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It's been a tough couple of weeks for anyone who has been an abiding fan of horse racing most their lives, and I'm not just talking about grief over a TV show getting cancelled. Ramon Dominguez, Paco Lopez and Victor Espinoza, three of the game's stalwart performers, were injured recently in action. Racehorse breakdowns have made headline news -- and rightfully so -- but now they have grandstanding politicians along for the ride. The Triple Crown quest continues to take its toll in horseflesh (memo to self: do not fall in love before post time on Derby Day), and if there's something good about over-amped 2-year-olds selling for a million dollars or more at public auction, I fail to see the silver lining.
That is why I opened my Hall of Fame ballot with such relief, certain that it would provide an escape from the contemporary realities plaguing the sport. Surely, a languid stroll down memory lane with the nominees -- which included the horses Ghostzapper, Ashado, Xtra Heat and Housebuster -- would apply the best kind of historical perspective, proof that in the midst of racing's daily strife there have been transcendant individuals that at least make a case for making it all worthwhile.
Then I read the voting rules, and my heart sank. I knew about them, of course, being required to confess here that I am a member of the Hall of Fame Nominating Committee. There was a part of me, though, that fantasized a magical coup overturning the "horse race" that Hall of Fame candidates are forced to endure, replaced by a more equitable tabulation of their support among the 183 voters receiving ballots.
As it stands, voters are encouraged to vote for as many of the 10 names on the ballot as they deem worthy of entrance into the Hall of Fame. So far, so good, as long as you're convinced the Nominating Committee did its job and boiled the many eligible names down to a solid group. As usual, it is an apples and oranges bunch, linked by a strong committee concensus that they all deserve to be enshrined.
A voter could be justified in voting for all 10, and I'm betting some will do just that. Other voters will flinch from the current rules and limit their votes based on the traditional "horse-trainer-jockey" categories, even though it was a process that had legitimate candidates bottlenecked for years. In the end, however, the fine print says that no matter how many votes a candidate receives, those inducted will be limited to the top four vote-getters. Plus ties.
This ain't soccer, so don't be looking for me to root for no ties. Instead, I am forced by the rules to vote defensively, to make sure that I am not voting against the interests of the candidates I feel should enter the Hall before the others, which is playing god, I know, but means to me the candidates who should have been inducted the longest time ago. Which is why I am voting for Robert Wheeler and Alex Solis.
Under the voting system, were I also to cast votes for Roger Attfield, and/or John Velazquez, or Garrett Gomez, or Calvin Borel, or any of the four horses named, I would in effect be neutralizing my votes for Wheeler and Solis. And while Solis and Wheeler are no more or less qualified, for the most part, than any of the others, they have been eligible now for so long that their ommission from the walls of the Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs has become an embarrassment of daunting proportions. (My recent column about Wheeler is at http://www.drf.com/news/hovdey-wheelers-selection-hall-fame-long-overdue.)
There is no good reason why candidates on a Hall of Fame ballot should not be required to attract a certain percentage of all voters, as is the practice for the Baseball Hall of Fame. This at least blunts the idea that a vote for one candidiate is a vote against another. At the end of the day, they all belong, but the rules as they stand won't get them there.
The expected round of glowing encomiums upon the death last week, at age 90, of legendary racing pioneer Marjorie Everett has been tempered by the enduring memories of her multi-layered personality.
On the one hand there was her unbridled passion for the sport and her abiding affection, generously expressed, for many of the game's most noteworthy players. Everett loved stars and made sure the stars loved her. She was also a demanding executive whose management style could be best described as dictatorial -- benign at times, overpowering at others. And in all regards she played hard, whether in softball games among racetrackers or when bending a racing commissioner to her will.
Everett rode the wave of racing's popularity in California through the 1970's and into the 1980's, when track attendance rivaled the local ball teams on weekdays and racing still made the evening news in all the right ways. Whether or not she deserves the credit -- she had good people like Vernon Underwood, Jimmy Kilroe, Bob Benoit and John Forsythe at one time or another watching her back -- Everett's tenure featured revolutionary changes in the way the game is presented, whether you're talking about the Pick Six, giveaway promotions, a year-round calendar or West Coast racing under the lights.
Her most lasting imprint, however, can be seen every day at the corner of Century Boulevard and Avenue of Champions in Inglewood, where the massive Hollywood Park Casino -- originally built by Everett for the 1984 Breeders' Cup and christened the Cary Grant Pavilion -- dominates the adjacent racetrack in terms of both architectural clout and cars in the lot. Marje Everett gave ample and often sincere lip service to the history of the sport, but in the end she preferred to make her own.
Bob Wheeler should have been enshrined in the HOF decades ago. I can only equate the pain I feel each time some trainer, much inferior to Mr. Wheeler, is elected over him, to the ridiculous degrading to the system of Horse of the Year Eclipse Award caused by the voters refusal to concede it to Zenyatta for multiple years. I hope they realize that they didn't degrade her, or Mr. Wheeler, to those of us that have spent our lives in the Thoroughbred Horse Racing industry. Personally, I feel that the Eclipse Awards and the HOF have both lost so much prestige through the failure of the voters to recognize such remarkable talents as Bob Wheeler and Zenyatta, they no longer mean all that much.
Regarding those who should have made the Hall of Fame long before now, it is distressing to not see Billy Turner, the trainer of the only undefeated Triple Crown winner, the great Seattle Slew, not make it to date in the Hall of Fame. He has done what no other trainer has ever done and the horse he trained has done what no other horse as ever done to date. What is wrong with this picture? No matter that life changes and we all have our ups and downs, Billy Turner must be recognized by you folks who "play God", as you stated above, and it needs to be done before he leaves this good earth. PLEASE do whatever it takes to make sure he's on the ballot and has a fighting chance next year to be inducted.
Enough with the putdowns for Ms. Everett. I thought you had more class than that