08/13/2009 12:55PM

Deck the Hall

Email

The National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs has a big party planned there Friday to induct six new members, including Bob Baffert, Eddie Maple and Tiznow. Visitors are guaranteed to leave town feeling as if they've brushed up against a significant hunk of horse racing history.

Eddie Maple2

I would show up just to shake Maple's hand, but the boss wants me here at Del Mar, minding the DRF sunscreen concession (someone has to do it). Rachel, Zenyatta and The Bird aside, the election of Edward Retz Maple to the Hall of Fame is the best thing to happen to horse racing this year. And by "best" I mean the thing that rights past wrongs and puts the sport in the finest light. The most common description of Maple's election is "long overdue," making him sound more like a lost library book than someone who should have been up there alongside such contemporaries as Pincay, Delahoussaye, Cordero and Hawley a long time ago.

I haven't felt this good about a Hall of Fame induction since last month, when Jim Rice finally made it to Cooperstown. Rice was to the Red Sox as Sandy Koufax was to the Dodgers of my youth. He was a franchise icon, reliable as the dawn, and a virtuoso with both bat and glove. Rice retired from baseball in 1989 after 15 years with Boston. He was eligible for the Hall of Fame five years later. When he was elected this year, it was his final year of eligibility. What took so long?

Teammate Dwight Evans suggested it had something to do with the inflated stats of baseball's more recent steroid era. "Steroids played a lot in the escalation of the stats," Evans said. "The stats [now] are all padded. Finally, it's been exposed the last two or three years. They said, 'This guy [Rice] did it on his own, and he should be recognized for it.' I truly believe that's what has happened here. It's too late, but it's happening."

Racing's Hall of Fame eligibility rules have changed many times through the years. By today's standards, requiring a jockey to have at least 20 years of service, Maple was eligible beginning in 1985. By then he had ridden Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, Riva Ridge, Alydar, Conquistador Cielo, Temperence Hill, De la Rose and Devil's Bag, and won more than 3,200 races. Here we are, 24 years later, and the man finally gets his plaque. Is it any wonder Eddie was leaning toward giving up hope?

You can't blame Maple's long haul to the Hall on steroids. Blame it on a broken down election system that keeps worthy candidates dangling for years, simply because those of us with a vote can vote for only one name per category. (This is a sore point around here, since as part of pre-nuptial full disclosure I had to admit that I voted for Jack Westrope on the 2000 Hall of Fame ballot instead of my betrothed, Julie Krone, who got in anyway. Heck, we weren't even dating at the time, but I still have to dust her plaque daily.)

Right now, there are any number of jockeys, trainers and horses who IMnotsoHO should be up there alongside Maple, including the two he outpolled this year, Alex Solis and Randy Romero. Here is just a partial list of the others I feel have been slighted by the system:

Robert Wheeler, Safely Kept, Don Pierce, Mel Stute, Open Mind, Housebuster, Roger Attfield, Chris Antley, Estrapade, Royal Heroine, Craig Perret, Sky Beauty, Frank Gomez, Best Pal, Ferdinand, Jerry Hollendorfer and W.L. Proctor. There are more, I know. Name them.

In the meantime, there is a clamor to expand the Hall of Fame to include owners, breeders and--are you sitting down?--writers. This is fine, as long as the writers they are talking about begin and end with a list that includes Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence and Hunter S. Thompson, all of them intrigued enough at one time or another with horse racing to write about it. But I'm afraid that's not what they have in mind.

Tell you what, Hall of Fame. How about first fixing what is so broken that Eddie Maple has to wait a quarter of a century to get in? Then we can talk about new categories.