Horse racing is my inspiration – the risk, the beauty, the speed, the endless opportunities for skulduggery, and the extraordinary “Upstairs Downstairs” quality of the characters who inhabit the life.
Picture the winner’s circle: a poverty-level groom holds a hundred-thousand-dollar horse for a trainer who may be living large, or only hand-to-mouth. With them stands the rich or possibly almost-broke-owner who may also be a white-collar-crook. Or he might enjoy a golden life of lofty social status. I’ve seen them all.
Following the Triple Crown trail three years ago, I was fascinated by the stories surrounding Derby favorite, Recapture the Glory. The horse was owned by wealthy New Orleans Ford dealer Ronnie Lemarque, a showman who liked to sing and dance.
Back In 1988, Lemarque and his trainer, Louis Roussel, came close to winning the Triple Crown with a horse named Risen Star who won two legs of the famous series. When the horse annihilated his Preakness competition, Lemarque snatched the microphone from the TV host and belted out, “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” There was no stopping him.
Twenty years later Roussel and Lemarque got their hands on another talented colt, naming him “Recapture the Glory.”
In the middle of the fanfare surrounding this 2008 comeback, Lemarque’s wife hired a hit man to murder her husband, and did it while under the microscope of the sports paparazzi. Maybe she was tired of him singing. Maybe LeMarque was two-timing her. Whatever the reason, the press crawled over this story like bees on a beignet.
Watch Lemarque sing and dance.
In the end, the horse failed to win the crown, the murder plot was discovered in time, and the wife was convicted and imprisoned. It’s hard to make up a plot better than this!
But since I have to try, here is how I might use a memory from the track and morph it into a murder mystery.
One day at Laurel Park racetrack, the stubborn child in me was determined to catch a brown hen that pecked for grain outside my horse’s stall. A number of trainers raise hens in their barns at Laurel, and I’ve been fond of chickens since I kept them as a child on the family farm.
After chasing the hen into an empty stall, I asked a buddy to close the top and bottom doors so I could catch the hen before she escaped. I caught the bird, stroked her smooth feathers, and thoroughly enjoyed myself, just like a six-year-old.
Of course, I couldn’t stand around holding a
chicken all day, so I pushed against the doors and discovered my buddy had fastened the latches on the outside. I called out and waited for him to come back. He didn’t. After a while, still holding the chicken under one arm, I stuck my hand through a hole between the doors where some anxious racer had gnawed the wood. I waved and yelled for someone to come and let me out.
A woman I’d never seen before did. She opened the door and said, “What are you doing in there with that chicken?”
But suppose I’d been in there with a dead body? Or suppose a man with a long serrated knife had opened the door. What then? What would my protagonist Nikki do? No doubt Nikki would launch the hen, flapping and squawking into the face of the man with the knife, then run for her life. But who was this man, she’d ask. Why did he carry that wicked knife? Hadn’t the wife of a trainer been knifed to death some months back? And a mystery story begins.
I've never wanted to write the great American novel. I believe my job is to entertain with stories about chasing a dream, fighting the odds, and helping the helpless. I want to create a world that’s a bit scary, sometimes funny, always informative, and a reliable destination for escape.
Photos: Sasscer Hill; Sasscer, pretending to live large with racehorse owner George Strawbridge and his hall of fame trainer, Jonathan Sheppard. Keeneland races, Kentucky, October 2010; Full Mortality; Sasscer living it real on her Maryland farm in January, 2011.
Sasscer Hill lives on a Maryland farm and has bred racehorses for many years. A rider and winner in amateur steeplechase events, she is author of the Agatha Best First Novel nominee, FULL MORTALITY. Several of her short stories appear in the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series, and her articles have appeared in numerous magazines.