05/30/2010 3:06PM

Bully for Them


The Hall of Fame of any sport is nothing less than a vital organ, which is why it is important to make certain the manner in which Hall of Famers are selected is sound.

For this year's version in thoroughbred racing, there was energetic sentiment among the movers and shakers of the Hall of Fame process that a number of very good mares were being overlooked because of the rule that only one could enter per year. The same could have been said for trainers, jockeys and male horses -- at least that's what I thought --but it was the mares who carried the most weight, and the voting format was changed.

As a result, it was possible this year that Azeri, Open Mind, Safely Kept and Sky Beauty all could have entered the Hall of Fame. That would have been quite a chorus line, high-kicking into the Saratoga shrine, but it didn't happen. Only Azeri, whose record dwarfed the considerable resumes of the other three, got enough votes for induction.

Whether the result was a backfire of good intentions or a natural result of miscalculated manipulation, it matters not. I will also avoid picking through the grisly details of the process by which the Hall of Fame ballot is cobbled together (think of the Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior under the Bush administration, without the crystal meth and kinky sex). But as it stands now, the Hall of Fame Nominating Committee -- of which I am a member -- is nothing but a Narrowing Committee, tasked primarily with eliminating names that deserve widespread consideration.

There were only 10 candidates on the 2010 ballot -- an arbitrary figure based upon the number of horses encouraged to run in the Kentucky Derby, divided by two -- but there easily could have been many more included, and without a whiff of embarrassment or confusion. Among the omitted this year were Jerry Hollendorfer, Garrett Gomez, John Velazquez, Mineshaft, Heavenly Prize, Robbie Albarado, Housebuster, Kona Gold, Chris Antley, Billy Turner, Calvin Borel, Mel Stute, Neil Howard, Smarty Jones, Lure, Estrapade and Craig Perret (readers are encouraged to pile on).

In fact, it should not matter how many names are included. Give each voter 10 votes, then, to be elected, require a candidate to get 66% or so of the support from the total number of voters. Cull the list annually of those names who do not attract at least a minimum level of support. If the system is good enough for the baseball Hall of Fame, it's good enough for horse racing.

Just as baseball honors widely diverse players for doing a variety of jobs very well, horse racing has its special cases. Certainly, no one can argue with the comprehensive career of Randy Romero, replete with quantity, quality and more than its share of operatic tragedy. And as for Azeri, let's just say Zenyatta has yet to catch anything like her.

But the two males elected tell very different tales. Purists who balk at Point Given's Hall of Fame qualifications worry that he did not make it past the summer of his 3-year-old season, and that he never was tested against the older horses of the era. What a Breeders' Cup Classic that could have been in 2001, had Point Given not gone wrong after the Haskell and the Travers. Picture the big chestnut bearing down on Tiznow and Sakhee as the wire neared at Belmont Park, where Point Given had won the Belmont Stakes by 12 1/4 lengths that June.

What there was of Point Given was choice, and he beat Tiznow fair and square in the balloting for 2001 Horse of the Year. (A referendum on that decision took place last year, when Tiznow entered the Hall of Fame first in head-to-head balloting against Point Given, but now all is settled.) As for precedent, there have been several colts enter the Hall of Fame without ever facing their elders. Colin's record of 15-for-15 trumped the fact that he didn't make it past June of his 3-year-old season. Count Fleet, Majestic Prince and Tim Tam were victims of the Triple Crown and never raced after the Belmont. Northern Dancer lasted one race longer, going out in style by winning the Queen's Plate in his native Canada.

Best Pal copy Best Pal is the yang to Point Given's yin. As a 2-year-old -- pegged about fourth best of John Mabee's crop -- he was more accomplished than Point Given. At three Best Pal had a better Kentucky Derby, finishing second, and that summer, while the rest of the crop was dallying in the Travers, Best Pal stepped up to beat a field of older horses in the Pacific Classic that included Unbridled, Farma Way, Twilight Agenda and Festin.

While Best Pal lost 29 of his 47 starts, he also won the hearts and minds of thousands of fans over seven memorable seasons. Had he retired at the end of his 4-year-old season, he would have been a slam-dunk Hall of Famer in his first year of eligibility, with a record of 12 wins in 23 starts, along with seven seconds and third, and additional wins in the Santa Anita Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap and Strub Stakes. But he didn't. He was a gelding, and he soldiered on for three more seasons, adding the Hollywood Gold Cup and San Antonio Handicap among a host of honorable efforts. So committed was Best Pal to the life of the warrior that he lasted only 2 1/2 years in retirement. He died of a heart attack on Nov. 24, 1998, while accompanying a herd of young horses to the training track at Golden Eagle Farm, where he was born.

His remains are buried there, beneath one of the boulders harvested from the rocky outcroppings of the eastern San Diego County landscape. It used to feel like a long way from Saratoga Springs, but no more.