04/26/2010 11:00PM

Azeri tops Hall of Fame candidates

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Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year and three-time champion older female, heads a list of six horses, two trainers, and two jockeys who have been nominated to the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the hall of fame's nominating committee announced on Monday.

Among the 10 nominees, Azeri is the only candidate appearing on the ballot for the first time, and she joins three other female horses, Sky Beauty, Safely Kept, and Open Mind, who have been nominated on multiple occasions. Two male horses, Point Given and Best Pal, were also nominated again this year, as were trainers Gary Jones and Robert Wheeler and jockeys Alex Solis and Randy Romero.

Under new rules adopted this year, as many as four of the nominees could be elected to the Hall of Fame. The new system will allow each of the 183 voters to select as many as four nominees for election, and the four nominees with the highest number of votes will be elected.

The previous system required voters to select one nominee from each of four categories: male horse, female horse, trainer, and jockey. The nominee who received the most votes in each category was elected. Critics had contended that the system created backlogs of deserving candidates in some categories and had forced voters to elect weaker nominees in others.

Votes are due by May 21, and the election announcement is scheduled for May 28, the Hall of Fame said. The induction ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 13 in Saratoga Springs.

To be eligible for election, horses must have been retired for five years. Jockeys must have been active for at least 20 years, and trainers must have been active for at least 25 years.

Azeri is the obvious headliner, and is probably a lock for election on her first ballot. A winner of 12 Grade 1 stakes during her career, she was voted champion older female from 2002 to 2004 and Horse of the Year in 2002, and retired with 17 wins from 24 starts. She had career earnings of $4.1 million, which at the time was a record for a North American-based female. It has since been surpassed by Zenyatta.

Sky Beauty, Safely Kept, and Open Mind have been perennial bridesmaids in Hall of Fame voting, and the change in voting procedures was prompted in part by complaints that the previous rules had denied entry to too many deserving females.

Champion older female of 1994, Sky Beauty won 15 of her 21 career starts, including nine Grade 1 races. Safely Kept won 24 of 31 starts over a four-year career, and was named champion sprinter in 1989, the year before she won the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Open Mind won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in 1988 en route to be voted champion 2-year-old filly, and during a 10-race win streak she won seven Grade 1 events, including the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama Stakes.

Among male horses, Point Given was the 2001 Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male. Although he finished fifth as the favorite in that year's Kentucky Derby, he won the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers to close out a dominating 3-year-old campaign. Best Pal, the hardy California-bred gelding, won six Grade 1 races over a 47-race career that spanned seven years and brought thousands of fans to Southern California racetracks.

Jockey Randy Romero won 4,294 races during an injury-plagued career and had purse earnings of $75.3 million. He won 122 graded stakes over his 26-year riding career. Solis, who continues to ride, is closing in on 5,000 career wins and has won 299 graded stakes and purses of $218 million.

Like the two riders, both trainer nominees have also appeared on the ballot several times. Gary Jones won 1,465 races during a career spent mostly in Southern California, and Robert Wheeler won 1,336 races during a career that spanned more than half a century.