I remember when we first adopted Napoleon. I was only nine back then, four years ago. I’d spent my entire eighth year of life researching Shetland ponies and there was nothing in the world I wanted more. The Millers, our closest neighbors back then, were moving to mainland Britain — somewhere in Wales I think — and didn’t know what to do with their young work pony, Napoleon. All black with a heart-shaped patch of white on his chest. Big brown eyes like a puppy dog. Stubby, little legs and a big personality. Maybe it was his natural charm, maybe my mother was just sick of me quoting pony facts and tidbits of care advice and, “but Grover has a pony and he’s a year younger than me,” at her, but it wasn’t hard to convince her that we absolutely had to take him in. One look at his stupid, goofy face and suddenly it was, “Okay, Frannie,” instead of the never-ending chorus of, “No, absolutely not,” that I’d grown accustomed to.
Napoleon gently tugs on the too-short sleeve of my jockey silks and whinnies a good morning. But I’m already awake. I’ve been awake all night, nuzzled into his side in the little wooden shelter we built for him in the pasture. The sun is just breaking out over the soft green hills of Bressay, casting an orange light over everything. A remarkably clear morning; perfect conditions. To the west, I can even make out the city (or as close as anything gets to a city in the Shetland Isles) of Lerwick, its little buildings all aglow.
My stomach ties itself in knots. That’s where Napoleon and I will be in just a few hours, for the most important Shetland pony race of my life. For now, I try to shake off the nerves that have kept me awake all night, and I wrap my arms around Napoleon’s thick neck. He snorts his approval and then stands up, pulling me with him, half-dragging me towards the stone house until I’m able to clamber onto his back and lace my nervous fingers into his coarse, black mane.We're headed to the kitchen, source of everything that Napoleon loves most: carrots, grapes, apples, biscuits, whatever I can get my hands on without my mother throwing a fit.
I slide off his back and slip quietly through the back door; perhaps on this most important of days I can sneak him something special. But my mother is already at the table, wrapped in a floral bathrobe, sipping her morning tea. She looks me up and down, eyes darting between my too-short sleeves and my exposed ankles.
“We should have bought you new silks, Fran. You’re growing so fast.”
“It’s okay, mum,” I say, shaking my head because I don’t want her to worry about it. It’s not worth it. At this rate, I might be too tall for the sport by next year anyways. This could be my last race. “It doesn’t matter.”
She frowns, but nods her head. “Have you been out there all night, Frannie? You’ve got grass stains.” And she’s up from the table, inspecting the blacks and whites of my uniform, brushing me off like it might actually help. “Oh, Fran.”
“Muuuum,” I whine, shaking her off. “It’s fine.” I grab an apple from the fruit bowl on the table and head back towards the door and Napoleon.
“We have to make the 7:30 ferry, so be ready to leave in a half hour.”
“I’m ready, mum.”
Napoleon is at my side before the kitchen door even slams shut, sniffing at my pockets and hands for his reward for being the only living thing on this island that I can stand to be around for more than five minutes. He doesn’t nag like mum. He doesn’t talk too much like Grover Dunn. He listens and he smiles and he eats and he’s my best friend. I can tell he’s not completely impressed with the apple, but he eats it anyways and then sniffs at my hands again.
“You always need more, don’t you?” I laugh, before ruffling his mane and kissing his nose. He snorts in my face.
I’ve made the journey with Napoleon to the Shetland mainland three times before for three different races. The first two years we were new to the sport, and as mum constantly reminded me, this was just for fun, no pressure. But last year I almost won the race. If it hadn’t been for Penelope Stirling, the only jockey to beat me, I would have.
To understand my intense hatred for Penelope Stirling, you first have to understand how the Shetland Pony Grand National works. It works like this: there are a series of races all over Britain capped by the biggest race of all at the Olympia Horse Show in London. To qualify for the championship race, you have to win one of the series races. There is only one race in the series that takes place in the Shetland isles, the rest are held in England or Wales or mainland Scotland. For most of us in Shetland, this is our only chance to qualify, because hauling yourself and your family and a pony over to England several times — or even once — per year is expensive. Penelope Stirling is from England. She gets to race in all of the mainland races. But every year, she enters the Lerwick Derby, comes to the Shetland isles with her stupid white pony, Al Fresco, and wins, crushing the ambitions of the Shetland Isles pony racing community. Every time I see the color of her racing silks, a lurid hot pink, I shudder.
