Victoria, late April 1979. University exams finish. A glorious summer stretches out in front of me. Money in the bank thanks to a not overly taxing job on the municipal gardening crew. Plenty of basketball as well, my preparation for a final collegiate season top priority.
Still, now and then, as a change of pace, I travel to venerable Sandown Park to take in some harness racing.
These are carefree afternoons with friends, sharing a picnic and a few drinks, soaking up the sun. I glance at the day’s racing form, place a few small bets. It is all just spontaneous fun, the subsequent results and a dollar or two lost quickly forgotten. Instead, I savor the atmosphere, watch the horses and buggies trot daintily by, the jockeys decked out in colorful silks. The oval track is hard packed, the old oak tree at the end of the backstretch quite literally festooned with yellow ribbons. The announcer’s distinctive voice, from high up in the aging grandstand, provides rapid fire updates over the tannoy. Occasionally, there is a photo finish.
At the conclusion of each race, the area near the finish line resembles a blizzard of confetti, the ground soon littered with small bits of paper. Apparently, punters do not dwell on their used betting slips.
Nonetheless, for a lucky few, there are whoops of delight as they hurry to the track payout window. I note in particular the bounce in their steps, the gleam in their eyes as questionable wagers bear fruit.
Because, whatever the level of competition, one never knows for absolute certain what the outcome might be.
Flash forward to March 1990. The prestigious Gold Cup, open to horses aged five years and over, takes place in Cheltenham, England. This grueling steeplechase, first run on the New Course in 1924, covers more than three miles and features 22 fences to be jumped.
Enter Norton’s Coin, an ugly, plain chestnut gelding owned and trained by a Welsh dairy farmer named Sirrell Griffiths. The horse initially struggles against professional competition, but, with time, shows improvement and hints at potential. Still, totally ignored or shunned by opposing riders and trainers in the buildup to the Gold Cup race, he is given zero chance to succeed. Starts at an unheard of 100-1 odds in the twelve-horse field. Griffiths himself has extremely low expectations, desperate for an unlikely finish in the first six, so to at least recoup a hefty entry fee.
The race begins, Norton’s Coin some ways back of the main pack, but always in touch. Moving slowly but steadily forward, he closes to fifth, then to fourth position. As several of the pre-race favourites begin to struggle, he moves alongside the leaders. Summons his last reserves of energy. Then, with a capacity crowd in rapture, he soars over the final barrier. White blaze prominent, he barrels towards the finish line. Edges in front over the final furlong to win by three quarters of a length in a blistering 6 minutes and 31 seconds. Claims the lion’s share of a 635,000 pounds sterling purse.
The result is stunning. A massive, almost inexplicable upset. But part and parcel of sport, as a proper trawl through the history books will confirm. Certainly, major shocks happen all over the world, year after year after year, and in every athletic discipline.
No doubt this is part of the attraction.
And so, I again contemplate the drawing power of sport, in all its shapes and forms. Its ability, even if sometimes fleeting, to excite, to inspire, to connect. To unite, to bring joy and happiness. Its ability to function as a salve against the humdrum and daily grind of everyday life. Furthermore, its capacity to deflect stress and suffering. Or to mask the social, racial, and economic woes which currently trouble so many.
Indeed, millions all around the globe wish, pray, and dream. Millions more are vulnerable, look simply to survive. As much as is possible, these people can use every unexpected ray of sunshine. Slivers of hope. Hope, that they too might possibly beat the odds stacked against them. However slim.
That sport supports such thoughts and provides so many examples should gladden hearts. USA Men’s Ice Hockey captures an implausible Olympic gold medal, the brash and upstart New York Jets win Super Bowl III. Over nine magical months, Leicester City secures an English Soccer Premiership. Buster Douglas knocks out boxing champion Mike Tyson with a flurry of punches.
And, of course, there will always be Norton’s Coin. Unknown and unheralded, he becomes a true feel good story.
The ultimate longshot.