Horse racing is a dying sport. It may be hard to believe, but at one time it rivaled baseball as the most popular spectator sport in America, these days, however, with the (ever decreasing) exception of the Triple Crown races, it barely registers on the public radar. The language of horse racing, however, maintains a strong presence in the public lexicon: "long shot," "Dark horse," "war horse," "wearing blinders," "wide-open field," "come from behind," "down the stretch," "odds-on favorite," "front-runner" and "it's a horse race," are all frequently used terms, and ones that can, and are, easily applied to the election process.
With that in mind, and in light of today's running of the Belmont Stakes, it seemed as good a time as any to attempt some further (if admittedly tenuous) comparisons between the "Sport of Kings" and the sport of king-making,
With seventeen months to go until the election and a current combined field of twenty candidates, the race for the presidency does in many ways resemble one (very long) horse race. It so happens, that the maximum field allowed at the Kentucky Derby is also twenty; it was a maximum field this year, a sign, among other things, that there was not an exceptionally strong contender). Certainly, both endeavors, particularly in such a large field, require endurance, quick thinking, and the ability to maneuver an animal much larger, and more powerful (in this case the public at large) through twists and turns, with life and death (the political in this case) and fame and fortune and power on the line at all times.
In the five weeks since the Derby, during which winner, and favorite, Street Sense was denied by a nose any chance at the Triple Crown greatness by Curlin, the line-up horses willing to continue on has decreased to a more manageable seven. This is also a number more closely resembling what we can come to expect in the Presidential line-up after the primaries begin next winter.
Adding excitement to this year's Belmont is the inclusion of the filly Rags to Riches. It is rare for a filly to participate grueling mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes. Over its one hundred and forty year running only twenty-one have ever tried, and two have won, most recently in 1905. Rags to Riches, despite having the historical odds stacked against her, is considered both exceptional and a real threat to her male counterparts. It is tempting to draw comparisons to Hillary Clinton's status as the lone female presidential candidate, however, an even better analogy might be to the filly Ruffian, the mid-seventies star who preferred to break fast and first, immediately taking the lead, and staying there letting those behind her take their chances in the fray. As a point of interest, Ruffian was undefeated, and set a track record almost every time she raced. While leading from wire to wire, is rarely a strategy that works well in a horse race, it is certainly the mark of a courageous competitor.
If Clinton is currently the betting favorite then Barack Obama is the rare creature that pops up every once in a long while; lightly raced, or untried, he nonetheless captures the public's imagination, (a public that is ever desperate for some magic and inspiration) drawing dramatic comparisons to the greats of the past. Another Secretariat? Another John F. Kennedy? If the comparisons earn out (and they rarely do) they tend to fall away, and the candidate, now a winner in his or her own right, stands on their own. Seattle Slew was only the next Secretariat until he won the Triple Crown, after which he was simply the champion Seattle Slew (also the only undefeated Triple Crown winner).
But what about the contenders that have yet to enter the race -- the dark horses, or late-entries? Fred Thompson, Chuck Hagel, Newt Gingrich, Michael Bloomberg, even, perhaps, Al Gore. Where do they fit in? In our mind's eye (and admittedly, it's looking less and less likely) Al Gore is the "dark horse" that sits way off the pace so as not to seem a contender at all. But then, as the field rounds the final turn (say sometime in late November between Thanksgiving and Christmas) and the front runners begin to tire (whether from too much press, too little money, or perhaps too much media time to fill and not enough to fill it with) he makes his move, appearing suddenly before anyone has time to think too much about where he has come from or why or how, running his own show straight down the middle of the track (Secretariat, more or less did this in the 1973 Derby, though Al Gore has yet to do anything that might earn him a Secretariat comparison). Whirlaway, the 1942 Triple Crown champion was famous for his heart-pounding, come-from-behind wins (he was also nick-named "Mr Longtails" for his long lustrous tail that "reminded oldtimers of the hair-tonic ads of the Seven Sutherland Sisters" perhaps making him analogous to a different candidate altogether).
The Belmont, at a mile and a half, is the longest distance any of its entries will face in their lifetime. What the future holds for the winner (and, as matter of fact, probably all the others in the race), is more-than-likely a few more racing starts and then a quick retirement to stud (yes, admittedly, Bill Clinton analogies are tempting here). The race itself will last approximately two and a half minutes. Meanwhile, the election campaign is still in early stages. The candidates left the gate, so to speak, last February, and are only now rounding the first turn, with plenty of bumping and jostling and howling and dangerous, impetuous, ill-timed moves yet to come. The finish line is a long, long way off.