Mum drives us to the ferry in her old pick-up truck. Napoleon and I are in the back, my fingers grasping his mane so tightly my knuckles turn white. The truck moves cautiously; mum doesn’t like it when I sit in the bed where there aren’t any seatbelts, but I refuse to leave Napoleon back there alone. The morning air whips around us, and despite the sleepless night, I feel awake. I feel ready.
Grover Dunn, his parents, and his red-brown pony, Hot Tamale (Tammy for short), are already at the ferry dock in their own truck, waiting. We’re the only two vehicles there this early in the morning on a Sunday. The white ferry, halfway between Lerwick and Bressay now, glides ghostly towards us in the orange light. The water is chop-free. We pull up along Grover’s truck and my mom rolls down the window so she can chat with his parents. Grover is in the back with Tammy, and when he sees us, he waves excitedly.
Grover is a scrawny, eager-faced boy who is always moving or talking or doing something. He must have a bottomless reservoir of energy. Where my silks are too small, his yellow ones are much too large. He says his parents keep insisting that he’s going to grow into them, but it has yet to happen.
“This is it, huh, Fran? Ready to crush, crush, crush some souls?” He says, bouncing up and down in his truck bed so that Tammy snorts in a disgruntled way. Tammy and Grover are near opposites; Tammy is the laziest Shetland Pony I’ve ever met. But she can race fast when it matters, even with her rotund belly. Grover pats her side. “Hush up, Tammy. Tam-tam. Hot Tamale.”
I just nod. There’s only one soul I want to crush today: Penelope Stirling’s.
“Didja get a look at the field, Fran? It’s half mainlanders, half Shetlanders. I think that’s pretty good odds. We’ll send someone to London this year, I’m sure of it.”
“That’s only a fifty percent chance, Grover.” I’m starting to feel nervous again. My stomach squirms. A five in ten chance of sending a Shetlander, but only a one in ten chance of sending Napoleon and me. I’ve never wanted anything so badly in my life.
“Yeah, well it’s more than last year, isn’t it?” Nothing can crush Grover’s spirits. He coos to his pony, patting her on the head. "Tam-Tam. Tamale. We gonna win Tammy?"
The ferry reaches the dock and the trucks rumble back to life. We leave Bressay behind and the reality of it hits me in the chest, stealing my breath away. This is my last chance. This is it.
The race course is at the Western edge of the city and is the same as every year: a dirt enclosure with several jumps arranged around its edges. There are metal bleachers set up along the sides for onlookers. The horses race three laps around the outside, clearing the jumps, and then finish with a final straightaway to the finish line in the middle of the enclosure. Although it’s familiar, and I know Napoleon knows it well, I walk him around it anyways, so that he can get used to the way the dirt feels on his hooves and I can memorize everything so I don’t make any mistakes.
The rest of the competitors do the same. While most of them are friendly, introducing their ponies to each other and exchanging anecdotes, Penelope Stirling keeps her distance from everyone, like she’s afraid the others might get some dirt on perfectly white Al Fresco or maybe sully her horrendous silks with their inferiority.
Besides Grover and Hot Tamale, Penelope and Al Fresco, and me and Napoleon, there are seven other racers. Two of them are mainland newbies that I don’t recognize. One of their ponies, a particularly ill-behaved appaloosa, is called “Arnold.” I know this, because his jockey has spent the better half of the morning chasing him around the enclosure screeching “Come back, Arnold” and “No, Arnold!” and “Aaaarrrniiiieeee.” Two of the competitors are mainlanders that raced last year: Amy McPherson and her gray pony, Stiletto, and Johnny Engle with his pony, Nickel. The remaining three are from Shetland: Maeve Randolph with Misty, her brother Duncan Randolph with Holiday, and Theodore Granger with Gollum.
