Gabriel, 12, is a slave who dreams of becoming a famous jockey. His father, a free man married to a slave, is a trainer for Master Giles’s stable of thoroughbreds. When Gabriel’s father enlists in the Union Army to earn the money to buy his wife’s freedom, Gabriel must adjust to a cruel new trainer.
Although the war’s impact in Kentucky is less dire than in other Southern states, marauding bands of Confederate raiders terrorize residents, seeking horses, food, and anything else they can steal. “One Arm Dan’s” bunch raids Master Giles’ farm, not for food, but for the horses that Gabriel is determined to protect. Outnumbered, his only choice is to take eight of the animals and run. Master Giles, a kind man, rewards the boy’s cunning and bravery.
Characters talk about the many faces of freedom, from actual emancipation, to being allowed to learn reading and writing, to realizing the dream of working at what you love. Gabriel’s first-person, present-tense narrative brings close the thrill of horse racing-on the plantation, at the race course, and in the war-and the African American history in all its complexity. The author grounds this fast-paced tale in historical fact by providing a nonfiction epilogue. Readers will find this wonderful blend of history and horses appealing.