01/14/2008 10:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Match Race

As long as the press is determined to look at the Democratic primary
as a horse race, then let's talk about horse racing. One thing I do
every single year is tune in to the Breeder's Cup. The Breeder's Cup
used to be six big races in one day. Now it has burgeoned to ten races
run over two days, and they all have big purses. When you are watching
Breeder's Cup day, you can thrill to the beautiful horses; you can
enjoy the human interest videos about improbable owners or heroic
horses. The other very enjoyable thing you can do is laugh at the
handicappers. Before every race, the announcers themselves, plus a few
hired "experts", stand around and opine about which horse is going to
win. Most of the time, because conditions for the Breeder's Cup are
unusual for almost every horse, the handicappers are dead wrong.
Often, out of nine races, the professionals will pick the winners of
one or two. For a fan of racing, this produces the utter delight of
watching the experts wax more and more eloquent and more and more
stupid at the same time. The races are always more interesting that
the pre-race analysis. But we racing fans forgive the pundits, partly
because the pundits know that whatever they are saying is more or less
a joke, and so they say it with a sense of fun, and partly because the
Breeder's Cup lasts for hours and hours, the races last for a minute
or two apiece, and they've got to fill the time somehow.

A good horse race has a lot of horses in it. Big American races
usually have between eight and fourteen runners. Too few, and the race
is too hard on the horses, too many, and there's too much traffic.
Having a number of horses in a race means that horse and jockey are
tested in several ways -- not only speed and stamina, but intelligence,
strategy, and luck. There are horses who are not so fast who are able
to stare down other horses and intimidate them. There are horses that
take a while to get going who run down the quicker ones. There are
horses who love to be out in front of the pack, and on a good day run
away from everyone. There are jockeys, like the late Willie Shoemaker,
who can take a horse through a tiny opening almost before he can
consciously perceive it. A good race tests many aspects of horse and
jockey, and then, in the end, often awards the victory to the one who
managed to avoid bad luck.

What no owner or trainer wants is a match race -- that is a race
between two great horses in which they compete only against one
another. The reason for this is that great horses are highly
competitive, and in a match race one or the other of them can be run,
literally, to death, as happened to the great filly Ruffian in 1975.
Even after Ruffian broke the sesamoid bones in her foot 3/8s of a mile
into the race, she ran as hard as she could for another fifty yards,
breaking the hearts of everyone who saw the race.

One of the virtues of the primary electoral system is that in good
years, it avoids the problems of the match race. The candidates'
competitiveness is dissipated by the large field, and the candidates'
positions influence each other. Ideally, what comes out of the
primaries is more than the sum of all the positions going in. If I
like this from candidate A and that from candidate B and something
else from candidates C and D, I can give my money and support and
suggestions to more than one of them, and see them, together, come up
with a consensus that represents most of the party. As each amasses
his or her their delegates, he or she also learns something. Positions
can't harden because there will be -- guess what -- horsetrading at the

Unfortunately, what we see among the Democrats now is what happens
when the fans start wanting a match race and the owners start talking
about giving it to them. Clinton is pressing Obama and Obama is
pressing Clinton. Both of them are playing their various "cards" and
the result is not productive but destructive. Only two primaries so
far and we already see it -- each day brings news of a more intense and
meaner-spirited rivalry that could easily create permanent bad blood
between the two candidates and their supporters. It will certainly
supply the Republicans with reams of material to employ once the
presidential campaign gets underway. Every match race is a zero-sum
and dangerous game. Ever heard the words "Pyrrhic victory", as in "I
won the battle but my entire army was destroyed"? Obama and Clinton
need to step back and take some time off, and their supporters need to
go to their various corners, too. The enemy is watching.