02/10/2010 7:38PM

Hall of Oats


The Hall of Fame process has begun once again, and by process I mean the gathering of an arbitrary selection of historically tasty Thoroughbred racing accomplishments, grinding them up for the purpose of making them indistinguishable from each other, and then stuffing the ensuing goo into handy, consumer-friendly packages that are easy to eat, if not digest.

MelStute_1_2009 copy The Process, as it shall be known from here to the bottom of the page, is not very pretty to watch. The recipe calls for equal parts redundancy, inconsistency, bureacracy, intellectual dishonesty, and a disregard for the simplest rules of statistical probability. Before he was finally inducted last year, the retired rider Eddie Maple had every right to wonder about the Process, since he would see his name appear and disappear on Hall of Fame ballots, from year to year, without any reason or rhyme. And trainer Mel Stute, his half century's worth of exemplary credentials intact (Fleet Nasrullah, Double Discount, Snow Chief, Brave Raj, Very Subtle), can be forgiven if he was grateful over the past few years when he did not make the ballot, figuring he didn't need another reminder of how the Process had allowed the Hall to pass him by, time and time again, while insisting he was at least worthy of the ink it took to print his name.

In any other realm of endeavor, we would be looking at a classic case of garbage in/garbage out. In the case of the Process, however, the resulting names, elevated to the walls of the Hall of Fame, are pure as silver. Only on the rarest of occasions has there been cause for a head-shaking, "How did he get in?" The Process, an ugly baby if there ever was one, gets to hide behind its accidental success.

So why fret? How can the Process for electing members to the horse racing Hall of Fame be any more grotesque than creating federal legislation, or casting a reality show? As a member of the Hall of Fame nominating committee, I should be relieved that there have been only a blessed few embarrasments over the past quarter century. Even then, time-served in the Hall tends to make any record look good in retrospect. And elevation to the Hall, by whatever means, allows racing fans to appreciate anew the variety of ways in which excellence is measured in horse racing.

Still, the Process needs to be fixed. This was never more apparent than in 2009 when the voters in the Process were handed a ballot that listed just two names under the category of trainer. Both were named Bob and both were/are very, very good at what they did/do. Robert Wheeler, who died in 1992, had no shot, though, in a straight up election against Bob Baffert, which is what the Process requires ("One last race," is how a Hall of Fame official cruelly puts it, as if a contest is fair when one candidate is still high-profile and the other is, like, deceased.).

There have been a few changes in the Process in recent years, but none that make any particular sense. This year, if the past is prologue, Robert Wheeler (for the fifth straight year) and Alex Solis should be back on the ballot, but they've been there before. Who knows how the general electorate will react at the sight of their names yet again? (A lot of people got used to not voting for Adlai Stevenson for President.) Because the Process asks the nominating committee to suggest candidates for debate and eventual committee vote for inclusion on the final ballot, I take my yearly shots with horses like Housebuster and Safely Kept, from the under-represented sprint wing of the breed, and Estrapade and Royal Heroine, who did their remarkable work on the grass. I never hold my breath.


The Racing Museum and Hall of Fame maintains a number of exceptional exhibits, and it enjoys a positive reputation in the Saratoga Springs community as a source of entertainment and enlightenment. The Museum has sponsored speakers' programs, topical seminars, book signings, and outreach to local schools. That is why it is such a shame that simple informational elements of the Museum's on-line presence are so sadly out of date, especially when it pertains to the Hall of Fame.

Horse racing is unique in that some of its Hall of Famers, among trainers and jockeys, are still in the game. One would expect this reality to be reflected in the biographical sketches included on the Hall of Fame website. But no. Anyone using the Hall of Fame site for research purposes would be left with the impression that:

--Russell Baze has yet to pass Laffit Pincay in lifetime wins.

--Kent Desormeaux has won only two Kentucky Derbies.

--Bobby Frankel did not win a Belmont, set and then break his own earnings record, or train a horse named Ghostzapper.

--Richard Mandella did not win four Breeders' Cup races in a single day.

--Mike Smith has yet to win the Kentucky Derby, let alone partner Zenyatta.

--Jimmy Croll is still training.

Of more personal concern, according to the Hall of Fame site, Julie Krone's accomplishments did not include a victory in a Breeders' Cup event. This I know for a fact is not true, since it is my job to polish the brass plate on my wife's trophy, which every so often she quietly places beside my salad plate as a gentle reminder of who is exactly who. There is also a Hall of Fame plaque around here someplace, displayed with a certain secular reverence, standing as proof of the esteem with which the honor is held by those who have been singled out. It's also a heckuva conversation starter.

In terms of publicity and widespread exposure, the horse racing Hall of Fame should be an E-ticket ride. Check out the NFL's Hall of Fame site if you want to see how it's done (www.profootballhof.com). Racing's Hall of Fame site should be the coolest room in the game, up-to-date, interactive and overflowing with images and video of the enshrined stars--especially those still riding and training. It's hard to catch the fever if you can't find a pulse.