The idea: to loosen him up with minimal effort. Seasoned bettors studied this pre-race ritual closely, hoping for any sort of tip.

With the track’s sprawling mile-and-a-half oval looming in the background, remnants of dust from the previous race settled onto the neatly raked sod. Bright sunshine added luster to the fresh-cut grass in the infield, and a light breeze softened the seventy-five degree temperature, lulling the large New York crowd into an unusual good humor. His catch-up style favored by mild weather, Distant Sun was the overwhelming favorite at 1-3. Other horses in the field-of-six were steep odds, including 25-1 long shot, Charming Dan.

This race was a mile-and-a-quarter. The starting gate was positioned on the first turn to accommodate that distance. Damn strange for Belmont. Generally, mile-and-a-quarter races were run at Aqueduct.

One minute till post time. Distant Sun was ready. McLaughlin kept him calm. With the first two horses already in place, Distant Sun entered gate-3. The back door to gate-3 clanged shut, and Charming Dan went into gate-4. Cricket Jones balked at gate-5, refusing to go through the narrow opening. Becky’s Boy entered gate-6 while four men pulled and shoved, trying to get Cricket Jones into position. As soon as this troublesome gelding was in place, the front doors would fly open; and the field, a tempest of raw power, would charge out of the open chutes.

McLaughlin’s heart pounded like a jackhammer. He positioned himself on the lightweight saddle that was smaller than most bicycle seats. He hooked his feet into ridiculously short stirrups. He couched forward until his chest almost touched his thighs. He tucked his elbows in close as he gripped the reins. He adjusted his goggles, holding onto the riding crop he would need later. He did these things automatically, without thinking, and nearly forgot that he’d been paid to throw the race.

In the small back room of a neighborhood bar in Queens, the radio broadcast confirmed Distant Sun as the horse to beat. Jimmy D’Amato shifted in his chair and used his expensive silk tie to mop puddles of sweat from his round face. The floorboards creaked in protest as a hulking stooge plodded over to D’Amato, offering his handkerchief. D’Amato ignored the giant. A cadaverous bookkeeper had his undivided attention. The bookkeeper rifled through stacks of betting tickets and punched the buttons on an adding machine.

“C’mon, how much?” D’Amato demanded, walking over to the table.

“That’s all of it,” the bookkeeper said in a reedy voice.

D’Amato squinted at the total. “Hey, look at that! That’s over ninety Gs!” he chortled. “What’s the line?”

“Radio just said our boy’s going off at 25-1,” the giant marveled. “I’d like to be there right now, just to see it.”

D’Amato grinned.

The long shot, Charming Dan, was a ringer—a quality horse they’d been holding back for six months. He’d amassed a losing streak that would assure high odds in any race. Today he was going to win.

Without drawing a whisper of attention to themselves, D’Amato and his cronies had placed modest wagers with small time bookies and off-track betting parlors, spreading their bets thin to preserve their sure thing as a long shot. They’d managed to avoid sudden shifts in the odds (which could tip off the city’s less informed gamblers). As the heavy favorite, Distant Sun drew most of the action, and that made things a lot easier.

But this favorite was too strong; he needed help losing. One slight problem: double fix, double risk. Any competent jockey (not even an inside man, necessarily) could ride the winner. But the race-thrower had to be good. Damn good. Track officials had a nasty habit of scrutinizing every detail of a race—especially questionable finishes. And most crooked jockeys were too damn obvious. Not McLaughlin. He was a losing specialist who always made it look good, as if he had a chance, but was just unlucky.

McLaughlin planned to stay near the lead and sprint out just a shade too early. As expected, the heavy favorite would be in hot contention, possibly holding on for a place or show finish. It would look like questionable strategy. Nothing more. A good horse upset by a long shot. The reason races are run on the track and not in the pick sheets.

The gates flew open, and the horses bolted out of their confined spaces, creating a cloud of dust as their hoofs pounded the track. On his own accord, Distant Sun settled comfortably into the forth place along the rail, beautifully positioned for his kind of race. “I didn’t have to do anything,” McLaughlin marveled as they galloped around the first turn.

You never knew why a horse was front-runner, or comfortable off the lead—except horses remember certain things. A horse running in the slop might get pelted by mud from the leader’s back hoofs and move immediately to the front in every race thereafter; or a colt hurt in an ugly start might want nothing more to do with the wild melee out of the gate and hang back from that point forward. Whatever its origin, Distant Sun seemed born to his catch-up style.

The field rounded the first turn, Distant Sun gaining ground on the inside. At the start of the long back stretch, the track announcer reported that the first half mile had been run in a sharp forty-six seconds. “Pretty damn fast,” thought McLaughlin. This long straightaway ahead of them had conquered many horses over the years. Some never ran again.

