Horse whispering and horse murdering roil an intrigue-drenched race track in this atmospheric young-adult mystery.
Yes, there’s manure-shoveling, but 16-year-old Kelsey Kelley finds many consolations in her summer job as a stable hand on the quarter-horse racing circuit. One is the gorgeous, blonde-maned stallion Tomar El Oro she tends and bonds with; another is Blaine Carthege, the dreamy security guard at Derbyrun Downs racetrack in Colorado. Then skullduggery erupts as if from the starting gate. Kelsey overhears conspirators scheming to bribe a jockey to throw a race, Tomar gets sick, another horse dies, possibly with the aid of battery acid, and the track is quarantined after an outbreak of vesicular stomatitis. During the 30-day lockdown, Derbyrun Downs seethes with rumors of a horse-killer, insurance fraud and vendettas between rival trainers. As she guards Tomar from unknown perils, Kelsey is suspicious of everyone—even Blaine, despite the tingling feeling she gets when he’s around. When Kelsey’s father shows up with his new wife, just five years after he abandoned her and her mom, she feels torn between extreme pique—“You are just a no good rotten lousy sleazy adulterer!”—and curiosity at the change her dad’s newfound Christian faith seems to have wrought. Despite this mounting tension, the ensuing mystery never gets a good grip, even though it embroils Kelsey in kidnapping and homicide. Plot devices feel more perfunctory than suspenseful, and characters who seem guilty from the start just keep getting guiltier. Fortunately, Off keeps horse-lovers entertained with a vivid panorama of the racing world and lots of equine lore, from the animals’ skittish behavioral quirks to their complex diets to the thrill a rider feels when her mount breaks into a gallop. Kelsey is an appealing, spunky heroine, even as readers watch her try to keep from being thrown by a lurching storyline.
The suspense plot pulls up lame, but horse-obsessed teen readers will enjoy the novel’s engrossing equine milieu.