Against All Odds: Part Four
The day of the race, an extremely bored and discontented Scorchio, with a permanent scowl upon his face, sat behind the counter of the betting booth, continuously taking bets from an enormous queue of Neopets that just kept getting longer and longer.
The Scorchio wasn't having the best of days. He'd already had to put up with whiny betters who had complained that the odds on 'their' Poogle was too low; a very strange Desert Blumaroo, who had spent half an hour at the booth trying to convince him that Tonu Races would be a much more exciting venture; and then he'd had to deal with a group of 'Poogle Rights' activists, who had come armed with banners that they thrust above their heads, shouting a tirade of slogans, which no-one but themselves seemed to understand, as they kept shouting over one another, drowning one another out.
The Scorchio had only caught snippets of their slogans, but he thought he'd heard one scream, "Cruelty to Poogles!" which was ridiculous really, because it wasn't as though the Poogles were forced to run in the races, against their will.
If they wanted to protest, there were plenty more campaigns to get behind; just last night, the Scorchio had heard of Neopians protesting about gender equality in the Altador Cup – couldn't they get behind that, instead?
After several fruitless attempts to shoo them away himself, he'd had to call security, who had appeared instantly and had carted them off the premises.
So, when the Scorchio looked up from his post to see a large gang of menacing looking, Darigan Neopets, descending upon his betting booth, he automatically assumed they were here to cause trouble.
As the leader of the gang stepped up to the booth, the Scorchio realised that he recognised him from the last race; there weren't too many Darigan Techo's in leather coats about, especially ones who had gone against his advice and had bet on Poogle Five.
And now, he'd come back with an assortment of his meanest looking friends, to scare him into giving him his money back, most likely. Well, that wasn't going to work.
The Scorchio bristled in his chair, sitting up straighter and squaring his shoulders, in what he hoped was an authoritative stance.
"I told you before, Techo. No refunds! Now take your friends and clear off, before I call security!" he barked at him, as he approached the counter, in as threatening a manner as he could muster.
To his surprise, the Techo smiled at him – or the closest to a smile as a Darigan pet could pull off.
"I'm not here for a refund," he replied, neutrally. "My friends and I have come to place some bets, that's all; fifteen thousand on Poogle Five to win," he said, placing a bulging money bag on the counter in front of him.
The Scorchio gaped at him in surprise; unsure whether this was some sort of joke or whether the Techo actually had a debilitating gambling problem.
Not in the mood to argue, the Scorchio took his money with a shrug of the shoulders, and filled out a betting slip for him. He'd already warned him once, if the Techo was mad enough to bet on the same Poogle again, then that was his choice, and it was his money that he was throwing down the drain.
Handing over the betting slip, he raised his eyebrows and added dubiously, "Good luck."
If all of the Techo's friends were betting on the same Poogle, he'd be raking in the Neopoints by the end of the day, he thought to himself, rubbing his hands together greedily, a gleeful smile upon his face, as a Darigan Jetsam sidled up to the counter with a full money bag.
The day they were to leave for Faerieland, Ernie was surprised to find out that a huge crowd of Darigan citizens would be coming to the race to cheer him on, and even more astounded to learn that they planned to bet on him – clearly they had never seen him race before.
He had tried to warn them that before coming to Mekoides' boot camp, he had been the worst racer of the lot and that he wasn't even sure that he could beat Dodie in a race now, but the crowd whole-heartedly disagreed; they said that if Mekoides had trained him, then he was definitely a winner.
They were just about as stubborn as Mekoides; there was absolutely no changing their minds, so when they reached Faerieland, Ernie left them by the betting booth, whilst he went to put on his racing vest and get warmed up for the race.
"Good grief, what a load of unsavoury characters are here today!" he overheard a snooty, Faerie Aisha comment to her friend, as she pointed out the Darigan citizens with a look of disgust, to which her friend sneered at and nodded in agreement.
"I quite agree, it's nearly as bad as the day all those horrendous Mutant pets came to the races..." she replied, with a theatrical shudder. "I don't know what they were thinking, coming here," her Royal friend added, with a haughty stare at the Darigan pets.
Ernie frowned upon hearing these words, understanding now what Mekoides had told him when they had first met, about being judged by the rest of Neopia because of their past and Ernie couldn't help but be annoyed on their behalf.
