I placed my foot into the stirrup and swung my leg gracefully, planting myself firmly in the saddle. I hoped my anxiety wasn't revealing itself through my body language, so I leaned forward and stroked my mount's smooth neck. His muscles rippled in the sunlight and he seemed calm and ready. We set ourselves up at the starting line, halting calmly and smoothly, waiting patiently beside the other competitors. I set my jaw, determined, and glanced left and right at the other jockeys. They all seemed so at ease, so expert, and I wondered if my expression gave me away as a rookie. How could they be smiling at me in a stressful situation like this? For a moment I thought their grins seemed a little sheepish, and I wondered if I was underestimating myself and they were actually intimidated by how confident I looked. Sweat began to run down the back of my neck as all of us rooted ourselves in our saddles, ready for the bell to signal the start of the race. My breathing quickened, and the hot afternoon sun beat down mercilessly on us. The beast beneath me, standing firmly at the start and focused on nothing but the task at hand, didn't even break a drop of sweat. I could feel that he was raring to go, but he stood poised and elegant, not showing his bottled emotion. I envied his expertise at this dangerous sport. I pulled the goggles down over my eyes -- the only one of the jockeys to do so. There may not have been mud or rain to splat into my eyes as we ran, but I felt I should take all precautions necessary for my maiden race. I interpreted the sidelong glances from the other jockeys as jealousy that they hadn't also come up with my genius idea. I perched forward and gripped the reins tightly, and I felt the power start to bottle up underneath me. He was tense now. We were ready. All too quickly the bell's clanging pierced the air and the pack of us surged forward with lightning speed. I gripped with my thighs, holding on with all my strength as we bolted ahead of everyone else. I looked over my shoulder and let out a sharp laugh as the adrenaline pulsed through my veins. We were flying! What a glorious, free feeling! For the moment it seemed like we were unstoppable, and we would leave the rest of the pack behind us in a cloud of dust.
That was when disaster struck. It all happened so quickly I didn't even realize what had overcome me at first. Somewhere in the thundering strides my right foot slipped from the stirrup as we rounded the far turn. My seat hit the saddle hard, though my mount barely seemed to notice. He was in the zone. But I, the more inexperienced of the two of us, couldn't keep my focus like he did. I panicked. I scrambled to keep my balance, trying to stay perched forward while not gripping the reins too tightly, wildly trying to find my stirrup. My efforts were useless. I couldn't get it. My foot flailed uselessly. We started to come out of the turn and I felt my balance swaying. 'Oh, God help me!' I cried. I fell forward involuntarily as we raced into the backstretch. In the turmoil my eyes found the sky, the ground, the railing, and some of the other jockeys, of whom looked at me worried expressions contorting their faces. What they must have thought of me in all my panic! I wrapped my arms around the long, smooth neck that stretched out in front of me, which was still bobbing steadily with the rhythm of our stride, but by then it was too late. I had lost my balance completely. I felt my seat start to slip to the right and I let out a scream. We started to slow down and the rest of the pack surged ahead of us. My arms were not strong enough to hold me in the saddle any longer, and I saw the ground coming at me with a horrible speed. My lungs gasped deeply as I hit the ground, and felt my limbs flailing in all directions. My head made contact with the ground last, but the impact was still hard enough to make me feel dizzy. My mount had slowed down, but the mentality of the race had caught the best of him and he was still running with the pack. Silence began to ring in my ears as the thundering of the pack drew away. I was alone, laying in the dirt, the rest of the race finishing without me. After a moment of regaining my senses I felt small relief that none of my bones felt broken. I put a hand to my head and steadied my dizziness, sitting up cautiously. There was still a horrible silence gripping the air, mocking my defeat. I slumped forward and began to weep, not believing that my big moment was over, so quickly, so tragically. Wiping the tears from my dirt-caked cheeks, I decided once and for all: That was the last time I would ever ride a tortoise.