When Maeve sees me and Napoleon, she trots over to say hello, pulling Misty in step with Napoleon. Her silks are a pretty pale blue that match her pony's saddle. "Hiya, Fran. Ready?"
"Yeah, I think so."
She leans in towards me and says in a low voice, "Between you and me, I don't care who wins, as long as it's not her." She jabs a finger at Penelope, who is prancing around the enclosure like she owns the place. "I've seen her win too many times." Maeve's gaze narrows into a glare. She's a year older than me. This could be her last year as well.
I nod in agreement. "It won't be her."
As if she can hear us from the other side of the enclosure, Penelope looks at me, a chilling appraisal, sizing me up. I stare back determinedly, as long as I can stand to see hot pink. A whistle sounds, indicating that it's time to line up, and the staring contest ends in a stalemate.
I purposefully pull Napoleon up next to Penelope at the start. I'm not letting her out of my sight. Amy, decked out in a vivid purple, and her pony Stiletto come to my other side. Amy's eyes drift to my bare ankles and my too-short silks. "Nice pants, Frannie. Expecting a flood?" Behind me, Penelope snickers, but when I shoot her a glare, her grin fades back into superior indifference. I hate them both. I hate them for thinking they're better than me. I hate them for trying to take away my one chance to go to London. This is supposed to be mine. My white-knuckled grip tightens on Napoleon's reigns. A few horses to the right I can here Grover muttering over again, "Let's get 'em Tammy. Let's go Tam-Tam. Hot Tamale-ale-ale-ale. Do it do it do it." From my left, I hear a girl whining, "Hold stiiiill Aaaaaarnie." But they don't matter. All that matters is Napoleon and me and winning this race. Napoleon snorts and paws at the ground. We're both ready.
The starter's hand is up. I tense forward, waiting. The starter's hand is down, signaling the start, and the race has begun. Along with all the other jockeys, I nudge my pony's sides, sending him into an immediate gallop. I can barely hear the announcer over the stamping of forty hooves in the packed dirty. "...And it's Napoleon and Fresco off to an early lead, closely tailed by Hot Tamale and Gollum. Looks like Arnold is having a spot of trouble getting started, let's cheer him on, folks..." My heart pounds in my ears as we approach the first jump. I'm slightly ahead of Penelope. Napoleon clears the jump and lands just as Al Fresco's feet leave the ground to my right. We clear the next jump and round the enclosure to the next straightaway and series of jumps. Out of the corner of my eye I see Arnold walking lazily to the first jump, far behind the rest of the competition. Everyone else is closely packed behind me. "...Here comes Misty on the inside..." On my left, I can see Misty and Maeve pulling up on me, taking the corner tight. They force me towards the right and Penelope, cutting her off. She lets out a growl of frustration behind me and I kick into Napoleon's sides, urging him forwards faster. One jump. Two jump. Three jumps. We're in a rhythm now. We round the second corner, finishing off the first lap, I'm still in the lead, but barely.
As we approach the first jump of the second lap, Maeve and Misty pull by us, so close that our legs brush. It startles me, and I yank too hard on the reins. Before I know what's happened, Napoleon rears up too high for the jump and I slide off his back into the dirt, rolling to a stop at its base. I am too shocked to move or even attempt to spit out the dirt in my mouth. "...Oooh and we've got one down, folks...too bad..." All I can do is stare up at the sky and watch my dreams pass me by in a thunderous stampede. I hear Penelope scream as she approaches the jump, see her eyes widen in terror at the prospect of crushing me. Al Fresco makes a wild-eyed, miscalculated jump and I close my eyes, praying that I am not about to meet my death at the hooves of Penelope's pony. I hear a sickeningly satisfying WHACK and wait for the pain, but there is none. Just a desperate whinnying and a pounding of hooves as more riders make their way over the jump, doing their best to avoid me. When all but Arnold have passed, one of the race officials grabs me and drags me from the course to the bleachers where my mother is waiting to brush me off. I'm too numb with disbelief to do it myself.
"...Looks like we have two jockeys and one pony out of the race..."
