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A sting in the tale: concluding part of a short story by David Ashforth

“We can barely tell them apart,” said the dowager duchess
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First published on Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The dowager duchess's plan to enter a 50-1 ringer at Hereford takes shape. But can it save her son and fool the BHA? 

Lord Luckan, busy juggling financial balls and credit cards, had not visited the stable yard for several days. He would have liked the distraction of a runner at the races but, according to Richard Marsh, his trainer, nothing was coming up until his namesake ran at Hereford three days before Christmas. That was no good, Luckan thought. Lord Luckan was useless. He should probably be shot, then eaten. The staff could have him for Christmas instead of turkey. It would kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

When he did finally visit the yard, Luckan didn't stay for long. He noticed that Gone Missing had a wound on his neck. He asked Marsh about it, and Marsh explained that the horse had caught himself on a nail, sticking out of a stable door frame. It was healing nicely now. Mishaps always happened to the best ones, Luckan thought to himself, or to the best one of a bad bunch.

He wandered down to his mother's cottage, bracing himself for a lecture on money management or, in his case, mismanagement. Gertrude was on the phone. She had been on the phone when he called in yesterday, and the day before. She nodded her head in acknowledgement of his presence, put a hand over the handset and whispered, loudly, "A bit tied up at the moment, dear, call in tomorrow."

Geoffrey wandered out, leaving his mother to dial the next number on her list. It was a long list, what she called her Christmas list, full of old friends. The dowager duchess was making arrangements for December 22. Gertrude approached the occasion like a military operation, rather like the 3rd Earl of Lucan, but with fewer deaths.

On Saturday, it started to rain. Ascot survived an inspection but Haydock and Newcastle did not. Thwarted northern racegoers found themselves hauled along to shopping arcades, where they scowled at the jollity in Santa's grotto and warned their wives against allowing their children to sit on Santa's knee, since he was probably a paedophile. The chance of returning home from the racecourse with more in their pockets than they had set out with was replaced by the certainty of returning home from the MetroCentre with less.

On Sunday, it was snowing. It was snowing at Kempton, snowing at Lingfield and, more to the point, it was snowing at Hereford. Global warming had been suspended.

"Bollocks," said Marsh, looking out of the bedroom window, while Lady Luckan was tampering with his underwear. "Don't rush me," she said.

"If it carries on like this, Hereford'll be off tomorrow," said Marsh, despondently. "It you carry on like this, it won't be the only thing that's off," said Andrea, stopping what she was doing and lifting Marsh's hand up to her expensively designed right breast. The hand showed no interest, so Lady Luckan returned her breasts to the bra she had bought at Top Totty yesterday, and made a mental note to take active steps to find someone more deserving of her attention.

"What does it matter if it is off?" she said, bruskly, putting on her blouse.

"We've got a horse running, that's all," said Marsh, who realised that he had upset Andrea, but wasn't sufficiently bothered to try to put things right.

"Is it going to win?" Andrea asked. "Silly question. They never do, do they? I don't know why Geoffrey and you bother."

Marsh was tempted to say "yes, it is going to win", but stopped himself. "No, I don't suppose so," he said. "The horse isn't much good."

"Like all the others, then," said Lady Luckan. "I'm off now. Haven't you got some work to do?"

Marsh went home and turned the television on for the weather forecast. They were saying that the snow would turn to rain, which cheered him up a bit. As long as there wasn't too much rain.

There was enough but, thankfully, not too much to prevent racing going ahead. Lord Luckan had decided to go to Hereford, more for a few drinks in the owners' bar than to watch his namesake run; Lady Luckan went with him, to keep an eye out for Marsh's successor; and the dowager duchess went, too, because the offcourse operation was fully geared up, and she wanted to make sure the oncourse side of things went smoothly.

Lord Luckan was running in a bad handicap hurdle. "Not bad enough for him to win, my trainer tells me," Luckan told anyone who asked. "No, I won't be throwing Lord Luckan's money at Lord Luckan." Not that Luckan had any money left to throw. The Oracle had failed to work the oracle and, although his mother had temporarily bailed them out, he knew she wouldn't keep bailing while he still had Lady Luckan as his wife. Anyway, Gertrude wasn't a bottomless pit, unlike Ludlow Manor's financial needs. His mind wandered fondly to the 3rd Earl of Luckan. Geoffrey half-wished for another Crimean War, and the chance to take the horses to Balaclava, and get killed. Better Balaclava than bankrupt.

In the race, Lord Luckan was where Marsh had told Bill Healy to have him, settled not too far off the pace, unless it was an overly strong pace, in which case he was to sit further off it. The dowager duchess Luckan had promised Healy a "present you'll be extremely pleased with" if he won, which was very nice of her, except that he had no chance of winning. Lord Luckan was as much use as his lordship, which was why the bookmakers had 50-1 next to his name on their boards, 66-1 in places.

