by Alice Leonhardt
Melanie Graham knows Image is Triple Crown material. The problem is, the filly is too smart for her own good. She's difficult to train, hates to be stabled indoors, and fights with other horses. But if Melanie is going to run Image in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont, the filly is going to have to get over herself.
For practice, Melanie takes Image to Florida to run in an easy fillies-only race. But when Melanie gets to the track, she discovers that her father has entered Image in the prestigious Florida Derby instead. He badly needs the purse money to save his failing business and he truly believes Image can win. Melanie is doubtful. Will Image rise to the challenge?
I'm kind of loving that this blurb automatically assumes that Melanie has been dead set on pointing Image toward the Triple Crown since day one. In fact, I've got to hand it to Melanie (for a change): Image was only ever the filly that didn't want to race, but had potential to possibly race well one day, and Melanie had the presence of mind to at least know that much. Image was never Super OMG Wonder Filly with fifteen exclamation points. It was only the casual change in plans brought to us by Melanie's dad and then Jazz that turned Image into Super OMG Wonder Filly!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That's fifteen exclamation points typed out. It's frightening, isn't it? Yes, I know it is. You have Mel's dad and Jazz to thank for that. Not Melanie, for a change. No sirree.
Also, let's examine this book cover. It's atrocious, for one thing. The bit is sliding right through that bay's mouth, mainly because his jockey is exerting a lot of effort to punch Melanie in the face with his crop hand. Melanie has been captured in that "ooooh, shit" moment, right before she's about to get clocked in the head. Image, for whatever reason, is wearing a ginormous breastplate I am sure has never seen a racetrack ever in the history of time. Also, both horses look like tired plow ponies plodding into a headwind. In fact, Image looks like she's in the middle of stumbling over her own feet. This is kind of inspired by a fleeting moment in the book that I think someone took out of context or greatly exaggerated, but I guess of all the moments someone could have chosen to draw for this cover, I suppose it will do.
Anyway! So in the last book, Christina was training Star in California. The events in that book actually occur after the events of this book, since Melanie actually went to Florida when Christina was left at Whitebrook during Rising Star and was back in Kentucky by the events of Distance Runner. Melanie actually calls home to talk to Christina, who is mentioned as having Parker problems, which actually were mainly resolved during Distance Runner when they broke up. To make chronological sense, this book should have happened right after Rising Star, but for whatever reason...didn't.
We start out Perfect Challenge with Melanie and Joe stubbornly hauling a very petulant Image to Florida via van. There is screaming, destruction of property, and lots of blood along the way. I love how everyone's first thought concerning an animal who can't handle being contained in small spaces for more than thirty minutes and was banned from a relatively small time track in their backyard is to put it on a truck and haul it to another state to try racing it at a bigger track against better competition. Of course! Naturally this is the best option for everyone! Only when they finally get to Florida, they are immediately turned away at the gate of the farm they were supposed to board at due to strangles. So Image finds herself all cooped up at Gulfstream instead and Melanie is literally on the verge of a mental breakdown. Again.
But Image must race in the Bonnie Miss, since she won some race at that other track and now has to "prove herself" against better horses elsewhere for some reason. Melanie just wants to take this day to day, but her dad and Jazz collectively wear the pants in this relationship and she knows it. So Melanie is being a good employee, only she puts on the brakes severely when her dad says, "Oh, by the way, we're racing in the Florida Derby instead and it's kind of a week from now. Hooray?"
Melanie isn't feeling it. She decides that under no circumstances is Image ready to race a mile and an eighth against colts, and I'm all "Good for you! Logic has its uses, right?" But then Will puts on his puppy dog face and whines that his business is failing due to his unprecedented and horrible decisions. (Tip: Never, ever, support a band called Bugg Spray. The name should have been his first clue that the band members were unmanageable druggies. Not that being an unmanageable druggie has ever really been a bad thing in the music industry...but I digress.)
So Melanie is won over by her dad's plight and decides that hell, yes, she's totally running Image in the Florida Derby. Even despite Alexis, evil lady who once managed Tall Oaks, who's back with a Derby entrant called Speed.com who is owned by the fictional Bill Gates. I am about 100% positive you can't name a horse Speed.com, since it looks so incredibly stupid when I write it in a sentence. Speed Dot Com, sure. But I don't make the rules here, obviously.
