With the political parties’ presidential primaries dominating the news cycle, and with the Kentucky Derby (G1) prep season now heating up, it’s easy to track their similarities.
Before you jump to point out the differences, I’ll offer a pre-emptive disclaimer. No popularity contest can salvage a horse who’s lacking in merit or moral fiber. Because success or failure is determined by their objective performances on the track, the horses do not have to curry favor with anyone, clamor for contributions, inundate you with commercials, or promise the moon. Indeed, our animal friends are all the more lovable for their sincerity and purity of motive.
Even so, both Derby and presidential hopefuls have to endure a rigorous process that weeds out the contenders from the pretenders. The ones who can stand up to the heat prove themselves worthy of making the big game – the May 7 Derby or the November 8 general election.
And in this respect, we can identify 10 points in common. Going in reverse order, let’s build up to number 1.
10. A specific set of contests is scheduled in advance all around the country, offering a clearly defined numerical method for rewarding good performances. For the candidates, it’s participating in the primaries where they are awarded delegates toward the party convention. For the horses, it’s earning points in the races on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” scoring system. Those who don’t do well early drop off the trail.
9. Painstaking preparation over the long haul is a prerequisite. The horses have been learning on the job, gaining valuable experience, and channeling their competitive energies effectively. Now they must stick to a regular training routine to perform well in the preps – and to reach the Derby in peak form. Likewise, the candidates must do their homework and stick to their talking points.
8. A dedicated support staff behind the scenes is essential. First and foremost is the trainer, and many horses are in expert hands long established on the Derby trail. But as any good trainer will tell you, it’s a team effort involving everyone in the barn, from the exercise riders to the grooms. The candidates have their handlers too, and as with the trainers, the campaign managers and consultants are often veterans of the national political arena.
7. Media hype is inevitable. A chosen few candidates will hog the media spotlight, while others struggle to get any attention at all. Likewise, the flashiest horses will receive adulation, some of it warranted, some over-the-top and uncritical – especially if the trainers sound like spin doctors. Other capable horses, less flashy, wind up getting overlooked amid the hoopla.
6. Polarization happens. While rancorous partisanship dominates our political climate, certain horses can inspire diametrically opposed reactions. A case in point on the 2015 Triple Crown trail was Dubai shipper Mubtaahij, who divided racing fans into two camps: you either liked him or you rejected him out of hand. A corollary to this principle is the effect that some horses have on their devotees. For instance, any critique of the popular racemare Zenyatta, however mild or thoughtfully stated, would arouse fury from her partisans.
5. Prospects can be classified by the labels of “establishment” versus “insurgent.” These “lanes” have been discussed endlessly by the political pundits, and they do have a correlation among the Derby hopefuls. Horses have establishment credentials based on their major wins and high-profile connections (for example, Nyquist, Mor Spirit, and Mohaymen). If a Derby aspirant has yet to make a big breakthrough, you could say that he’s in the “insurgent” lane, particularly if he represents connections who aren’t household names.
4. Momentum plays a role. Just as candidates ride a wave of momentum with a series of strong performances that propel them to the nomination, so, too, do horses go on a roll. Winning begets winning, or at least a confident attitude, a swagger that tells his rivals who’s boss. Conversely, subpar efforts signal a loss of form that may not be regained in time for the Derby. Any kind of setback on the trail, however minor a hiccup or gaffe, may be irreparable.
3. A deluge of data is continuously available for interpretation. On the political side, numbers crunchers can’t get enough of the polls, historical trends, bellwether precincts, campaign finance reports, ad buys, and every other metric under the sun to analyze the state of the race. The Derby scene likewise offers plenty of catnip for the numbers crowd, from various types of speed figures for races, BRIS Prime Power and Class ratings, the degree of ground loss that compromised a horse, workout times, the Dosage theory that assigns a numerical value to the pedigree, and of course, the horse’s odds. Depending on how well you believe the odds reflect the horse’s win chance, the odds represent good or poor value.
2. You vote with your pocketbook. It’s a truism of political science that people “vote their pocketbook,” that is, make electoral decisions based on how well (or poorly) they’ve fared financially. Whether that still describes the American voter or not, your economic fortunes could improve or deteriorate depending upon who gets elected. The loose parallel is Kentucky Derby betting: you vote for a horse by placing a wager, which will result in either a gain or a loss. For both horses and candidates, you stand to lose more with some than others.
And the number 1 similarity between the Derby and the presidential sweepstakes:
It’s all about chasing the dream. That’s the proverbial “fire in the belly” that prompts all of the hard work, the sacrifice, the angst. Precisely because of the great commitment this entails, the dream dies hard. Candidates, and the connections of horses, sometimes won’t admit the reality staring them in the face: they’re just not going to make it. But for those who do reach the pinnacle, there’s nothing like it in the world (or so we’re told).
So when pundits describe the presidential contests as a “horse race,” there’s more to that analogy than they might think.