"It's A Horse Race!"

There I am, in my final year of university.

I’m taking a course called The American Presidents – a study of the most influential leaders in United States history. Our final assignment is handed out, the professor carefully explains how 50 per cent of the term’s grade will be determined by this one task.

“I am asking you to select your own subject,” he says, carefully enunciating each word. “I will challenge you to be creative. While I am not looking for 15 essays on Abraham Lincoln, I am trusting that you will not show up in this lecture room to make an oral presentation on video games or skateboarding.”

My mind drifts to whether a maiden named D M Dilinger has any chance of defeating Rackum Red and By Xample in the following night’s $100,000 Gold Final at Western Fair. The John Drennan trainee is winless and from an unproven first crop sire, named Camluck. “He’s probably not much,” I mumble to myself.

The next several weeks are met with the usual period of procrastination. One evening, with the Tragically Hip blaring in the background, race programs strewn about on the coffee table, and CNN on one of our three half-broken television sets, the anchor says, “This is a horse race that’s sure to come down to the wire.” My ears prick. I elbow my roommate to point out the reference.

“You see, they use horse racing because it’s the only way they can make this Bill Clinton, Bob Dole election campaign interesting.”

After a few moments of confused clarity, I pull out a VHS tape marked Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em 5, and I begin unceremoniously recording over it. During the days that follow, I tape hundreds of hours of US Presidential election coverage, and carefully copy the horse racing references onto another tape.

There are dozens of racing-related references, from passing words to features and profiles. “By a nose,” “wire-to-wire,” “down the stretch” – the terms jump off the screen. Even the candidates themselves get into the action. I record a powerful speech Bob Dole gives to his supporters. “This is a horse race,” he slowly proclaims. “I am the racehorse and my opponent is the show horse.”

My presentation and essay are easy from here. The connection between horse racing and the Presidential election is the dream assignment. But does this project equate to video games and skateboarding, and in turn, a failing grade?

On the day of my oral presentation, nerves are frayed, but the show goes on. My assertion is that by boiling a multi-month campaign down to a two-minute horse race, reporters and candidates are able to connect with the electorate. And that even without realizing it, horse racing resonates with the public. We love the animal, the speed, the gamble and the chase – all a refreshing contrast to the subject of politics, which we are distrustful and cautious of.

As the presentation wraps up, my professor smiles his approval. The assignment has been a success.

This year as Layton, Harper, Ignatieff and Duceppe battled for the hearts and minds of Canadians, the media coverage reminded me of that semester at the University of Western Ontario. “It’s a two horse race,” shouted a City TV headline. “And down the stretch they come,” blared the Campbell River Courier Islander. “Liberals, NDP neck and neck in HRM,” wrote the Halifax Metro.

So what do the thousands of horse racing references still being made in the mainstream mean to us in the horse racing business. Well, firstly, nobody has forgotten about us, despite what we may believe. And secondly, everyone trusts a horse more than a politician.

As for the Gold Final the next evening, October 5, 1996, D M Dilinger rallied from seventh to finish third behind Aint Lookin Back and By Xample. The green two-year-old would win the following week, en route to becoming the first of 20 millionaires sired by Camluck.

At least I predicted Clinton for President.

Darryl Kaplan
[email protected]

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