04/08/2004 11:00PM

This is Flawlessly's year to make Hall


ARCADIA, Calif. - Take a break from Kerry vs. Bush. We've got all summer and fall to play that tune. Anyway, right now it is more fun to debate the McGaughey-Zito race (with John Veitch playing the role of Ralph Nader), or the relative merits of ballot propositions named Santos, Maple, Romero, and Desormeaux.

Voting for the Racing Hall of Fame, Class of 2004, is currently underway, with an April 23 deadline for ballots. About 140 members of the racing media, historians, and retired writers are faced with the daunting task of choosing single candidates in each of four categories, a zero-sum game in which there is but one winner and the rest losers, at least this year.

Since this writer is a member of the nominating committee, suggestions for reform are welcome. Right now, the process has the feel of an old "Peanuts" panel, in which Lucy would browbeat Charlie Brown with the question, "Who do you like better . . . your mother or your father?" When Charlie Brown hemmed and hawed, Lucy accused him of being wishy-washy.

So pity the voters who are stuck with a choice among Lure, Manila, and Skip Away in the Hall of Fame's male division. Who do you like best? A two-time winner of the toughest race on the Breeders' Cup card? A grass demon of near perfection who once won nine straight stakes? Or the fairytale gray horse who captivated piles of fans and purse money over three memorable campaigns?

Good luck with the trainers and jockeys, as well. Double Derby winner Nick Zito may have pulled a Howard Dean meltdown after Birdstone's defeat in the Lane's End, but there is no question that his credentials are Hall of Fame solid. Ditto Shug McGaughey and John Veitch. Their work with the homebred royalty of the Phipps family, Claiborne Farm, Calumet Farm, and Darby Dan has been a testimony to the perfect handling of precious natural resources.

As for the riders, they all belong. Eddie Maple brought style to the game and grace to retirement. Randy Romero, brilliant between the lines, has fought a noble battle against wounds suffered in action. Jose Santos continues to rise to the most exciting occasions, and Kent Desormeaux, child prodigy, boasts the record of a jockey twice his age.

Thank goodness, then, for a slam-dunk single in this impossible pick four. After four straight years on the Hall of Fame ballot, Lou and Patrice Wolfson's Flawlessly should finally join her sire, Affirmed, her trainer, Charlie Whittingham, and her jockey, Chris McCarron, in the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs.

In the 2000 voting, Flawlessly lost to Winning Colors. In 2001, the nod went to Paseana. In 2002, Serena's Song was chosen by the panel, and last year the plaque went to Dance Smartly.

To argue Flawlessly's case compared to those fine mares is pointless. They represent a Derby winner, a two-time champion, the leading female money-winner, and a Breeders' Cup winner who was also Canadian Horse of the Year. The Hall of Fame is a better place for their presence.

This time around, though, two-time champion Flawlessly is matched on the ballot against single season champions Mom's Command and Sky Beauty. Again, it is a frustrating task to choose among such elite talents. But in a cluster of traditionally key measurements, Flawlessly appears to have an edge.

Mom's Command, the pride of Peter Fuller, is one of only three fillies to win the Acorn, the Mother Goose, the Coaching Club American Oaks, and the Alabama. She was ridden to those victories, and five others, by Fuller's daughter, Abigail. Mom's Command never raced beyond age 3, however, and never faced older fillies or mares.

Sky Beauty, trained by Allen Jerkens, also won the Acorn, Mother Goose, CCA Oaks, and Alabama, dominating the New York scene. In fact, every one of her 15 victories during four seasons took place at either Belmont, Aqueduct, or Saratoga. When she left the state for Breeders' Cup dates she was conclusively beaten, although Jerkens maintains it was the time of year, rather than foreign soil, that likely made the difference.

Flawlessly's record, on the other hand, requires no detailed explanations. Her speciality was grass - just as Sky Beauty and Mom's Command stuck to dirt - but she ranged far and wide to prove her point, winning 15 races on five different courses from New Jersey to Chicago to Southern California, from age 2 in 1990 through the summer of her 6-year-old campaign.

Flawlessly did all of this with compact seasons, carefully planned by Whittingham to accommodate chronically hurt ankle joints, much as Sherrill Ward and Frank Whiteley rationed fragile Forego through his remarkable career. As a result, Flawlessly ran her race every time (except for the time she was nearly knocked down in a Breeders' Cup Mile), consistently defeating the finest grass mares that North America and Europe could muster. Flawlessly died in October of 2002, at the age of 14.

There is a movement afoot to change the voting framework for the Hall of Fame, eliminating the practice of choosing only one among several worthy contenders. The system, as it stands, is needlessly flawed, but at least this year there is a candidate worthy of support who could claim to be practically flawless.