"Excuse me, ladies," Ernie addressed them, formally. "But, have you placed your bets yet? Because I just heard that Poogle Four is in tip-top shape today and is almost guaranteed to win," he told them, dishonestly, in revenge for insulting his friends; the only people to believe in him in a long time.
The two Aishas thanked him for the tip (one of the Aishas declaring him "such a nice young man,") and dashed off to the betting booth to place their bets on a Poogle whom Ernie knew would most likely come in last, now that he – the only Poogle with higher odds than him – had upped his game.
Snickering, somewhat cruelly, at how easily they had believed him, Ernie turned and sauntered off to the deserted changing room to don his racing vest and warm his muscles up with a few jumping jacks, before heading back out to the track.
No-one seemed to notice Ernie as he strode over to his place at the starting line; Dodie was in her starting position already, her face a stoic mask of concentration with her eyes focussed solely on the finish line; Jarvis was bounding up and down enthusiastically, waving at people in the stands energetically and Helene was deep in conversation with Clifford about the new shop that had opened in Tyrannia.
Only when he took his place at the starting line did Helene look up in acknowledgement, her eyes bulging in surprise upon seeing him.
"Five, is that you?" she gasped, in amazement, a stunned look on her face as she gawped at him, her mouth hanging open in shock.
At this, the other Poogles turned towards him, their curiosity piqued by the shocked tone of Helene's voice.
Ernie had to stifle a laugh at the looks on their faces; each more astonished and disbelieving than the last, at his spectacular transformation.
He couldn't blame them, he still couldn't believe he was the same Poogle that had left the track in defeat less than two weeks ago, and every time he passed a mirror he had to take another look, not really recognising himself.
"Well, what do you think?" he replied, grinning.
"You look amazing!" Helene stammered, gobsmacked, her eyes still wide with wonder.
"You're so... thin," she added, taking in his new lean, toned physique. "How did you do it? It's only been a couple of weeks since the last race!"
Ernie smiled and tapped his nose with his index finger.
"All I can say is that it took a lot of hard work," he replied, cryptically.
"Well, good for you! Best of luck today," she told him, with a genuine smile, as she turned back to her starting position as the Grarrl commentating on today's race took up his megaphone.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the Poogle Races will begin in two minutes. Please finish placing your bets and take your seats," the toothy, Faerie Grarrl shouted into the megaphone, which amplified his voice so that even the audience at the back of the stands could hear every word.
Looking over at the noisy crowd, Ernie could see that a large band of Darigan Neopets were making their way to the front row, their intimidating sneers sending a group of basic coloured Neopets scurrying away from their seats in fright.
As though sensing him watching, Mejoides looked up at Ernie, giving him two thumbs up and manic-looking grin.
"Who's that?" Helene asked, raising her voice over the sound of the Grarrl's booming advertisement for Faerie Foods.
"He's a friend of mine," Ernie replied, giving the Techo a grin and a wave in return.
Helene frowned but had to let the subject drop as the Grarrl started counting down the seconds until the start of the race.
The last Neopets settled down into their seats and Ernie turned away from the stands, focussing on the race – it wouldn't do to lose because he was distracted. The horns blared loudly signalling the start, and the Grarrl's voice blasted through the megaphone.
"Poogles, get ready!"
All five Poogles hunched down into their starting positions, leaning forward slightly so that they could speed off with the ultimate amount of force possible.
Ernie's stomach was in knots, unsure whether all that work with Mekoides would have paid off. Yes, he was thinner and fitter... but could he win a race against Dodie MacGillis?
He was on edge as he waited for the signal for them to run; he'd never felt so anxious. Not in any of the other races, not when Mekoides had taken him to his boot camp, not even when he met that scary looking Tonu, Eiser, who was currently sat in the stands next to Mekoides. But, now he had more to lose.
The melody of the horn ended and a black and white, checked flag was waved twice in front of them, sending the five Poogles sprinting off from the starting line.
"And... they're off!" the Grarrl yelled eagerly, his last words muffled slightly by the giant roar of the crowd that erupted as soon as the Poogles shot off from their places.