Leaving nothing to chance, McLaughlin prodded Distant Sun a little, just to get him started, and the colt made a hell of a move. The jockey found himself fighting to stay in the saddle, searching for a way to weave through a tight group of horses in front of him. Then they were running alone, and McLaughlin had no idea how he’d managed to get clear with no apparent opening.

That burst had been premature—more than McLaughlin had in mind. But Distant Sun wasn’t laboring. It wouldn’t last. No way in hell he’d keep up this pace. Too damn bad. He was a good horse.

Without further prodding, Distant Sun expanded his lead to twelve lengths, and the only sounds McLaughlin heard came from the colt’s steady breathing and rumbling gallop. The crowd was silent. There were no other horses around, so he could hear the track announcer clearly. “And Distant Sun’s opened up a huge lead…The first mile run in a blistering ninety-three seconds.”

Ninety-three seconds! McLaughlin had known the pace was fast, but it sure as hell hadn’t felt like a ninety-three second mile. That was too damn fast even for a fix. Distant Sun would be spent before the stretch run. He’d finish dead last, and it wouldn’t look good. No wonder the crowd was quiet. If you had money on the favorite, you knew you were all done.

They blew around the far turn, and McLaughlin was surprised when the colt didn’t fade. “Let’s get this over with,” he muttered, whipping the horse into an all-out charge. The colt gave everything he had, oblivious to the futility of his effort.

McLaughlin kept pushing and waiting for the inevitable. Sluggishness would creep into the sharp rhythm of the horse’s hoofs hitting the track. Other telltale signs would follow: head down, ponderous breathing, shortened gate. As the leader slowed and came back to the pack, it would appear from the grandstand that the other horses had sped up to overtake him.

The colt sprinted down the home stretch, and the crowd went nuts. It wasn’t quiet at Belmont anymore! McLaughlin couldn’t hear the track announcer proclaim that they’d run a mile-and-an-eighth in 1:44. But he knew they were flying. He knew Distant Sun wasn’t tiring. And with only one-eighth of a mile to go, he knew he had a big problem.

Blanketed by the deafening crowd noise, they passed the sixteenth pole at full tilt. McLaughlin glanced over his shoulder. Nobody close. The only thing to do was pull up. Now! Instead he whipped the colt and shouted, “C’mon, boy! WIN IT!”

Grabbing a wooden bat from behind his desk, Jimmy D’Amato swung wildly at the radio. His underlings gave him a wide berth. The radio flew across the room and landed on the floor in pieces. Somehow the internal speaker, dangling on loose wires, continued the broadcast. Ready to inflict more damage, D’Amato rushed over; and like a victim pleading for mercy, the injured radio called up from the floor: “Just a moment ladies and gentlemen. Hold all tickets. We have an inquiry.”

As McLaughlin crossed the finish line, the saddle beneath him evaporated without warning, and the ground flew up to meet him face-first. He landed hard. Lying face down in the dirt, he was dimly aware of the trailing horses thundering past him. His lip stung as he spit out a mouthful of sod. But he got up and limped off the track on a sore right knee. Brushing himself off, he looked at the tote board where Distant Sun’s number-3 was blinking in the first-place box. The blinking number meant the horse had won unofficially, pending an inquiry. Had McLaughlin fallen off before crossing the finish line? He didn’t think so.

While the stewards reviewed the finish via instant replay, hard-core gamblers in attendance bet among themselves on whether number-3 would be taken down. McLaughlin hadn’t fallen all the way off when he crossed the line, but the deciding factor was whether he’d been in control of the horse. If Distant Sun were disqualified, all other finishers would move up a notch. Those betting the 25-1 long shot, Charming Dan, would enjoy a big payday.

The stunned crowd waited for an agonizing five minutes as the number 3 continued to blink. Bad news for anyone with money on the favorite. The longer an inquiry lasted, the greater the odds of corrective action.

The long shot’s number 4 shifted up to first place.

McLaughlin stormed the steward’s box. Several sets of hands pulled him back as he struggled and kicked. Denied the satisfaction of physical assault, he accused them of unnatural acts with farm animals and family members. He was still yelling when they dragged him away.

“JESUS H. CHRIST, THAT’S CUTTING IT CLOSE!” D’Amato shouted. His underlings were slack-jawed.

“What the hell’s wrong with you guys?” D’Amato laughed, slapping backs. “Hey. It was in the bag all the time! The jockey came through. Didn’t I tell you he’s the best? I mean, this guy is something!” He cackled as he extracted a wad of cash and gave several bills to the giant. “Here,” he instructed. “Give this to McLaughlin as a bonus. They won’t suspect a thing after the way he fixed this one up. Just tell him not to cut it so goddamn close next time. My heart can’t take it!”

# # #

Loser's Circle by Bonner Litchfield
originally published September 2, 2009



Bonner Litchfield's story "Loser's Circle" was originally published in Big Pulp's Fall 2009 issue.

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