Gertrude ventured a few small bets, taking care not to jeopardise Lord Luckan's price, which she was pleased to see remained unchanged. The off-course organisation was clearly doing its job well, with the dowager duchess's small, disciplined army delivering a multitude of carefully targeted pin pricks, individually small but collectively large, to bookmakers from Exeter to Gateshead, particularly small, independent ones. Each foot soldier had received detailed instructions and the duchess was confident that her orders would be carried out. Her late husband had not seen the merit in obeying orders but his widow did. Admittedly, she had not asked her brigade to gallop into the valley of death, although going into Ladbrokes wasn't so different.

Healy was surprised, shocked. Lord Luckan had never travelled so well, nor jumped so well. He felt like a different horse. Whatever Marsh had done to him since his last, typically abysmal run, had worked a miracle. As they galloped towards the final hurdle, Healy could afford the luxury of allowing his mount to fiddle it. He gave Lord Luckan a tap with the whip, urged him into the lead, and won cosily.

While one Lord Luckan breathed heavily and said nothing, the other strode into the winner's enclosure, where the trainer was already waiting, and said, "Good God, I can't believe it."

"No, it's a bit of a turn-up, isn't it?" said Marsh. "Though I did tell your lordship that the horse had been showing a lot more recently."

"Did you?" said Luckan. "I don't remember."

"Oh, yes, sir." Marsh said, turning to greet the horse and congratulate the jockey. "He was better, today, wasn't he, Bill?"

"Absolutely. A different horse," said Healy, staring in disbelief at the winner.

"Off you go now. Make sure you weigh in." Marsh patted the horse and, turning back to Luckan, said, "Did you have a few quid on it, sir?"

"No, I bloody well didn't," said Lord Luckan, half pleased and more than half pissed off with his horse's victory.

By this time, Lady Luckan had tottered to join them, doing her best not to lose her stilettos in the soggy ground. "Well, luv," she said, "at least one Lord Luckan's a winner." Andrea caught Healy just as he was setting off for the weighing room and planted a kiss on his lips, leaving them bright with red lipstick. A pity he was gay, she thought.

Seeing Lady Luckan in the winner's enclosure, the dowager duchess kept away, and wallowed silently in her triumph. There would be a lot of post-race mopping up to do, mainly in betting shops, with a little of what Gertrude had discovered was an 'online' betting world. Her team had dabbled a little in that, prudently. One way and another, it was all extremely satisfactory. She must ring Peter Cripps to reassure him that all had gone to plan, and send a suitable 'thank you'.

The stewards summoned Marsh to explain the improvement in Lord Luckan's formerly dire form. The trainer expressed his own surprise at the result but told them that the horse had been showing definite signs of improvement in his recent home work and schooling, a development of which he had appraised the owner. It was a bad race and the state of the ground, the pace, the time of year and the proximity of a full moon had all conspired to bring out the very best in Lord Luckan. The stewards noted Marsh's explanation.

In unusually festive mood, the dowager duchess had arranged for Ludlow Manor to be festooned in lights, some of which hung from a large Christmas tree outside the manor house and others from a smaller tree in the main hall.

On Christmas Eve, there was a party for the staff and large turkeys were delivered to Marsh and Healy, although both had already received substantial presents. Gertrude's goodwill faltered at the thought of spending Christmas Day in the company of Lady Luckan, so she booked her son and the trollop into The Feathers Hotel for lunch. On Christmas morning, the dowager duchess herself drove to Knighton, where she and Peter Cripps had a very pleasant lunch at the Milebrook House Hotel.

None of it made much of a dent in the more than £100,000 that Lord Luckan's victory had brought to Manor Cottage. Saving her son might be difficult but Gertrude had, at least, made a good start towards saving the estate.

The following Monday, a week after the race meeting at Hereford, Lord Luckan opened the front door and found himself facing a humourless looking man who introduced himself as Roy Ranson, an investigating officer with the British Horseracing Authority. He had come, he explained, as part of an investigation into the race Lord Luckan had won the previous week.

"I was shocked myself," said Luckan, inviting Ranson into the house, and offering him a cup of coffee, "or something stronger, for the New Year," both of which Ranson declined. "I don't think I can be of much help to you," said Luckan. "It was just one of those inexplicable things. That's racing, isn't it?"

"Perhaps," said Ranson, who asked Luckan a series of questions while they sat in the library. Then he asked to meet the trainer, and visit the stables.

"Of course, come along with me," said Luckan, gesturing the investigating officer out of the library, out of the house and across to the stable yard, where Marsh was chatting to one of the farm labourers. Luckan introduced him, then left Ranson with his trainer.

"Now then," said Ranson, eventually. "I'd like to see the horse, please." "Lord Luckan?" said Marsh.

"That's the one."

"I'm afraid Lord Luckan's gone missing," said Marsh.

A look of shocked disbelief occupied Ranson's face. "Lord Luckan's disappeared? Oh, no, not again."

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Gertrude ventured a few small bets, taking care not to jeopardise Lord Luckan's price, which she was pleased to see remained unchanged
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