"Are you hurt? Frannie, are you alright?" my mother says, eyes wide, making futile attempts to rid my uniform of dirt. In the background, the race continues. "...Misty leads into the second lap, but don't take your eyes off Hot Tamale, folks. And Nickel is starting to pull up on the leaders..."
"I'm fine, mum, I'm fine," I manage to get out through hysteric breaths. I wipe my face, which I now realize is wet with tears. Nothing has been hurt but my pride and my hopes and my dreams, crushed by the reality that it's over. I messed up. "Where's Napoleon?"
The announcer answers. "...And would you look at that, Napoleon is still going. He doesn't need a rider to finish this race...He's pulling back up, even with Hot Tamale and Nickel now. Misty looks like she might be starting to fatigue. Let's give them a big cheer of support into the final lap..." I blink the tears from my eyes and watch in amazement as Napoleon continues the race without me, head to head with the leaders. "...And their headed into the straightaway...I don't believe it, Napoleon, the riderless pony is pulling ahead. Hot Tamale looking strong. It all comes down to this folks..."
I forget my hysterics as I am overwhelmed by a wave of pride watching Napoleon, my pony, my best friend, surge to the front without me. "GO NAPOLEON GO!" I scream, losing myself in the moment. Even my mother jumps excitedly beside me, "Look at that, Fran! He's going to do it!"
"...And it's Napoleon, Hot Tamale, Nickel, Stiletto, Misty..." The announcer keeps rattling off names but I don't care. All I care about is the goofy horse trotting towards me looking incredibly pleased with himself. I duck back into the enclosure and throw my arms around his neck, tears still streaming down my face. He snorts and tries to sniff my pockets and hands. I don't have anything to give him, but he deserves all the treats in the world. A kiss on the forehead will have to suffice.
"...And last but not least, Arnold! There you have it, folks, the Lerwick Derby. It looks like it will be Hot Tamale and his jockey Grover Dunn representing us in the Grand National Championship."
Wait. Hot Tamale and Grover Dunn? Not Napoleon and Frannie Mathers? Napoleon won the race. I look at my mother in confusion and she shakes her head. "It's in the rules Fran, a horse needs its jockey to win."
"But he won. Napoleon won." I splutter, a fresh wave of disappointment washing over me.
"He's an amazing pony." Mum says, ducking into the arena to give us both a hug. "I'm so sorry, Fran. It's just a race."
As fresh tears begin to roll down my cheeks at the second realization that I will not be going to London, I hear another girl sobbing loudly off to my right. It's Penelope, sitting in the dirt beside Al Fresco, who is shaking badly and refusing to put weight on his left hind leg.
"Is he going to be okay?" She wails. A couple of the officials and her parents have gathered around the wide-eyed, scared pony. "Is he hurting?" Penelope whines and I can't help but feel horrible for her. As much as I want to be happy that she didn't win or even finish the race, I can't. If I hadn't fallen, Al Fresco wouldn't have hurt his leg. If Napoleon had gotten hurt, I would be just as distraught. I give Napoleon one last squeeze and tell my mom I'll be right back. I take a deep breath, and walk stiffly -- I guess I might have gotten a little bruised up in the tumble -- towards Penelope. I kneel beside her.
"Is he alright, Penelope?"
She shakes her head, sniffling. "I don't know. They say it doesn't look too bad. They say it will heal." We sit in silence for a moment and then Penelope looks cautiously up at me. "Are ... are you alright?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," I say, and force a smile. "I'm good."
"TAMALE'S GOING TO LONDON TAMALE'S GOING TO LONDON!" Grover's shrieks of joy echo around the enclosure and I can't help but laugh.
"He doesn't leave Shetland much," I explain to Penelope, and she smiles.
"He'll love London, then."
With that, I join Maeve, Theodore, Duncan and even some of the Mainlanders in congratulating Grover, whose wide smile makes it nearly impossible to be unhappy. He hugs Tammy's neck, nearly crying with happiness. "Can you believe it Fran? We're going to London! Tamale-ale-ale-ale in London!"
Napoleon trots up beside me and tugs on my sleeve and I am happy to have my best friend beside me. Because even though we won't be going to London, Napoleon is my favorite part of the race, and I know there will be plenty of more adventures to come.