Passing the quarter-pole

The racetrack at Arlington Park outside of Chicago is like a theme park for horses. I go there with my kids about once a year, and we make a day out of driving there, parking the car, finding a spot to sit, and then poring over the day’s racing form.

I sometimes try to explain what the information about a horse’s career record, how it has run in its last few races, and what the odds to win all mean. But mostly, the horses get picked according to their names. A horse named Mr. Dooneykins, if one existed, would certainly be deemed worthy of a $2 wager, for no other reason than our family dog is named Dooney. The fewer races that we bet on this way, the happier I am since these bets rarely end up with anything more than a worthless bet slip.

The races are run counter-clockwise around a large oval track. When the bell rings to start the race, the horses charge out toward the first turn, then run along a long straightaway, and then make the final turn and head down the stretch to the finish line. A picture that I took at one of my visits to the track appears above, and every horse race has a moment that looks like this at some point.

The pole in the picture above is at the point where the final turn is made. The fraction “1/4” clearly appears clearly appears on the pole, and it might be tempting to call this the “quarter-pole” because that’s what it is. But this doesn’t mean that the race is one-quarter over. To the contrary, it means that there’s a quarter of a mile still to go before the finish line.

Baseball writers and commentators get this wrong all the time. After the first forty games of a 162-game season are played, they start talking about “the quarter-pole” of the season. If the season is 25% over, why not borrow a term from another sport? That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But it turns out to be the opposite of the way that racing actually uses the term, and any baseball scribe or commentator who uses the term in this way really should learn the difference.

I’ve decided, at some point, that my goal for this blog is to write a least one million words. It sounded like a crazy goal at the time, but I’m now over 250,000 words and counting. Another couple of years at this, and the goal will be coming into view. But first I have to run that long straightaway.

Although I now know the difference between how the term “quarter-pole” is used in horse racing, and how it is routinely misappropriated for baseball analysis, I’m still using my picture here anyway. To begin with, it’s the most interesting visual representation of this fraction I can find. But more importantly, I’m not thinking of the quarter-pole in the same way that horse racing does. The quarter-pole tells the jockeys that it’s time to make their move, and to do whatever they can for the next quarter of a mile, and then everything will be over. After reaching the finish line, nothing else matters for the horses and the jockeys who ride them.

But this blog isn’t like that. If I make it to my million-word goal, I’m not going to just stop writing afterward. I expect to keep going well beyond that point, provided that I actually make it that far. One million words is less of a hard and fast ending point, and more of an aspiration at this point. One day I’ll find out how realistic this really is but until then, the race just continues on.

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