11/04/2008 1:00AM

America made it to the wire


A fellow racing writer who had formerly covered city hall for a major metropolitan newspaper once told me that after taking a close look at how political sausage was made, he would never bother to cast another vote. Eventually, he landed a government job. I do not know, though, if he ever took up voting again.

As this is written, Election Day in my neighborhood has been a relatively peaceful ordeal. Oh sure, there were the usual three patrol cars plus K-9 unit parked in front of my polling place, which was the recreation center of a rowdy mobile home park for seniors. Seems that a false complaint was phoned in about improper electioneering by opponents of a controversial ballot measure, complete with a nonexistent charge of voter harassment. I was treated to the inspiring sight of a police officer thumbing through a thick handbook of California election rules and regulations on the hood of his squad car while a ferocious German shepherd charged the steel screen of his backseat cage. Can't be too careful when democracy is at stake.

My wait in line to vote was exactly zero seconds, which is understandable, since California this year was designated by both parties as a Fundraising State rather than a Battleground State. As far as the horse racing industry was concerned, there was nothing on the California ballot remotely tied to the business, unless you count Proposition 2, which required that "certain farm animals be allowed, for the majority of every day, to fully extend their limbs or wings, lie down, stand up and turn around." This sounded like a question for someone with more agricultural experience, but I voted no, fearing it would restrict the options of some of the game's more creative trainers.

Anyway, elections already are rife enough with horse racing imagery. There are dark-horse candidates and front-runners, going neck-and-neck down to the wire, leaving the also-rans far behind. Serious writers have given great thought to the concept of political campaigns covered as if they were populated by horses going round and round. Apparently, the practice dates back to 1888, when the term "dark horse" first reared its head. Brian Montopoli, commenting in the Columbia Journalism Review, even gave it a name and formal definition:

"Horseracism is the practice of reporters and their editors obsessing over polls and process instead of substance," Montopoli wrote earlier this year, "and it's propagated by reporters whose hunger for inside information causes them to focus on the ceaseless torrent of minutia and meaningless numbers that pop up during a campaign."

Jack Shafer, in his media criticism column for Slate Magazine, expanded on the theme.

"Consider the fullness of the metaphor," Shafer wrote. "A bunch of perfectly groomed and tended politicians gather at the starting gate. They all have track records and somebody has placed a bet on them. When the gun sounds, they run like Seabiscuit, frothing and jostling. Some pull up lame before the race concludes. The event, which seems to go on forever, can be a blowout or end in a photo finish. The winner takes a victory bow as the losers regroup for the next heat or depart for the glue factory."

Or Alaska.

"During an actual horse race, nobody wants to hear the announcer drone on about the ponies' dietary regimes," Shafer added. "They want to know who's winning, who's gaining, who's in the thick of it, and who can be written off. Are the front-runners burning themselves out and letting a back marker take the prize? That which cannot be compressed into an announcer's play-by-play ends up in the learned pages of the Daily Racing Form. But for immediacy, nothing rivals a great horse-race take."

This borders on the ironic, the use of such horse racing vocabulary, because the racing industry itself has needed to be relatively low-key lately in the political arena. Horse racing can be a hot-button target when it takes sides, especially when the expansion of perfectly legal gambling is the issue.

This year's Maryland ballot measure to legalize slot machines was favored to pass. This will mean that the good citizens of Laurel and surrounding areas could have access to upwards of 4,500 hard-working slots as soon as a major gaming company can put them into action. After years of trying for approval, the theory finally will be tested in Maryland: Can a casino save racing?

By comparison, the 1990 ballot measure in New York seems downright quaint. Voters were asked if they would pretty please approve a law that would allow horse racing to be presented on Sundays, alongside every other major sporting event. It was a horse race, but the measure passed.

"It's one thing to watch a horse run the track by himself, but there's no substitute for watching him pound the turf with his equals," Shafer concluded in Slate. "Only great horses can go the distance. Only great horses stage comebacks. And the only time a race really makes sense is when it's over."