A Fade To The Finish

When I was a sophomore in college, a friend of mine’s father came to town to watch a horse he owned run in the Louisiana Derby. It was an exciting week. We got full privileges at the racetrack and spent lots of time hanging around the paddock with Dr. K and his horse trainer, watching Spartan Emperor get put through his paces, getting the inside dope on the mysterious world of high-stakes thoroughbred horse racing.

In the evenings Dr. K took us to eat in some of New Orleans’ finest restaurants and kept us up into the wee hours drinking sazerac, smoking cigars, regaling us with tales of his thirty years buying and breeding racehorses. Losers and mediocre entries far outnumbered the winners, but a trip to the winner’s circle, smiling for the cameras with the jockey sitting high in the saddle, made all the angst and the money invested worthwhile.

The morning of the Derby I put on my only sport coat and a borrowed pair of semi-respectable shoes, hopped on the streetcar with my friend Chris and our buddy Carl, and headed for the track. We had box seats and a reserved table in the Clubhouse, and everything was on Dr. K’s tab. Which was good, because I’d scraped together my last $50 to put on Spartan Emperor to win.

I was feeling good, in part because I’d seen the photo of Chris standing in the winner’s circle with Spartan Emperor’s sire. Our horse came from good stock, and had already compiled some impressive finishes in his young career. If he did well today, talk was he’d be entered in the Kentucky Derby later that Spring.

But I was also feeling good because I liked the Life.

Horseracing is all about passion and power, and that week I’d been awed by the huge, yet delicate beasts over which all this fuss was being made. I’d felt the trembling of the earth standing outside the rails, right on the track, when the horses came thundering by at frightening speed, snorting and flailing saliva. The trainers and the stable hands plied their paddock turf as a sovereign kingdom, but graciously welcomed our visits and our questions and our interest in their stories.

I liked the rich, spicy bite of good Cajun cuisine, and the sweet desserts, and the bitter flavor of chickory in my coffee. I loved the breakfast Bloody Marys and the cold beer and freshly shucked oysters, the single malt scotch, and the late night sazeracs. And I liked the pretty girls who sat at our table in the Clubhouse, friends of the trainer and the jockey. They were older than us, they were in that Life, and they made us feel welcome.

The field settled into the starting gates and with the bell, Spartan Emperor broke for the lead, and the rail, and I had him pegged in my binoculars. I started to feel a great anticipation like nothing I’d ever known.

As they hit the eighth pole we started to chant, “Go Seven, Go Seven,” or whatever number he was wearing, leading the field by a length and a half. Through the backstretch he filled my eyes, striving, stretching, pulling into a lead now of over two lengths. I began to jump up and down and tug on the arm of Chris’ jacket, screaming, “Come ON Seven, COME ON Seven!” I saw my $50 turning into bags of money as they rounded the Clubhouse turn.

And suddenly I lost him.

I took the binoculars from my face and scanned the pack coming down the home stretch. “Where’d he go?!” I cried, jamming the binoculars back in my sockets. “Where’d he go?!!!”

And like that, it was over. Spartan Emperor finished next to last in a race that lasted less than two minutes. My $50 was vaporized. Everything good and decadent and delicious about that week was sucked into an empty place in the pit of my stomach. I thought I was going to throw up right there.

The nearest I’ve come to feeling that way in the succeeding twenty-four years was when it dawned on me John Kerry was nowhere to be seen at the end of this election.

I’d been so sure of his victory, had seen it arriving so clearly through my media-goggles, right into the home stretch. But it vanished into a sea of red state electoral votes and a breathtaking 3 million vote advantage in the popular count for Mr. Bush.

When Spartan Emperor lost in early 1980 I think I went back to my apartment to smoke fulminous quantities of pot and sleep until about two weeks before finals, when I knew I had to do something if I was to stay in school. But I’m a grown-up now and, tempting though it is, I can’t choose that option today.

We have serious problems with our electoral process, citizens, and if we smoke a bunch of dope (or drink a vat of whisky, or take xanax, or zoloft, or burn too much sage) and go to sleep here, we will pay hell getting our democracy back.

34 million people voted or had their votes “scanned” in this election, on machines offering no receipt, no record of each vote, nor any verifiable method of obtaining a recount in the case of uncertainty. Many of these machines were manufactured by a company whose titular head is an avowed vocal and financial supporter of Mr. Bush –and who publicly “guaranteed” delivery of the Ohio vote to the incumbent.

Has the term “conflict of interest” lost all currency in the early going of the 21st century? Could any jurisdiction with a genuine interest in unfettered democracy use such machines in good conscience? Should such use be legal in a true democratic republic?

I was ready to capitulate. I mean, it was a long race for me.

I started actively backing and contributing time and money to the Dennis Kucinich campaign in June of ’03. It was an uphill, though gratifying battle all the way to the Democratic convention in September. My experience with that campaign gave me hope for (if not confidence in) our electoral process, hope for our possibilities as a society, and pride in the youth of this country.

At some point near the end, however, I began to let go, and started saying to myself and to my ideological sparring partners, “fine, let’s just count the votes.”

Therein lies the rub. There is the matter of the aforementioned incredible 3 million vote margin in the popular count for Mr. Bush, together with the victory to be ratified by the Electoral College on December 13.

Questions abound, however, about the accuracy of the reported totals, and about the transparancy of the process by which those totals were certified.

If you are interested, there are a whole host of suspicious circumstances discernable from Florida, Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire, and other states, which you can explore here.

Members of Congress have moved to investigate whether people were wrongly prevented from voting, or if legitimate votes were mis-counted or not counted at all. It is clear we need to know, so any wrongdoers can be held accountable, and to help prevent this from happening again.

You can sign a petition to support the investigation at http://www.moveon.org/investigatethevote/

Should you be moved to write a scathing opinion or lend constructive direction to the media in this regard, please see this page.

Feeling the echoes of the empty place inside me gonged by the election results last week, I lost faith in the ability of our electoral system to effectively convey, embody, or apply the Will of the People to the problems we face at this juncture in our proliferation. A long look must be given to the methods by which we vote and tabulate our votes in this country.

While I don’t advocate requiring every precinct in the land to use the same device, a uniform standard of collecting and tabulating votes must be agreed upon. A verifiable paper trail, something physical we can refer to in the event of dispute, ought to be a threshold requirement.

Whether the country truly has a war-mongering, gay-baiting, fundamentally repressed majority, whether we are truly split between those who connect hope and progress with liberal values or with conservative ones, Election Day ought not feel like a day at the racetrack.

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