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A photo-finish all the same

By Terry Joseph
February 9, 2000

To the punters it must seem at least unusual that, with less than a month to go before post-time, no one calypso has clearly emerged as the odds-on favourite in Carnival's road march stakes.

In fact, sometimes I wonder whether the race is on at all this year, given the blank spaces on the tins and a general lack of activity coming from the various stables; none of which has so far led a truly impressive contender into the parade ring.

To further complicate the betting, far too many of the popular disc jockeys blatantly wear more than one cap, a situation that often leads them into spending undue amounts of time exercising just those lower class horses in which they have an interest. In the process, the real thoroughbreds are sometimes left at the gates, without a care for whether they win, place or merely show.

Of course jockeys should face an outright ban for such infringements, but in the latter-day, a lack of professional ethics has not been a handicap in the lucrative road march stakes.

Now, it may well be that those "big horses" who have good track records are holding their charges under tight rein, planning to release only as we come into the final turn, then whip up a frenzy during the stretch run. But instead of playing hunches, such strategists should take a tip from the predicament of Nelson's "La La" which, in 1976, lost to Kitchener's "Flag Woman" at the wire; largely because it commenced the final gallop just a tad late.

Over the period 1954 to 1976 (which includes the year that a foreign folk song won the title), Sparrow and Kitchener were led into the winner's circle an astonishing 17 times, their domination punctuated only by Spitfire, Caruso, Blakie and the phenomenal Shadow. Calypso Rose then won two successive titles, before making way for Poser in 1979. "Soca Baptist" began the first Blueboy (subsequently SuperBlue) hattrick in 1980. The less frenzied hoof-beat was music to our ears and the melodies lingered on for a while, but soon gave way to the programmable sound of the late nineties.

But even before Tambu went out to "pastor", the going was already getting tough for the sport of road march kings. Triple-crown champion David Rudder's 1986 victory and stable-mate Tambu's three triumphs interrupted the winning run of dark horse SuperBlue who, between 1980 and 1993, took six of the available titles. Also etching their names on the crown were Penguin, Sparrow, Crazy and Duke.

All turned in fantastic runs during their winning years, going clear on both music and lyrics from the first turn, finishing at a canter and beating the field convincingly on each occasion.

Since 1994, an increasing number of entrants have faced the starter each year and while faster times are being recorded, a shortage of staying power has led to less interesting races, with several hitherto impressive performers now frequently pulling up lame, or getting boxed in from the starting-gate.

Mark you, there have been some noteworthy gallops in the paddock and other venues since this season opened, but the road march stakes, once a prestige event, is yet to show form or, for that matter, content. Meanwhile, contenders from neighbouring territories are burning up the local tracks. It would not be unreasonable to wonder, therefore, if in the Land of Calypso, at the first road march race of the 21st century, the most popular entry will be an import.

In 1977, Antigua's King Shortshirt, astride the popular "Tourist Leggo", forced the soca-stewards to rule the song ineligible, after a run that beat all comers up to Carnival Monday evening. And even so, that year, we were able to boast real talent on the hoof, with Maestro on "Savage" and "Hasely Crawford" with Kitchener up. As they came round the final bend, however, it was Calypso Rose who was tall in the saddle and first past the post with "Tempo".

This time around it's "Iron Bazodee" and "Volcano", two entries from Barbados, "Old Woman Alone" from Grenada and "Small Pin" out of St Vincent that are putting in some of the better showings, as we head for the final stretch.

The local entrants seem to be all in a bunch at the backdoor of the race. Through the glasses, the few that may be ahead by a nose are simply not of the stuff that makes a memorable road march winner. Pleasing as Preacher may be on "Market Vendor", General Grant with "Sticks and Stones" and reigning monarch Sanell Dempster's working of "Nothing for You", these are just not road marches.

Perhaps we will indeed have to resort to a photo-finish to determine this year's champion. And don't be unduly disturbed if, when we really get the picture, it shows some unlikely novice like Precious "Riding It".

For some time now, it was coming to this.

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