I love to go to the racetrack and spend an afternoon watching stunning equine athletes charge for the finish line. I admire the wiry super-strength of the jockeys doing what I’ve always wished I’d been able to do for a career. I love the bugler’s call to the post. I love the post parades and the jockeys’ silks. Horse racing definitely is a sport like no other.
I don’t go often—once or twice a year. It’s like going to a movie—take twenty or thirty dollars along and bet no more and no less. It isn’t the money that attracts me, it’s the sheer awe in the power and unpredictability of the competition. And, of course, the horses. They are the main attraction!
I love the sport, but I’ve also never been blind to the problems or criticisms that surround “the sport of kings.” Some animal lovers call racing cruel. Doping of horses, over-medicating before races, cheating drug tests, and jockey tricks like using buzzers to shock horses into running faster: these are just a few of the complaints, often legitimate, about the horse racing business.
It was my love of horses and racing and the wish to shed some light on the problems and the people trying to solve them that led me to write “Missing By a Heartbeat,” for the Chandler County series of books. When I heard that the series was set near Lexington, Kentucky and centered around the Kentucky Derby, I had to write a story—one I’ve wanted to tell for many years.
Here’s a little bit about the book, releasing December 15th:
Dr. Tori Sterling knows her way around race horse injuries better than vets with twice her experience, and she’s used to defending her scrupulously honest reputation in a world where rule-bending beats honesty.
|Churchill Downs' iconic Twin Spires|
Trainer Winn Crosby has finally made it to his dream destination: the venerable Churchill Downs. With a gift for getting the best from his horses, his goal is training a horse for a big stakes race. It’s no easy task, however, when every member of his staff is young and has a record. When a Derby-bound colt is targeted by a saboteur, Winn and his stable of misfits are prime suspects.
Winn teams with Tori to save his own reputation, and their partnership blossoms into unexpected passion, but they’re soon racing against time. Someone is desperate to eliminate them and their investigating, and the two have to find out who it is before they lose their careers, their lives or, worse, their chance at love.
Some of the problems Winn and Tori face in this story include the struggle to be totally ethical and honest in a world where that isn’t always valued. Some trainers and vets will push the rules as far as they possibly can in pursuit of winning.
I also talk about doping, and sabotage, and crooked trainers, and complicit track workers. Tori talks at one point about why it isn’t cruel to have two-year-old horses race, and Winn is on a campaign to change breeding programs so that thoroughbreds are better able physiologically to withstand the rigors of racing.
If it sounds like this novel is a treatise or an apology for horseracing, it definitely isn’t! It’s a romantic suspense with emphasis on the romance! But I think it might help show that there is a lot right with horse racing, and that most of the people involved care deeply about their animals.
The catalyst for this novel came, as many, many of my ideas do, from my own beautiful daughter. She is an equine veterinarian who started her career on the track. She’s passionate about horse health and safety, and she also loves racing. Readers who know me, might see a lot of my daughter in Tori—from the zillions of animals at her farm, to her steadfast refusal to do what’s not right to her involvement in a non-profit retired racehorse rescue. As long as there are people like her in the world, things for animals will continue to get better!
|The famous Barbaro Statue at the entrance to Churchill Downs|
Enjoy an excerpt from “Missing by a Heartbeat.”
“Once I told him all the weird things going on, all the coincidences happening in one day, he wanted to help,” Tori said. “My dad can’t resist a mystery.”
She’d barely gotten the words out when the growing group in the barn aisle was stunned into speechlessness by a looming figure of a man. Well over six feet tall and broad as a lumberjack, his eyes a cold blue and his face as calm as the eye of a powerful hurricane, Nick Forge marched toward them. Winn had never met the trainer, but his presence was hard to miss. And his reputation as a hardass was not a secret.