"And it's Poogle One, better known as Dodie MacGillis, in the lead, with Poogle Two hot on her tail. Fun fact for you, folks: Dodie has won more races than any other Poogle in the history of Poogle Racing; can she do it again today, do you think?"
There was a huge cheer from the crowd in response, only contradicted by the boos and hisses from the crowd of Darigan pets in the front row, who had started chanting, "Ernie, Ernie, Ernie!" to the bafflement of the rest of the audience, who looked around in confusion, many of them asking each other, "Who's Ernie?"
Ernie could hear none of this however; the cheers of the crowd overpowered their chants and he was too focussed on the race to hear much of the background anyway.
When Dodie had taken the lead early, Ernie had felt a little defeated. After all that work at Mekoides' boot camp, he thought that he'd have taken the lead instantly, but having had a relatively slow start, he was now lagging behind both Dodie and Jarvis, though thankfully, he'd managed to pass both Helene and Clifford early on.
He knew that if he wanted to win the race, he'd have to work harder than ever before. Putting on a bit of a sprint, Ernie made his legs work faster than he ever had; pushing himself forward and forcing his muscles to their limit, all the while silently chanting to himself, 'you can do it, you can do it!'
His vision was blinkered; all he could see was the finish line, as blurry colours and shapes flew past his field of vision, nothing with a solid form but that white line at the end of the track.
He was so focussed on winning that his hearing had blocked out everything but the pounding of his heart and the chant in his head. He didn't dare look around to see how the other Poogles were doing, and he could barely hear the Grarrl's words.
"Dodie still in the lead with a flawless jump over the hurdle... but what's this? Poogle Five is coming up fast behind her – wow, I've never seen him move so fast! Poogle Two jumps over the hurdle... ooh, that's gonna cost him! And – yes, it has. Poogle Five overtakes him, thanks in large part, to that unlucky stumble.
"Now it's neck and neck between Dodie and Poogle Five – doesn't look like anyone else will stand a chance; these two are so far ahead of their competitors! Poogle Five approaching the hurdle – this will either make him or break him... and by Fyora, he's done it! A fantastic leap from Poogle Five – putting him in the lead! This is by far the craziest thing I've ever seen! The Poogle with the highest odds looks like he might win the race – but Dodie doesn't seem to be giving up that easily... with a spurt of speed, she's now close behind him; they're level again! Ooh, this will be a close one, folks – Hey! Give that back!"
Ernie's eyes flicked to the side to see Dodie right next to him, only centimetres away; her legs moving like the clappers, a ferocious glint in her ambitious eyes, and then... he saw something else.
Out of the corner of his eyes he could see a purple Techo in a long, black, trench coat, grappling with the Grarrl and yanking his megaphone out of his hands – what in Neopia was Mekoides playing at?
The next sound he heard was Mekoides' voice bellow through the stadium.
"Run, Ernie, Run!"
Motivated by his friend's voice, and seeing the finish line a hundred metres ahead, Ernie heaved a deep breath and forced himself to run faster, despite the dull ache in his legs.
He pictured himself as he was before – chubby and lazy; far too unfit to win a trophy, his breath shallow and uneven and his legs slow and painful; the Poogle who couldn't even do a couple of push-ups without breaking out into a sweat.
Then he flashed back to the first couple of days at Mekoides' boot camp – the intense work-outs; the hardcore diet. He didn't do all that for second place!
His feet thundered against the hard track mercilessly, his heart thumping in his chest, thinking only about his Darigan friends and how he couldn't let them down, especially now that they'd bet so much on him.
The finish line was a mere few steps away. Ernie elongated his body, stretching out his paws as far as they'd go as he ran, hoping to be the first across, and in the next few seconds, both Poogles had crossed the finish line panting, neither knowing who had crossed it first.
Ernie and Dodie stared at each other warily, as the torturous wait commenced, in which the referee – a Bruce in a black and white jersey – had to decide who had finished first.
Ernie watched the Bruce anxiously, wringing his paws desperately whilst he caught his breath. It had been very close between Dodie and him; too close to call, but in his heart, he knew that he had crossed it first.
The crowd waited with baited breath, growing more impatient for the results by the second, the volume of their mutterings increasing the longer it took the Bruce to decide the winner.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, the Bruce signalled for them to be quiet and the stadium immediately fell silent.
