Biden wins by nose as Obama and Romney enter home straight


AMERICA:In the US horse racing capital of Kentucky, Joe Biden beat Paul Ryan in a closely fought debate, writes LARA MARLOWE

KENTUCKY ISN’T quite sure whether it’s in the midwest or the south. I think it’s southern, because like the rest of that region, it dwells very much in the past.

Commerce and politics have always been intertwined here. With a population of 28,000, Frankfort is one of the smallest state capitals in the US. It won the coveted status by placing the highest bid in 1792: the use of a log house for five years; several town lots; locks and hinges valued at £50; 10 boxes of glass; 1,500 nails and $3,000 worth of gold. The legislature convenes only in winter, because lawmakers were by tradition farmers.

A bronze statue of Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln dominates the rotunda of the state capitol. When I asked a civil servant who she will vote for, she gestured to towering Abe and said: “How could you not vote for a tall, skinny man from Illinois?” From the windows of the capitol you can see the tomb of Daniel Boone, the pioneer, explorer and folk hero. The capitol is filled with Georgian and Vermont marble; the state supreme court room is panelled in mahogany from Honduras.

It’s a sumptuous seat of government for a poor state, but Kentucky’s proud of its parsimony. “In 1909, the total cost was only $1.9 million,” the official guide boasts. “It was the best bargain anywhere in a public building.” Accounting is still part of the political calculation. One of the poorest regions in the US is the eastern Appalachians, and the state seems to be a magnet for storms and tornados, making Kentucky a net importer of federal funds.

Democrats tell Republicans they’re shooting themselves in the foot by voting against big government. The local Democratic party still uses the party’s original symbol, a rooster; it never got around to changing to the donkey.

“Tobacco, hemp, whiskey and horse racing made Kentucky’s fortunes,” says the capitol tour guide.

Hemp was used to make sails, cotton bails and rope, and built many of the graceful houses with columned verandas in the prosperous Blue Grass centre of the state. The Tea Party senator Rand Paul is leading a campaign to make the weed – which is similar to marijuana – legal again. Paul wore a hemp shirt to the state fair in August.

Bourbon and thoroughbred horses remain a great source of pride.

“Ninety five per cent of the bourbon in the world comes from Kentucky, and the other 5 per cent is counterfeit!” was the most memorable quote from governor Steve Beshear at a reception marking Thursday night’s vice-presidential debate.

Rob Hutchins, a “bourbon ambassador” for Heaven Hill distillers, told me bourbon is a product of the American melting pot: “Irish and Scottish immigrants made their whiskey from barley; the Germans made theirs from rye. We added corn and use all three in bourbon.”

Heaven Hill has sold close to 50,000 cases of partisan bourbon. Blue state labels bear the Democratic donkey; red state bourbon, an elephant. Hutchins watches sales instead of opinion polls. For the moment, they’re tied. The television comic Stephen Colbert has a similar gig, counting Obama and Romney mugs sold by 7-Eleven convenience stores.

An earlier economic crisis explains how Irish whiskey came to be distilled in Kentucky barrels. In 1936, Hutchins recounts, the state passed a law requiring that bourbon be aged only in new, charred oak barrels.

“It created a lot of jobs, in timber and for coopers,” he says. “When Germany occupied France a few years later, Ireland and Scotland lost their supply of barrels. The second World War opened up the European market for us.” A used bourbon barrel goes for about $70.

The Keeneland racetrack in Lexington was built against the odds, also in the Great Depression year of 1936. Thoroughbreds were taken to New York for sale then. But Keeneland set up its own auctions due to travel restrictions during the war. The association sold 8,500 horses totalling $465 million last year.

“A thoroughbred needs stamina, speed and the ability to run a long distance,” says Bill Thomason, Keeneland’s president. Like a politician.

They held a different kind of Kentucky Derby in stately Danville, between the old sire Joe Biden and the yearling Paul Ryan. It’s been 108 years since the US has seen a wider age gap between two “veep” candidates.

There was advance speculation that Ryan might be “on the muscle” – what happens to nervous horses who lather up and waste energy in the paddock. But both horses . . . er, men . . . were sure-footed. Most commentators thought Biden won by a nose, though he lost points for showing his equine grin a few times too often.

We’re nearing the home stretch now, with two more presidential debates to go.

“You don’t know who the winner is until the race is run,” cautions Walt Robertson, a lifelong auctioneer at Keeneland. One thing is certain: after November 6th, one presidential candidate will be put out to pasture.