“A mystery?” the man said, his voice so quietly threatening it rang as if he’d used a bullhorn. “You’re damn right it’s a mystery. And you.” He lasered in on Tori, making hot blood rush without warning to Winn’s head. “You think you’re the keeper of morals around here and you just need to jump into every little issue and figure it out, don’t you? Did you set the cops on me? Send them around to make me a suspect? What the hell do you think you are? Everyone’s sanctimonious Sunday school teacher?”
When he took another step forward, bringing him to within six feet of Tori, Winn jumped.
“Back off, Forge,” he said.
The next thing he knew, a rod of flesh-and-blood steel attached to a hand the size of a Humvee had swept into the nearest post as easily as a swatter nailed a fly.
Tori had grown up with two older brothers who’d made play out knocking each other to the ground, so she didn’t scream at the shock of seeing Winn hit the post and flop to the ground. But she had no trouble or second thoughts about launching herself at Nick Forge’s arm and twisting it from the wrist until she brought it behind his back. She dealt with strong thoroughbred horses every day. A surprised trainer, despite his height and weight, was nothing.
“Are you insane?” She spat the words at him like venom and gave his backward-facing arm another yank.
She let him go when he allowed a quick grunt of pain and dropped to the ground beside Winn. He shook his head, eyes dazed but mostly with surprise.
“Hey, don’t get up fast.”
“I’m fine,” he started to scramble up but she pushed him down, too. “Tori, I really am.”
“Just make sure nothing cracked or got hit when you went down.”
“The asshole just took me by surprise, that’s all. My shoulder hit the post and I lost balance.” He protested but nonetheless quieted under her touch.
She heard the angry shouting beside them as the others descended on Forge and his protests began, but she refused to look up, concentrating instead on checking Winn’s eyes and running her fingers along his shoulder to check for bruised spots. She would have been smarter to believe his protests that he was fine. Touching him was like touching fire, or at least it felt so to her fingertips. He might not have been brawny the way Nick Forge was, but Tori doubted she’d be able to summon the strength to lift Winn’s arm much less twist it behind his back. Funny the difference between adrenaline and attraction.
“Nothing hurts here?” She pressed one last spot.
“Na. The shoulder blade stings a little, but it’s like knocking a funny bone—it’ll go away. C’mon.” His lowered voice caressed and wheedled as if he had to talk her into believing him. “Let me up now. This is hell on my male pride.”
There wasn’t anything funny about what had just happened, but they smiled anyway. Once they both straightened Tori finally saw that the tall blond man she assumed was Sawyer Richards had pushed Forge up against a wall and was holding him there. The rest of the kids were haranguing Forge with epithets and curses, and her father was allowing it for the moment. Clearly Nick Forge was putting up no resistance since none of Winn’s young employees could have held him had he wanted to push them aside, but he did gaze back at them with arrogant amusement on his heavy-featured face. Seriously, the man looked far more like a steroidal gym rat than a horse trainer.
“All right, that’s enough.” Winn’s tone brooked no argument and he expertly guided his charges away from their quarry.
“He has no right to come around our barn punching people out.” Leo was the last one to move back.
“True enough,” Winn said. “But he made his own bed—don’t you go sleeping in it.”
“What kind of panty-waisted girl are you, Crosby?” Forge eased his shoulders as he stepped away from the wall. “I had no intention of knocking you down. You just needed to stay out of my way.”
“I’d be careful about using the word ‘girl’ in that way, Nick.” Winn eyed him with mild reproval. “It wasn’t a man who got you into a hammerlock minutes ago.”
I hope you’ll watch for the release of “Missing By a Heartbeat” on December 15th, and visit me in Chandler County! I’m excited for this story, which is also, by the way, my very first “whodunit.”
You can pre-order the book HERE.
Meanwhile—I'm eager to know what you love and don’t love about your favorite sport. Horse racing, football, baseball…every sport has its darker side. Tell me what you’d do to change your favorite activity for the better! I have a $10 Amazon gift card for one commenter today.
And remember—there are seven other Chandler County novels coming by Christmas. Three are available for you now!