Anyhoodle, Melanie decides to breeze Image to make sure she's good and tired and will therefore feel less inclined to terrorize everyone in her path. This ends disastrously, with Melanie falling off and Image taking a solo cruise around the track. Had Cindy been there, I'm sure she would have insisted Melanie be banned from American racing for life. But Mary Anderson isn't writing this book, so thankfully Melanie and Image get another chance. Only to blow it later when Image somehow gets loose (possibly due to Alexis, but Melanie cannot prove it so she suffers in silence) and decides to flirt with another Florida Derby entrant without a chaperone. That Image, she's such a harlot.
Being proactive for once, Melanie decides not to let the racing commission make a show of kicking her out of the track and trailers Image to Pine Haven, a rundown farm consisting of a pony called Baby and Jazz's band, Pegasus. Now Melanie is forced to divide her time between attempting to enjoy Jazz's band (and not degenerate into a self-conscious mess at the sight of Kristi, the bikini-clad wife of Pegasus's drummer, Nuke...I do not make up these names, you guys, I don't) and keeping an eye on Image. You see, guys, to listen to Jazz's band would be to have fun, which is a grave sin, because when one has fun something inexplicably horrible always happens. Like someone will take Baby to a birthday party and upset Image's delicate mental state. Or a teenaged, tube-top clad girl will get stuck in a tack room somehow. The point is, bad things happen. It's just better for everyone if Melanie puts away her black one-piece swimsuit she was so ashamed of anyway and camps out in Image's pasture, okay? Why can't we understand? It's best for everyone!
But despite all of Melanie's attempts to keep Image's life orderly and secluded, reporters find her anyway and descend upon her like a pack of starving, carnivorous squirrels. During her second attempt to work Image on the track, Melanie is peppered with idiotic questions by a school bus sized hoard while Alexis yells profanity-laced (I imagine, anyway) accusations about how Melanie has only entered Image into the Florida Derby to detract from Speed.com because Melanie has a vendetta against her. There are even hecklers. Hecklers! You know, I try to imagine this in my head and I just can't. Heckling at a racetrack has always included a good amount of alcohol, in my experience. This was a morning work.
My only conclusion is that people in Florida must be downright crazy. But wait, it gets better!
On their way to the track for the Florida Derby, a pack of reporters is waiting, Mad Max style, to swoop in behind Image's trailer en route to the racetrack. And then, to really punctuate the unrelenting hospitality of Floridians, someone throws beer bottles at the truck and screams at them to take their horse back to Kentucky. Florida doesn't want Image. Florida never asked for some uppity girl horse thinking she's better than all the boys, okay? So the windshield shatters (although I'm suspicious that this is possible) and Melanie is screaming and all hell breaks loose. Only one of those Mad Max reporters decides to disengage from the pack and help them out, although that just confused me, really. If Joe can't see out the windshield, how is following Nice Guy Reporter going to help them out?
Well, they make it to the track, and Image and Melanie somehow survive on their way to the starting gate despite random Jazz kissage, and they come in second, which is like a victory because Speed.com came in third. So it looks like Will shouldn't have assumed horse racing was going to pull his business out of the toilet, although it doesn't matter because it went belly up anyway and he's decided to sell his interest in Image to Jazz. Melanie is all "oh hell no" because she doesn't want Jazz to be her sole boss, which he tells her isn't that important because he'll never sell Image. (Ha! So he thinks.) And then they kiss again, but they are super awkward about it because Jazz keeps insisting on talking about the Triple Crown in Melanie's mouth.
So I guess Image is going to the Triple Crown, and it ain't Melanie's idea either.
And you know what? I actually liked this book. Despite some things (Jazz's dangling gold earring, Alexis's black leather pants, Melanie's aversion to all activities that aren't standing sentry at Image's stall, the name Speed.com...all just the tip of an iceberg of reservations) it's solid. I could actually see a little bit of spark in Melanie this time around, but maybe that's just because Christina and Parker have been dominating my time lately...and as we all know neither one of them have any concept of life outside of their respective obsessions. And Melanie and Jazz have super cute banter when they put effort into it. Conversation between Christina and Parker is about as interesting as reading a legal document.
Plus, you have to respect Image. She's the one horse in Thoroughbred land that doesn't seem to give a crap about being anyone's Wonder Pony. I do appreciate that. Now, if only Brad had been in this book. But I suppose I can't have everything.