By Dave Broom

Backing the favourite

Mr Broom ponders the similarities between horse racing and the great whisky race...
It was around Lexington when the Boilermakers kicked in and the absurdity of travelling the back roads of Kentucky in a disco-lit stretch Hummer in a fully lubricated state hit home.

Quite where the golfing trousers bow tie fitted into the equation is another story, safe to say it had something to do with the dress code at the race track - though at least I didn’t take the term literally and wear a frock like a (male) barkeep of my acquaintance did when he was presented with the same dilemma. A day at Keeneland racetrack demands standards, at least in the upper floors where we were initially ensconced.

Trackside, however is where the action is. A mass of beer vendors, race rats, the newly bemused bamboozled by the betting and the old guys trying to impress young girls, families laughing as Dad puts the month’s mortgage on a horse, all of us shuffling on a carpet of ripped up slips and crumpled hopes, but what the hell, there’s a Bloody Mary cart right here.

As usual at a race track there was remarkable equanimity about the whole experience of losing money, though this time I didn’t simply load all the cash onto the longest shot in each race - always the recourse of the desperate (i.e. crap) gambler, or the guy who heard from his barber that another customer’s cousin’s sister was a stable lad for Lucky Boy and despite it being 100-1 it would come in.

I studied the form, but then sought advice from the Hummer disco driver whose happy demeanour (as he restocked the fridge again) couldn’t disguise the haunted eyes of a man whose heart had been broken by the fickleness of equine hamstrings and nefarious country club dealings. “Back the jockey,” was his advice. “Robby Alberado’s your man. I did it yesterday - came good.”

I didn’t take the term literally and wear a frock like a (male) barkeep of my acquaintance

Robby had a great set of horses the day before. Today’s, bar one, were not hugely fancied, so playing cautious for once I went for places and shows rather than wins.

This meant that rather than simply watching the favourite romp home (which they always seemed to do at this track) it was as important to know what was going on behind, as I mused to my companion as Robby came in second in the next race.

Horse meets tend to make you philosophical - it’s that losing money thing again - and allows you to see how this mass event is a microcosm of the weird complexities of life: class, sex, politics, immigration. It’s a festival for metaphors, a field of symbols.

In whisky terms, the horse coming up on the rails behind the heavily-backed Scotch is bourbon. It has the momentum (Japan will still grow, but will soon feel the effects of the enforced closure of its distilleries 12 years ago), it has volume, it has investment and more importantly it has the juice.

There is also the important point that its distillers are finally being heeded by their marketing departments who have realised that the opinions of the guy who has worked there for 40+ years might just be worth listening to.

The old comments that bourbon can’t age, that it simply tastes of oak, that it’s one-dimensional, the brands interchangeable have been blown away. Rather than hold to the opinion that “we can’t innovate because of the rules” which seems to be the default setting of their colleagues in Scotland, Bourbon distillers, equally hamstrung by regulation, have simply explored the areas where there is more flexibility: mashbill, yeast, barreling strength, warehouse position.

The result is a greater range of complex bourbons on the market than ever before and a realisation on the part of drinkers around the world that they don’t simply have to back the favourite any more.