Taking up the megaphone, his shaky voice sounded out across the stadium.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, after watching the race closely and conferring with the commentator here, we have decided that the Poogle who crossed the finish line first, was..."
There was a significant pause, held for suspense, and a collective intake of breath from the crowd, who eagerly sat forward in their seats, clinging to their friends and family with anticipation.
"Poogle Five!" the Bruce's voice rang out, leaving most of the audience, Ernie included, completely stunned.
"Yessss!" Ernie cried out, ecstatically, once he realised that the Bruce wasn't joking. He pumped his fist into the air in exhilaration; part of him unbelieving and the other half delighted at his first win.
Dodie's face was a mixture of shock and disbelief, with a prominent scowl etched there, showing her annoyance at losing – and to a 9:1 odds Poogle, no less.
The crowd, who were clearly in favour of Dodie winning (or at least, their money had been) were less than pleased with the result, grumbling their displeasure and pointing fingers as to who was to blame for their loss of Neopoints.
Some blamed the referee, claiming that Poogle One had clearly been the first to cross the line, whereas others put their blame on Dodie, for having an off day or the Scorchio who took their bets, for not warning them that Poogle Five was no longer too chubby to run.
Ernie didn't care about that though. He was too happy about winning his first race to dwell on the haters who didn't believe in him.
All he cared about were his friends; those who had trained him, believed in him and bet on him; the ones who had jumped from their seats the minute he was declared the winner and had sprinted across the track in a swarm of dark colours, and had hoisted Ernie onto their shoulders like he was some kind of hero, chanting his name loudly.
Their winnings from this race would be great, unlike anyone else's. He hoped that would help them import better food from Meridell – especially Mekoides, he owed so much to that Techo.
With the money he won, he could buy new furniture and better equipment for his boot camp and possibly turn his boot camp into a thriving business. Ernie would love to see Mekoides help others like himself turn their lives around and boost their self-esteem in the process.
The gang of exuberant, Darigan pets, dropped the Poogle in front of the first place podium with huge smiles and cheers (and only a few snide gibes at Dodie).
"Well, how do you feel?" Mekoides asked, approaching the podium.
"Amazing! I can't believe I did it!" the Poogle responded, triumphantly.
"Can't you?" he asked, raising one of his dark eyebrows.
"Well... I suppose I can, but it's just a little surreal."
"I knew you had it in you! I'm so proud to have been your instructor," the Techo told him gruffly, holding out his calloused hand for Ernie to shake.
Ernie beamed and shook his hand.
"Thank you for all you've done for me. I might not have appreciated it at the beginning, but you've really changed my life," he said, feeling a little choked up.
"Now don't go getting all soppy on me!" Mekoides exclaimed, backing away hastily.
Just then the Grarrl appeared, ready to hand out the winners' trophies, glowering at Mekoides as he passed, not having forgiven him for separating him from his beloved megaphone.
The Grarrl managed to compose himself to hand out the trophies, congratulating first Jarvis, who took third place again and then Dodie, who accepted her silver cup solemnly.
When Ernie was handed his gold cup, he grinned like a maniac, holding it in his paws carefully at first, as though scared that it might vanish in front of him, but soon after he realised that nothing was going to happen to it, he held it high in the air for all to see.
The crowd cheered loudly, and despite knowing that the majority of the crowd hadn't bet on him, nor wanted him to win, he couldn't help but believe that those cheers were for him – the winner.
Neovision cameras surrounded him the moment that he stepped off the podium and Ernie was accosted by a dozen journalists, trying to get an exclusive with 'the Poogle who fought against the odds.
"Five, how do you feel about your win today?"
"Five, that's a magnificent transformation; how did you do it in such a short space of time?"
"What made you decide to slim down?"
"Five! Five, over here! Suzie Lancaster, Neosport News." Ernie recognised the Faerie Shoyru from Neosport that had been talking to Dodie after the last race, but this time she was ignoring Dodie and was fluttering over to talk to him.
"Five, can we have a word from you about today's race?"
Ernie smiled and turned towards her.
"Sure," he said, looking directly at the camera.
"But first, you all have to know that my name's not Five," he said boldly, addressing all the journalists and surrounding cameras.