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Lord of Misrule

by Jaimy Gordon

Indian Mound Downs is a small run down race track in Virginia, U.S.A.. It survives exclusively on a programme of claiming races. When the owner enters his horse in a claiming race the animal can be claimed by any other owner or trainer for the value of the race. If he has entered a superior horse for a cheap claiming race he will collect any winnings and perhaps a large bet (at very short odds) but he will lose his horse for less than its true value. Indian Mound Downs is often the last stop for used up old stakes hoses, or common sprinters, more like cow ponies, that donít get more than four furlongs.

It is also the last stop for Medicine Ed, who will be 73 on Labour Day, whose father was born a slave. He lives on tins of mushroom soup in his crumpled old trailer home that a tree fell on last fall. He has known no other life than the race track since he was eight years old. If he knows little else (and he can hardly read) he knows all there is to know about the needs and the moods of racehorses, and even at this cheap racetrack he been ended up at, he would be hard pressed to imagine any other life. He and his old friend Deucey Gifford, with her crew cut and her saggy old breasts barging around in her man's white tanktop undershirt, live for nothing other than to keep a few horses sound and sweet enough to win or place in a cheap claimer every week or two. They scorn the no-good trainers whose horses plod in the red dust of the going-nowhere hot-walking machine that creaks endlessly round and round at the end of the shedrow.

One morning as they walk their horses after their early morning exercise, they are intrigued by a girl with her hair in sticking-out plaits and blind-man sun glasses: she is driving a ten year old white Pontiac Grand Prix and is demanding five stalls for Tommy Hansel's horses.

Green as grass, mutters Deucey, and Ed feels her falling in love already. Doing it all for some handsome deadbeat horseman who works her to death while he rolls high. I seen a million like her, Deucey says.

And sure enough, here comes Tommy Hansel, the frizzy-haired girl's boss, the young god with the film star looks, the education and the ambition and background to go with it. His scheme and his plan is to get in, get rich, and get out. Older, smarter, more influential trainers and owners admire him, and help him, of course, but usually with their own plan up their sleeve.

And so begins the story of four horses, a few races, and a handful of disparate people, exercising their horses when the moon ainít set and the infield looks like a shriner's ring for fear a clocker will get an idea of a horse's potential. Alice the exercise girl with limbs like baling wire, who is the living expert on the pokeweed and poison ivy racecourses, and wins on horses that shouldn't be walking, nemmind runnin'; the frizzy-haired girl; Medicine Ed and Deucey; and their help in need, natty old Two-Tie, who occasionally packs a .38, but has the aging loan shark's strong disinclination to die in jail, and has only ever used it with the greatest discretion. But the stars of this tale are the horses. No account claimers they might be, or bone-sore old stakes horses nerved in the feet, but worthy heroes nonetheless.

Paula McMaster

Published by Quercus, paperback, 296pp.

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